This is the question that simmered in the back of my mind during the months that led up to the release of Elizabeth Hajek's novel, The Mermaid and the Unicorn. In the past, Elizabeth has shared her wisdom on the role of faith in fiction (here's a great post she put together about this topic), so I figured that she would have some incredible thoughts to share about what it's like, as a non-Catholic, to write a Catholic novel. I thoroughly enjoyed discussing this topic with Elizabeth, and I admire her devotion to God and dedication to creating beautiful fiction.
Our conversation today discusses Elizabeth's faith background and writing process before delving into the novel (and aside from the last couple questions, it is spoiler-free), so even if you haven't read The Mermaid and the Unicorn yet, I hope you will enjoy hearing what she has to say. Grab a cup of tea and come join us!
First off, I would love to hear a little background from you. Do you belong to a particular denomination? If you do, are there similarities in any of your practices and routines that helped you when creating a Catholic character, or was writing about Catholic practices a completely different experience for you?
Most Protestant find themselves bouncing around a few denominations over the course of their lives. I was born into a Methodist church, but primarily raised in the Evangelical Free denomination. The Methodists are often identified by their social activism and caring for the poor, and thus as a child in this church I have many memories of my mom taking us to volunteer at the church food shelf, or putting together holiday meal baskets for the community. I’d say this probably gave me background in creating the convent, and understanding the daily focus of several of the nuns.
On the other hand, the Evangelical Free Church is a denomination that focuses very heavily on evangelizing. This was difficult for me as a teenager to reconcile with because I never felt I was good about “sharing the gospel.” In fact, I only ever shared the ‘salvation message’ with a non-believer once. As I learned about the Catholic Church, I found myself identifying very strongly with St. Francis’s reported exhortation to “Preach continuously. When necessary, use words.” Perhaps this is because my father raised me on Colossians 3.23 “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,” (ESV). Evangelizing by example has always been my methodology!
Now, I do have a Catholic background in the fact that my father was raised Catholic. Although he had converted to Protestantism long before I was born, he and my mother always raised me with respect for Catholicism, and there were elements in how we viewed the world that came out of that. My mother and husband were both raised Presbyterian, which will be familiar to some Catholics since there have been some famous converts from Presbyterianism to Catholicism. In some ways the denominations are very different, but there are also some similarities that I think make for reasonable communication ;) However, the truth is that the EFC denomination is very far from Catholicism. Core doctrine and values are the same, but the outer trappings are very different (as are interpretations of the sacraments). You are probably never going to find an EFC church that doesn’t have guitars in the worship band. (and yeah, it’s usually called a worship band, at least at my parents’ church!)
I know that some people, like myself, did a double take when hearing that you—a Protestant—were writing a Catholic novel. How did you first get introduced to the world of Catholic fiction? Did you ever think that you would author a Catholic novel?
12 year old me would have been horrified at the thought! (12 year old me was obsessed with Elsie Dinsmore novels which are VERY anti-Catholic. I’ve done almost a 180 since then, obviously!)
I got into the world of Catholic fiction via Regina Doman’s Fairy Tale Novels. It would be safe to say that, other than the Bible, no other book has so completely changed my life. After reading “Waking Rose” I was so entranced by Doman’s world, that I got her permission to start her fan forum. This resulted in creating a wonderful community of kindred spirits.
Over the years of working with Regina and the Fairy Tale Fans, I came to appreciate the Catholic brand of fiction (which is generally a lot less heavy-handed than the evangelizing tone of most Protestant fiction). I loved the way Doman wrote characters of faith. Rose, Blanche, Bear, Fish . . . they all believed and served Christ, but their faith was only a part of the grand adventures they went on. I dreamed of achieving something similar myself, but was not sure how it would ever happen with a Protestant character.
Generally speaking, how did you go about writing such a thoroughly Catholic story? I have read loads of Protestant fiction, but think it would be a huge challenge to write a realistic story that focuses on Protestant characters and their faith practices. What helped you, and what advice do you offer to budding fiction writers in portraying people of other faiths?
Writing Protestant characters of faith is way harder than writing Catholic ones. Matt Bowman (my editor and original co-writer) and I have talked about this a LOT over the years. Catholicism is a faith practice of outward ritual, which is very easy to write about because it is concrete! Protestantism is centered around inner prayer life and outward evangelization. Now, the inner prayer life focus did help me, I think, with creating Daphne’s inner monologue. I drew heavily on traditional Catholic prayers because they are beautiful and I love them, but being raised in the tradition of spontaneous freeform prayer, it was very natural for me to craft Daphne’s inner monologue when she talks to God.
Another great influence for me was the work of Orson Scott Card. Card himself is a Mormon, but he rarely writes Mormon characters. Indeed, most of his religious characters are Catholic! I appreciated his ability to write about deep, hard stuff, drawing on the similarities in beliefs to help them ring true, but not being afraid to give his characters voices and positions different than his own. Indeed, I sort of feel like Card’s work gave me permission to do the same with my own characters. In essence, he taught me that you don’t have to write characters that parrot your own beliefs. A good story is not a sermon, even in fictional terms. It is a glimpse into another person’s life, and no two people on this earth will ever agree 100%. (My husband and I agree more than almost anyone else in the world agrees with me, but we still have some differences of opinion!)
What were the biggest conflicts that you had when portraying the beliefs of characters—and how did you manage to craft the novel so well, despite these differences of belief?
I think the only issue that I really struggled with writing about was praying to saints. Even though I understand the Catholic perspective and ‘get’ the inner logic of it, (asking friends to pray for you, not actually praying to them), it was still something that I am not personally comfortable with. Especially because some of the prayers (like the St. Raphael one), really sound like you are praying to that person, even though that is not supposed to be the intent.
It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to write it, but that it was my main character, and I know there are Protestants in my life that are going to read it and be confused or whatever by it. That’s not my personal belief, it is Daphne’s, and I would hope that logically most people would understand that line, but I don’t want to assume they will. I think most people do expect main characters to embody the beliefs of the author, particularly in a debut novel. (I mean, Card gets a LOT of hate for things his characters do. So. There’s that.)
But ultimately I was writing this book for my Catholic friends, and I wanted to write a story that accurately portrayed THEIR lives. Including all of those little details was so important to being accurate and achieving my mission!
On your blog, you recently mentioned the possibility of creating a guide to help other non-Catholics who read the novel. What do you hope to accomplish with this guide, and what kind of topics will you seek to address?
I was inspired by this idea when thinking of how the book would be read by the young Protestant teens in my life. I am so thrilled that they are going to read my story, but I want to provide some tools for their parents to use in discussing the foreign faith elements. I think I would specifically discuss some Catholic elements like asking saints for prayers and vocation, but also looking at areas of mutual appreciation, like the beauty in the old prayers, or the benefits in using physical connection points like rosary beads and religious art.
One of the aspects of the novel that struck me was how Catholicism breathed through the story. From some very specific details—like a medal of St. Raphael—to the comradery that the nuns share in the convent, the atmosphere was so realistic and beautiful. What kind of research did you employ in determining how you would portray this faith tradition? Did you visit any convents or observe any people praying Vespers to help portray certain scenes in the novel?
None at all! Isn’t that weird? With my health issues, travel is difficult, so all of my research was through the internet. I’d attended Catholic Mass many, many times, and I lived with a Catholic family for awhile, so I had a good understanding of the daily rhythms of Catholic life. This also gave me a good touchstone for realizing what it was that I ought to look up. For instance, I know there is a Catholic saint and prayer for every occasion, so I would look them up a lot to see where I could work something in.
I did have some excellent Alpha readers to help me verify accuracy. Sister Maria J from a community of sisters in Wales gave me specific details in crafting a European religious community, and Claire Halbur gave some feedback relating to discerning a religious vocation. Actually, Claire was on the reality show “Sisterhood” which was really helpful for me to get an inside look at religious life, probably more so than if I’d visited a convent myself!
That is weird! You did a splendid job working with your readers and other resources. As you got an “inside look” at religious life, what was the most surprising or strange thing that you learned?
Early on, Regina Doman pointed out to me that being a Nun is a lot easier if you are an extrovert. This was funny to me, because I assumed introverts would be better suited for such a life, but Regina explained that when you live in such close quarters with the same people for so long, it really helps if you really like people! So that was surprising!
I also really appreciated getting to view nuns more as ‘people’ and not just ‘ladies who pray a lot.’ Thinking of them as ordinary human beings who watch movies and read books and play sports was really eye-opening! Like so many of us, I grew up watching “The Sound of Music” and . . . not much else with nuns! I didn’t get to delve into this aspect as much as I would have liked, but I tried to get enough in to give a well-rounded portrayal.
I also found it interesting to contemplate the fact that part of discerning a religious vocation is understanding what one is giving up. That is, having a romance prior to entering a convent is very normal! I guess I had this mental image of nuns being people who always found themselves destined for celibacy and generally didn’t have romances! I know there are some women who do experience their journey this way, but it was fascinating to learn how many of them do date or even get engaged before embarking on the discernment process!
Here begin the spoilers! Continue reading to hear what Elizabeth has to say about the end of the novel, or if you haven't read it yet, head on over to GeekHaus Press to read the first three chapters!
In the afterword of the novel, you mention that portraying Daphne’s discernment towards religious life was a difficult challenge, since you are a married Protestant woman. What were some ways in which you strove to write about this viewpoint?
Like any part of writing, you start first with what you can personally relate to. When writing a villain, you draw on Chesterton’s “There but for the grace of God, go I.” When it is someone with a religious vocation, you think “where would my path be different for me to have that vocation?” The Protestant religious tradition may not have a vow of singleness, but I was raised on stories of Amy Carmichael and Gladys Aylward, who choose to live in singleness in order to focus on the missions they believed God had called them to. Actually, since both of those women focused on adopting and raising children, I suspect they played a greater role in the formation of Daphne’s mental journey than I originally realized!
St. Paul talks about how a married woman’s desire is for her husband. The thing about being married is that you really realize how true this is! Cooking for my husband, bringing him delight, caring for his health and happiness . . . this is a major focus for me every day! I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I definitely have a new appreciation for the more devoted focus on God a single person can have.
I—like many fans, I am sure—am very eager to see what happens to Derek Moon! At the close of The Mermaid and the Unicorn, you mention that we will see his vocation story continue in the next book. While I am content to wait and see what happens to him, I am curious: Do you think that portraying his journey will be as challenging as it was to portray Daphne’s?
Nope! I’ve always felt a much stronger connection to Derek than to Daphne (we have very similar temperaments, whereas Daphne is much more like my husband’s), and I have gone through the same kind of heartbreak that Derek will be going through, so I feel like I already have a strong handle on how that will play out.
BUT . . . on the other hand, I have never really written from a male perspective before. I’m already halfway through my novella about the Morlands, which is written in third person perspective, alternating between Justin and Ruth’s POV. Guys are difficult to write! They just don’t think the same way that girls do, and it is a whole new challenge trying to capture that!
Many thanks to Elizabeth, for being so wonderful and chatting with me openly and honestly about these topics! :)