Valerie Weaver-Zercher is the author of the newly-released Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels. Valerie is a writer and editor whose work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Mennonite Weekly Review, and other publications.
Valerie has kindly answered a number of your questions (and a couple of mine), on those topics and quite a few others. Thanks for all the great questions you submitted, by the way. We’ve broken up a few of them into multiple parts in the interview below.
Thrill of the Chaste Giveaway
Johns Hopkins is also giving away a copy of Thrill of the Chaste to an Amish America reader. To enter the contest, simply leave a comment on this post (any comment is okay, though comments which respond to or reflect upon the interview, or Amish fiction topic, are appreciated 🙂 ).
All those who previously submitted a question for Valerie will have an extra entry. We’ll draw and announce the winner a week from today, on Tuesday, April 30.
Valerie Weaver-Zercher on Thrill of the Chaste and Amish fiction
Richard and Pauline Stevick: When did you start working on this book? Do you have any inclination to write Amish-themed fiction of your own?
I began research on Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels in December 2010 and continued active research and writing over the course of the next year; then in 2012, I did some revisions and responded to copyedits and page proofs and made the index. I did feel like I had to research and write fairly quickly and in an intensive sort of way; at the point at which I began work on this project, I wasn’t sure whether this subgenre was going to last or whether it was going to die on the vine. I think it’s fairly clear now that Amish fiction has quite a bit of staying power; everyone in the industry I spoke with indicated that it’s not going away any time soon.
And no, I have no plans or inclination to write Amish-themed fiction. I am a nonfiction writer through and through, and have very little experience writing fiction. Frankly, I admire writers who can develop believable characters and dialogue and plot lines. When I get ideas in the middle of the night for things to write, they’re always nonfiction projects rather than novels.
Char: Are there certain identifiable characteristics that make the difference between the best-sellers and the lesser-known authors? What do the better-known authors include/exclude/emphasize that the others don’t? Or is it more a matter of writing to a certain market? [evangelical Christians, etc.]
That’s a great question, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a great answer! Certainly the bestselling authors are writing for evangelical audiences, but what distinguishes them from others who are also writing for evangelical readers is a good question.
I do think that authors who confine their stories mostly to Amish communities—that is, who keep their characters largely Amish and locate them safely within Amish boundaries—tend to do better than authors who use mostly English protagonists who live near or with the Amish for a time or those who write about formerly Amish protagonists. One marketing manager told me that since many readers read Amish fiction to “escape” from the daily concerns of modern life, they don’t want to read about divorce or drug abuse or fast-paced lifestyles. Books with characters who dabble a little bit in the outside world—who are attracted to an English man, or who work with non-Amish people, or who consider leaving the Amish—seem to do well. But readers seem to prefer a higher ratio of Amish characters/settings to a lower one. For example, several “urban Amish” novels—that is, novels with protagonists who grew up Amish but moved to the city and became evangelical Christians—don’t seem to do as well as books whose characters remain in their rural, Amish-drenched settings.
Liz D: Is there a ‘type’ of reader for Amish fiction?
As far as a “type” of reader of Amish fiction: during my research, whenever I began to think I had figured out who the Typical Reader of Amish Fiction is, I’d meet someone who didn’t fit the bill! The majority of readers of Amish fiction do likely resemble the majority of readers of inspirational fiction, the genre to which Amish novels belong: female, evangelical Christian, North American. But I met Catholic readers and Amish readers and readers of no faith commitment. I talked to male readers and African-American readers, and I heard about readers in Bolivia and Australia and other places. So the appeal of Amish fiction appears to cross demographic boundaries. Readers do, however, seem to share certain concerns about contemporary American life. Many expressed to me their concern about the sexualized nature of popular culture, and about the increasingly technology-driven character of our lives, and about the decline of community well-being and increase in individualism that they perceive around them.
Alice Mary: I often wonder about how Amish males are portrayed in Amish fiction. How do real Amish men act/live as compared with those portrayed in Amish fiction? How does this compare with “English” men in other (non-Amish) romance novels? Is there more of a preference for “goody-goody” guys, or do “bad boys” (comparatively speaking) win out more often than not?
Another great question. I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak to the question of how real Amish men compare to fictional Amish ones. But the typical Amish-fiction hero is very similar in temperament to the male love interests in inspirational romance novels in general. Scholar Rebecca Barrett-Fox, who has written about Christian romance novels, suggests about male protagonists in those books are quite different from the typical “bad boy” of general-market romance novels. Christian-romance heroes, writes Barrett-Fox, have thoughts that are “not sexual but concerned.” The typical Christian-romance hero “talks with her [the heroine]—a lot. He listens, and he shares. If any physical contact occurs, it is never ‘punishing’ or ‘cruel’ but earnest.” I think Barrett-Fox’s description captures well what I’ve found to be true about Amish-novel heroes. They are more characterized by compassion and sensitivity, good listening skills, and fidelity to family and community than by competitiveness, machismo, or virility.
Having said that, I should add that non-Amish heroes, some of whom have accumulated wealth and status in their careers, sometimes do win out over Amish heroes. In one Amish novel I read recently, a very wealthy non-Amish architect wins the heart of an Amish widow who was being courted by an Amish suitor who, by all appearances, is also a kindly and compassionate man. But the famous, rich English love interest is disillusioned by the rat race and sensibilities of the outside world, and proves himself to be a skilled listener who is ready to get in touch with his more nurturing self. So in that sense he proves himself to be one of the “good guys” as well.
Marty: There seem to be a lot of young widows in Amish fiction. Accidents abound. Please address these plot lines and the reality of young widowhood in the Amish community.
I don’t know whether the incidence of widowhood is higher among the Amish than among the non-Amish, but you have definitely identified a common plot device in Amish fiction: the protagonist’s discovery of love after the grief of losing a spouse. Frankly, I’m not sure why this is the case, other than perhaps that it gives authors a greater range of protagonists’ ages and life stages to write about. Authors know that some of their readers are far beyond the courting days of adolescence and young adulthood, and the narrative of a widow finding new love likely appeals to older readers. Also, the idea that love helps to heal grief is a common theme in literature in general. And yes, buggy accidents and farm accidents are quite common in the books. One Amish woman with whom I spoke said she got tired of all of the times that the characters of the novels are “thrown violently from the buggy.”
John Lueders: In your studies, do most of these books have a “plot by numbers” story or do authors come up with some unique storyline or plot devices?
Some of the novels’ plots are quite deftly woven, with the outcome of the narrative not visible to the reader until late in the book. Others are quite predictable, with the resolution of the story quite clear from the very first chapter. But as I write in Thrill of the Chaste, this element of predictability does not appear to bother many readers of the genre—in fact, it intensifies their enjoyment of it. Several readers articulated to me their love of the dual feelings of comfort and suspense while reading Amish novels: comfort at knowing that the story will have a happy ending and perhaps even what that ending will be, and suspense at not knowing exactly how it will happen. Happy endings are basically a guarantee of inspirational romance novels in general, as are certain other narrative elements (the growth of the protagonist’s trust in God, for example, and at least one romantic storyline and possibly more).
Kate K: My question concerns the cover art of Amish fiction, which frequently features an “Amish” woman in plain dress. Usually the woman pictured has a good deal of makeup, English hair or tweaked eyebrows, and clothes that just don’t seem quite right, such as a kapp that’s the wrong size. In the face of reader pressure for an authentic story, why do the covers of Amish novels frequently look costume-y and fake? Is it carelessness or a marketing strategy?
Decisions about the covers of Amish romance novels, like the covers of all books, are the purview of publishers. So yes, the authenticity or accuracy of the covers is much less important to most publishers than their visual appeal to readers. This helps to explain the makeup, the hairstyles, and the “tweezered” eyebrows. One marketing manager told me that their publishing house’s authors of Amish fiction are sometimes unhappy with the front covers of their books for this reason: that is, authors of the books who have done their research often know quite a bit more about the Amish than the design firms hired by the publishers do, and sometimes identify things about the cover that aren’t quite right. And while many or most publishers would solicit feedback from authors, the design of covers and titles of books are ultimately publishers’ decisions. Selling books is, understandably, of greater concern to publishers, especially in an increasingly competitive market, than fidelity to regional differences in Amish dress or nuances of prayer covering size or shape.
Richard and Pauline Stevick: What area(s) of Amish life have been missed or distorted in the novels you have seen?
As far as things that the genre misses or distorts: as I write about in Thrill of the Chaste, I think the novels do often underestimate the centrality of pacifism and nonresistance among the Amish, and I think they sometimes miss the nuances of Amish spirituality, which is often expressed in quite different language than evangelical American Christianity expresses itself.
I also think that the genre as a whole might distort readers’ notions of the role of Christmas celebrations in Amish life. There are massive amounts of Christmas-themed novels and novellas in Amish fiction that come out each fall, often with sleighs on the front cover. (I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think many Amish folks ever travel by sleigh—I think sleighs have more to do with some imagined “Over the River and Through the Woods” kind of idyll than with actual Amish life.) And while the sheer number of Amish Christmas titles may make readers think that Christmas is a pivotal, magnificent part of Amish life, actual Amish celebrations of Christmas are quite muted and quiet compared to what many of us think of as “normal” Christmas celebrations. There are special family meals and small gifts, but none of the decorating hoopla, big parties, and holiday-themed shopping sprees and concerts and open houses that are the norm for many Americans.
Having said that, many of the authors have done an impressive amount of research on Amish life and faith, and have developed close friendships with Amish people. Some of them deserve a lot of credit for their attentiveness to issues of accuracy and representation.
John Lueders: Do these stories take place in more progressive communities or do some take place, in say, a very conservative, closed community?
I haven’t read any Amish romance novels that are set in the most conservative Amish groups such as the Swartzentruber or Andy Weaver. I know of at least one forthcoming series that tells the story of a formerly Amish protagonist who had belonged to an ultraconservative group. But as far as I can tell, more of the novels are set among the more progressive communities, perhaps because they are easier for authors to access during their research and perhaps because their lifestyles and worldviews approximate those of the outside world at least a little more closely than those of the more conservative or closed groups. When a novel narrates the movement of a protagonist from one Amish group to another, it is almost always from a more traditional/conservative group to a less traditional and more evangelical group. Protagonists sometimes end up Beachy Amish, for example, or even conservative Mennonite.
Erik Wesner: You discuss the topic of “Amish reading Amish” in chapter 8 of Thrill of the Chaste. In your view is “Amish reading Amish” a symptom or a cause?
In other words, are the Amish reading these books those that are already inclined to a (let’s call it) less traditional worldview? Or are they nudging Amish readers in that direction?
It’s possible that the Amish people who are reading Amish fiction are those who are more inclined to think outside of some “Amish box” and to consider the wider world and its offerings. But I’m more convinced by the idea that the “Amish reading Amish” phenomenon has less to do with the reader’s personality (say, as a boundary-pusher) than with the reader’s demographic and access to inspirational fiction. During my research, I kept hearing from Amish people that the people they know who are reading the novels are the young teenaged girls in their communities, and I heard of several Swartzentruber Amish women who love Beverly Lewis’s novels. I have no reason to believe that these Swartzentruber women have less traditional worldviews than most other Amish people; on the contrary, the Swartzentrubers are among the most “traditional” of Amish groups. So while someone would have to do more research among Amish readers to find out for sure, I am guessing that an Amish person’s choice to read an Amish-themed novel has little to do with that person’s propensity to think in less traditional ways and more to do with the perception that Amish novels are “safe” fiction for them to read. Another issue would be whether a particular Amish reader has access to a bookstore or library or catalogue or friend through which they can obtain novels in the first place.
Liz D: I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the market for historical Amish fiction and Contemporary. It’s my perception that more historically set novels (the definition for historic fiction I realise is a whole new can of worms, but for this maybe working to ‘outside of the majority of living memory’) seem more popular within Amish fiction. From your analysis are there any reasons for this?
I’ve read more contemporary Amish novels than historical ones, and while I’m not sure which subgenre is more popular, my hunch is that this is not a significant divide in the genre itself. One marketing manager told me that his publishing house considers all Amish romance novels to be, in essence, historical fiction rather than contemporary fiction. This is due to the fact that, to most readers, all Amish novels feel historical. In other words, since the Amish remind many readers of an earlier time (some readers told me that reading Amish novels kind of “takes them back” to the era in which they grew up), they actually operate as historical fiction even when they are set in contemporary America. Of course, many authors of Amish-fiction these days mention cell phones and Wal-Mart and other emblems of contemporary life. But again, my sense is that it doesn’t matter greatly whether an author chooses a historical era in which to set her Amish novel or whether she chooses the present: the novel will likely feel historical to readers.
Erik Wesner: Why should an Amish fiction reader read your book?
I think loyal readers might enjoy Thrill of the Chaste because it illuminates aspects of Amish fiction that go beyond their personal love of the genre: the publishing context that birthed Amish fiction, for example, and the larger social and religious trends that have helped to make the fiction so appealing to so many readers. While readers of Amish fiction know what they like and what they dislike in terms of the novels they choose to read, my book will help them learn why, for example, there are so many more Amish novels available now as opposed to ten years ago, and why Amish novels belong to inspirational fiction rather than to some other genre.
Having said that: I don’t imagine that reading Thrill of the Chaste will suddenly make readers of Amish-themed fiction suddenly prefer Amish-themed nonfiction like my book! But I do think many of them will enjoy stepping back from the novels they love to hear from other readers on why they love it and to consider some of the broader trends that have helped to create the novels’ popularity. They might also enjoy reading about how Amish people themselves are responding to Amish fiction.