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February 28, 2005
The devoted heart
BY michael terrazas
Sprinkled throughout the 320 pages of Tia McCollors' new novel are lines in bold print that stand out from the rest of the prose. They are, literally, the words of the Holy Spirit, talking to Anisha, the protagonist. Called A Heart of Devotion, the story is a work of fiction, but this narrative device has displayed itself more than once in the author's real life.
"I was at church, and my pastor was doing a book signing," said McCollors, recounting a day in late 1998. She'd thought about fiction writing before and even won a short-story contest in high school, but had never made a serious attempt. "I went to get my book signed, and the pastor said, 'So when are you writing your book?' And I thought, 'Oh God, that's it, I hear you. I'm writing.'"
Seven years later, McCollors now can forever append her name with two words: published novelist.
A Heart of Devotion was released last month by Moody Publishers, a Christian publishing house based in Chicago. Its author, between ferreting out and writing stories for the Woodruff Health Sciences Center communications office, has been busy with book signings and promotional trips of her own (for more on her book, visit www.tiamccollors.com).
"It feels great; I'm still living in a surreal experience," said McCollors, media relations coordinator. "You see the manifestation of what you've worked for, and it's like, 'Wow, this is really mine.' I'm just elated."
A Heart of Devotion is the story of Anisha, a twentysomething African American woman living in Atlanta and, at the novel's beginning, sharing looking-for-love stories with her best friend, Sherri. Enter Tyson, Anisha's handsome fellow youth-group leader at church. The two begin dating, and the question becomes whether Tyson will come between best friends Anisha and Sherri.
One can't help but draw parallels between Anisha and her creator--in November, the 30-year-old McCollors (formerly Tia Webster) married husband Wayne, whom she had met through friends from church--but the author said art doesn't exactly imitate life, in this case. Not entirely, anyway.
"It's not an autobiography, but bits and pieces of my own life are dropped into it, and also bits and pieces of things I know have happened to other people," McCollors said. "The running joke around my friends is, 'You'd better watch out around Tia; she'll put you in a book.'"
Her friends' concerns notwithstanding, McCollors said one reason she believed the novel was put on hold--she began writing in 1998, then just picked at it for a few years before rededicating herself in 2002--was that things were happening in her own personal life. "Maybe that," she said, "was the story that was supposed to be written."
One thing that happened was McCollors finding her way to the Clifton Corridor. After moving to Atlanta in 1996 from her native North Carolina ("I'm Tar Heel born, Tar Heel bred," she said), McCollors worked in public relations for the nonprofit West End Medical Center, but her job was eliminated in a reorganization. She found another job, but people started telling her good things about Emory; when she saw an open director's position, she decided to take a chance and apply.
"I knew I really didn't qualify for that position, but the only they could do was say no or just not call me, so why not? I sent in my resume anyway," McCollors said. "About two months later, they called me back--not for the director's position, but for another opening they had. So it all worked in my favor, just stepping out and doing it; if [I hadn't applied for the director's position], I may not have even known about the other position that happened to come open."
That was in April 2001; in one month, McCollors will celebrate her four-year anniversary. During that time, she's written press releases on everything from faith and public health to urinary incontinence.
"What I like most about my job is that it's different day to day; you never know what health-related issue is going to pop up," she said. "Also, I like to work in a team, and everybody here is a team player. I've worked in places where people weren't team players, and I can honestly say--this is my Emory plug--that this is really the best place I've ever worked."
"One of my first and most lasting impressions of Tia was that she was an exceedingly well organized,
meticulous person; she seemed always to have the cleanest and most up-to-date media lists, files and desktop," said Ron Sauder, associate vice president for health sciences communications. "Now I know why: Super-organization is key if you want to write a book in your spare time without missing a step at work.
"As far as her writing is concerned," Sauder continued, "she is, again, very diligent and well organized, attacking a release promptly and letting a draft lie overnight so she can read it fresh before she sends it on for editing. In a word, she is disciplined--and that's how you get big projects done."
Indeed, McCollors credits finding the discipline to write every day as the reason she was able to finish her novel. One of her mentors told her to write a word--one word--every day. If she wrote two words, she'd double her output. Pretty soon the problem became shutting the words off.
"It can be difficult, because if you've been writing and editing things all day, the last thing you want to do when you get home is write," she said. "Once you get that discipline, if you already have the story in your head, the story starts to tell itself. Your characters evolve and become 'people.' In my head, when I'm hearing the story, I feel like I'm just taking dictation."
McCollors also credits one of her friends who served as her writing partner with helping her get over the first-novel hump. Now she belongs to a writing group, sharing ideas and manuscripts in a supportive setting of like-minded writers. McCollors also travels when she can to workshops and conferences for her genre of faith-based fiction.
In the future, she may take her writing in a more mainstream direction. But with a published first novel and a two-book deal with Moody, she's staying for now in the realm of Christian fiction. After all, the work only serves to strengthen her own faith.
"Sometimes when people go through experiences, they don't know if they're going to make it to the end," McCollors said of the twists and turns in finishing A Heart of Devotion. "When I write, I know I'm encouraging someone who might be going through the same situation. People might come to you when they're having trouble, when they don't see that light and that hope.
"That means I have to keep myself built up," she said. "I have to study the Bible, study the Word, go to church on a regular basis. I have to really feed myself because you write out of the overflow of what you have. If you haven't taken in any spiritual food, how can you feed somebody else? That's how it fills me up."
McCollors will read & sign copies of A Heart of Devotion on Saturday, March 5, at B's Books & More in Lithonia, 2926-A Evans Mill Road.