This week I interview Jessica White, fellow member of 10 Minute Novelists. Although I haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Jessica in person, I know that she is a diligent, generous, and devout woman with a passion for historical fiction. She published her debut novel, Surviving the Stillness, late last year. You can read my review here.
Surviving the Stillness is Book 1 in The Seasons of Healing Series. It takes place in rural 1920’s Montana. How did you pick the time period and the setting for this series, and what kind of research has it required?
My methodology of coming up with a time and place was at best happenstance. This story actually originated from a manuscript I wrote in the seventh grade about the renovation of an old house with an attached school. The Queen Anne Victorian style was specific to the late 1880’s-1890’s (although it was replicated among the middle class as late as the 1910’s). I spent so much time creating the story of the house and its previous owners, that I kept coming back to it over the years. Originally, I needed the house to be abandoned in the 1930’s during the Great Depression, so I came up with what became the deaths of Abigail and Samuel Morgan’s parents. When I picked up the manuscript again about ten years ago, it was Abigail’s story that I focused in on. Her mother’s death in the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 was the catalyst for her coming of age, so the 1920’s became the setting when I picked up the manuscript again in 2013.
Her mother’s death wasn’t enough to propel Abigail in the direction I wanted her to go. So, I decided to send Abigail and her brother Samuel away from home. The location of the fictitious town of Bridgedale, WV was close to the Ohio River, so I explored the idea they were put on a steamboat to St. Louis. When things in St. Louis went bad and they decided to run away, I pulled an actual railroad guide from the time period to decide the route west. Everything about the train ride is correct down to the detail that it was night time when they arrived in Billings, Montana.
In spring 2013, I was still writing the story chronologically. I knew I wanted them to never make it to Portland and end up at a Catholic orphanage, but I had a problem. They arrived in Billings mid-September and the only reason they wouldn’t be able to make it to Missoula would be if winter set in, which wouldn’t happen until at least mid-October. There were plenty of miles between Billings, Helena, and Missoula, so I made them hitchhike it. I knew very little about Montana. I spent days on Google Earth traveling their path until the terrain became the valley I had pictured in my head where St. Catherine’s Orphanage was located. Bear Valley and Fairfield didn’t develop until I decided that everything up to that point was the backstory and added Matthew Mason’s storyline late in 2013.
I only started reading in my genre after I started writing in it. I think you’ve said something similar, that you only came to reading Christian historical fiction fairly recently. Is that correct?
Yes. Despite being a voracious reader, I never realized there was a whole section of the bookstore/library for Christian fiction until 2012. The first books I read were Tamera Alexander’s Timber Ridge Reflections Series. I finished all three books in less than a week and was hooked. Then I found the original manuscript of Abigial’s backstory on an old hard drive. I started working out the details to finish it and realized it would fall into historical fiction because of its setting. The more I read my contemporaries, the more I’m challenged by my love of faith and history to get the details right, and make the characters’ experiences feel real.
You’re not Catholic, but you’ve written a novel that would be very appealing to Catholic readers. A large part of the book is set within an orphanage run by an order of religious sisters. How did that come about?
Well, you’d have to know that I was a church hopper as a child. I went to whatever church my friends attended or whatever church bus came down my street Sunday morning. So, I have a very eclectic faith experience. In late middle school, I’d consumed the school library and ventured to the public library. I began reading non-fiction starting at the beginning of the Dewey Decimal system. That led me through philosophy, world religions, and then Catholicism. I fell in love with the old texts. St. Francis de Sales, St. Teresa Avila, St. Augustine, Thomas à Kempis became my obsession in early high school.
I fell in love with the Carmelite order and their devotion to prayer. I started attending a Catholic church and read the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church (the 400-page book version) over the summer. I spent about five months discerning if it was my place. It was about this time I began having recurring dreams set inside a Catholic orphanage. It was one specific dream that inspired the character of Matthew Mason and his first encounter with Abigail.
In the end, I couldn’t align my understanding of Scripture with certain aspects of Catholic doctrine. To say I was disappointed wouldn’t do it justice. It threw my life into a bit of a wayward spiral. But I never lost my love of religious life nor of Catholic traditions. You’ll see that reflected in the positive experiences many of my characters have with Catholicism. My hope is Book Two, Instruments of Intervention, will flesh out some of the issues faced in converting across the Protestant/Catholic line and how at this point in history Christianity in America became a very different institution than what it had been in Europe and early America.
As to the sisters of St. Catherine’s in my series, they are actually a missionary Benedictine order, cloistered at the orphanage. They came in two waves, the original ones to build the orphanage and establish the convent, and a second wave of teachers. I chose the Benedictines because they were historically the most likely, and I am very familiar with the Rule of St. Benedict, so it was easy enough to help shape the way things worked. I have intentions of writing the backstories of the sisters of St. Catherine’s as a collection of short stories in the next few years.
I’m fascinated with the backstory of Doctor Mason’s wife, Helen, who dies prior to the series. She was Native American and converted to Christianity. I’m reminded of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, who suffered for her faith. Will we see more of Dr. Mason’s wife and her journey in other books in the series?
Yes! I’m actually working on a novella of when Matthias Mason and Helen meet and eventually marry during their years at the University of Nebraska. I still have lots of research to do on her conversion story, which won’t be told directly, but the reader will see and hear bits and pieces as Matthias Mason converts from Presbyterian to Catholicism in order to marry Helen.
Helen’s backstory allows for her to spend the first eight years of her life with her Lakota family before she is saved by a veterinarian who had come to treat the horses injured in the Battle of Wounded Knee. Unlike many Lakota children who were taken away from their parents and sent to Catholic boarding schools that stripped them of their heritage, Helen was raised by Polish-American parents who were highly protective of her and educated her themselves. Their love and faith make a way for her to find healing in Catholicism where many other Native Americans resisted conversion or struggled to meld the two together.
Through her story and her son Matthew’s, we’ll also see how difficult it was for those who did manage to hang onto their Native American culture and adopt a Christian faith to find a home in either the White or Native American communities, because of prejudices on both sides.
You juggle a lot of balls – wife, mother, home educator, writer, your role as an administrator with 10 Minute Novelists, and I’m sure many other responsibilities I’m unaware of. How do you maintain a sense of peace and purpose amid all the challenges and responsibilities?
I’ve found myself in prayer often confessing I can’t do it all. 2015 has been a real challenge after a year of intimacy with Him. In 2014, I finished my BA in Education that I started in 2001 and published Surviving the Stillness, which I’d started in 1994. I thought I’d be closing some doors permanently and getting back to basics of home and family, but that hasn’t been His plan. He’s given me health and financial issues, while also opening doors to network with some amazing people in the writing industry and to help start the free democratic school I’ve wanted to be a part of for the past five years as a homeschooling mother.
If I look at everything at once, I get quite overwhelmed, but I’m learning to delegate and to focus on the present moment. I’m learning that some things don’t matter in the eternal perspective of things, so I shouldn’t let them be significant in the here and now. I’m also learning to prioritize God over everything else. Nothing can make a day successful except Him. When I’m overwhelmed it is best to just get on my knees and intercede for those in need or to go out and spend some time doing something charitable for a neighbor or stranger. If I get my eyes off myself and on what He is doing, everything falls into place.
What’s next for The Seasons of Healing Series?
I would love to have Instruments of Intervention finished by late summer. Book Two is seen through the eyes of Dr. Mason and Samuel Morgan, so the readers will get to know them better and watch God continue to bring healing to both families and to the community of Bear Valley. There was also so much interest in Helen Mason (Dr. Mason’s wife and Matthew’s mother) that I decided to write a novella about how she became a doctor despite the prejudice and hardships she faced being Catholic and full-blooded Lakota. The reader will also get to see how God put Matthias Mason in her path and changed his life forever. I still have quite a bit of research to do for the novella, but I would love to have it out before Christmas, Lord willing.