Anita Stansfield, a mother of five, grandmother of two, and author of more than fifty published books before age 50, has been known as “the reigning queen of LDS romantic fiction for more than a decade.” Her most recent novel, The Garden Path, will be published next month. We spoke on July 15, 2011, just five days before the author’s 50th birthday.
Health issues have been one of my great trials for many years. I had my last baby when I was almost 38. She was due on my 38th birthday, actually, and was born early because I got preeclampsia and they had to deliver her so I wouldn’t die. And I never got healthy after that.
I started getting migraines and just having overall challenges in many respects, and spent many years trying everything, all kinds of medical avenues—holistic, homeopathic, energy medicine—everything you could imagine to try to solve these problems.
It wasn’t until January, 2008 I got diagnosed with celiac disease. And they believe I’ve always had the gene. My mother had it. But it usually gets triggered by a traumatic physical or emotional event, so now they believe it was triggered by that difficult childbirth. But it’s a very difficult disease to diagnose because it has over 250 possible symptoms, and so by the time it did get diagnosed my body was in pretty bad shape. I went on a strict gluten-free diet, but still, a couple of years later, I was still sick, still having trouble.
So in April of 2010 I had my gallbladder removed, which made a huge difference. It was very diseased. Then in July I had discs fused in my neck because a disc slipped and started compressing the nerves that went down my arm. And then in September I had a surgical breast biopsy, which was the result of a number of tests, which came up with the diagnosis of breast cancer, and in December I had a complete double mastectomy and in March and April I had reconstruction surgery. So I had six surgeries in a year, and this following more than a decade of struggling with my health.
I do feel that I am finally on the path to better health. I figured out the celiac disease. I got a nasty gallbladder out of me. I got the cancer removed and I’ve got my neck fixed. And so even though I’m pretty worn out from all the surgeries I do feel like my body is on a better path than it’s been on in a long time, and I’m basically taking the attitude that, as far as my health goes, my fifties are going to be a lot better than my forties. And that’s actually one of the reasons that I’ve looked at turning 50 as a milestone, because health has been such a struggle for more than a decade. And I’ve been working so hard, and praying so hard, to have better health and to be able to enjoy that as a part of my life. I am just determined that turning 50 is turning a new corner, and that I am going to feel great and that it’s going to be the best decade of my life.
I think at 25 I was naïve, gullible, insecure, unhappy and had no idea what I was I doing. I was dysfunctional. I had been raised in a dysfunctional family. And that’s not to speak ill of my parents. My parents were very good people with good hearts, but they were raised by dysfunctional parents and I consider myself a cycle breaker. And I think it was in my mid-20s that I had a rude awakening of Oh, this is not the way life is supposed to be. This is not right. This is not good. And that’s where I really began a journey of creating a better me, creating a better marriage, trying to raise my children differently than my husband and I were raised.
And so it really was about age 26 where I was at a crossroads and really made some firm decisions on how I was going to move forward. I think that was when I really stepped back and thought, Am I married to the right man? Is this religion I’ve grown up with really true? I’ve always believed it was true, but I can’t press forward with these beliefs if I don’t really know for myself that it’s true. You know, Am I really on the right path? And I really went into a lot of studying, religious studying, psychological studying, got some counseling, a lot of prayer, a lot of introspection, and just really made some shifts. So 1986 and ’87 were big years for me as far as really starting onto a path of self-discovery and creating my life to be what I wanted it to be instead of just bobbing on ocean waves like a little cork or something.
It’s been an interesting journey for me as I have struggled through a lot of career challenges, financial challenges on top of the health challenges. I have grown a great deal spiritually. I’ve also studied psychology a great deal. In order to write good novels, you have to be a good psychologist. But I just believe in making a better future than the past.
I believe that our history does not have to dictate our future. We can make it what we want it to be, obviously within certain limitations. There are things that life throws at you that you just don’t have any control over. But I’ve just had a lot of spiritual experiences, a lot of faith-based experiences that give me hope in the future being better. Maybe not in every respect, but certainly in some respects.
I also believe that as I’m getting older I’m less cynical about the idea that we do have power over our own experiences. And because I think that there was a time in my life where I felt very, maybe ill-fated, that life was so out of my control and, you know, for good reason [laughs], because there’s a lot of things that have happened to me that have been very, very hard. I also have a lot of good friends that have been through very, very hard things that are near my age, and I see some of them where their cynicism is deepening and others where it’s lightening, and I just choose to go that path and try to make something out of this.
I’ve had some milestones in life that I’ve had a hard time passing, but I really have actually looked forward to this one, just feeling that there’s some kind of triumph in surviving half a century, especially when it hasn’t been an easy half a century. And I just feel like everything I’ve learned, everything I’ve experienced has made me who I am now, and I should be able to press forward from this point more wise and more strong and more capable. And that even if life continues to be a challenge I hope that I have the ability to take it on with more faith and more of a positive attitude than I have in the past, because of what I’ve learned and who I am.
I have goals unmet still, and one in particular. I’ve struggled with the reality that it’s not met yet, because it’s been a goal since I was 16. I’m 50 and it hasn’t happened yet. And it has to do with writing.
There have been points when I’ve thought, That still hasn’t happened yet, and I felt very depressed. And I still am striving toward this and believing and trusting that eventually I’ll catch up to the universe and that it will give me my payoff and I will be able to meet these unmet goals.
I have this series. It’s a huge series. It’s basically my life’s work. Charles Dickens called David Copperfield his favorite child. I would call this series my favorite child. And it just has not been published yet. It certainly has been the cause of much introspection and even self-inflicted agony over many years. You know, Why has this not happened?
In essence, when I was 16 I started writing and made the goal that I would be very successful in a national or world market. And there is a series that I’ve been working on that is just not suitable to the religious market where I’m being published. And it’s not that it isn’t value-oriented or faith-based, because it is; it’s just that this publishing industry that I work in is very religious-focused and there’s just certain things they don’t publish.
I’m hugely successful in the LDS market. I write four novels a year. The thing is, you don’t get rich in this market. I make an adequate living. I’m grateful for that. But my husband still works full-time as well and it’s still a job. It has to stay consistent in order to keep the income coming. And through all the health problems that’s been very exhausting. So I want to see this story go out into the world and to have an impact on the world. I believe that it can have an impact on the world.
I have struggled with that. You know, Why does this not happen when it feels like it’s a part of my spirit, a part of my soul? It feels like the most important thing I’ve ever written. Why does this not happen? And I’ve been rejected by probably 20 or 30 agents in the last three or four years. And I just believe that the time’s not right, and that it will happen when the time is right. And I can see my own personal growth through these experiences. I can see how the story has evolved as I go back to it, revisit it, revamp it.
And so I have six novels, very thick, deep novels that are all written, and they just have not found their way into the world. And that’s my goal. My hope is that it’s around the corner and that it will happen when it’s supposed to happen. But the time has made me cynical. I’ve had cynical stages, but at this point right now I feel hopeful and positive. I don’t feel cynical.
You know, I see like at a family reunion that I’m moving into the older generation, so naturally age just brings us to more of an awareness of our mortality. Health problems certainly do that a lot. When I look at six surgeries in a year, and I had a lot of suffering through the mastectomy… I actually had a horrible bout of food poisoning the day after I got my reconstruction surgery. I couldn’t keep pain meds down and I just… I won’t describe what food poisoning’s like.
It was just an absolutely horrific experience, just the depth of suffering. And I know that a lot of people have suffered a lot more than that, so I’m not making it a comparative thing, but for me I had moments of suffering when death seemed preferable, especially after more than a decade of poor health and feeling like I’m not really living an enjoyable life. I feel like I live a fulfilling and productive life, but it’s lacked a certain amount of joy when you’re dealing with migraines and poor health and surgery recoveries. And it becomes chronic.
And so I’ve had a lot of cause for introspection on, you know, death can be preferable. There are a lot of things in this world that are worse than death. And I, believing in life after death, I’m getting to the point where I have a lot of loved ones on the other side that I can look forward to being with again. And so you do weigh those things out.
I went through a phase where I really thought, Oh, I’m just going to be a sweet, fun old lady grandma, and that’ll be a good season of life. I’ve gotten to a point where I really don’t want to get too old. I mean, if I could have great health that would be entirely different. And as I said, I’m counting on some good health this next season of life. But to have poor health and just get old and decrepit doesn’t sound appealing at all. My mother died at 70, of cancer, and she still seemed very young. Until she got sick from the cancer, she was young and active and looked great, and so I think that gave me a gauge. She died at 70 and did not seem old, and I thought that I could certainly get to 70 and not seem old or feel old. But then the chronic health problems kind of flipped that a little, and I don’t want to be old if I’m going to feel old [laughs].
I had a cousin die just a couple of months ago who got diagnosed with ovarian cancer right after I got diagnosed with breast cancer. And she was just a few years older than me. That kind of took me aback. And I have had some friends die over the years, of cancer and a couple of unexplainable things, a car accident. My brother committed suicide at the age of 51, and he’s seven years older than me. And that was, needless to say, a hugely impacting experience. And so yeah, we start getting up into these years and see what life can do to people, and how death gets more common and is very unpredictable. And I’ve had a couple of acquaintances, not really close friends but acquaintances, who in the last year have lost their husbands very unexpectedly. And to be with someone for 30 years and to think that every year we live increases the likelihood of sudden, unexpected death. It’s just a fact of life so it does make you think about it more.
My brother did have problems from when he was born. He had obvious chemical imbalances, was very erratic and his life was very, very difficult. And he knew that it was. He worked very hard to try to solve it, and for him I think hitting that stage of life really was a matter of I don’t know how to fix these problems. I’ve tried for decades to solve these problems and I don’t know how to solve them. Which is, in essence, the tone of the letter that he left behind. His suicide was not at all a surprise. It was a shock, but it was not a surprise given his life.
His experience was dramatically different from mine or from any of our other siblings. He just came into this world troubled and with difficult challenges. So I personally do not feel any fear in that regard on my own future. That’s just not in me. It’s not in my character.
The spiritual aspect of suicide in my religion is actually maybe a lot different than what other Christian religions believe. We do not see suicide as an unforgivable sin. In our mortal world, we have many different degrees of judgment when a person takes another person’s life, all the way from first-degree murder down to involuntary manslaughter. And so if we who are mortals, and are so limited in our ability to judge, can look at the difference of intention in taking a life, then surely God in His infinite perspective would understand the state of mind of someone when they take their own life. And that it would be judged accordingly. I have a strong testimony of redemption and of second chances, and have had some pretty amazing personal experiences so that I know my brother is actually doing great.
I really think, in being a faith-oriented person, there is a great deal of strength to be found in trusting that God knows more than we do, and knows better than we do. And thank heaven that He does. I do think that trusting in a higher power is not an easy thing to do, and probably the greatest test of mortal existence is, you know, Do we really have the ability to trust in a higher power, especially when it seems that life deals hands that feel so unfair? And, of course, someone dying young, that test isn’t so much for them as it is for those who are left behind. How are we going to respond to that loss? Will it make us better people or make us more cynical? Will we strive to live the way they would want us to live or will it turn us inward? And so I think death and hardship is always an opportunity for a choice of how we’ll face it and handle it. And, as I mentioned earlier, there are things worse than death.
There are times when I’ve envied my peers that are gone, but I have a daughter who’s 12 and even my adult children still need their mother. I believe that my gift of storytelling has the ability to lift people up and change lives for the better, and that I have a responsibility to do my best to stay on the planet as long as I’m allowed and make a difference through my gifts and through my relationships.
If I look at where I’m at in my life, I am living in the right place, I’m living with the right people, I have the right friends, I have the right beliefs, I am confident in who I am and the way I’m living my life. And if you look at that in a faith-oriented sense, for me, because I am a faith-oriented person, I can face God with a clear conscience, because I believe that my gifts are God-given, and say, These are the gifts you gave me and this is what I’ve done with them. So I look forward to living some good years ahead, but if I were to leave this world now I would leave it with joy and peace.
You know, a year ago I didn’t know that I had cancer. At that point I’d gotten a suspicious mammogram, but I had no idea what this year would entail. But I do feel like all of my experiences and feelings combined, 50 feels like a triumph. I am alive. I am happy. I’m positive. I’m secure. And to have been through a lot of the trials I’ve been through in many aspects of life, and to not be cynical, feels like a triumph to me.
We as human beings are more amazing and more important than we give ourselves credit for.