Q&A with Colleen Swaim, author of Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints

Following is my interview with Ablaze author Colleen Swaim (you can read my review of Ablaze here).  I was delighted to get the opportunity to find out more about her book and writing, and I sincerely hope to read more books in the future from this engaging young author.  In the meantime, I’ll be keeping her and her husband Matt in prayer as they expect their first child later this year.

First of all, well done on Ablaze. All the readers in our family found this book super engaging. I had trouble getting it back from my 13-year-old so I could write a review of it. Did you plan for it to be so widely enjoyed by a variety of ages, or were you primarily writing for teens?

A. The primary intended audience is indeed teenagers, but I chose the saints with a view toward capturing the sense of adventure that sanctity entails, and I believe that that is something that is appealing to people of all ages who seek Truth. I myself am 29, and I chose saints who first caught my own interest.

Q. What gave you the idea for the book?

A. Liguori Publications approached me with the idea for a book on saints for teenagers, and from there we came up collaboratively with the theme of teenagers who pushed the boundaries and radically lived for Christ, even if their own cultural milieu was working against their best intentions. Liguori and I both were very much looking to incorporate interactive elements that would take print material to the next level, and I believe that was achieved through building in the references to Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as applicable prayers and reflection questions

Q. You’re a high school teacher. Other than this book, how do you challenge students immersed in the popular culture to pause and really take a look at these saints and their lives?

A. From my perspective, the most difficult part of that challenge is the call to pause – silence and reflection are difficult to come by for anyone, adults included, so the most impacting thing that I can do is to model deliberate contemplation. Sometimes that is through recalling powerful experiences I’ve had while on silent retreat, while other times it’s discussing slower forms of entertainment, such as book reading, as cogitating a passage or collection of passages can be very difficult if it is broken up by intervals of multi-sensory stimulation, such as video gaming or tweeting. If they can take some quiet time, students will quickly realize that even the most contemplative saints lived very active lives beyond their wildest dreams.

Q. I love the cover design and the design elements throughout the book. Did you have a hand in that?

A. I really cannot take any credit for the illustrations, although I agree that Liguori’s team did an amazing job! It really communicated to me that they are very in touch with the book’s audience, as its graphic appeal is relatable to both male and female adolescents. They even had temporary tattoos made up of the front cover art, which have been a big hit.

Q. How did you discover the saints you write about? Some are relatively well-known, but some are less popular and yet deserve a hearing.

A. Researching for the book was one of the best parts of the experience. My goal throughout the process was to seek out saints of both genders who are representative of the worldwide vitality of Catholic youth lived to incredible heights. With some saints and blesseds, that meant scouring Vatican resources for newly recognized individuals, while others fell into my lap through the recommendation of a friend of a friend. I tried to include both classics and those who I felt Americans need an introduction to, and I believe the book succeeded on those fronts.

Q. Who is your favorite saint from the book, and why?


A. I very much enjoyed learning about the life of Chiara Luce Badano, as she was beatified right in the midst of my writing the book, in September 2010, so I got to watch her beatification live on television and really get a better sense of the excitement felt by those close to her cause. She died in the 1990’s so she really is an individual contemporary teenagers can relate to on a variety of levels.

Q. How did you get the idea for the “saintly challenges,” such as the recipes, prayers and other challenges for readers to implement?


A. Some of the more unique aspects of the book, those came to me as I examined each saint more closely in an attempt to help the readers come to a deeper appreciation of the saint through concrete activities. I wanted to have an answer to the inevitable question of “Now what?” that can crop up after one has heard a particularly powerful story. The challenges are meant to be an answer to that question through encouraging the reader to delve deeper into the saints’ struggles, motivations, and methods of seeking aid.

Q. I wrote in my review of Ablaze that my only critique of the book is that I wish you covered more saints. Were there any saints you wish you could have included, and why?


A. The most difficult aspect of the project was paring down the list of prospective saints and blesseds! It was whittled down by considering which saints’ stories we as a Church know enough about to dedicate a chapter-long section and interactive selections to, as well as American Catholics’ current familiarity with the individual and his or her region of origin.

Q. On the same topic: Do you have plans for Ablaze 2? Any other projects you are working on?


A. I would very much enjoy creating a follow-up to Ablaze that would feature more of the saints I wasn’t able to include in the current edition, because as you pointed out, there are many more stories to tell. My husband and I are currently expecting our first child, so that is the ultimate project which we are looking forward to. That being said, I had an excellent experience working with Liguori Publications on ‘Ablaze’, and so would welcome any future projects with them.