Suzanne, I admire your writing and enjoy reading your books immensely.
I imagine your newest novel Anna’s Crossing required a great deal of digging, studying, and research. Any stories you can share about that process?
Here’s one I think you’ll appreciate: I wrote back and forth with an Amish historian (who is, indeed, Old Order Amish. No phone calls or e-mail! A rather slow process). This gentleman has been a wonderful resource for me on a number of occasions, but it always takes a few letters to butter him up. The first letter I write is usually responded to with a terse, no-nonsense reply. It’s hard to miss his subtext: Why are you writing about my people? Nevertheless, I persevered and continued to write to him with questions. The second letter I received had a kinder tone, a little more chatty, and the third letter provided me with the historical info I was after.
Suzanne, Booklist gave Anna’s Crossing a glowing review, calling it a deeply satisfying story. It also said the novel revealed the “raw immigration experience about this treacherous journey.” Care to explain?
Crossing the Atlantic in the 18th century was incredibly difficult and dangerous. And I left out most of the more gruesome, gritty details!
Such as…twenty-four passengers (mostly children) died on that Charming Nancy ship crossing in 1737. Such as…four children from one family. Living in the lower deck for eight to ten weeks in overcrowded conditions must have been horrific: dirty, smelly, dark and dim. Here’s an historical detail that might offend some, and I didn’t include it in the novel, but it was a fact: Placed around the lower deck were open vats of collected urine to fight fires. Oh…the smells the passengers had to endure must have been ghastly.
Suzanne, you must have gathered a lot of excess historical info that you didn’t use in the book. How did you decide what to include in the novel and what to dismiss?
Whenever I found myself following a bunny trail of historical detail, I had to remind myself about the theme of the book. There was a bigger story to write about than the perils of an 18th century ocean crossing: Why the Amish left Europe, what they were hoping to find in the New World, and what gave these brave believers the inner steel to endure the journey. I kept that theme as a plumb line and it helped me stay on track.
Any surprising discoveries as you wrote Anna’s Crossing?
One lovely detail arrived just in time—it came from a true story that I had been working on for a non-fiction book (Heart of the Amish). Bairn, the Scottish ship’s carpenter, a dashing and honorable fellow who had developed quite an attraction to Anna, happened to have a red Mutza (an Amish man’s coat) in his sea chest. I won’t spoil the story for you, but let’s just say—that red Mutza has quite a story of its own to tell.
I can’t wait to read it, Suzanne. Amish fiction is filled with reminders that a reader is crossing into another world. But most of Anna’s Crossing takes place on a ship. How did you make it an Amish story?
Excellent point! Ninety-nine percent of this novel is set on a creaky, old, wooden 18th century merchant ship. No buggies, no horses, no farmland. So how could I remind readers that Anna and the other passengers were Amish?
I had to go deeper. What made these people unique wasn’t bonnets or buggies or beards, but their response to injustice and their deep belief in the sovereignty of God.
How did you portray that?
Mostly, through Anna’s reactions to crises on the journey, especially in contrast to the secular ship’s officers. Here’s one example: The Charming Nancy encountered a slave ship desperate for water. The captain of the Charming Nancy refused to share water—it was his responsibility to ensure that his crew made it safely to Port Philadelphia, and as many passengers as possible (though fare was required to be paid in full whether they survived or not). Anna intervened. She convinced her church to share half their water with the slave ship. They trusted God—not the captain of the Charming Nancy—to supply their needs, even though there was not a cloud in the sky. Still, the rain did not come.
Is there a love story in Anna’s Crossing?
Absolutely! Bairn, the Scottish ship’s carpenter, was the very unlikely love interest for Anna. Rather than say too much, I’m going to quote one reviewer: “The ending was not predictable –While I couldn’t imagine Bairn, the ship’s carpenter, becoming Amish and neither could I see Anna leaving her life. Given their feelings for each other, one or the other would have to have a change of heart; that much was clear. I was taken completely by surprise with how the story unfolded.”
Suzanne, after writing an historical novel, any advice for aspiring authors?
Research is powerful for a writer of fiction. The right amount can set your story apart, give it a realistic tone, convince your readers to believe in you. But too much detail can bog down your story (just ask my editor). The goal is to provide just enough information to reveal your expertise on the subject…and stop there. Never forget you’re writing a story.
What impact do you hope Anna’s Crossing will have on a reader?
Most all of us have a link to an ancestor who crossed the ocean in hopes of a better life. I don’t know if our ancestors were incredibly brave or cock-eyed optimists—because the odds of surviving an ocean voyage, especially in the 18th century, were dismal. And yet, that didn’t deter them. They came! Readers who don’t even like a ride in a motorboat will appreciate what their great-great grandparents endured.
Suzanne, what’s up next for you?
The Heart of the Amish is a non-fiction book that will release in early May. There’s a word that keeps coming up in its early reviews: powerful. As I researched and wrote the topic, I found myself changed, very convicted by the example of the Amish to practice intentional forgiveness. But it’s not an exclusively Amish value. Intentional forgiveness comes from Jesus, described in the Lord’s Prayer. The Amish just seemed to be paying closer attention to it.
Thanks for letting me drop by your blog!
And thank you, Suzanne, for offering a free signed copy of Anna’s Crossing to a reader who leaves a comment! USA only. Winner has three days to respond.
Suzanne Woods Fisher’s Bio
Suzanne Woods Fisher is the bestselling author of ‘The Stoney Ridge Seasons’ and ‘The Lancaster County Secrets’ series, as well as nonfiction books about the Amish, including Amish Peace. She is a Christy award finalist and a Carol award winner. Her interest in the Anabaptist culture can be directly traced to her grandfather, who was raised in the Old German Baptist Brethren Church in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Suzanne hosts the blog Amish Wisdom, and has a free downloadable app, Amish Wisdom, that delivers a daily Penn Dutch proverb to your smart phone. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find Suzanne on-line at http://www.suzannewoodsfisher.com/. She loves to hear from readers!