Lurlene McDaniel, author of over 40 titles on young people facing life-threatening illnesses, has begun a new series spotlighting teens volunteering for missions in Africa. The first in the series, Angel of Mercy, introduces Heather, an idealistic girl from a privileged background whose experiences aboard a medical missionary ship and in a Ugandan health clinic prove life-changing. In the second of the series, Angel of Hope, Heather’s sister Amber takes center stage. McDaniel recently talked with BookPage about her writing, her life, and her new series.
BookPage: Your One Last Wish novels and the Jenny books cover topics most find depressing — the illness and death of young people — but they are successful. What brought you to write about those topics?
Lurlene McDaniel: I was always a writer, and when my son was three years old, he became critically ill. The diagnosis was juvenile diabetes, and all of a sudden I was thrust into the world of the chronically ill. I learned it wasn’t fair. There was nothing my son had done to deserve this disease and yet he had it. The first rule of writing is to write about what you know. Few people wrote about the chronically ill, so people who had illnesses never saw themselves in literature. I started writing about kids with chronic illnesses, and they were just enormously successful, surprisingly so.
BP: How is your son Sean?
LM: He’s doing well. He’s 30 and a businessman, still a diabetic and always will be. He coaches youth soccer.
BP: Do you have a teenager that you use as a sounding board?
LM: Oh, I wish. Sean had a brother, Eric, who’s a youth pastor in Alabama. I can be around kids if I need to be.
BP: Do you write with an audience or gender in mind?
LM: I have always been amazed guys read these books and seem to enjoy them. Because I’ve raised boys, I like to think I can get inside a guy’s mind. I try and make the boys talk like guys, sound like guys and react like guys. [Characters] say, "Well, you know, she’s got cystic fibrosis, and that grosses me out." You’ve got to be realistic.
BP: A poll taken by Book magazine lists both female and male teens’ favorite authors. Your name was fourth for females and fifth for males. This must be immensely gratifying.
LM: That blew me away. I am very privileged and honored when someone chooses to read a book, especially a book of mine.
BP: One of your books, Six Months to Live, has been placed in a time capsule at the Library of Congress, to be opened in the year 2089. How did that come about?
LM: That book got put in the time capsule because it was nominated by children from all over the country. Pizza Hut sponsors a reading program: Reading is Fundamental. This particular year, they invited children to nominate their favorite books and write an essay why. They were going to take the top letter from each state and put it in the time capsule. They notified me that Six Months had been the most nominated book in the competition. It had won in three states. The grand prize letter was from South Carolina.
BP: Why that title versus any of your others?
LM: I’ve often wondered what is behind the phenomenon of this book as opposed to other books. It’s one of the first serious books they run across after they’ve exceeded the Babysitter’s Club. They’re walking through the book fair and see Six Months to Live. It’s a great title, you gotta admit. They just are mesmerized that a 13-year-old girl who is normal, just like them, could get leukemia.
BP: Your characters are often in emotionally charged situations. Do you emotionally detach sometimes?
LM: No, actually, it’s the other way around. You want to attach emotionally. I have been through a lot of medical trauma. I was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago and went through that trauma. I wrote the book Don’t Die, My Love as I was going through radiation, so it certainly has an air of authenticity about it because I was there. I think all of my books took on kind of a deeper tone when the lady who wrote about cancer all of a sudden had cancer. I’m doing well. I went through it all and they said, ‘You’re fine."
BP: Great. You know, many consider your works inspirational.
LM: Well, thank you. That’s the goal I go for. You know not every book has to have a happy ending, but it has to have a satisfying ending. I like to tell young people—you know one in four children die by their own hands—no matter how bad things seem, just wait a day, wait a week. Life will turn around. I have known some magnificent young people who died very young but had wonderful lives and inspired many people by their short existence.
BP: Angel of Mercy and Angel of Hope focus on volunteers at a medical mission in Africa. How did you choose this topic and setting?
LM: I wanted to write about the third world and had the opportunity to go live in the trenches, so to speak. I wanted to show what it’s really like for 98 percent of the world’s population. Plus, I also see there are an awful lot of young people out there doing good things, and I wanted to give them a platform. I created a character whose motives were pure and good and she was going to go out and save the whole world. But the truth is, you can’t save the whole world, but you can save one. And that was the whole thrust of the novel — to save just one.
BP: Heather, your main character, encounters powerful experiences. I’m thinking of that scene where the baby is lifted over the fence. Are any of her experiences based on what you saw or heard directly while you were in Africa?
LM: Yes. As a matter of fact, you just see a lot. Women walk in three days from the bush with a sick infant. By the time they get to medical help, it’s too late. Children are dying of things we get a shot for. I saw that first hand.
BP: Heather certainly inspires readers. In Angel of Hope the shift will be from her to Amber. Does Amber’s character differ from Heather’s?
LM: Well, Amber is more self-centered and self-focused. Amber feels like her sister’s shadow, an addendum in her family. Heather is the good, noble, smart one, and Amber has always tried to get attention by being the crazy, wild one. Well, in Angel of Hope, Amber ends up going in her sister’s stead. The focus of that book and the next one coming out, Angel of Love, is how she finds her way out of her sister’s shadow and into herself. That’s really what those two novels are based on.