Hilarey Johnson, author of Heart of Petra and Sovereign Ground, sat down with me and a couple cups of coffee and we talked about books, writing, God, church, art and Christianity...pretty much everything you care about...join us...
Lisa Michelle Hess: You have a new book out, Heart of Petra. Tell me about that.
Hilarey Johnson: If you think of my previous novel, Sovereign Ground, as the story of a girl trapped outside the church, then Heart of Petra is the story of a girl trapped inside the church. It’s about a girl raised in a religious home where her parents do truly love her, but they’ve lost sight of what it means to be led by God and the Holy Spirit. The parents are trapped in legalism and control…and appearances, especially. When you’re involved in ministry, you do feel responsibility to not even have the appearance of evil. So, the premise of Heart of Petra was: What if you feel like you’re the only dirty one inside a church?
LMH: That idea of not having even the appearance of evil, which I think we always have in the back of our minds as Christians, for better or worse. Was that the seed that grew into Petra’s story?
HJ: Yes, and also because I’ve been through many church splits. The very first split I went through was right after my parents became Christians. It was painful. So much so, that we walked away from the church at that point, and didn’t attend church at all while I was in high school. When my kids were in junior high, we were involved in a church that was just really…sick, and went through split after split. We were involved in ministry there, so we stayed through them all. But, we eventually felt released by God to leave there, and we slipped away as quietly as possible. My kids were about the same age as I was when we walked away because of a church split, and I didn’t want it to happen to them. So we picked a church and we showed up, bitter and angry and we didn’t agree with all their doctrine…and they just accepted us with open arms. They were so sweet, and there was a lot of healing that went on there. But I guess I still had a lot of, well, bitterness about church. It’s hard to heal from that—it can be like a divorce, especially when it’s not done right. You know, it’s fine if there are doctrinal issues, or this church wants to sing a cappella and that church wants to do contemporary music. It’s fine if you can still love each other and separate. You’ll have two good, different kinds of churches that appeal to different kinds of people. But when one church is preaching from the pulpit about how bad this other church is…
LMH: It’s just wrong…
HJ: Yeah, you can’t spend your whole Christian walk making sure other Christians are preparing for Y2K! I mean, we can laugh about that now, but back in the day, people left churches over that issue.
LMH: It was huge. You can look at other churches or back on past controversies, and it would be laughable (if it wasn’t so sad) the things churches will split over. But at the time, it feels like life and death, like this is that line you cannot cross. Why is that?
HJ: Yes! Why is that? Because when you read the Old Testament, look at the things that God hates—he doesn’t hate gay people, he doesn’t hate sex. He hates “haughty eyes, feet that run toward evil and those who stir dissension among the brethren.” He hates what Christians do to each other. Look, what is edgy to one person is pornography to another and wherever you are in your life, you need to listen to God. If He says so, put it aside, don’t read it, don’t listen to it, hear what God is calling you to do. But by no means spend your time ensuring others follow those rules you’ve been given. And that’s what we too often do. So, if you think following God means giving up coffee (the Christian cocaine), homeschooling, or having tons of babies, don’t preach that everyone is required to do it for intimacy with God. Our rules are not “the way, the truth and the life.” Yielding our lives to Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.” And everybody’s walk looks different. (Not that that should be an excuse to hold on to some sin God is telling you to give up, just because you aren’t “there” yet.)
LMH: So how do you do that? We know that God wants us to listen to his voice. He tells us that over and over throughout scripture. How do you, personally, hear his voice? How do you do that in your writing?
HJ: I try to write bravely and not pull back. I don’t know if there’s any secret. I continually pray when I’m writing. I don’t have a special procedure. We need to seek Him in our work and not be afraid. I can always delete it later if I feel like I’m crossing a line. There were a lot more cuss words in the first drafts of Sovereign Ground and I ended up smoothing them over…I think I used the word “prick” once.
LMH: And I think, for me, that was kind of the tour de force of Sovereign Ground. This is a novel about the sex industry, but there’s no cussing and no sex. Yet, it feels very authentic, to the point where many people believe that this really is your story.
HJ: Yeah, a lot of people have asked me that but I’ve never been inside a strip club. I really did not want to describe gratuitous sex in SG. I didn’t want anything that people would see as attractive or intriguing. I didn’t want any extra draw to the industry. One of the comments I got back from an early critique, I could tell it was a man…he said, “She seems so naïve and yet, she’s so successful in this mysterious and alluring industry.” I thought, really? You don’t think these young girls are naïve? How do you think they get into it? They think they can do a little work and make a little money and it’s not going to destroy them.
LMH: Well, let’s talk about Sovereign Ground, because I know that was a pretty incredible journey for you…
HJ: Right, well, I never intended to write about a stripper. I just had a vision in my mind of a cop carrying a girl out of a bar, and her not having a lot of clothes on…and the bar being on fire. So I tried writing a traditional romance—I’m not a traditional romance reader—but I kept trying to write a romance. I tried writing it from her point-of-view and his p.o.v., third person…and that was the point where that book was mysteriously deleted. I was three or four chapters into it, and it was just not on my computer one day.
HJ: So I stomped into the other room and paced for a while. And at some point grouched, “Okay, God, fine! How do you want it to start?” and I heard that opening line in my mind, “Sometimes I dream of dancing.” Which, at that moment, when I realized what that meant, was troubling. I thought, who’s going to want to read that? But it just kept coming and it came from her perspective. I had never written in first person before and it was really scary for me to put that out in first person. Not because I thought people would think it was my story. I’m actually pleased when I hear that, because then I know they think it’s authentic.
LMH: And it’s gotten great reviews, as has Heart of Petra, and you’ve garnered some pretty incredible endorsements from the likes of Tosca Lee. Yet, you chose to self-publish both Sovereign Ground and Heart of Petra. Tell me how you made that decision.
HJ: When I was bringing SG to the industry, I was told that the writing was good, that it was where it needed to be—
LMH: And we’re talking about Christian publishing—
HJ: Right. Christian publishers, Christian agents/editors. But the next thing was, “Wow, I just don’t know where I’d put you.” There was also one that stuck out the most (and I won’t say what publisher) but he said Christians just don’t want to read about the sex industry. It’s too dark. So, that may have been true at the time and at the time there was so much turmoil in the publishing industry and people were just trying to “save the ship” so they were only going to publish what they were sure would sell.
LMH: That’s still happening.
HJ: Well, I know that some of what I went through was just between God and me. God had to bring me to a new place, and it really was painful. I was doing some really deep Bible studying and I wrestled with Him. I can look back at all the things He was revealing to me about trusting Him and…it really came down, for me, to the idea of not “seeking the approval of men.” I had the story, it was ready to be published, and there was nowhere to put it. It seemed like God was saying, “I gave it to you, what more do you need?”
LMH: So you put it out there. If you weren’t concerned about people thinking SG was your story, what did concern you about it? You said it was scary, to write it in first person…
HJ: Well, a lot of people just want an escape. As Christians, we don’t want to go back to that place we were saved from. And we’d rather see people on the other side, cleaned up and fixed. It’s hard to walk through the fall with someone.
LMH: So are people in the industry right, then? Will Christians not buy fiction that is really dealing with the modern-day, on-the-ground human condition?
HJ: But everywhere you go on-line, you’ll see people commenting about how they’re looking for good, different, edgy fiction. So those people—it sounds like there’s a market out there—why wouldn’t they buy these books. Why wouldn’t they tell someone else when they find one?
LMH: You have a pretty edgy cover on Sovereign Ground, and it’s interesting, because I have friends that I was recommending it to, and I know that if it had been a secular novel, they wouldn’t have blinked at the cover, they would have just trusted me that it was good. But because it was a Christian novel, that cover gave them pause, about whether or not they should read it…
HJ: The designer that created it…one of the things we liked about that cover was that her face was hidden. So it had the sense of sexuality and allure, but also the sense of shame and darkness. And we didn’t want the cover to appeal to the over churched who have it all figured out. It wasn’t their story. Heart of Petra is their story. Sovereign Ground is for the people who are still trying to figure things out, who are willing to read Christian fiction, but haven’t come to the point where they have chosen God for themselves. And I wrote it for teens, many of whom are reading really sexualized books. I didn’t want them to be tempted, but I wanted them to be drawn in enough to see the allure of it, and then see what God has to offer instead. My sister let her eleven-year-old daughter read it. It showed up on her Kindle and my niece was like, “Oh, Mom, this is Aunt Hilarey’s. Can I read it?” My sister wasn’t sure, but she did, in the end, let her read it, and then asked her what she thought. My niece said, “I think that she thought she was in control, but we’re never really in control, are we Mom?” My sister was able to say to her eleven-year-old daughter, “Right. You either give your control to boys, money, or God. Those are kind of your three big options.” They were able to have that discussion and she got it. She may be more mature than your average eleven-year-old, but I know what I was reading at eleven, twelve, thirteen. If Christian parents think that their kids don’t have access to this stuff, they must be living off the grid. We know the kind of stuff we would access when we were that age. Today, it’s a hundred times more readily accessible to our children.
LMH: Kids, and adults for that matter, are curious. They’re looking for answers, they’re looking for salvation, for heroes, right now, in their modern lives. So it would seem like…if God’s calling you to write allegory or fantasy, obviously, go ahead and do that. But it can’t be that there are this few Christians being called to write authentic, modern-day fiction—it’s seems like we’re shying away from it. Like we’re scared or squeamish. I saw this quote the other day: “These days, real-world believers are shouting more and drawing larger, more startling figures—from pulpits, in political rallies, on the Internet. In response, writers with Christian preoccupations have taken the opposite tack, writing fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively.”
HJ: When I was writing Sovereign Ground, my daughter at one point said to me, “Mom, do you want to write a book that nobody remembers and everybody kind of liked?” I think I would rather write something that some people might hate, but that makes people think for a long time, after they’re done reading it.
LMH: So, speaking of the things we do to each other, there are a lot of factions out there…a lot of disdain, even among Christians, for Christian art, Christian fiction. Things that have that label. People have been talking about this for decades. They throw around quotes and names like Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Conner. You hear about bands like Switchfoot talking about not wanting to get trapped in the “Christian box…”
HJ: So why does this keep coming up? Why can’t we get past it?
HJ: Well, here’s one possible reason: We are so mean to each other. Christians will tear each other down so much sooner than the world. And we zero in on silly things like, “That sounds a little pre-trib, so I’m not going to read that.” Or, “That music sounds like they might be talking about the gift of tongues, so I’m not listening to that.” We latch onto these dogmatic, little details instead of looking at the bigger picture, or the work as a whole. We don’t have a safe place as Christian artists, because the world doesn’t want to hear the message, and Christians lose themselves in the details.
LMH: Why do you think we feel like we need to hide what we believe about God and reality and living in the world as Christians, in fairy tale formats, or historical fiction, or allegories and fantasy?
HJ: I think we should be really clear on the idea that we don’t need to protect God and we don’t need to embellish God. You need to do what you’re called to do, bravely. Living in the Spirit is wild and can be scary. Creating art as a Christian requires trust. It’s a spiritual act that goes on between you and God, it’s work and you can’t follow anyone else’s choreography…and you know, I am seeing this more and more in Christian fiction. Where people are dealing in their work with realistic injustice and pain and evil in the world and portraying much more realistic reactions to those injustices than we have seen in the past—
LMH: And not just for the shock value, but wrestling with it in an authentic way—
HJ: Right. I think it is changing. I don’t think there’s any quick fix to all of this. You’re going to have the world pick up a book and be irritated because you alluded to the One True God, and you’re going to have Christians pick up the same book and say that you didn’t put enough God in it. You have to produce what you’re called to create, live the life that you’re called to live, take the abuse and try to ignore the praise!
LMH: So how do you handle the abuse?
HJ: I haven’t suffered too much abuse…yet.
LMH: That’s good.
HJ: I probably give myself the worst abuse. I criticize myself louder than anyone else. When you were talking about “Christian artists,” I was thinking, well, I’m not really a Christian artist…I don’t consider myself an artist. But then I thought, I bruise easily and I create stuff, so I guess that does make me an artist…
LMH: …and you’re good at what you do. So you can take that praise and just say thank you.
HJ: Thank you.
You can read more about Hilarey at hilarey.com and find her on Facebook. If you'd like to comment on this post (and please do!), you can do it by going to the blogger version and scrolling to the bottom of the page -- just hit that button that says "blogger" at the top right of this screen, and it will take you there. Hilarey and I are giving away a copy of Heart of Petra. Leave a comment, or give us some like on Facebook or Google+, or just let us know that you'd like a copy, and we'll enter you into the drawing. You can enter by leaving me a note and your contact info. on the contact screen of this website. As always, thanks for reading!