A pen and a prayer
Sherrie Ashcraft and Christina Berry Tarabochia started writing together with the intention of becoming a mother-daughter team of Christian novelists.
But it turns out God had a somewhat different plan for them.
The Gaston women did co-author a book. But writing turned out to be a beginning, not an end in itself.
God also led them into publishing, they said, using them as a vehicle for promoting even more Christian fiction.
Now, as publishers, they review other writers’ proposals and manuscripts. As they delve into each one, they ask two important questions: “Does it touch us? Does it point to God?”
They focus on the writing and the message.
“Making money isn’t the No. 1 thing,” Ashcraft said. “Ministry is.”
When she and her daughter first teamed up, they chose a moniker for their writing endeavor: Ashberry Lane, a combination of Ashcraft and Berry, which was Tarabochia’s married surname at the time. They kept the cozy-sounding name when they expanded their vision.
Mom Ashcraft, who also works part time with the women’s ministry at the Wapato Valley Church, is president of Ashberry Lane Publishing. Daughter Tarabochia is the publisher. Nicole Miller joined the staff in February as art director, after designing several Ashberry Lane covers.
They publish Christian fiction that is faith-based, so incorporates Biblical principles, but is not preachy or sterile.
“We like a world view,” Tarabochia said. “We have real life issues, like depression, abortion, suicidal thoughts, real issues people deal with. But by the end, at least, the books point to the hope God offers.”
She and her mother can tell, they said, if the Christianity in the book is sincere.
“It’s like the way you live your life,” said Tarabochia, and quoted, “You share your testimony every day, but use words only when you need to.”
Books they consider often are romantic, but never overtly sexual. “Close the bedroom door,” Tarabochia advised.
She recalled editing one author’s books that contained several scenes she termed “steamy.” Her mother noted, “She wouldn’t even show those scenes to me!”
Thus far, Ashberry Lane has published several novels for adults, which Tarabochia and Ashcraft call “Heartfelt Tales of Faith.” Due out this summer is the company’s first “Fun-filled Tales of Faith” book for young readers — “Water Fight Professionals,” by McMinnville author Angela Strong.
Ashberry Lane also has published the first three entries in the late author Dianne Price’s “Thistle” series of historical romances set in post-World War II Scotland — “The Promise of Dawn,” “Wing and a Prayer” and “Broken Wings.”
Price, as it happens, played an important role in helping Tarabochia and Ashcraft figure out they were meant to be publishers.
But long before she met Price, Tarabochia studied literature and math at Pacific University.
She considered becoming a math teacher. Instead, she turned to her literary interests, which she shared with her mother.
“We’d each always dreamed of writing a book,” said Tarabochia, who moved to Yamhill County following college. “Mom and I thought, if we do it together, maybe it will get done.”
They decided to write a story that would tap into feelings they had observed in others and experienced themselves.
Ashcraft still lived in Pendleton at the time. She and her daughter each wrote at home, then sent chapters back and forth via e-mail.
After about 18 months of hard work, they were satisfied with their first version of what would become “On the Threshold,” a story about the faith journeys of a young woman and her mother.
“We thought publishers would beat down our door,” Tarabochia said.
Today, she can laugh at their naiveté.
Publishers didn’t even knock. In fact, the authors would receive 52 rejections in the nine years between the time they started writing and the time “On the Threshold” was in print.
Back then, they weren’t sure why their “perfect” manuscript wasn’t snatched up. So they joined Oregon Christian Writers to meet other writers and find out more about their craft.
“We’d come home from a conference and rewrite the whole thing,” Ashcraft recalled.
Their efforts didn’t go unnoticed entirely. Ashcraft’s husband and Tarabochia’s father, John Ashcraft, told them he was proud of them. And he borrowed the manuscript, printed out a copy and bound it like a book, with a colorful cover, for his wife’s 50th birthday.
“What a sweet thing!” Ashcraft recalled, still proud to have that original copy on her bookshelf.
Still, mother and daughter wanted more. To get it, they threw out most of their carefully crafted sentences, leaving only the bones of the story.
They wrote the outline on 3-by-5 cards, which they spread out on Tarabochia’s bedroom floor and rearranged again and again.
They also added another character, a police officer, and started a new draft.
“We were very disciplined,” Tarabochia said. “We wrote 1,000 to 1,500 words a day each.”
They had agreed from the get-go to accept constructive criticism in the spirit in which it was intended. They wanted to make the finished product the best it could be.
They would not let anything, including writing a book, drive them apart.
“We say we share one brain, or that we were separated at birth,” Tarabochia said. “We finish each other’s sentences,” Ashcraft added, completing her daughter’s thought.
Finally, “On the Threshold” was coming together. Then life intervened.
Ashcraft, who has a nursing background, stepped aside to help her elderly mother-in-law. So Tarabochia decided to launch a solo writing project.
She quickly wrote “The Familiar Stranger,” a book about betrayal and forgiveness, which incorporated lessons she had learned in her own life.
Written under the name Christina Berry, the novel was picked up by Moody publishing. And it won accolades, including the prestigious Carol Award, given to one debut novel in the U.S. annually by the American Christian Fiction Writers.
Ashcraft was thrilled for her daughter. She was glad she had been able to help Tarabochia get started on her writing career.
Attending the Carol Award banquet with her daughter was pretty cool, she said.
Following the wild success of “The Familiar Stranger,” Tarabochia and her mother wrote seven more book proposals over the next two years, in addition to resuming “On the Threshold.”
Publishers were complimentary, but turned down all the proposals for one reason or another — they had just released a book on the same theme; they were closing a division of their company; the economy was bad. “We had been so close to getting contracts, and the economy downsized,” Ashcraft said.
That didn’t lessen the mother-daughter team’s passion for storytelling, though. And it didn’t change the way they felt about their product, Christian fiction.
“There is value in this,” Ashcraft said. “This is stuff people, especially women, need to read.”
There was only one thing to do. “We prayed up a storm,” Tarabochia said.
They took a leap of faith, leaving their agent and setting out on their own with Ashberry Lane. “We planned to follow our artists’ heart, instead of the market,” Tarabochia said.
It was a learning experience, just as learning to write had been. Now they were responsible not only for the story, but also for obtaining the Library of Congress number, choosing the paper and the print — the entire appearance of the novels.
They also learned about distributing and marketing the finished product, getting books on Amazon.com, formating them for e-readers and running their own website, ashberrylane.com.
They didn’t mind the time and effort, though. Besides, Ashcraft said, “We thought we were doing it for ourselves.”
In May 2013, they published “On the Threshold,” fulfilling their longtime dream. And the book received good reviews.
It was chosen this May as one of three finalists for the Cascade Awards given by Oregon Christian Writers. “We are so excited,” Ashcraft said.
They’ll find out in August if they’ve won. But she and her daughter consider just being nominated a prize.
“It’s such validation,” she said. “It shows we know what we’re doing.”
After the “On the Threshold” release, Tarabochia was approached by Price, the author of the “Thistle” series. She had finished “Broken Wings” and was working on the five other manuscripts.
“I’m dying,” the 80-year-old author told the new publisher. Before she did, she said, she wanted her books in print.
Ashberry Lane signed her up as the company’s first non-family author. And Tarabochia and her mother began a mad scramble to get the first book ready for printing while Price put the finishing touches on the others.
The author was able to see the covers of “Broken Wings” and all five of her other books before she died in August, Tarabochia said.
A week after her death, the finished version of the first book arrived from the printer. Two more followed, and the other three, including a rough but complete version of No. 6, are in the works.
After “Broken Wings” came out, the nascent Christian press was approached by another author.
Bonnie Leon has been successful with several books in another genre. Now she had one that fit the Christian fiction style.
Leon’s “The Journey of Eleven Moons” became Ashberry’s third book. The story is based on the tale of a pair of young Aleut girls who are left all alone when their village is wiped out by a tsunami. “I sobbed while editing it,” Tarabochia said.
After “Eleven Moons,” she and her mother said, it was as if “the floodgates opened” for Ashberry Lane. Now the team sifts through numerous proposals and meets with many authors.
“It’s amazing what God has done,” Ashcraft said. “We don’t even have time to write anymore.”
After years of trying to sell their own book, she and her daughter are now in the position to accept or reject other writers. They treat them gently, and when they say yes, they’re almost as excited as the authors.
“It’s so rewarding, such an inner fulfillment,” Ashcraft said. “God can use us in making others’ dreams come true.”
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
MEMORIES OF NIGERIA
Decades before writing and publishing entered her mind, Sherrie Ashcraft and her husband, John, were missionaries in Nigeria.
Her daughter, Christina Berry Tarabochia, spent her formative years there.
“It was a great experience then,” Ashcraft said, comparing Nigeria in the 1980s to the troubles there today. “It’s so sad to see what’s happening now.”
She said they loved the people and the beautiful country, even though it was far, far from home. There was no e-mail or Skype, no TV, no cell phone or any other quick, reliable way of staying in touch with relatives in the U.S.
The official language of Nigeria is English, but residents also speak more of 250 to 300 tribal dialects. The missionaries learned a local language that allowed them to communicate. “I was really good at greetings,” Ashcraft said.
They worked in impoverished areas, where shortages of paper, milk or other things we take for granted were common. Ashcraft remembered going to the doctor’s office and finding the exam table covered with a Life magazine. As each new patient arrived, the nurse flipped to a clean page.
Tarabochia was about 6 when they moved to Nigeria. She made friends with the local children. “I feel like I grew up there. I learned to read, to ride a bike, lost my first tooth there,” she said.
She said she was shaken when she heard about the kidnapping of 200 to 300 Nigerian girls this spring. Some of the victims’ mothers may have been her childhood playmates.
“It’s a beautiful country if they could get the government under control,” Tarabochia said.
Throughout her time in Nigeria, Ashcraft wrote detailed letters to her mother back in the U.S. Her mother, Shirley Smith of McMinnville, replied with news of the U.S. during that period.
Tarabochia kept a childhood diary. As a young adult, she wrote a journal when she returned to Nigeria for a visit with her father.
Now that they are published writers and publishers themselves, they’re thinking of compiling the three generations of writing into one book.