Trudy J. Morgan-Cole, author of numerous books, including many about women in the Bible, talks about her newest novel — a book that follows five friends as they attend an Adventist high school and then scatter to very different places. “My five characters wind up all over the map at the end of the story in terms of what they believe and practice, but there's still that tie of lifelong friendship that holds them together,” Morgan-Cole says. “I’d like to believe the story can appeal to people who are, themselves, all over that map in terms of faith and spirituality.”
Question: You have recently published Prone to Wander, a work of fiction that draws significantly from your own life and background. Briefly, what is the book about?
Answer: Prone to Wander is about five high-school friends who grow up attending a Seventh-day Adventist church and school. Life takes them in very different directions, but they're drawn back together when one of the five is involved in a potentially fatal accident at age 40.
The novel is basically the story of their intersecting lives over those twenty-five years. For anyone who's read Meg Wolitzer's novel The Interestings — it's sort of like that, except with Adventist kids. Or, as someone else described it, St. Elmo's Fire meets Adventist subculture.
Can you tell us what's made up and what's not, or would that be revealing too many secrets?
The characters are all fictional. I'm not good at basing characters on real people — I like to feel I have the freedom to manipulate fictional characters in a way I wouldn't be able to do if they were actual humans I knew.
But the settings are very real — the Adventist church, school, summer camp, and radio station in St. John's, Newfoundland, where I grew up and still live, and some other real places like Andrews University, where I went to college, and Burman University (then Canadian Union College), where I worked for a year.
A few settings are fictionalized — one of my characters works as a youth pastor in an Adventist church in a town that doesn't actually exist, for example. But most of them are real places, with the detail that I remember from those places and times.
The plot is all fiction. Most of the things that happen in the book, the major events, didn't happen in those exact ways to me or anyone I know. But they are the kinds of things that happen all the time. The characters deal with things like addiction, domestic violence, leaving the church, staying in the church, making peace with aging parents when you've rejected their faith — all that stuff.
One of the characters, Katie, is a young Adventist woman who wants to go into the ministry and, of course, she's caught in the middle of the debate over women's ordination.
Another character, Julie, marries a pastor and has a life that's picture-perfect on the outside but very different on the inside. The characters’ struggles, though fictional, are real-life struggles.
I definitely borrowed incidents, scenes, details from real life, but I wove them into these fictional narratives. Anyone who grew up with me is going to recognize a detail here and there, for sure, but those details will be used in very different ways to how they occurred in real life!
To me, the broader, over-arching story is absolutely true: I grew up as an Adventist kid with a bunch of church friends, and life took us in very different directions, and we all have different relationships today to the faith that we were raised in. Some are deeply committed and active in the church; some have left it behind entirely. I've used fictional characters to explore something that’s very true for me and a lot of people.
I believe that you wrote this book more than a decade ago. Why did you put it away then? Were you afraid it was too honest? What made you decide to publish it now?
I think part of it was fearing that it was too honest, yes. A writer puts a part of themselves into everything they write, but there’s more of me in Prone to Wander than in most of my fiction. While none of the characters is me, exactly — to some extent, they all are — it’s probably the closest I'll ever come to writing a memoir. It’s not about me, but it’s about my world, my people, my culture. And that felt a little scary to be putting out there.
You self-published this book. Why? Did you look for a traditional publisher?
Right now I have a wonderful Atlantic Canadian publisher, Breakwater Books, which publishes my historical fiction. I didn't think this book would fit well with the books I do with them. Years ago, when Review and Herald Publishing was active, they released my biblical historical fiction, and I had a great relationship with them — they were my first publishers. But Prone to Wander is not a book that an Adventist publisher would be interested in.
After keeping this book on the back burner for several years, I decided that this was a story that, if it was meant to be out in the world, needed to find its own unique audience, and that self-publishing might be the best way to do this. I'm a big fan of traditional publishing, as that's how most of my books have found their audience, but it's great to live in an era where quality self-publishing is an option for writers. I worked with a wonderful cover designer, Donna Cunningham, who I think made the book look as professional as anything from a traditional publisher.
Do you think conservative old-school Seventh-day Adventists will have a hard time with this book?
I think some people might. On the surface level, because there are, for example, swear words in it — there are characters in the book who would swear, in real life, so I've written their dialogue the way they would say it.
And there are people who have sex when they aren't married, and they don't always get punished for it — I mean, it’s a book that tries to be honest about real life the way I’ve seen and experienced it, and not everyone likes that in their fiction. And of course, some people don't like fiction at all, think that “novels” are a bad thing in and of themselves. So, this is definitely not the right book for those readers.
On a deeper level (and this touches on one of the other questions, so I say a bit more about it below) I think some readers might be uncomfortable with the way the church is portrayed in this novel. Because, again, I was trying to write honestly about faith and about the church as an institution, as those things have impacted my life and the lives of people I know. And that includes the bad as well as the good.
The same church that teaches people that God loves them unconditionally also promotes (to give just one example) this purity culture that gives people a very shame-based approach to their sexuality. These are real struggles for characters in the novel because they're real struggles I've faced and seen other people face.
What inspired you to write Prone to Wander in the first place? Do you have a particular interest in books about people growing up in fundamentalist communities? (Tara Westover's Educated, for example, has gotten huge attention!)
I'm often frustrated by the ways in which people write about faith in fiction. Religion often seems to be either idealized or demonized — neither of which, to me, gets at the complexity of the way we experience faith in our lives. In “Christian fiction,” faith is often idealized — God will solve all your problems, and while the church is full of flawed human beings, it’s basically a good institution that you should belong to. Finding God and finding a church home is the happy ending in a lot of these types of stories.
Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there's a lot of fiction (and some non-fiction — Educated is a good example, actually) that is unsparing about the rigidness, the judgment, the flaws of organized religion. In these kinds of stories, the “happy ending” is often that a character is able to walk away from it all, to shed organized religion and, often, any belief in God at all.
There's nothing wrong with either of those kinds of stories, if they're true to what the author has experienced and wants to write about. But neither of them reflects my reality, or the reality of most of the people, including most of the Adventists and ex-Adventists, that I know.
When I was a college student at Andrews in the early 1980s, the most popular novel among my group of friends was Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev. I loved the way he wrote about that narrow, specific world of Hasidic Judaism in Brooklyn, New York. He was so empathetic about how the same faith that could be a shelter and a home to some of his characters could be a confining cage for others. I've always wanted to write about being Adventist the way Potok wrote about being Hasidic. Prone to Wander is my attempt to do that.
What kind of feedback have you gotten on the book?
Over the years that I've been working off-and-on on this book I've shared versions of it, or parts of it, with other people — often other writers — for critiques. What's surprised me is that in addition to getting invested in the five characters and their stories, people from a lot of different backgrounds have related to the book's setting. Adventists and former Adventists, for sure — but also people who grew up in independent fundamentalist churches in the US, or Catholic churches in Latin America, have told me they can relate to it. I think it touches a chord with a lot of people who grew up in a religious community that in some ways was quite rigid or limiting, and who then tried to move outside that and cope with the “real world.”
When I say “it touches a chord” — that's not always positive. One reader told me the book made her angry, because she’s still angry at the church about a lot of things, and she saw some of her experiences reflected in what happens to characters in this book. But that’s an honest reaction and I appreciate it. Anger is part of the journey for a lot of people.
Who do you envision as the readers for this book?
Anybody who enjoys a good story about friendship, growing up, and growing older. But specifically, I hope, people who are on some kind of a faith journey — whether that’s into faith, or through it, or even away from it. People who have grappled with what the church, and religion, and God, have meant in their lives.
My five characters wind up all over the map at the end of the story in terms of what they believe and practice, but there’s still that tie of lifelong friendship that holds them together. I'd like to believe the story can appeal to people who are, themselves, all over that map in terms of faith and spirituality.
You call yourself “a Seventh-day Adventist who doubts, questions, and loves my church passionately.” Do you think it’s important to ask questions and to doubt? Why do you remain a Seventh-day Adventist?
I think asking questions, and being honest about your doubts, is an integral part of faith. I like the late writer Madeline L'Engle’s quote. She was asked, “Do you really and truly believe in God with no doubts at all?” and she said, “Oh, I really and truly believe in God with all kinds of doubts.” Or to quote a more contemporary writer I admire a lot, young-adult author John Green says, “I’m not embarrassed by my faith, and I'm also not embarrassed by my doubt.” Both of those quotes resonate strongly with me.
As far as the Adventist church specifically goes — why I remain an Adventist is a big and complicated question, as I suspect it is for a lot of people. There are many issues on which I disagree with the institutional church, especially under its current leadership. I'm unhappy with our failure to ordain women to ministry, with our refusal to fully affirm our LBGTQ brothers and sisters, and with the general slide to the right of the political spectrum that I see, at least in North American Christianity. I'm unhappy that some parts of the church have abandoned our historic commitment to non-violence and non-combatancy, and that many Adventist are now interpreting our traditional stance on religious liberty as “liberty only for those who agree with me.” All those things make me feel sad and disconnected from my church, at times.
But the Adventist church is still my home. I have deep roots in this church — both in the larger institution that my family joined four generations ago, and in my local congregation where I play the piano for worship service on Sabbath mornings and run a soup kitchen for people in need on Sundays. I value that connection to my flawed and faithful community — I don't believe faith is best practiced in isolation. And the Sabbath is a constant gift to me, in a world where we put so much emphasis on busy-ness, on consumerism — I love the counter-cultural nature of Sabbath observance, and of a community that practices it.
Sorry to load this answer with so many author quotes, but I'll throw in one more — there's a character in an Andrew Greeley novel who has been terribly hurt by the institutional practices and decisions of the Roman Catholic Church, and when someone asks her why she still attends Mass she says something like, “It may not be much of a church, but it's the only one I've got.” That's not true to everyone's experience — some people need to walk away — but it resonates with me.
You have written a number of books of historical fiction set in your hometown of St. John’s, Newfoundland, as well as many books based on biblical characters. How many books have you written altogether? You must enjoy research!
Prone to Wander is, I think, my 24th book. Most of those have been fiction, mostly historical fiction. I love research. I love immersing myself in the past, digging into everything I can find about a specific time and place. Reading and writing historical fiction is, for me, the closest I'll ever get to time travel.
But I also enjoyed writing Prone to Wander because it was so different — the places and times I was writing about were all drawn from my own experience, so it required very little research. It felt refreshing just to be able to write without having to look up what kind of food people would be eating for breakfast, or anything like that.
What books do you still hope to write? Do you have any in the works for any Adventist presses?
Right now, I'm at work on a trilogy of historical novels about the founding of the first English colony in Canada — at Cupids, Newfoundland. The colony was founded in 1610 with 39 men, and two years later the governor brought another ship out from England with, according to the chronicles, 70 goats, 10 heifers, 2 bulls, and 16 women. Those 16 nameless, faceless women tugged at my imagination, and that was the spark for writing this series. I also wanted to explore the conflict between the colonists and the native population; I mean, my ancestors came to this land with the almost unquestioned assumption that they had the right to take it and exploit its resources from the people who already lived here. So I am examining a lot of those things, the assumptions of that culture, in this upcoming series. The first book of that trilogy, A Roll of the Bones, is coming out this fall from Breakwater Books.
I don't have anything else planned for Adventist presses. I loved the series of biblical novels I wrote over the last 15 years or so — stories about Esther, Deborah, Lydia, and James the brother of Jesus. I feel that series is finished now, that I've I told all the stories I wanted to tell. And of course the shake-up in the Adventist publishing world when Review & Herald closed impacted a lot of authors, me included. But I'd certainly be open to writing for a church press again if the right project came along, and if they were interested.
Tell us your three favorite books of 2018.
I don't think I can narrow it down specifically to “my three favorite” — I read and love so many books! But three books that I read and loved in 2018 were:
• The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish — a wonderful historical novel exploring the world of a Jewish woman in 16th century England, and the scholars in the present day who discover a trove of documents that shed light on her life.
• The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai — a deeply moving book about the AIDS crisis, and a woman in 1980s Chicago who watches her brother and many of his friends die of AIDS, and cares for them in their last days.
• A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza — this is about a Muslim immigrant family in the US in the present day. It’s a great example of what I was talking about above — writers who write about faith in all its complexity, about how religion intersects with real human lives, neither demonizing nor idealizing it.
You can buy Prone to Wander on Amazon, available both in paperback and as an e-book.
See more about the book on Trudy J. Morgan-Cole’s website.
Photo courtesy of Trudy J. Morgan-Cole.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
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