By Daniel Ford
The author’s first novel, The Outcast, is a modern retelling of The Scarlet Letter influenced by Petersheim’s Mennonite upbringing. The book was named one of Library Journal’s Best of 2013 and was called a “must-read” by The New York Times.
Petersheim took a break from promoting her second novel, The Midwife, to talk to me about how she was raised, her path to publishing her work, and her writing process while taking care of a newborn.
Daniel Ford: Your backstory is one of the more interesting of any author we’ve come across so far. Can detail some of your history and how it shaped you as a writer?
Jolina Petersheim: My husband and I share a Plain background that originated in Lancaster, Penn., but we actually met here in the mountains of Tennessee (Our fathers even attended the same Mennonite high school). We met at church through my husband’s formerly Amish grandfather, Amos Stoltzfus, who encouraged my family to visit. Grandpa Amos was a wonderful, lively man, and I partly based my character in The Outcast, Amos King, after him.
Four years ago, a family member told a true story about the power of desire that was left unchecked and how it trickled down through an Old Order Mennonite family, not only affecting that generation, but the generations to come. We were all sitting around the kitchen, and after the person finished speaking, I gasped, “That’s a book!” But I did nothing about it. At the time, I was writing Southern fiction and did not want to surrender to “Amish fiction”—a genre my father always told me I should write.
However, a few years later, I was on the London Underground when a tall, stoop-shouldered man in a black suit stepped on board. My best friend and I recognized him as the person who was friends with the woman who was allowing us to stay in her flat. On the subway, this unsung poet and prophet spoke into my best friend’s life. Then later, on the double decker bus, he spoke into mine. He told me I would give up the manuscript I was currently working on and begin writing again. I didn’t know I would listen, but when I came home, I could not hear anything else. I put my current manuscript in a drawer and began writing a fictionalized version of the story that had been told to me. I met this man in 2010, and the story ideas regarding my Plain heritage have not stopped coming in four years.
DF: How did you go about getting your work published?
JP: I had a rather unusual path. I met my agent, Wes Yoder, at an author reading when I was 25,000 words into the first draft of The Outcast. He asked if he could read the portion of the manuscript I had completed. I sent the polished version to him one month later. He told me he thought the story had potential, so I began to write as quickly as I could. I was expecting our little girl at the time; therefore, I knew I had a narrow window in which to finish the manuscript. I completed The Outcast in six months, and Wes and I had a two-book publishing contract with Tyndale House when my firstborn daughter was 12 weeks old. She is now almost 2 years old, and all I can say is that it has been a delightful, somewhat challenging but always rewarding, journey!
DF: What is your writing process? Is it structured or unstructured?
JP: I like to follow a loose synopsis but not an outline, and I guess I’m structured in the fact that I try to write and read every day. Monday through Friday, I get up at 6 a.m. and write in the living room with a cup of coffee. My daughter gets up at 7 a.m., so my husband prepares her breakfast and has some special time with her until he leaves for work around 8 a.m.
I do social media and respond to emails during her bath time, then I start writing again at 11 a.m. when she takes a nap, which sometimes last until 1 p.m. or—miracle of miracles!—even 2 p.m. I read at night, until 10 p.m., averaging about three books a month.
On the weekends, I sleep until 7 a.m., take a break from social media, and spend my daughter’s nap time working on blog posts or interviews, like I’m doing now!
DF: Your first book, The Outcast, was a best-seller on Amazon and was named to a bunch of different “Best of” lists in 2013. What was that experience like as a first-time author?
JP: I have been so touched by the support this debut novel of mine has received! More even than these wonderful accolades, though, countless times I have been moved to tears by messages from dear readers, who contact me to express how The Outcast’s story of heartache, forgiveness, and redemption has transformed their lives. This is truly what it’s all about. I pray The Midwife will touch their hearts to the same extent, as Rhoda’s story is just as personal to me as Rachel’s.
DF: You’re very active on social media, and you maintain a blog on your website. Do you find yourself using social media to interact with fans or just have fun? How has it helped your writing process?
JP: I am an extroverted, stay-at-home mom who lives in the mountains of East Tennessee. Needless to say, on a day-to-day basis, I don’t get to see many people beyond my family. The genuine interaction with my online reading community is surprising and priceless, and I truly love that aspect of my job.
However, social media can become a burden if you let it. You can spend so much of your energy and time establishing connections and marketing old content that you never have energy and time left to create new content. After 11 a.m., I unplug from the Internet and will check back in during the afternoon (around 2 p.m., after my second writing session) to see if I need to reply to any emails or messages.
DF: Your second novel, The Midwife, was recently released. Was the process for writing it any different than the first one?
JP: Oh, yes! I spent up to eight hours a day working on The Outcast, five days a week. I signed a two-book deal with my publisher soon after my daughter was born. Therefore, I started writing The Midwife when she was twelve weeks old. Without knowing it, I trained my newborn to be an insomniac with a voracious appetite, because I believed she would shrivel up if she didn’t eat every two hours. This made it rather hard for a while. But she started sleeping through the night around ten months and really got it down at one year (hooray!).
Through that difficult period, writing The Midwife was my tether. Sometimes, after supper, I would sit on the front porch and write while my husband sat inside, rocking our fussy child. I will admit that there were moments when I did not think I could do it, but that was when my husband, mother, or mother-in-law would come swooping in and make supper, fold laundry, or allow me to go to the library for a few hours to work.
Now that my daughter is 2 years old, it’s certainly gotten easier. My husband has his own business, and therefore can set his own hours; he often comes home early so I can have a few hours to write. Right now, I am writing on the front porch while my daughter naps. One of my favorite times of day!
DF: What is your advice to up-and-coming authors?
JP: Never, ever give up! That afternoon I met my agent, I was 12 weeks pregnant and had reconciled in my heart that it was time to set my writing dream aside. Here, little did I know that my future career was just about to begin! It is a dream come true to work from home and be with our daughter through every simple, exquisite moment. I know I am blessed.
DF: Name one random fact about yourself?
JP: I took mandolin lessons for 12 years, and I still can’t play.