Ellen Gable is a busy lady. I was flummoxed by how to encapsulate all her roles, so I’m going to steal her description right from her blog: “I am a freelance writer and author of five books, President of the Catholic Writers Guild, self-publishing book coach, speaker, Natural Family Planning (NFP) teacher, book reviewer, Marriage Preparation Instructor. However, the roles I love the most are being wife to my husband, James, and mother to our five sons, ages 15-27.”
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Ellen first through her novels, then the Catholic Writers Guild, and, now, as my editor and publisher.
Your most recent novel, A Subtle Grace, is a historical romance and the second book in the O’Donovan Family Series. You can read it as a standalone novel, but I think the story is enriched by knowing the family’s history, particularly the patriarch, David. How are the themes from the first novel, In Name Only, essentially David and Caroline’s story, interwoven with the challenges their children face?
One of the themes I wanted to focus on, in particular, is the theme of marital love and that one’s future spouse might not be in the person they expect it to be. In Caroline’s case, she found love with the man she initially despised. Kathleen, her daughter, found love in a simple, kind man rather than a charismatic, charming, deceitful man. Like In Name Only, the other themes are unconditional love and trust in God. All of these themes will also be included in the third O’Donovan novel, which I’ve already outlined, but haven’t yet written. (That one will take place roughly starting in 1913, just before the beginning of WWI).
In A Subtle Grace and in Stealing Jenny, you write some truly evil antagonists, yet they don’t come off as one-dimensional caricatures. How do you find a balance between making the villain terrifying yet real, and in some small way, relatable?
My initial experience with creating an antagonist was with creating a character who is based on mygreat-grandmother. I didn’t want to portray her as a one-dimensional evil character. She may have been an unlikeable woman (according to my aunt and mother), but I wanted to show that she wasn’t born an unlikeable person, just that difficult events in her life shaped her that way. I’ve always tried to follow the same rule in creating any antagonist. Let’s consider one of the most notable real-life villains, Hitler. I don’t think any author could’ve created a more evil, believable villain. And yet several documentaries about Hitler illustrated how loving and kind he was to his dogs. Also consider the scene in The Godfather where there’s a baby being baptized with tender love and care at the time same as the father’s hit men are slaughtering a group of men. We all have baggage and I try to show that every “villain” has some baggage because it’s makes them more believable and more three-dimensional.
How has the market for Catholic fiction changed over the past decade since you published your first book, Emily’s Hope?
It has changed a lot. When I first tried to find a publisher for my novel Emily’s Hope, I was basically told, “Unless your name is Michael O’Brien, we’re not interested.” Most Catholic publishers at that time released maybe one or two novels a year (compared with hundreds of non-fiction books) because (according to them), Catholic fiction didn’t sell. There are more Catholic novels now because there are more authors self-publishing, but there are also more Catholic fiction publishers.
As a publisher, what do you look for in a manuscript?
Quality, polished writing, first and foremost. I can tell in the first two pages of the manuscript whether the writing is crisp and polished. Second, a compelling story. Third, believable characters. Do I like these characters? Do I want to have them over for dinner? Are the villains multi-dimensional? Are there Theology of the Body themes? In the end, if I keep reading and have a hard time stopping, I’m probably going to offer a contract.
Your family is active in all the arts, not just literature. How do you cultivate that love of the arts in your children?
When our boys were young, we allowed them to call the shots in terms of what they enjoyed doing. This started well before we started formally homeschooling. Our second oldest son enjoyed creating his own comic books when he was about nine or ten years old. So I incorporated it into the homeschooling curriculum. Later, he became interested in making movies, so he saved up for his own camcorder and used it to make movies as part of homeschooling, starting from the story idea, then the script, casting, set, etc. Every summer, he would get his friends and family together to make a movie. (He now works in the film industry up here in Canada and even has his own IMDb page!)
Most of our sons have also been involved in musicals and plays. Four of our five sons play a musical instrument, but, again, this was their decision. I never had to ask whether they were practicing the guitar, piano or drums. The fact that their father owns a music/recording studio does help to cultivate a love for the arts because it makes it easy for them to compose, play, and record music as well as make movies.
When any of our sons were considering what they wanted to study in post-secondary education, we always encouraged them to study what they love. So far, all four of our adult sons have chosen the arts as their majors (two have already graduated).