Jolina Petersheim’s premier book released this June after
much anticipation.Jolina answered our
questions about her inspiration, Plain background, and her book,
The Outcast (Tyndale House)
Q: What is your book
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
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
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.