Jolina Petersheim is the award-winning author of both The Midwife and The Outcast, the latter of which Library Journal gave a starred review and named one of the best books of 2013. The Outcast also became an ECPA, CBA, and Amazon bestseller, and was featured in Huffington Post’s Fall Picks, World Magazine’s Notable Books, USA Today, Publishers Weekly, and The Tennessean. Jolina and her husband’s unique Amish and Mennonite heritage originated in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They now live in the mountains of Tennessee with their young daughters. Whenever Jolina is not busy chasing her toddler or tending her newborn, she is hard at work on her next novel.
Everyone knows that the shortest distance between two points is a horizontal path, but resembles the dramatic dips of Pitocin-induced contractions.
My own life has certainly been no exception.
When I was fifteen, my best friend and I each wrote out a to-do list. My list varied from baking an apple pie from scratch to publishing a novel by the time I was twenty-five.
Ten years later, I hadn’t baked a pie from scratch (the crust intimidated me), but I did have a two-book publishing contract for my debut novel, The Outcast, a modern retelling of The Scarlet Letter set in an Old Order Mennonite community of Tennessee, along with my sophomore novel, The Midwife, the story about a mother who risks everything to save a child not genetically hers.
This was, without a doubt, a dream come true. However, if you’d pulled my fifteen-year-old self aside and said that one day I would not only be writing Christian fiction but a subgenre called Amish fiction (or bonnet fiction, take your pick), I would’ve laughed in your face.
Like many young, Southern-raised writers, I believed my debut novel would resemble To Kill a Mockingbird: a coming-of-age story with a strong sense of place, eccentric characters, and racial tension.
I did, in fact, write this novel. I spent over a year crafting it, in between stocking shelves at our grocery store and punching price tags through the collars of off-season K-Mart clothes.
But even before I received feedback from my beta readers (the people who you can trust to give an honest criticism of your work), I knew that God was leading me down a different, not-so-horizontal path.
I was actually in London with my best friend (the same best friend who wrote out the to-do list with me when I was fifteen) when a tall, hunch-shouldered man stepped on board the subway barreling through the shadowed cavern of the city.
His black, funeral director suit emphasized his unearthly pallor, but his kind blue eyes let me know that he was a gentle—albeit painfully shy—spirit. He knew the woman we were traveling with and, therefore, struck up a conversation with the rest of us.
He was a poet and a prophet. On that subway train, he spoke into my best friend’s life by telling her she needed to stop fearing the future. He had no idea that one of the reasons she took the trip was to find out if she should marry the man who’s now her husband. Less than an hour later, my best friend and I decided to delay our day of tourism and follow the prophet and our other travel companion to their church. Therefore, on a jostling, double-decker bus, the man spoke into my life.
“What do you do?” His accent was distinctly British.
“I’m a writer. Just finished a manuscript before I left the States.”
“What’s it about?” I gave him the spiel about the unique sense of place, eccentric characters, and racial tension. He stared out the window as if it were a portal to some unseen realm. “No,” he said, looking back at me. “That’s not it.”
I was shocked, not to mention offended, by his flippant dismissal of work. But then he continued, “You’re going to give up the manuscript you’re working on and begin working on another. But this time, the story will be divinely inspired.”
I had a hard time digesting these last two words, so I tried to dismiss them as easily as the “prophet” had dismissed my manuscript. But when I came back home and tried to work again, I couldn’t get the words out of my mind.
So I put my Southern coming-of-age story in the drawer, along with my list of agents to query once the edits from my beta readers were complete, and started writing another novel, which would become The Outcast.
One month later, I was twenty-five thousand words into the story when, by happenstance, I met my agent at an author reading in Nashville. The agent asked to read the portion I had completed, so I polished it up and sent it to him.
He read it on the way back from a book festival in Brazil and said my story had potential.
For six months, I ate, slept, and breathed my modern retelling of The Scarlet Letter. I sent it to my agent before Christmas, gave birth to my firstborn daughter in February, and had a contract with my publisher in April.
All of this took place less than a year after I met that prophet in London.
If you know anything about the publishing industry, you know that the whirlwind timing of all of this was nothing short of a miracle. I believe that these publishing doors would not have opened if I hadn’t listened to that still, small voice compelling me to put one manuscript in a drawer and begin again.
My writing path—and life path—might not be exactly horizontal, but I am so grateful for the unpredictable spikes and dips that keep me from relying on my own strength alone.
And it sure makes for a better story.