“You know how some people wonder why good people die young? I had a different thought,” Nicole Seitz says of her fifth novel, The Inheritance of Beauty. The book was inspired by Seitz’s grandmother, who started a slow decline after her husband’s death. She spent her last quiet days in an assisted-care facility before she passed away at the age of 91.
“She was in there, you could see it in her eyes, but she couldn’t communicate anymore,” Seitz says. “My question that I wanted to answer when I started this book is why do some people live to very advanced ages with seemingly little to no quality of life? What is the purpose in that?”
The Inheritance of Beauty centers around George and Magnolia, childhood sweethearts from Levy, S.C. After 80 years of marriage, the couple lives in a nursing home in Charleston. George has trouble remembering things, while Magnolia lives in the past. When a painting of a young Magnolia mysteriously arrives at the home, followed by a strangely familiar new resident, the couple must reach into their memories to find the answers.
Seitz compares the book to a love story — Romantic Times Book Reviews Magazine gave it four stars — but she says that it’s also the first of her books to read like a mystery. “I think you’re compelled to keep reading, keep reading, to figure out what it is that happened in the past and what it is that’s about to happen. And because it goes back and forth in time, you only get that little glimpse and you need to keep going on,” she says. “Even though I don’t read mysteries, I think that each one of our lives is sort of a mystery. You can keep mining deeper and deeper until you have that ‘aha!’ moment.”
For Seitz, the writing process itself can be a bit mysterious.
“When I write a story, I have a vision of what I see as the resolution of the story, but I really don’t know how to get there and I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “What I try to do is get to a place where I can inhabit my characters, or they can inhabit me to such an extent that in becoming that character, they tell me a story. Every time this happens, over months of time when a book is completed, it feels like some small miracle.”
Seitz started out as a journalist and illustrator (she illustrates all of her own covers) and fell into fiction writing unexpectedly. One day while pregnant with her second child, she was driving down Highway 17 when she noticed a woman at a sweetgrass basket stand. She felt struck, “lightning-bolt style,” to tell the woman’s story.
“I woke up at 4 o’clock the next morning, and my main character Essie Mae was telling her story, and I just typed it all in,” Seitz says. “That book really wrote itself. It was a gift.”
The Spirit of Sweetgrass was a successful debut, but her four subsequent books haven’t been as easy to write.
“They get harder,” Seitz laughs. “Sadly, I think after you’re given that initial gift, in whatever it is you’re doing in life, that initial wind-behind-your-back feeling, it’s up to you to get down to business ... Now you have to fight to get to the place where you don’t think about audience or the publisher or what’s marketable or if the way that you’re writing this sentence is a good way to write it. All of a sudden you have more knowledge, and you have to fight past the knowledge in order to get to that pure creative spark.”
She often turns to prayer to help achieve that focus.
“My secret is I try to empty myself and all of my thoughts and worries, so I pray first,” she says. “I pray for the words, and then I get out of the way, and I work.”
Although Seitz’s faith has helped her find fans in the Christian fiction market, she doesn’t target religious readers specifically.
“I write for mainstream readers, because that’s what I’ve always read. I just happen to have a spiritual life,” she says. “Typically you won’t find preaching or Bible-thumping in my books. You will find regular people, definitely flawed people with some pretty big issues, and perhaps everything isn’t wrapped up neatly in the end, but there is a glimmer of hope.”