by C.J. Darlington
Wanda Brunstetter Interview
think some people feel like the Amish aren't Christian. We get that misconception
because they're so different. They look different. To know the Amish
we know them, you would know they are definitely Christians."
Wanda Brunstetter is an award-winning romance novelist who has led millions of readers to lose their heart in the Amish life. She is the author of almost 50 books with more than 5 million copies sold. Many of her books have landed on the top bestseller lists, including the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, CBA, ECPA, and CBD. Wanda is considered one of the founders of the Amish fiction genre, and her work has been covered by national publications, including Time Magazine and USA Today.
You've dreamed of being a writer since you were young. Why did you want to be one?
I think because it could take me somewhere different from where I was. I grew up in a dysfunctional home, so it was great to pretend and take myself to other places. I immersed myself in books. I always had a book in my hand. I was either reading, or I was writing. When I was in second grade I wrote a poem, and my school teacher really like it. That gave me a little ray of hope that maybe I had something to say, because I didn't get any encouragement at home. Just that one little thread from a school teacher was just enough to spark some hope in me.
Did you get to share that with your teacher later?
I did, but it was before I became a best selling author. I don't even know if she's still alive. I think I was starting my writing career with some short stories and articles when I saw her the last time. It goes to show you, we never know how our words will be taken or who's lives they will touch.
You started writing short pieces, but did you always want to write a novel?
My first and foremost thought was to write children's books. I really had a love for kids - I still do, and for their books. As I got into writing more of the articles and stories, all the sudden an idea came to me for a novel, and I thought, “Maybe this is the path I should be taking.” I kind of forgot about the kids' books and put that on hold until I had written several novels. Then I decided I'd like to write a kids' book, too. So I've now written 9 children's books, all with Amish themes, and I'm working on another one for next year. I feel like I'm well balanced in doing the novels, which I dearly love, and now writing for kids too, which I also love.
Is the new children's book in the same series you've written previously?
No, it's a brand new series about twins, a boy and a girl. They're Amish children who grew up in Ohio, so the setting is a little bit different from my last one, which was in Pennsylvania, the Rachel Yoder Series. It was so much fun to write the Rachel Yoder series! That's why I like to write the kids' books, because they're fun for me. When the kids email me or come to a book signing, their eyes are just lit up, and they're telling me all this stuff! One little girl did a pajama party and called it her Rachel Yoder Party. Everything that happened at the party was taken from the books. It was so much fun to listen to her!
Why do you think it's so fun to write for children?
You can live through the eyes of a child. It takes you back to your own childhood, even though mine wasn't all that happy. I still have some fond memories of playing with my cousins and friends. My husband has shared some things from his childhood, and I have friends who have shared, and it's a conglomeration of many peoples' childhoods with some just made up stuff. It's just fun!
Do you ever talk about your childhood, or do you prefer to leave that in the past?
Occasionally I will talk about it, but it has to be for the right reasons. Some of what I went through I've brought out in some of my novels here and there, and those have been the most difficult novels to write. It dredges up things that are hurtful. When my husband and I got married, we both decided that we were going to change the mold, we were going to do things different for our children. Not that we were perfect parents, but we really tried. We put effort into making our kids have a normal life with some stability, where they didn't have to worry when they came home about what they were going to find.
So you were more aware as parents than someone who had a great childhood.
I wanted my kids to feel safe, to know when they came home Mom and Dad would be there. I didn't always know what to expect when I came home.
Do you feel that is partly why you're drawn to write Amish stories, because you're drawn to deal with simpler times?
In a way. When I married my husband who grew up in a Mennonite church, about four of his brothers married Mennonite girls. When I met them I felt so different when I was with that group of his family, the ones who stayed in the Mennonite church were so different. They gave me a sense of peace and a sense of belonging like I'd never had. I think that is part of it for me. It was their faith and the way they spoke to me and each other. There was just a peacefulness about their countenance. When I'm with our Amish friends, I come away feeling so blessed, like I've been ministered to because they have such a wonderful family unit, and they care so much about each other. You can just feel it.
How did you come to know the Lord?
I found Him as a child. That was thanks to a dear Sunday School teacher. I was so desperately seeking something to hang onto. I was very open to the plan of salvation when she shared it with our class. I was very young, 6 or 7. It really hit home with me. It was exactly what I needed. I needed a heavenly Father that I could count on. I think I continued to grow and grow. Through my teens years I was very active in our teen group. I wrote a lot of plays for our teens to put on at church. I taught Junior Church and Bible school. I kind of walked away from it a little bit during my older teen years, trying to find myself, but never to the extremes that some people do. I always knew God was right there with me, and thank God He was.
Was your family supportive of your faith?
My mother is the one who took us to church, so we have that to be grateful for, but she wasn't setting the best example at home. But we're grateful we did get the church upbringing. I don't think my parents have ever been supportive of anything I ever did. I never felt they were. It was always, “You did good, but...” I think in some ways because of everything I went through as a kid, I have more empathy and more understanding of people and their problems today. Maybe that comes out in my writing.
It seems like a lot of writers are able to feel deeply. Do you feel that way about your writing?
Yes, definitely. Sometimes my writing moves me to tears. I can feel the pain of the character.
How did you know God was calling you to write?
When I took my first writing course, after I turned in my first few lessons and got the comments back from the teacher, one day I was sitting in front of my typewriter, which is what I used then (I'm giving away my age!) and this feeling came over me. I felt like I was a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. I knew that was a touch from God. I knew that God had been with me all this time, He was the one walking with me and helping me through everything, and I committed my writing to Him from the very beginning. I determined I would never write in the secular realm of things as far as anything that would be off color or wouldn't bring glory to God.
When you write something
do you know the spiritual takeaway ahead of time, or is that something
that comes about from the characters and scenarios?
Sometimes I know it at the very front, but other times it emerges as the story progresses. Sometimes my characters really surprise me. I think I know the exact path they're going to go down, and in the middle of the book they suddenly do something I wasn't expecting!
Do you ever find it
challenging to balance the ministry asepct of your writing with the business
Sometimes it can be a challenge. It seems like everything always hits at once when I'm on a really tight deadline and my publicist lines up interviews... (laughs.) I try to just go with it. I know it's all part of the package, and I like talking about my writing and sharing with others.
It's been fascinating
to watch the Amish fiction genre blossom and bloom like it has. Why do
you feel it's reeceived the popularity it has?
I think because people are so hungry for change in their life. We're all looking for some way to get back to the basics, to the simple life, to family! For me, being with the Amish, I see them put God first and family second. So many of us Englishers have our priorities so mixed up. We're so caught up in the world and our goals and everything that's expected of us. I think people have a deep desire to get back to the basics. The Amish are an example to us in that respect. Not that they're perfect; they'd be the first to admit they're not. Knowing the Amish as I know them, I know their lives aren't always slow. They can be pretty busy and going in a hundred different directions, but they still have that same peaceful way about them, and that's important---they place on God first and family second.
What one thing about
the Amish do you wish you could impart to the English, and is there anything
about the English way of life you with the Amish could embrace a little
When we go to our Amish friends' homes to stay, one of the biggest challenges for me is no electricity. How am I going to curl my hair? Charge my laptop? My cell phone? I would like to see them take advantage of more of the modern things, and yet I know that if they do they might end up in the same whirlwind we're in - we can't let go of them, and they become idols, important to us. So I understand.
As far as what we could incorporate into our lives from the Amish is the family. I want that so badly. Especially not having that strong family bond that should have been there - that's what I've wanted the most. When I'm with my family, my children and grandchildren, I feel so good. This is right; this is how it should be! We should care about each other. I would want people to glean that from the Amish, if nothing else.
You've written about
several different Amish communities in different states, and I know the
various communities have minor differences in dress and customs. Have
you found there are any differences that are more major?
There are certain groups of Amish, like the Schwartzenberger. They're much stricter, they're much Plainer, their rules are much stronger. Most of the Amish that we know really well are very clean; their houses and yards are impeccably clean. The Schwartzenberger don't care about that. They let their houses go, their yards go, their schools go. They're very harsh in their shunnings and their rules. To give you an example, we visited a Schwartzenberger community in Tennessee a couple years ago, and I was taking some pictures at a produce auction of the buggies that were out in the parking lot. Just the horse and buggy, not the people. One of the Amish men came up to me and rather harshly said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I'm taking pictures of the horse and buggies.” He said, “No! We don't do that here!” I had never had any Amish person ever tell me I couldn't take a picture of their horse and buggy. We have Amish friends who have even let us take pictures of them and their children. That's how comfortable they feel with us. These people really have a different set of rules here.
Some Amish communities allow cell phones if the person has a business; others absolutely forbid it no matter what. Each community is governed by their bishop and their ministers and their deacon. So whatever they decide is going to work for that community is the way it is. If a bishop says no cell phones, if you have a cell phone you're going to be in trouble.
Writers come up with
ideas from all different places, but where did the idea for The Journey come from?
We had visited Kentucky, specifically in the Hopkinsville area, a few years ago. We discovered that the Amish in that area are actually implants from Lancaster County. They have come there and set up a community. We almost felt like we were in Lancaster, because there was the same buggy, the grey buggy, and the clothing was the same and all that. But this community is much smaller, and there aren't a bunch a tourists and places selling Amish things. They're a little more withdrawn there. They're not quite as open and friendly. You have to really work at getting to know them. I think they want it that way. They've moved there for a reason, to pull away from being the center of attention. I felt I needed to set a story here. It's beautiful country. Then I have some Amish friends who recently had their daughter had to move to the Amish community in Oklahoma from Indiana, due to her husband losing his job. I watched the impact it had on the family to see her go. They're so close. It kills them when their family leaves. I thought that would be a good topic to deal with: how do Amish parents deal with their kids leaving home? They feel like we do, only it hits them even harder because they are so close.
The main character
has taken on a man's profession, carpentry. Is that something you've
It came from my imagination. I've seen Amish women do things that surprise you. One lady I know owns a store with her husband where they make and sell windows. She's very active in the business. Amish women are becoming more independent in that they can have a business. They often run or oversee a business. So I thought this would be different. Now in that Schwartzenberger community, I seriously doubt the women are allowed to do much of anything other than make a quilt of some candles for a cottage business set up. But when we stopped at some of their little shops on their property, the man came out and waited on us. I don't know if that's always the case, but that day it was the man who came out of the house to wait on us. It's possible she wasn't allowed to come out and wait on us; I don't know. The second book of this series is done, and I have not yet started the third one. I always write a summary of every book. I know the basics of what's going to happen. I don't always know how it's going to happen, but I know what!
Besides the family
connection that the stories have, are they tied together in other ways?
They're tied together by the fact that three of the brothers from Lancaster County end up moving to Kentucky for different reasons. The first one is Titus, and he's a twin brother, an identical twin. I know a lot about that, because my mother is an identical twin and we have twin granddaughters. Every twin situation is a little bit different, and yet there are similarities. Sometimes one twin will feel overshadowed by the other one. In this case Titus has always felt that he's living in his brother's shadow. His brother Timothy does things better, he's smarter, he's more successful. Titus feels like he can't do anything right. He chooses the wrong girl, and every decision he makes doesn't seem right. He needs a fresh start, and going to Kentucky is his answer. At least he thinks it is! I deal with the twins more heavily in Book 3, and Timothy will be following him. And in Book 2 I deal with the other brothers.
You've also written
some historical novels. Do you plan to write more of those or anything
else outside of the Amish genre?
I won't write as many, because the Amish holds first place in my heart. But I do have a few ideas on the back burner that I want to pursue. I just finished a novella that's historical, and it'll be released next year in a collection with 8 other authors. It's a Log Cabin Christmas theme, and all the stories take place in or around a log cabin in the 1800's. I had to pick an area I wanted to write about and a plot. The biggest challenge was keeping it to the word count, because I'm used to writing 100,000 words and this was only supposed to be 20,000. I was like, “How am I going to tell a story in only 20,000 words?” But it was fun to write, a nice little diversion.
a professional ventriloquist. How did that come about?
We wanted to add something to our puppet ministry, and my husband started doing the twisty balloon animals. The Amish kids love it! And I've always been interested in ventriloquism, so I picked up a book and studied it for a while. I practiced in front of a mirror and determined that I could do it without moving my lips. I started incorporating it into our ministry, and pretty soon I was teaching classes and writing articles on ventriloquism. I was self taught. The biggest key besides the art of not moving your lips is sound substitutions. There are certain letters in the alphabet that you can't say without moving your lips. So you have to substitute the sound. Learning those and being able to say those - you have to put your tongue in a certain spot in your mouth so they actually come out right. It was just a matter of practicing that over and over and over and finding the positions that worked best for me. All these kids were just in awe when I did it in an Amish schoolhouse. They thought I must have had a tape recorder. They could not comprehend that that voice was possibly coming from me.
always interested you?
I used to watch Paul Winchell and I was fascinated with it. The Howdy Doody Show and all that stuff was just so different. I always wondered how they learned to do that. It's all story telling. I have two little puppets who are dressed in Amish clothes, so we go to Amish schoolhouses to speak I always take one of those with, and the Amish love it.
Amish bishops are chosen
by lot. What if someone doesn't want to be chosen as a bishop?
Once they're chosen, that's pretty much it. Before their name is brought up, they have a pretty good feeling of whether that person is willing to do it or not. They won't put in a name of a person who isn't qualified. Many Amish men receive the draw and didn't feel like they could do this, but they do it because they feel God has called them to do it. They grow into it.
Is there any other
moment in your life that reminds you God has called you to do it?
What does it for me is when I get an email or letter or someone says to me that book really touched my heart, that really helped me. I realize the blood, sweat and tears are all worth it!
Anything else you'd like to share?
I think some people feel like the Amish aren't Christian. We get that misconception because they're so different. They look different. To know the Amish the way we know them, you would know they are definitely Christians. One of our Amish friends is a minister in the Amish church, and when he was asked if Amish is his religion, he said, “No. Amish is our way of life. Jesus Christ is our religion.” That sums it up perfectly. I'm not saying every Amish person is a born again believer, any more than every person who attends a Protestant church is a born again believer. But many of them are, and I don't think people realize that. The Amish don't proclaim it to the world like we do. Although I just spoke to one Amish man recently who passes out tracts. It's very unusual, because they're not into evangelizing. They feel their actions are an example to the world. But some will tell anyone about the saving grace of Jesus.
Portions of this interview first appeared as an article in the May/June 2011 issue of FamilyFiction Digital Magazine.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.