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The Shelf Care Interview: Suzanne Woods Fisher

The Shelf Care Interview-Suzanne Woods Fisher

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Revell.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Susan Maguire talks to Suzanne Woods Fisher, award-winning, best-selling author of more than 30 books, including On a Summer Tide, as well as the Nantucket Legacy, Amish Beginnings, the Bishop’s Family, the Deacon’s Family, and the Inn at Eagle Hill series, among many other novels. She’s also the author of several nonfiction books about the Amish, including Amish Peace and Amish Proverbs.

The third book in the Deacon’s Family Series, Two Steps Forward, comes out on February 4, 2020, from Revell.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

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SUSAN MAGUIRE: Thank you for chatting with me, Suzanne Woods Fisher.

SUZANNE WOODS FISHER: Thanks Susan, it’s so nice to connect with you this way.

Welcome to the Booklist fold! All right, so tell us a little bit about Two Steps Forward and how readers can jump into the series.

Well, all of my books take place in the same little fictitious town of Stoney Ridge in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. And that was intentional. So I’ve got quite a few series as you were so kindly mentioning, and characters that come on and off screen. What I’ve tried to do is create a small town with familiar faces, and one will step on screen as the main story, the main character, and then when their story finishes they kind of recede to the back a little bit, almost like a soloist back into the choir.

I really do try to make every story a stand alone so that even though there is an overriding story arc, which makes a series fun—especially if you love the characters—I just think every book needs to stand on its own legs. Nothing is more annoying than reading book two and half the book is backstory, trying to catch you up. And I don’t want to do that; I’ve never done that. So every book is easy to jump in on.

Two Steps Forward is the third in the Deacon’s Family series. It’s actually one of my favorite characters, a young man named Jimmy Fisher (no relation); we met Jimmy when he was just a boy and through a number of different books you’ve seen him grow up—sort of, kind of. He’s kind of like Peter Pan. He’s been offstage for a while and this is one story that I did not finish intentionally. I really wanted to bring Jimmy back in and see if we can grow him up a little bit more, and that’s what Two Steps Forward is about: Jimmy Fisher finally grows up, and it’s a bumpy, bumpy road to manhood for him.

I like to ask folks about their research and I’d love to know what has inspired you about writing. I mean, I know you write other things besides Amish stories, but what specifically about the Amish has inspired you, and how you do research and things like that?

Well to start off with why I write about the Amish: my grandfather was raised Plain in a little town on the outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Plain, is that another word for Amish, or an order of Amish?

Well, it’s kind of a generic term for Anabaptists. If we go back to Reformation history—if you want a super quick lesson—in the 1500s after the Reformation came about, there were a few individuals scattered around Europe who felt strongly that people should be adults when they are baptized, not infants. It seems, in our day and age, Susan, like such a small task, such a small thing, but in that time it was a deal breaker and people were martyred and burned at the stake and chased across Europe. The Mennonites began there. They sort of started this off, the Hutterites . . . they all have things in common, but they, too, are Anabaptist. And then the tree carries on with German Baptist—my grandfather was actually a German Baptist—there’s Apostolic, there’s River Brethren, and the Amish were late to the party. They didn’t really come into the fold or become distinctive until the late 1600s.

Gosh, that’s very late.

What’s funny is they’re the ones we most recognize as Plain people. Now my relatives will use cars and they will use electricity, but they wore bonnets and Plain clothes, and they would not have a computer, or a radio, or a television in their home at all. And they are Anabaptists. So, anyway, it’s a generic term but they are the Plain people, we would kind of call it.

So, anyway, that’s where my interest came from, and it’s a very sincere interest. As long as I can remember, I have been very drawn to my relatives and there. My grandfather actually left amicably to go into college—it’s only the Amish who shun, not the other groups. So he has had a close relationship with his brothers and sisters. He was one of eleven and, of course, many, many cousins and second cousins. In fact, I was in the airport just a couple of weeks ago and I saw a little bonneted woman and I went over and I said to her, “Hello, I’m actually a Benedict,” which is my grandfather’s name, and she looked at me and she said, “I’m a Benedict.” Turns out she was my mom’s second cousin.

That’s amazing.

Yeah, they’re wonderful, dear people, and they live their life so authentically. So that’s what is at the heart of my writing. I’m not trying to create perfect people. I’m not trying to persuade anyone that Amish is a better way of life, though there are many parts of it that look appealing in this day and age, and many parts don’t. And then we really can’t become Amish, they have a very distinctive way that their minds are shaped into that sense of group culture, that what’s best for the group is best for you. Total flip-flop of our American culture that is so much so based on, and celebrates, the individual.

I remember having a conversation with a coworker, we were on a Beverly Lewis reading kick, and she was talking about wanting to go to that simpler life of living on an Amish farm and I was like, “Every single thing they have to eat, they make literally from scratch.” I’m like, “I can’t do it. I’m just going to enjoy the books.”

Well Susan, if you go into an Amish store, you’d be surprised at how much candy there is and food brought in and things they buy—Cheerios and Fruit Loops.

You think of them a certain way, and they are not that. I get the biggest kick out of it. One of my favorite stories is . . . you asked about research, and I actually go a couple times a year back to friendships I’ve made among the Amish in Ohio and Pennsylvania, in particular. And this one woman named Esther—when you go visit the Amish and you have a car, they make use of your errand-running abilities. So I was doing errands with Esther and she got in the car and buckled her seat belt and she turned to me and she goes, “So what about Trump?” And I looked her. I did not expect that from her at all.

Right. I mean, of course they know [about Trump], but I think—again, in my head—I have this idea that they live totally separate from the world. But it’s not M. Night Shyamalan, they’re people in the world.

There are all kinds of variations among the Amish because every single church is self-standing, and there are over 1900 churches. There’s not an overriding Bishop that manages or decides these things—whether you have a cell phone or not. No, there’s just so much variation that’s fun about it. So, we go back to Two Steps Forward

I was going to mention Sylvie and her background—she comes from a different background.

Sylvie is Jimmy Fisher’s love interest in the story. Not an easy love—they get tangled up a lot—but she’s actually from an extremely conservative Amish church. So if you look at it as a spectrum, there is, even among the Old Order Amish—we’re talking horse-and-buggy Old Order Amish—such a variation from those who have outdoor plumbing, their homes almost look prideful of being poor, they’re so run-down looking.

Oh, interesting.

“It’s really quite astounding what a library can do in a community, and I can’t support them enough.”

All the way up to homes that you could see yourself living in so easily, because they’re so cool and beautiful and artistic.

So when you’re thinking about your next series, or when you’re thinking about the different people who will come in and out of this community, are you thinking about the educational aspect that, for example, this conversation is having? Is that something you think about with your books, to expand people’s views of the Amish? Or is it just sort of a happy coincidence of the subject?

No, I actually read and research quite a lot and I subscribe to Amish newspapers and try to look for true pieces of their lives that I can weave in seamlessly. So you don’t realize you’re getting super well-educated. But, maybe because of my relatives, I just really like showing the heart of who these people are, that they really do have a sincere, authentic, wonderful sense of community and belief in God in a way that’s sort of the pie crust that holds it all together. It’s not just a slice of pie. It defines how they view everything. I think the press tends to pick up the creepy stories about the Amish, the weird things. Fringe elements—

Yeah, the sort of curiosity in . . . morbid curiosity.

Yeah. They are such private people that their story doesn’t get told, they keep it to themselves. It’s the ones who’ve had dysfunctional families that have. And they’re not perfect people, they’re not, but for the most part they have lower rates of depression, lower rates of heart disease, almost a zero divorce rate. That doesn’t mean perfect marriages, but there’s quite a value on marriage. So that kind of thing.

So your family that is still practicing, have they read your books? Have they reacted to do them?

Yeah, they’re such good fans and—

That’s really nice.

Yes. I’ve had a lot of good words and affirming comments. Now not all Amish will read fiction—I mentioned the spectrum. Some of them would be really suspicious of fiction as a whole and kind of scornful of authors who are not Amish who are writing about the Amish. But I have to tell you, Susan, I’ve never been in an Amish home yet that isn’t floor to ceiling bookshelves.

Another myth dispelled.

Yeah, that’s fun. That’s the fun part of it. That’s why there are always more stories to tell.

I like your description of your series being connected through this small town, because that’s really true. People come in and out of a town and even if you just have three couples in one series, there are still many more people on that block who have stories to tell.

Yeah, and I think there’s a longing in all of us to have that small-town life. I think this is what makes Amish fiction so appealing, it’s kind of touching a little part of all of that—

Or at least what it represents.

Yes. What represents, that’s a good way of saying it.

So, let’s talk about some reading things. Booklist is part of the American Library Association, so I have to ask you . . . I don’t want to call it a pandering question, but that’s what it is: how have libraries played a role in your reading life or your writing life?

I’m a huge fan of libraries and I mean that quite sincerely. I really like to support and be a part of them. I’m in my library at least once or twice a week. I found something interesting on research trips. I’m out in the back country—I mean these are not high population areas. Those little public libraries are literally the hub of the town. They are the community center. Those librarians provide . . . sometimes even daycare, I mean kids are coming in after school, using computers, getting tutoring help, and oh, I just can’t tell you what an appreciation I have for libraries, especially going into small rural areas.

Right, where there aren’t necessarily a lot of services or entertainment options. I mean, everyone who’s listening knows that, but they will be very happy to hear you say it.

It’s really quite astounding what a library can do in a community, and I can’t support them enough. In some of these really poor, poor towns, some of the coal mining towns of Pennsylvania, the library was it, that was it. There might be one Domino’s Pizza and one Subway and the library.

I love it. Well, so we have Two Steps Forward coming into February, and is that the end of the Deacon’s Family Series?

That is the wrap for the Deacons.

So do you have something coming up next you want to talk about, or is it all top secret?

I do, actually. You mentioned at the very beginning that I have a book called On a Summer Tide, and that is actually not an Amish book, but it’s a little bit similar in the sense that it’s a small town.

On a Summer Tide was my first time doing a pure contemporary woman’s story. The way I write, I create sort of fun, quirky characters. This is a story about a dad who realizes his three daughters are growing estranged, and he feels like he has to do something. So he ends up buying this bankrupt island off the coast of Maine thinking it will bring them all together. As you can imagine.

Oh, poor dad.

But it’s been a great story, it has been extremely well received and done really, really well. And so book two of that will be coming out in May and that’s called On a Coastal Breeze. The cover just got approved and it’s one of those covers that you just feel. And here we are talking mid-December on a gray, gloomy day . . .

Tell us about it though, sing it out.

You just want to walk into it. It’s a sailboat in the sun, the sun is shining and the ocean is calm . . . It’s really been fun.

Two Steps Forward is really delightful. I can’t wait for folks to read it. And that’s coming out in February from Revell. Thank you so much for chatting with me, Suzanne Woods Fisher.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Revell, publisher of Suzanne Woods Fisher’s Two Steps Forward, available February 2020. Happy reading!

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