Do I have a treat for you today! I am so excited to welcome Jolina Petersheim, author of The Outcast, to my blog today. I first “met” Jolina years ago when we began following each other’s blogs. I knew early on from reading her weekly blog posts that she was an amazing storyteller. Her blog posts are so beautifully written and read like mini stories. I couldn’t wait to read her posts (still can’t) and hear her tales, especially when she was pregnant and now about mothering a daughter.
When Jolina announced she was publishing her first novel, The Outcast, I couldn’t wait to read it. After all, if it was anything like her blog posts, I knew the book would be amazing. And of course, I was right.
The Outcast tells the story of Rachel Stoltzfus, a strong-willed single woman raised in the Old Order Mennonite community. She is content living apart from mainstream society until whispers stir the moment her belly swells with new life. Refusing to repent and name the partner in her sin, Rachel feels the wrath of the religious sect as she is shunned by those she loves most.
By the way, Jolina and her husband share the same unique Amish and Mennonite heritage that originated in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but now live in the mountains of Tennessee with their young daughter.
So now, I am so honored to host Jolina on the blog where she answers a few questions about The Outcast, writing, books and motherhood. And Jolina is offering one reader a FREE copy of The Outcast; so keep reading to enter!
Thank you so much for having me here, Leah. Over the years, I have loved getting to watch your daughter, Sophie, grow through the pictures you post on Leah’s Thoughts and always enjoy the yummy recipes you share!
1. Tell us a bit about your Mennonite heritage and how that played a part in writing The Outcast. What inspired the story?
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.
As for the inspiration of The Outcast:
A few years ago, some members of our immediate family went through a very difficult time; therefore, it was a time of testing for us all. During this season, a story was told to me 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. The story had repercussions that trickled down through the generations, but one woman stood up against the curse and sought repentance and healing. This woman’s bravery brought much redemption; I like to believe the family is still being redeemed today.
I did not start writing The Outcast right then, as many aspects of the story were too close at hand, but after a few years passed and our family received healing as well, the seed of the story began to bloom inside me. I completed The Outcast two months before my daughter was born.
2. What was it about The Scarlett Letter that made you want to retell it in a modern perspective?
When I started imagining characters in my head, I remembered The Scarlet Letter (which was my favorite book in high school) and the desperation Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale feels when his sin brands his chest and yet he still wants to hide it from the Puritanical world. But eventually, his inner turmoil supersedes his outward façade of calm. This inward/outward dichotomy fit so well with the premise of The Outcast that I knew I wanted to pay homage to The Scarlet Letter. Plus, I believe that the Old Order Mennonites are about as close to Puritan life as we, Englischers, can get.
However, recently I read Margot Livesey’s wonderfully literary modern retelling of Jane Eyre called, The Flight of Gemma Hardy. I had the privilege of hearing Livesey speak at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville (where I will be holding a panel this year!), and she said that she wanted to name her book, No Attics to prove that, though her novel pays homage to Jane Eyre, that does not mean it is an exact depiction of Jane Eyre.
I believe the same with my own novel: some events in The Outcast will play out according to The Scarlet Letter and others will be entirely new. I think the surprise makes it rather fun to read; it was sure fun to write!
3. Why did you decide to tell the story from Amos’ perspective, as well as Rachel?
My husband’s grandfather, Amos Stoltzfus, was kicked out of the Amish church when he was seventeen years old. He was one of the kindest men I’ve ever met, with these startling blue eyes, shock of white hair, and an outgoing personality that would’ve made me love him, even if he hadn’t become my adopted grandfather through marriage.
Grandpa Amos passed away a year before I began writing The Outcast. At his funeral, however, I had this picture of my flawed heroine, Rachel Stoltzfus, standing next to a graveyard with this new life in her arms. Grandpa Amos had demanded to be buried simply, just in a pine box his son had made, and with his large hands crossed over his unmoving chest.
All of these images just seemed to coalesce. I imagined Amos King watching Rachel’s sorrow from above, even as he was being lowered into his earthly grave, and knew that I had The Outcast’s opening scene and the second narrator for my novel.
4. I loved how you dedicated the book to your daughter as your “magnum opus.” How has being a mother changed your writing or your writing process?
Oh my, Leah; as you know, being a mother changes everything! My heart has expanded in ways I never thought possible: I feel pain at a deeper level; I feel joy at a deeper level; I am also as protective as a she-cat! It’s then natural that this maternal metamorphosis would affect my own writing. It just so happens that my next book, The Midwife, covers the lengths a gestational surrogate will go to reclaim the daughter she biologically carried and loved as her own, but never legally had. As I placed myself in Rhoda, the midwife’s shoes, this story became more than just a story to me, but reality. It was both a heart-wrenching and enlightening experience.
5. What books and authors inspire you?
I read for inspiration, but I also read because I would starve without words. Even when I’m in the thick of writing, I have to have a book beside my bed, one in the car, one in my laptop (audio book!), one next to my toothbrush, ect. They’re like security blankets. The past few years, I’ve really enjoyed The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Sisters (which was written by my wonderful former creative writing professor, Nancy Jensen), The Flight of Gemma Hardy, The Orchardist, The Healing. And especially Julie Cantrell’s literary marvel Into the Free, which became an almost instant NYT and USA Today bestseller and really raised the bar in Christian publishing. I love books that show the ranges of human emotion, and our capacity to both tear each other apart and mend.
6. Tell us about your next book. What is it about? Is there a Mennonite tie to it? And when will it be released?
The Midwife, as I mentioned above, is slated to release next summer. Years ago, I’d become interested in the concept of gestational surrogacy when my dear friend revealed that her heart transplant would require someone else to carry her child. This interest combined with the fact that I had just spent nine months working with midwives in preparation for our daughter’s arrival “birthed” the concept of The Midwife. The story about an Old Order Mennonite midwife who works in a home for unwed mothers called Hopen Haus and an Englisch woman who both claim the same child, and what it means to be a mother: genetics or love.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of The Outcast to review for this blog post. All opinions are my own and I only endorse books that I am proud to recommend to others.