Wednesday, October 08, 2008
Interview With BJ Hoff
Today I’m privileged to chat with BJ Hoff, one of my favorite people. BJ has been writing excellent works of historical fiction for over twenty years. In a changing climate of publishing, BJ is a refreshing constant. I appreciate her taking the time to answer a few questions for my readers.
RM: Most people don’t know of your background in music—former church music director and music teacher. Has that experience colored your writing in any way?
BJ: Yes, I’m sure it has. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever written a book—except possibly one of my very early novels—in which music isn’t in some way related to the story. I’ve also received a number of comments about the “rhythm” of my prose, and I think that definitely has something to do with the musician’s “ear.” It’s interesting to me that many writers have a background in music, and in talking with them I’ve discovered that most of us “hear” the rhythm of our prose or at least are extremely sensitive to the cadence of words and phrases.
RM: BJ, your love for all things Irish is no secret to anyone who spends any time with you. Can you tell my readers how that came about?
BJ: Blame it on my family tree. It’s exceedingly green, other than a couple of misplaced Scots. Rumor has it that there was also a mysterious French woman somewhere in the mix, but we don’t give much credence to that tale. Because of all the family stories passed along as I was growing up, and a near-obsessive interest in the 1800s potato famine and our ancestors, I began to “study” Ireland and Irish Americans at an early age. I was fortunate enough to come across some journals and diaries written during the famine, and the fascination about Ireland and its people simply kept growing. I think I always knew that eventually I would have to write my own stories about these fascinating folks who played such a huge part in building America.
RM: Your historical fiction novels often center on the Irish, but your latest novel, Rachel’s Secret, also features an Amish element. Did anything specific trigger your decision to incorporate Amish culture into your writing?
BJ: I live close to the largest Amish settlement in the country, and another smaller settlement is located nearby, so I’ve long had an interest in the Plain culture and faith. My proximity to these communities gives me easy access to research. But there’s also the fact that I love to work with contrasts in my fiction. I wanted to write a story set among the Amish, but I also wanted at least one or two prominent characters from the “outside world”—and so Jeremiah Gant, an Irish American riverboat captain appeared on the scene, along with David Sebastian, a transplanted British physician. Then, too, because so many of our Amish novels have a contemporary setting, I liked the idea of developing a story among the Amish in an 1800s timeframe.
RM: You’ve told me in the past that no one reads your work until you’re ready to submit it. Do you occasionally run a concept of a bit of dialogue by your husband or a close friend, or do you truly keep everything under wraps until it goes to your editor?
BJ: My husband’s a great help with maps, distance calculations, and practical matters such as “how do you do this?” or “how would this work?” It seems to me he knows just about everything, so I count on him to answer “guy questions” for me. But he reads the book for the first time when it’s released. I do discuss ideas with my editor and ask for his feedback on situations--there’s actually a lot of discussion that goes on between us before I begin to develop a story, and also throughout a book’s progress. But for the most part, he sees it in its final form when I complete the manuscript (“final,” except for his edit, that is). I’m fortunate to work with an editor who loves fiction, who cares deeply about the art and craft of writing a novel, and who has wonderfully keen instincts into character motivation. If he says “but he wouldn’t do that” (regarding a character and a situation), I’ve learned to listen!
RM: Your editor at Harvest House is Nick Harrison, whom I’ve found to be one of the nicest people in publishing. Have you and Nick ever disagreed about something in one of your novels?
BJ: He’s also one of the most patient people in publishing. Ask his authors. So far as disagreeing--I don’t remember any specifics, but naturally on occasion we see something from different angles. Then we simply talk it through until we meet at the same point or agree to the necessary changes. Nick never suggests change for the sake of change, so when he does suggest a change … I listen.
RM: Rachel’s Secret is the first novel in a new series. In the back of your mind, are you already plotting the next ones, or are you taking a bit of time to relax after getting this one done?
BJ: Well, I took time to shovel out my desk and office. But I was already planning and lining up additional research for Book Two while I cleaned and caught up on errands. And then there’s this other series that’s been simmering … and the one after that …
RM: And finally, I’ll ask for any advice you’d give the writers among my readership.
BJ: I don’t usually quote myself, but I’m going to here. I’m asked this question so often that it’s difficult to come up with a variety of answers. So I apologize if you’ve heard it before, but I happen to believe it’s important to step back before the actual writing and consider a few things. That’s why my reply to this question has become, I suppose, kind of “standard.” But I believe in it, for myself and for other writers:
If you’re a new writer just starting out on this incredible journey, face the fact now that it can be a one-step forward, two-steps backward adventure. Fortify yourself with plenty of prayer, patience, and perseverance—unless you’re the exception, you’ll eventually need a lion’s share of each. Be prepared to deal with the bitter as well as the sweet. But don’t let the frustrations and disappointments overshadow your joy in and your appreciation for the gift you’ve been given. And don’t forget that it is a gift. Nothing more, nothing less.
Learn as much as you can, write as often as you can, and read everything that you can. One of the most important vehicles, if not the most important, that will take you where you want to go as a writer is the reading of good books by good authors. Read and study. Read, read, read.
But keep in mind that, in the long run, writing is not about books or deadlines or sales or marketing or success. It’s definitely not about competing, unless you attempt to make each of your own books better than the one that went before. It’s not about getting somewhere; it’s about the way you get there. It’s about life and how you live it with the people God has given you to love, as you try to be faithful to Him--and your gift--along the way.
Thank you for your interest and the questions, Richard. Your interviews make me think. I like that.
Thank you, BJ, for the interview and for those excellent words of advice. I can’t think of anything better to use in closing than this quote from—of course—BJ Hoff:
“It matters not if the world has heard
Or approves or understands…
The only applause we’re meant to seek
Is that of nail-scarred hands.”