Q&A: Jolina Petersheim (The Outcast)
Q: What is your book about?
My debut novel, The Outcast, is a modern retelling of The Scarlet Letter set in an Old Order Mennonite community in Tennessee, much like the community I used to visit as a child. Though The Outcast is entirely fictional, the premise is actually based on a story someone once shared with me. It was about the power of desire and the reverberating cost after that desire was left unchecked; a story that, shockingly enough, took place in an idyllic Old Order Mennonite community.
Q: What kinds of things fuel you during your writing process?
Being with my family, even if that means playing with my daughter in the grass in front of our home or grocery store dates with my husband. Watching movies like Little Women or Sense and Sensibility that just force me to light candles and swoon. Cooking new things, even though I hate following recipes. Thrift store shopping for treasures. Coffee outings with girlfriends and hiking and reading thick books in sun-dappled parks. Praying in the car with the windows down. Life is good, isn’t it?
Q: For people who may not be familiar with your work, what would you want them to know about you and the kinds of stories you write?
I just received a wonderful e-mail from a woman who said she will do everything she can to help promote The Outcast because she believes in its message that much. This brought me to tears. The Outcast is more than a work of fiction to me. My vision for The Outcast is to show that sin has repercussions that often hurt those who have not sinned. And yet there is also redemption if the sinner repents and seeks forgiveness from God, those he has wronged, and the person with whom he has sinned. I believe its message of healing needs to be shared with our entire generation.
Q: What is your connection to the Amish or other Plain cultures?
My husband and I both have a Plain heritage that originated in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. My husband’s grandfather was raised Amish, but the rest of our family members have a Mennonite background. My family moved from Pennsylvania to Tennessee when I was three, but my childhood was filled with stories of my ancestors hiding TVs from bishops and concealing permed hair beneath kapps. Now my parents work one-on-one with the Amish and Mennonite communities in Tennessee and Kentucky, selling their wares through Miller’s Amish Country Store that’s located forty-five minutes north of Nashville.
Q: When did you become interested in the Amish?
The Amish and Mennonites were always part of my life. So much so, in fact, that I did not appreciate my heritage until I went away to college (the first in my family to attempt a higher education) and realized that I did not want to become a journalist in the big city as I had once planned. Instead, I found myself drawn to creative writing and to a simple life, reminiscent of the heritage I had once tried to flee. The two eventually combined, and after I married my husband and we started building our house on our land, I stared at our rolling Tennessee mountains, and The Outcast was born.
Q: If you could take just one aspect of Amish culture you're drawn to and implement it in our popular culture today, what would it be?
I think the majority of us are moving through our days with four hundred search tabs open, trying to find the next best thing and therefore really feeling dissatisfied with everything. Because of this, the Plain People’s simpler lifestyle is appealing. Now, that’s not to say that they do not have their share of hardships, because they certainly do. But there is something so beautiful about how they share these hardships among their community and how they allow time for things that we are always too “rushed” for: hymn sings, prayer, horse and buggy rides, lengthy fellowship meals. These help balance the stress created by everyday life. Though my husband and I aren’t planning to get a buggy anytime soon, we are trying to get back to a simpler lifestyle, like our grandparents lived.
Q: Insider details and glimpses of Plain life make your stories come alive. How do you collect that information?
I ask my mother questions, who then recalls details from her childhood and the afternoons she spent with my Plain grandmother, Verna Reist Mummau Grove. Or I ask my formerly Amish friend, who can help me with the Pennsylvania Dutch vocabulary. Getting the spelling correct with an unrecorded language was the most difficult task for me. Thankfully, Tyndale has some great copy editors, so we researched it together. I should also mention that my agent, Wes Yoder, has a Plain background as well. He actually contacted one of his friends to get the correct Pennsylvania Dutch phrase when someone is being baptized into the church. This will be placed in my next book.
Q: Ever had any unusual or embarrassing moments while researching?
No embarrassing moments recently. However, when I was a teenager, the Old Order Mennonite girls my age either had braided hair or wore kapps after having joined the church. But I arrived at the community with unbound hair, having refused to braid it beforehand. That night, we were eating supper beneath a popping kerosene bulb when the hostess came over, took out my ribbon, and braided my hair in one long plait. To this day, I don’t know if the hostess was being sweetly maternal or reprimanding me, for setting a bad example for her girls.
Q: What authors and books have had the most influence on you?
L. M. Montgomery had a huge influence on me as a child. I actually wanted red hair like Anne Shirley’s for a long time, but settled on admiring my best friend’s lovely titian mop instead. I love Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë (such talented sisters!). I love Dodie Smith (I Capture the Castle); I love Francine Rivers. There are so many wonderful books out there. I cannot wait to drink them in. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin is the best book I’ve read in years, and it’s so unique, I cannot even pinpoint why. I just wanted to live in that orchard. I wanted to eat apricots and apples and take naps in the long grass. Great books are those that provide escapism and help us understand reality.
Q: What was the lowest point in your writing career, and how did you get through it?
Three and a half years ago, I sent my first novel to my wonderful creative writing professor (who is my dear, dear friend today) and she kindly told me it was not yet time. I cried and I sobbed. My poor husband didn’t know what to do. What’s worse, I had to run a 5K that day that I had not trained for. I thought I was going to die. It was freezing cold and spitting sleet. I could barely breathe or see because my eyes were so swollen from crying. It was a very “Jonah moment,” as Anne fans will attest.
I got through it by opening my laptop and beginning a new story. I really had no choice. The words would not stop. I am so glad I did not stop, either. But . . . I haven’t run since.