Cathy Gohlke, a two-time Christy Award-winning author, has worked as a school librarian, drama director and director of children’s and education ministries. She marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic with her historical novel Promise Me This (Tyndale House).
Q: What inspired you to write a story during these particular events?
I’ve always been fascinated by Titanic – certainly the romance of the Edwardian era and the beautiful “ship of dreams,” but more by her crew and passengers, especially her survivors. How did those who’d been miraculously, magnanimously saved go on living when hundreds around them had died? How did they respond to having received such an unmerited act of grace? The moment I verbalized my question, I recognized the key words. They were the same words that describe what Jesus did for us, the same words that beg the question, “How will I – how do I – respond to His miraculous, magnanimous, unmerited act of grace?” The parallel was too strong to ignore, so I took the question of the survivors further. How did they live out their gift of life? Sadly, some did not. Two years later, World War I erupted in Europe, not only making transatlantic travel deadly, but wiping out nearly an entire generation of men. We’ve even labeled them “the lost generation.” It was not hard to imagine that promises were begged and made on Titanic’s fateful night, but how they could be kept in the face of the Great War was another story. And that is the love story I wove – entirely human, but intended as an echo of the divine.
Q: What is it about the Titanic that continues to haunt people?
I think that Titanic, in many ways, represented a microcosm of the Edwardian world – its passengers separated into classes determined by birth, position and wealth. It was popularly held that men and women belonged to their class – their station in life – from birth, and that the aristocracy ruled by divine right. That “belonging” so often determined views of personal worth or lack of worth, and it assumed the right to opportunity or justified the lack of opportunity. Titanic’s sinking shattered challenge the status quo dared publicly voice their questions. Questions such as: What greater right did the aristocracy have to seats in lifeboats than the passengers in third class – was their right determined by humans or God? Did the price of a ticket determine their right to be saved, or were those in third class so convinced they should come last that they didn’t try? Are women and children to be protected and their lives prioritized at all costs? The years before the sinking of Titanic are remembered as years of innocence and opulence. Novels and films tend to overlook the abject poverty of the masses, but focus on the romance of the aristocracy. Titanic destroyed the illusion that because one is beautiful, strong and financially solvent (human or ship), they are “unsinkable,” unstoppable. The icy sea stopped them all, and in the end those who were saved, were saved because they were given opportunity. The decisions made that night – who lived and who died, and who or what was responsible – haunt us all because while we want to imagine that we’d have been generous and acted nobly, we know that we’d all have wanted – indeed, we do want – “a seat in the lifeboat.”
Q: Did you have the anniversary in mind as you wrote the novel?
Not at first. When I began writing The Legacy of Owen Allen, the short story on which Promise Me This was based, the 100th anniversary of Titanic was still far away. By the time I began weaving that short story into a novel, the anniversary was pending. I believe that the heightened interest leading to the anniversary has helped make research materials more available and accessible. I’ve found wonderful resources in the last few years that were not available when I first began to write.
Q: What were some challenges writing this story?
My greatest challenge was incorporating the fascinating details of history without losing the story in them. There was so much I wanted to share with readers – so much I found fascinating, especially about WWI. But I needed to stick to the story. My earlier books were written in first person. This was my first novel in third person from multiple points of view, and that was a challenge. Thanks to the eyes and suggestions of my editors, Stephanie Broene and Sarah Mason, I recast parts of the story into the viewpoint of the character most needing to tell that portion rather than repeating the story from different viewpoints. I learned so much in writing and revising this book and am profoundly grateful for the experience of working with a wonderful editorial team.
Q: What do you want readers to take away from Promise Me This?
I hope readers see a picture of Christ’s love story to the world – His gift by grace that forever changed and made possible all that we are and hope to be. I hope they’ll see parallels between Owen’s character, sacrifice and charge to Michael, and Christ’s character – His sacrifice for us, and His charge to love one another as He has loved us – providing us with life, a home in an eternal garden, a family, love and a calling. I hope in Michael and Annie they’ll see a picture of us, and how we can be renewed and transformed into His image by accepting and extending to others His all-pursuing love. I especially hope readers are inspired to connect the parallels in their own lives, accept the gift of love He freely offers, live as He lived, and look for opportunities to love others in just that way.