By MELISSA HAMBRICK
If Christian/pop music recording artist Amy Grant is our area’s resident Christmas queen, then certainly Donna VanLiere resides in her literary court.
The Christmas Star is the Franklin resident’s latest novel, the tenth holiday book in a row for the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. And like
Grant, it all started with a song.
“My friend Eddie Carswell [from Contemporary Christian band NewSong] told me about an idea he had for a Christmas song, and asked me if I thought it would make a good song,” says VanLiere. “I told him I thought it would make a great book.”
As she worked on the novel, NewSong released their song “The Christmas Shoes” as a bonus track on their album in 2000. It soon became a holiday sensation, with emotional lyrics that took the tune to the top spot on the Adult Contemporary radio charts, as well as climbing the country and Hot 100 Billboard singles charts.
In 2002, St. Martin’s Press published VanLiere’s first Christmas novel, The Christmas Shoes. That same year, CBS debuted the made-for-television movie starring Rob Lowe and Kimberly Williams (now Williams-Paisley) based on VanLiere’s book and the hit song.
After the success of the book, publisher St. Martin’s Press approached VanLiere about the possibilities of writing another Christmas book. The Christmas Blessing and The Christmas Hope, her next two novels, were also made into star-powered CBS movies. As CBS left the movie-making realm to dive into the relatively cheaper format of reality television, Hallmark entered the mix to take two other VanLiere properties to the small screen — The Christmas Note and The Christmas Secret.
Now, the local mom and author pens an additional Christmas novel every other year, resulting in ten holiday novels in 18 years, including the recently released The Christmas Star. She’s also written several other non-fiction works and novels along the way, though her holiday books don’t adhere to what might seem to be a Hallmark-Movie-like formula.
“I love Christmas — the meaning of it, why we celebrate it,” VanLiere says. “But from emails I receive, I know that Christmas is a hopeless, dark time for a lot of people. It can be depressing for them. Within my books, I try to write characters and plot lines that are realistic, not stereotypes, because I want to draw the reader in. And although there may be hard, difficult plot lines, I always want people to know there’s hope by the last page.”
Hope and VanLiere’s faith are the central element of all of her works. It runs deep in her family, which includes husband Troy and their three children, two daughters adopted from China and a son from Guatemala.
Their Williamson County home, built on five acres by a couple who originally intended to run it as a bed and breakfast, is bustling with the activities of a family juggling schoolwork, jobs, sports, and all the extracurriculars two teens and a pre-teen can manage. This time of year, it’s also full of the sights and smells of Christmas.
“Putting up the Christmas decorations is huge in our house, especially for our 12-year-old,” says VanLiere. “He’s the king of the lights. He puts it on our calendar every year. And my 15-year-old just asked me two days ago if we are making Christmas cookies this week!”
Certainly the author has to get into the holiday spirit early — very early. Her deadline for turning in a Christmas novel to her publisher is March.
“When it’s 90 degrees outside, I’m writing a Christmas book,” she laughs, noting that she will start another Christmas book this coming August. But she also says that it isn’t just the holiday that inspires her writing.
“I want to come up with a great plot line, and then I can add Christmas elements to the plot line,” she says. “I listen for stories. I listen when people talk. I’m a good listener. I watch people in different situations and settings. That’s really where I get my inspiration. A story may appear in a book from something I heard 15 years ago.”
The Christmas Star revolves around Amy Denison, a woman who is many years divorced and trying to figure out her life and its new chapter, who gets involved with an after-school program for kids called Glory’s Place. Though her novels don’t fall into the typical Hallmark movie formula, this one does have more of a romantic element to it, says VanLiere.
“One of the little girls at Glory’s Place has the perfect man for her. Amy’s a little wary of a second chance at love, particularly being set up by a 7-year-old,” says VanLiere. “I do want people who feel like they are in a hopeless, never-ending situation to know that sometimes there is something unexpected up ahead that they might have never counted on.”
And for VanLiere, who will soon be cozied up making Christmas biscotti and watching Elf with her family, the message she delivers through her words is what keeps her writing these popular Christmas novels.
“The message of Christmas is one that needs to be heard,” she says. “The message of Christmas is hope.”