by C.J. Darlington
Beverly Lewis Interview
don’t know if I’ll ever live to write all the stories I have,
but not all of them are Amish... I have to
write what’s passionate about for me. I never wrote for the market.
I wrote my heart."
Born in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, Beverly Lewis is The New York Times bestselling author of more than eighty books. Her stories have been published in eleven languages worldwide. A keen interest in her mother's Plain heritage has inspired Beverly to write many Amish-related novels, beginning with The Shunning, which has sold more than one million copies and was recently made into an Original Hallmark Channel movie. In 2007 The Brethren was honored with a Christy Award. She has been interviewed by both national and international media, including Time magazine, the Associated Press, and the BBC. Beverly lives with her husband, David, in Colorado. Visit her Web site at www.beverlylewis.com for more information.
You began your creative journey at a very early age. Piano at five, fiction at nine. Both of these mediums tell stories. What drew you to each of them and how do they compliment each other?
Well I believe I was drawn to music because it’s in my DNA, in my family. My mother, my sister, my mother’s many siblings . . . somebody was always singing in accapella, four part harmony, or more. Or playing piano, violin. I was influenced by music early on. My dad was a minister, my mom played the organ and many other instruments. I grew up very much embracing music. Classical—my mother always called it “good music”. If it was classical, serious, more uptown kind of music, then it was good music (laughs). And also the classically arranged hymns and things like that.
As far as writing, I don’t know how that happened. It’s interesting that I was a very shy young girl. I think it maybe began as a coping mechanism. My mother was dying of cancer when I was little. The doctors said she only had six months to live, but she lived to be eighty-four, so that’s another miracle story which went into one of my books called The Sunroom. I think because I was always writing my thoughts in little journals, even when I was little, that maybe that was kind of an outgrowth of it. Those story ideas and also being around the Amish families that my dad knew, I would just create these little stories about these exotic places, different kind of worlds I was juxtaposed against because of my father’s interaction with them. It was a coping mechanism, but just this curiosity as well with this different world I was in sometimes at this long dinner table with thirteen kids at it with all the same name. They were all Stoltzfus. It stuck, and I think that’s just who I am.
You were a big reader, too?
Oh, my yes. As to the correlation between music and writing, I’ve been told by many people, especially editors, that my writing as a rhythmic flow to it, so it’s possible that all the years of creating music on instruments, and also creating my own music too for orchestra somehow found its way into the beats and tambor of my writing.
How did your first novel become published?
My first book was really
for teen girls. It was the first book in the Holly’s Heart series, Best
Friends, Worst Enemies, which was published
by Zondervan. I actually sent it out to three or four different publishers
back in the early nineties. I had actually before that time been writing
on assignment for magazines for three or four years, which I loved, and
I also was doing fiction for kids and teens back in the Brio and Breakaway
days. Highlights for Children was a big goal of mine. It took me a lot
of attempts, but I finally got something published with them. I was ecstatic
about that. And then I was writing a lot for the Jacques Cousteau Society.
For many, many years they had a publication called The Dolphin Log. I would
incorporate fictional techniques into the nonfiction articles I was writing
for kids. But as for my first book that was eventually published by Zondervan
and is now being published by Bethany House, I sent it out to three or
four publishers. Three of them wrote back and wanted it, and I didn’t
know what to do because I didn’t have an agent. I actually agented
almost my first sixty books on my own with help from my husband who eventually
became my agent and my manager. It was Back to the Bible who wanted to
publish the Holly’s Heart book, and also Navpress was interested.
In the end Zondervan won out.
I have a funny story to tell you about that. Dave Lambert told me (at the time he was Director of Fiction) when he took it to pub board he had actually lost the proposal, so he pitched it from memory. I always thought that was funny. It happened because they had moved their offices from the time I had sent it in to him and the time he actually got around to it. It came in the slush pile, of course. Back then you could actually do those things! It was nineteen months from the time I sent it until the time I got a call from Dave Lambert saying, hey we want to do this but we don’t just want to do one book. We want a whole series. So I said, what do you mean by that? He said, well we’d like to publish four this year. I said, “Oh! I think I could do that.” So then they published the first two in May of 1993, and the next two in October 1993. Then from then on they were bringing out two every six months until they had fourteen. They were very popular, and they still are.
Growing up in Lancaster County you were surrounded by the Amish. What intrigued you so much about them?
I remember encountering them in many places. I think my first memory was when I was a little girl and would sometimes go along with my daddy when he would run errands. We were standing in line at the bank one day, and I had seen the horse and buggy tied up at the hitching post. A lot of the banks kind of gear their clientele to the Amish, so they do have these. There was an Amish mother in front of us with four or five children. One a babe in arms with little children gathered around her. They were all dressed just like their mother or looked like their daddy out in the field probably with straw hats on the boys. I think what impressed me was that there were so many of them, and they were all so well behaved.
Another time I remember getting stuck in traffic behind a buggy, and my dad who was in a hurry said, “We always want to be patient around our Amish friends because we don’t want to startle the horse and cause an accident.” We’ve seen other people zoom around them or get too close and the horse could be startled. But this time, and this was the first time I ever saw this, there were three or four little children in the back, kind of the rumble seat, peering out at us. And one of the little girls began to wave. She was making eye contact and waving. And Dad said, “Well, you don’t see that very often. That one, she’s probably got a free spirit in her. A free thinker. They’re going to have trouble keeping her in the church.” It made an impression on me because many of my stories are kind of based on the spunkiness of my maternal grandmother who was raised Old Order Mennonite and eventually was ex communicated and shunned when she didn’t marry the man the father and her bishop thought she should marry. The Shunning is loosely based on her story.
My ears had perked up because I was hearing about this courageous grandmother of mine named Ada. And I also was seeing just little things through the years, especially among the Amish girls. I would see that there were some who just didn’t come under quite as much. They weren’t toeing the line. A lot of the tourists would take pictures, and most of the kids would turn their faces immediately if they saw a car with somebody with a camera poised. They would immediately turn. But there would always be an exception to the rule, typically it would be a girl. I was always intrigued with the concept of how they keep their kids, this high percentage rate of young Amish people marrying and staying put after they’ve driven cars, they’ve experienced the world and electricity and clothes, and stuff like that.
I think over the years all the stories about my grandmother, for one thing, who was incredibly courageous for following her heart and also what she believed was God’s call in her life. As well as encountering many Amish friends through the years and seeing their children growing up and seeing maybe there’d be one in twelve kids who would marry and go off. Usually it was the girl. The things that really struck home to me through the years growing up was that there was a great sense of belonging. Every child is absolutely adored and loved and cherished. There’s a lot of cherishing going on, even when there are children who are born disabled or with special needs, or like the maiden aunt who was in her late sixties and who had never married was made comfortable in a beautiful part of the house, or in a daudy house made just for her off of the main house. Revered, respected and cared for. Also the whole sense of community in such a fragmented world and society that we live in. Every one has a group mentality, loving and caring and going to church and everybody’s related there. Working together canning. The women make their work fun. They don’t say oh we’re going to hurry up and get our work done so we can go play. Their work is play. Just knowing all this stuff so intrigued me. It was in some ways a parallel to how my aunts and great-aunts and others who were raised in the Anabaptist tradition were. The way they behaved, and their modesty in their dress. The way they had family worship every day, maybe twice a day. And all the dear kinds of spiritual values and things that were so precious to them. It was almost like a reinforcement to how I was being raised. There were a lot of things that attracted me to write about them.
And their attitude toward their tradition. A lot of them really are strong believers. Others are just embracing what they know, but they’re the most honest people, the most kind hearted generous people you ever want to meet. We can learn a lot from them.
A lot of people consider your novel The Shunning to be one of the first Amish fiction novels, but you actually wrote about the Amish before The Shunning in your Summerhill Secrets series. Did The Shunning stem from the research you did for that other series?
I set the Summerhill Sercrets series right near where I grew up. The Shunning was a story that had been simmering in my heart since I was eleven years old. I knew that there were people in my community or near where we lived... there was a man in his mid-sixties who would tell my father, with tears streaming down his face, and he said, “They still turn my back on me. I love them, but there’s no way we can reconnect. It’s heartbreaking.” I knew this was a modern practice and yet it seemed like an ancient ritual. At the time I was growing up I didn’t really understand it, the whole concept that it was an act of love to bring the wayward one back. It seemed so harsh. I didn’t realize then that they based it on biblical teaching where you’re not to break bread with someone who continues in their sin. They take it to a whole nother level, I think most people would feel that way.
When you were writing The Shunning, did you ever have the sense that, “Yes, this is something special here, it’s going to touch people on a deep level” or was it just another book for you that you were writing that you were passionate about. Did you ever think it would have the success that it had?
While I was writing it I had this tender heart, I think only a writer would understand, but this warm amazing feeling would come over me whenever I would work on it. I felt that it was something to be protected and taken care of. To be held close to me until I felt it was ready to be released. My husband is widely read, he lives and breathes fiction like I do. We’re quite a team. But I remember after working on it for many weeks, I was nearing the end of it. It was almost like a newborn baby. I remember saying my husband could come into my office and read the Prologue. I held my breath almost the whole time that he read it. I had tears in my eyes because it was so dear to me. He turned around and he couldn’t speak. He said, “This is amazing. This is your best work so far.” Then I remember after it was published, maybe two weeks or so. I think the first print run was 25,000, and they were already going to press again. My husband talked to my editor at the time saying, “I think this book has the potential to sell over a hundred thousand.” And my editor said, “Just wait a minute while I pick myself off the floor, I fell off the chair. It’s wonderful, but I don’t think that could happen.” Well, it’s sold a million two or three hundred thousand. I’ve lost count. It seems to resonate on many levels for a lot of people. Universal truths and layers. I’m still getting amazing letters from people who are really taken by it. It was a family story, and I think the books that simmer in me the longest are the best (laughs). This was the one!
Now that the movie is coming out on DVD. It must be so exciting to see your book made into a movie? Did you get to visit the set?
No, and I had said for all my books, if they should ever to be made, this would be the one I should go to. I wasn’t able to because of writing deadlines. I was there in spirit, and I was constantly in touch with Brian Bird or Michael Landon, Jr. during that time because they wanted to get the accuracy of the Lancaster County Amish who are so unique, the first settlement and the most traditional.
Overall, what were your feelings when you first saw it?
Michael sent us the uncut edition, before it was edited and cleaned up. I don’t know how many scenes were so poignant that I had tears in my eyes . . . I was trying to be open-minded and not love it too much. I tried to come to it with an open mind, like a typical viewer. That’s kind of impossible to do because I’m so close to the story, but I remember being so incredibly moved because Dave wrote it down, were, “That’s my Katie!” Danielle Panabaker . . . you never know if the cast is going to capture the essence and the truth of the personality of each character, but especially the protagonist. So . . .wow. There were so many great things about it. I was so excited. I was holding myself down when I wrote Brian and Michael back with my comments. It was so surreal.
I didn’t believe it when Michael said that they were going to follow it so closely because it read like a movie script in their mind. I believed him on some level, but I had seen how they changed around The Redemption of Sarah Cain to the Saving Sarah Cain movie. I understood that they wanted that to be film friendly and the juxtaposition of Sarah taking her Amish nieces and nephews back to Portland and putting them in the public school and all these interesting and even humorous scenes that could be created from that. I was cool with it. I signed off on it, I had a chance to approve everything. I thought there would probably be a lot of chances I’d be surprised in The Shunning, but you know there really weren’t. I read the script two and a half years before they actually shot it, and I edited the whole thing for them to help them with the authenticity and dialogue. I would say that I was kind of surprised that it was . . . I felt complimented in a way. I know there are top drawer authors in the ABA who bail from Hollywood because they can’t get the producers to stay close to the storyline. It was a really, really wonderful experience. My husband has watched it ten times on Hallmark! (Laughs) We both have said, it’s absolutely addictive, and people are saying that and we haven’t even put that in their heads. This person on Facebook said, “This movie is addictive. I can’t wait to own it on DVD.”
Your latest series The Rose Trilogy, that’s about to wrap up with The Mercy coming out. Could you share a little bit about how you developed this series?
I always have a skeletal outline of the whole series. Lately it seems like the series have been coming to me in trilogies. I knew that the concept of foster care among the Amish community was intriguing to me. To know that there are Amish families who have actually been able to adopt Englischer's children, raise them in the Amish church and faith. That was an intrigue to me. I knew about the idea but had never actually pursued the whole idea of young Amish women who had impulsively married outside of their Amish communities and then regretted it. There aren’t many of them, but . . . especially after having a child, and then the push and pull of how are we going to raise this child to mesh with my traditional conservative upbringing when the father of my child, my husband, is pushing for the worldly influence and that kind of thing. Those two storylines were real strong in me at the time. I had to wait a couple years to write it because when it came to me one night, while I was falling asleep I woke up and jotted it down! (Laughs.) I try to keep my plots nice and fresh, and just because I keep writing Amish settings doesn’t mean they’re going to be the same old same old. I was also influenced by some of the old classic literature. The whole idea of the bishop’s foster son being the rebellious one, the one who was sort of an outcast, and this gentle sweethearted woman, Rosie, how she sees good in him and befriends him and then of course he falls in love with her. As she really looks like the cover of my books, I can see why! (Chuckles.)
Do you ever find the label of being the Queen of Amish fiction restrictive, or are there just so many stories set in Amish communities that you could never write them all?
Well, I don’t know if I’ll ever live to write all the stories I have, but not all of them are Amish. But we’ll have to see. I have to write what’s passionate about for me. I never wrote for the market. I wrote my heart. It just seemed to somehow resonate with readers. I think I will always continue to write the things . . . I have so many story ideas, but I let the leading ladies kind of fight it out and whoever wins is the one I write next. The one that gets the loudest and gets the most demanding in my heart. I try to focus on what I’m supposed to be writing at the time, but it’s invariably a year or two away from the next series. I get some incredible idea that keeps me up at night. It usually always starts with a character that I fall in love with. Some spunky hearted gal who has ideas of her own. Who maybe even is historically based with Amish church related issues, like the Courtship of Nellie Fisher series was based on actual events that happened in 1962, that church split that happened and created the New Order Amish. Or things that I read start simmering around. I honestly don’t know if it’s some sort of spiritual or ethereal thing, but it’s like I know when I know. I have to trust it.
Do you think that being in another state, does that actually help you write about Lancaster County, having that distance?
I hold my breath to get back to Lancaster County. I’ve been back four times in about fourteen months. My mom’s family is still there. Of course of the nine siblings there’s only one left, but all of my cousins, second cousins, and her cousins, our Amish friends and their kids are still there. People my dad led to the Lord through his long ministry are there. Their children and grandchildren are all there. We still have great fellowship with them. It’s hard not to be there, to be here and not see the cornfields and fields of grain.
Do you have a set schedule for your writing?
I work all day. I work until I fall off the chair and go to bed. I’m just crazy! I start in the morning and edit everything that doesn’t look that great in the daylight (Laughs.) In the afternoon I work on my marketing issues and requests, answering fan mail, and Facebook, all the snail mail and stuff. Then I try also to incorporate outlining what I’m going to write next that evening, or late in the afternoon to the evening. I set aside about two and a half months to just kind of go crazy and do my writing marathon. Then I have a week off and then I go on tour for two weeks. I do this every six months. I go on tour in April and September. Then I come back and do revisions, take a little break, and then I start again.
What’s next for your with your books?
I started a new series called Home to Hickory Hollow. It’s the setting for The Shunning, but will feature all brand new characters with just a couple cameos of beloved characters. It’s not about revisiting any of that, but these are going to be standalones under the covering of a series. I think my readers are kind of screaming right now about my cliffhanger endings (chuckles). I’m going to try this on and see if they like that a bit. Kind of a light hearted romance set in Amish country. I’m coming up on half way being finished with that book. It’s called The Fiddler. The protagonist is called Amelia.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with your readers?
For the viewers of the Hallmark Channel who loved The Shunning and are dying to be able to own it, I think they’re going to be delighted to be able to purchase it. And for those who for some reason are screaming because their server doesn’t carry the Hallmark Channel, they’re dying to have it. I’m really happy for my readers who are excited and waiting breathlessly for this. I also think that a lot of people are finding out about my books who maybe haven’t ever been able to know about them because they weren’t looking in the particular section of the bookstore or online for this type of a book. I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback who’ve just discovered my books. It’s kind of remarkable to have a push again of my backlist.
Portions of this interview first appeared as an article in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of FamilyFiction Digital Magazine.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.