Conversation: Beverly Lewis
The power of family
New York Times best-selling novelist Beverly Lewis has written more than 70 Christian-themed books for children, youth and adults. Her novel The Redemption of Sarah Cain is being made into a movie to be released this summer. Best known for her interest in the Plain Community, Lewis was raised in Lancaster, Pa., and has family ties to the Old Order Mennonites, which she says is the true source of her curiosity. The daughter of an Assemblies of God minister, Lewis enjoys spending time with her three grandchildren and family, taking time for domestic crafts and playing the piano. Recently she spoke with Assistant Editor Jennifer McClure.
tpe: Tell us about your family's history.
LEWIS: My maternal grandmother made a courageous fork in the road spiritually. She left her very structured Plain Community, accepted Christ and married my grandfather, who became an Assemblies of God minister. Because of my grandmother's courage, and the leading of the Lord, that whole vast side of the family tree is pastors, pastors' wives, missionaries and evangelists — it's remarkable. She had nine children, eight of whom survived.
I'm thankful, first of all, for the Holy Spirit's work in her life, and that she obeyed it against all odds. I based my first novel, The Shunning, on some of what she experienced. She was literally shunned by her family and by her church community.
tpe: In what ways did Mennonite culture influence you?
LEWIS: My maternal grandmother grew up as a very, very strict Old Order Mennonite. And that is the reason for my research and great curiosity among the Plain Community, although I wasn't raised that way.
I grew up making my own clothes. As a young newlywed I made all of my husband's clothing. When our children were adopted, I made all of their clothing. I was very interested in doing the domestic, stereotypical housewife kind of role.
tpe: In what ways did your mother shape and impact your life?
LEWIS: Mother was a cheerleader, applauding my sister and me as we journeyed through our lives. She very much helped shape my life toward the spiritual and toward a love of books. She instilled in us an enjoyment for wonderful literature and a love of the Word of God. We'd memorize three or four Scriptures before we left for school every day. Sometimes the school kids would come and wait for us, and they'd get pulled in on it, too. It was fun.
Mother was an organist in the church and a pianist. After I had been asking and asking to take piano lessons, she sat me on a piano bench and gave me my first lesson when I was 3. She taught me for a full year. When I was 4 she felt I was ready to go into some serious study of piano, which I did for much of my life. I majored in music education at Evangel College, now Evangel University.
I really do look to my mother as a mentor on so many levels. She taught me how to be a hostess, to cook, to sew, to do needlepoint, to cross-stitch, crochet and knit, how to play the piano, how to sing — she was just an amazing, walking encyclopedia of so many lovely domestic things.
tpe: How did your mother's illness affect your writings?
LEWIS: When I was in eighth and ninth grades I wrote several really long stories that deal with issues of a mother dying.
When I was 8, my mother was given six months to live, and the Lord miraculously healed her of cancer. But because she went through the nonspecific type of radiation back in the 1950s, she suffered terrible side effects her whole life. I think I was psychologically hung up on the fear of losing her, so it came out in my stories. Some of the journaling and diaries I wrote as a girl are published in The Sunroom, a story based on my mother's very excruciating illness.
She was a great support to my father. After Dad retired from pastoral work, she traveled with him on more than 20 missionary trips as independent missionaries to China in spite of her very fragile health. I appreciate so much the legacy my mother left for the whole family. She died last July, in 2006, at the age of 84. I miss her terribly.
tpe: Who encouraged you to pursue getting your work published?
LEWIS: My husband. Dave felt I had something to say that the world needed to hear, and he urged me to do everything I could to find out about marketing, how to approach a publisher and all the guidelines for submitting my work. My family, parents and sister were also very complimentary and encouraging, but it was really Dave who said, ÒHey, we really ought to try to do this. If you want to, I'll help you.Ó At the time, we couldn't afford the $30 a month for the marketing curriculum. He said, ÒOh, we'll figure it out somehow!Ó He was really great about that.
tpe: Why did you wait until your children were in middle school before seeking publication?
LEWIS: As a newlywed, I was teaching full time in the public schools, coming home and teaching piano and voice, and writing in my free time. I never knew if I would be published. I never, at the time, had that interest. The kinds of writing I was doing were essay-oriented or personal short stories expressing some of the pain in my life — the inability to have a child was huge. I really didn't pursue publication until I resigned from teaching school and after we adopted our children.
I did continue my piano studio, teaching 40 students a week, so that was a full-time job. Plus, we homeschooled our disabled twins from third grade to graduation, so that was a huge aspect of my life, as well. When I felt the Lord was pushing me toward possibly writing a book, my oldest was 12 at the time and I had less need to be so hands-on.
I always counsel young mothers who are so eager to develop their career to enjoy and embrace those young years of their children because that's all you get. You can always move forward in a career, but you can't regain those tender, beautiful, wide-open-hearted years of your kids' lives. It sounds idealistic, but that's really how I managed it with my own child-rearing years.
tpe: What does motherhood mean to you?
LEWIS: It is a blessing from the Lord — the Scriptures say that, and it is absolutely true. Two of our children are disabled, so each day for us is a gift from the Lord that my husband and I can speak into the lives of our children, and now our grandchildren.
tpe: How has motherhood influenced your work?
LEWIS: It has influenced it greatly. Readers familiar with my novels and my work will see a strong, nurturing, maternal thread. Whether it's the main story line or subplot, there is always someone either wishing to connect with a parent or searching for her or his roots. I think I've been accused of being stuck on the maternal subplot or plot, but it's so engrained in me.
tpe: Having adopted all three of your children, what advice would you give to couples considering adoption?
LEWIS: I believe couples who have longed for a child and have tried various ways to conceive their own must come to a point where they consider making this leap in their mind and emotions. Are you willing, first, and are you ready, second, to embrace another person's child as your own?
I've counseled a number of women on this. Some are and some aren't. Some would prefer to continue living with the incredible yearning for a baby or a child and walk away from the whole idea of adoption if they can't have their own flesh-and-blood child. And that is absolutely everyone's own decision to make.
tpe: What would you say to women who aren't yet grandmothers?
LEWIS: You can look forward to some of the return of the joys you may have forgotten with your own children. It is wonderful to be involved in guiding them and molding their lives just by your example. I so enjoy being a grandmother. There's nothing like it in the world.
tpe: Has being a grandmother shaped your stories?
LEWIS: Absolutely. I like to include young characters. Not to say I base it on anything my young grandchildren say or do, but I think I am very much influenced by them. I just love to spend time with them. They live four minutes away.
tpe: What do you hope your books accomplish in your readers' lives?
LEWIS: My hope is to provide an alternative to secular fiction for Christian women and teenage girls. I also set out to educate on some level because I continue to learn more and more about this exotic community of the Plain, to which my roots are connected.
I want to inspire my readers on multiple levels. I hope, maybe subconsciously, that the stories are multilayered and touch one woman in one way and another reader on another level — maybe to be encouraged or just shored up in her faith or become bolder in her pursuit of the Lord.
I strive each time for quality. That's why I write only two adult novels per year, and that even is a stretch for me. I try to be fresh and new. It's a challenge, but I like a challenge.
For more information, visit www.beverlylewis.com.
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