Monday 1 February 2016

Pen Pal Posts - Valerie Weaver-Zercher

While I was working on Hutterite Diaries, I had the good fortune to have Valerie Weaver-Zercher as my editor. Over the course of many months of emailing and talking on the phone, we became friends, even though we've never actually met in person. But I'm looking forward to the day that will happen. Valerie is a talented, sensitive and patient editor and was so easy to work with. I first thought I'd be intimidated working with a professional editor, but that never happened. Valerie put me at ease from our very first phone call. I learned so much through this writing journey with her, for which I'll always be grateful! You can read more about Valerie, on her home page.

No wonder then, that she was one of the people that came to mind when I started planning for these Pen Pal Posts. (You can see them all, by clicking on Pen Pal Posts under Labels.)

Tell me about your book, Thrill of the Chaste.
I published Thrill of the Chaste in 2013 after having spent several years researching the genre. My book is a fairly academic look at Amish romance fiction and the reasons for its popularity among Christian readers. As I researched my book, I talked to a lot of people about Amish novels: to writers and publishers of the novels, literary agents who represent authors of Amish fiction, booksellers who sell their books, readers who love the novels, and to Amish people about their impressions of the genre. I read a lot of cultural theory and literary theory and studies of evangelical readers and studies of romance novels, and I read a lot of the novels themselves.
I won’t give too much away about what I found (so that your readers buy my book!), but the two main factors to which I attribute the popularity of the genre are hyper-modernity and hyper-sexualization. Don’t let those words scare you off, though. 
 Basically, the main attraction of the genre can be summarized in these two sentences: 1) readers love Amish fiction because it offers them a departure from a life and culture that they perceive to be increasingly sped up—an imaginative “vacation,” of sorts, away from the pace of social and technological change and within a culture that they characterize as “slow and simple.” And 2) readers love Amish fiction because it offers them chaste heroines who live in what is perceive as a chaste subculture, and because it offers them a departure from a culture that they perceive as over-sexualized. Amish novels are “clean reads,” a fact that readers mentioned to me over and over again as they described their love of the genre.   

That's how I see Amish books as well - a window into a slower and simpler world, which I find fascinating. What motivated you to devote a whole book to the allure Amish fiction? 

A series editor at Johns Hopkins University Press actually invited me to write the book. I confess that I was pretty na├»ve and uninformed about Amish fiction before that point. So I can’t even say it was my idea to write a whole book about Amish fiction.
I will say, however, that once I began researching and writing about it, my question was never, “How am I going to write a whole book about Amish fiction?” It was more like, “How am I going to write just one book about Amish fiction?” Since I published my book, I’ve written a host of articles and essays and op-eds with some of that extra material that I couldn’t fit in the book. (You can read a few of those pieces in the LA Review of Books and Wall Street Journal and Sojourners.)

Thanks for including these links. Amish fiction has been a popular genre for a long time now. It seems there are more new Amish fiction authors all the time, and the ones that have been around for a while just keep turning out more books. What makes these books so popular?

Some of their popularity has to do with the appeal of the Amish within a hyper-modern and hyper-sexualized culture, like I talked about above. But it’s related to a host of other factors: the speed with which publishers can get books into the hands of readers these days. The blending of Christian faith, rurality, and romance that has appealed to Christian women for years (think Christy by Catherine Marshall and Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke). The fact that evangelical Christians feel a historic kinship with the Amish because evangelicals often themselves came of age in fundamentalist households, which also emphasize separation from the world, as the Amish do but in different ways. As you can see—it’s a convergence of factors.

Did you discover anything that surprised you while working on this project?

Since I knew very little about Amish fiction when I began my research, lots of things surprised me! In fact, it’s one of the reasons that this book was so much fun for me to write. I love unearthing ideas and connections that have never occurred to me, and so this writing project was one big, extended surprise.
If I had to name one thing, however, I guess it’d be the number of Amish people themselves who are reading the Amish novels that others, outsiders, are writing about them. I don’t have quantitative data on how many young Amish women are reading Amish fiction, and I hope someone does that study someday. But through numerous conversations with Amish people, I learned that these books are indeed being read in many Amish communities. That surprised me, and still fascinates me.

I've often wondered what the Amish themselves think of these books. Sometimes when I read Amish fiction, there are parts of the story that just don’t seem to ring true, which always has me wondering about the authenticity of some of these books. I believe you touched on that in your book. Can you shed some light on that? 

Yes, I have a whole chapter about questions of authenticity and accuracy.  It’s a very complicated question, so I won’t do it justice here. But I do wonder whether certain authors have done enough research to warrant writing a book about a culture of which they are not a part. And those of us on the outside of Amish life can fairly easily, without even knowing it, make the Amish out to look a lot like us. We can make them into “good Americans” who stand for everything we think is good about America—one literary agent told me that he thinks Amish fiction is popular because the Amish believe in good American values like hard work, family, achievement, and community. But here’s the thing: the Amish have, especially at certain points in history, taken what some would consider very “un-American” stances, such as refusing to fight in the military. And certain central aspects of Amish life—the authority of the church in the lives of individuals, for example—are also very “un-American”! In other words, we sometimes make the Amish out to be whatever we need them to be—either finding meaning in parts of their lives that we feel are lacking in our own, or perhaps magnifying certain aspects of their lives (shunning, for example) in order to more positively view our own lives (as being more tolerant or grace-filled). Since the Amish generally don’t work to publicly correct the misconceptions that we as outsiders have about them, they’re kind of at our mercy in terms of what we say about them. So those of us who represent them have to do our work very, very carefully, I think.

I could say a lot more about authors’ responsibilities to their subjects. Even when authors do their research well, it’s important to think through questions of authenticity. It’s just very hard for those outside of a culture like the Amish to really “get” the internal dynamics, conversational style, worldview, etc.

Why would it be a good idea for Amish fiction readers to read Thrill of the Chaste.

We’d all do well to be more reflective about our reading habits, the types of books we read, what agendas the authors we love may hold, etc. And as I interviewed Amish fiction readers, many of them were very interested in what I was finding in my research and would almost begin interviewing me while we talked! So I think many Amish fiction readers are themselves curious about the unstoppable force that this genre has become and wonder about its origins.

Very true: We'd all do well to be more reflective of what we read. Is there anything else you’d like to say about your book or on being a writer?

Well, this isn’t about my own book but about yours, Linda. I’m proud to have been your editor for Hutterite Diaries, and I’m really glad that your book appears in our Plainspoken series. You’ve told the story of your Hutterite life so well, and with such good humor and wisdom and grace. I love writing, but I also love editing, and it’s a joy to edit great writers like you!

Thank you so much, Valerie, for your kind words and also for being part of my Pen Pal Posts series! It was great working with you! I appreciate how you helped shape Hutterite Diaries into the book it is today. 

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