Circle of Grace

How do you go on living when your whole life has been one big lie?

How do you go on living when your whole life has been one big lie?


Book Club Guide

1. Circle of Grace is a novel about friendship, about the power of honesty and vulnerability. And yet absolute honesty is a rare commodity. How and why do we put up fronts and pretenses? Are those pretenses ever justifiable?

2.  Although Grace’s lies are the most significant, in what ways and for what reasons does each of the women lie in the circle journal?

3.  Each of the main characters experiences significant failure in her life. What are the results of those failures? What good ultimately comes out of the experience?

4.  A recurring theme in Circle of Grace centers on the question Pilate put to Jesus:  “What is truth?” How would you answer Pilate’s question? Could you agree with the definition the girls came up with for their Philosophy class? How might you refine, focus, or extend their definition of truth?

5.  Grace goes through a serious crisis of confidence when she comes to grips with the truth about her father, whom she adored. Why then does she fall for Michael Forrester, who is so much like her father, and why is she unable to see the similarities until it is too late? What is the significance of Grace’s recurring dreams?

6.  When the girls first meet in college, they seem to be very different. What draws them together then? And what connects them after 30 years?

7.  Tess endures a crushing blow with the failure of her first novel and quits writing for seven years. What is the revelation that turns her creative life around, and how does that vision of creativity reflect the restorations that take place in her friends’ lives as well?

8. When Grace finally reunites with her friends, she comes to believe that Tess’s daughter Claire is the little girl she once gave up for adoption. Why is this belief important to Grace? How does Claire become a catalyst for Grace’s ultimate acceptance of herself?

9.  How does each of the main characters grow and change throughout the course of the story? Which of the women do you identify with the most, and why?

10. Who in your life has been a circle of grace for you?


Your acknowledgments listed your own circle of grace. In what ways did these women influence your life?

Several years ago, I was part of a small group of women who met regularly for theological and philosophical discussion. We weren’t looking for answers, for one absolute truth; we were much more interested in the questions–questions about life, about faith, about meaning and purpose and significance. Nothing was off limits; any question was fair game. The result was a free flow of ideas and discussion that radically altered my approach to spiritual life and my understanding of myself and God.

Is that where you got the idea for Circle of Grace?

In part. When we went our separate ways, one of the members of the group gave us a circle journal, intended to be a continuing connection among us. To tell the truth, we have kept in touch by e-mail instead, and the journal never circulated. But it became for me a metaphor of connection, a catalyst for the writer’s never-ending “what ifs.” What if a group of women did promise to keep in touch through the use of such a journal? And what if one of them, sheltered behind the anonymity of the written page, created a fictional life for herself, the kind of life she wished for but never had. And what if. . . ?

Are any of these characters based on your own life?

All writers draw from their own experience for the details that enliven and enrich a work of fiction. The house the girls rented, for example, was based on a small house I once owned in southern Minnesota, and the local Asheville haunts described in the book–the Grove Park Inn and Spa, the downtown locales–are places I know well. Liz’s involvement in social causes in the sixties reflect some of my own past experiences, and Tess’s creative struggles and victories are drawn from my own life as a writer.

In that sense, all of the characters contain elements of my personal experience, and yet none of them is based on my life. Although fiction is drawn from reality, a good writer never lets reality get in the way of a good story. What we call “real life” is pretty dull stuff sometimes; what goes on inside my head is much more interesting.

Do you always know where your books are going when you start, or are you sometimes surprised?

I’m always surprised. Fiction has a life of its own. The characters spring from the imagination and begin to live, and the writer does not always have control over what they do or who they become. Flannery O’Connor described her writing process as “finding interesting characters and then following them around to see what happens.” This all sounds very mystical to the non-writer, and yet it rings true to those of us who have entire worlds of people walking around and talking inside our heads.

When I begin a new project, I usually have an idea of where the story begins, and how it might end. But how the story gets from point A to point Z is always a mystery and an adventure. I don’t create chapter-by-chapter outlines, because I find that over-planning limits the possibilities for character development and plot movement. If I discover the story along with my characters, the work has more immediacy and more passion.

What’s next for you as a novelist?

I’m currently working on several e-books:  First, the new e-book version of Circle of Grace.  After that,  we’ll release Delta Belles, the story of four young women who form an all-girl folk band in the sixties. One of the girls, Delta Fox, signs her friends up for a college talent show as a practical joke, but the power of the music takes them places they never expected to go.

After Delta Belles comes a brand new, previously unpublished novel called Saint Someday. It’s a novel about ordinary sainthood–how we all have the potential to change the lives of those around us.

Beyond that, I have several novels in various stages of development, some on the active front burner, some simmering in the nether regions of my subconscious. When readers ask if I ever run out of ideas, I tell them that I won’t live long enough to write all the novels I have planned. So many books, so little time. . .

Where can I find out more?

Right here is a good place. This blog, Life Beyond Books, serves as both weblog and website, and provides lots of information about me and my writing. You can also follow me on Facebook, at Penelope J. Stokes and Penelope J. Stokes Fiction Fans, and on Twitter @penelopejstokes.

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