Q: Before we get to your talent for writing, let’s learn more about you as a person. What stage of life are you in?
I’m married to Bonnie; we are the parents of three and the grandparents of three. The youngest one was born on Easter Sunday. And since a daughter-in-law is in the family way, we’re expecting grandchild number four to be born by the end of May.
I am the executive director for a Mennonite denomination, so my life is very busy with meetings. I travel over 40% of the time, so I have to fight (mostly myself) for time to write. At times, creative writing is like a respite for me, transporting me to a different world. And other times—especially when I face deadlines—it feels like just another thing on my “to do” list, screaming for attention.
Q: What is your go-to research when you’re writing?
I’m a rhetorical scholar, so I naturally gravitate to academic resources. I enjoy library research and feel quite at home in historical archives. I can become so engrossed in reading old documents that I lose my sense of time. They carry me in my imagination to times and places far away.
I have great respect for Dr. Donald Kraybill, a scholarly friend of mine who has spent much of his life researching and writing about the Amish. In his book called The Riddle of Amish Culture, he has captured the essence of Amish “nonconformity” in the world today. His descriptions ring true to my own experience of the way I have seen Amish adapting to modern life.
Q: Let’s talk about studying the Amish up close. Where has book research taken you?
I’ve done some reading about the history of the Amish, but most of my knowledge of the Amish has been close-up and personal. I was born into an Old Order Amish family and still have Amish relatives.
In my research for Jacob’s Choice, I spent a day with Sam Stoltzfus, a well-respected Amish librarian and book collector near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was very hospitable and displayed his curiosity for the facts of history. Like all of the Amish I’ve met, he was pleased when I spoke Pennsylvania German. He embodies an Amish way of thinking, but has reservations about seeing them put into print in a novel.
I once shared the speaker’s platform and had an engaging conversation with Linda Byler, an Amish writer from Pennsylvania. I found her to be a humorous, self-effacing woman who cared deeply for her extended family. She is one of very few Amish novelists. She models well how the Amish think and gives expression to their deepest ideals in their own words.
Q: Amish fiction authors are accused of romanticizing the Amish, of glossing over real problems. Some feel very vitriolic about it. How do you respond to that concern?
It’s true that many Amish fiction authors romanticize the Amish, creating characters in their own image or by exercising their imagination in a way that Amish wouldn’t recognize. Amish have a very different worldview than the general population.
On the other hand, Amish are people too, with all of the normal human longings that “the English” experience. At times, Amish fiction can give voice to some of the longings that Amish people feel but would find difficult to put into words.
It angers me to see the media take advantage of Amish people through reality shows or ridiculous depictions of them as the Amish Mafia. The Amish are gentle people who will not sue, so they allow these gross caricatures to pass by without challenging them via social media or in court.
While it’s mostly for commercial gain, retailers selling Amish cheese, Amish furniture, and Amish quilts without any Amish having touched these products could be seen as a compliment, of sorts. Being Amish has become a marketing brand in our society which has yielded Amish fiction as well as Amish products. Perhaps it says as much about our consumerist society as it says about the Amish themselves.
The bottom line in my writing—particularly my historical fiction—is to make sure that the Amish recognize it as an accurate portrayal of themselves. And yes, I check with Amish to make sure.
Q: What are your thoughts about the growth of Amish fiction? Why do you think it is such a popular sub-genre?
On the one hand, I’m grateful to see the broad interest about all things Amish in American society today. It signals a longing for the spiritual life, for communities that embrace a culture of certainty, communal discipline, and commitment to contrarian ideals. It’s gratifying to see that most Amish novels emphasize chaste living, the intimacy of family, and the love of children. Further, Amish fiction can be a good way to explore the natural tensions between a subculture and the wider society.
On the other hand, I’m dismayed when I see Amish characters distorted to fit the readers’ ideas of the good life. But I suppose this is only normal. Even the best historical novels do not portray their characters with complete accuracy. For example, my Amish colonial forebears did not brush their teeth, replace missing teeth, or wear deodorant. And even though they worked up a sweat on the farm, they may not have bathed more than every week or two. These facts, while true about the Amish as well as their non-Amish neighbors, would not be emphasized in a romance novel because it would offend our modern sensibilities.
Q: Tell us about your current work-in-progress.
I have just finished writing Joseph’s Dilemma, which should be on the bookshelves by June 1 as the second book in the Return to Northkill series. In this historical novel, I portray my ancestor Joseph Hochstetler as an Amish lad held captive in a Delaware Indian village. I trace his soul struggles alongside those of his adoptive native mother, exploring the clashes and congruities of two radically different cultures and religions. I strove to find common human themes in the intimate experiences of family, faith, and tragedy, whether Amish or Native American. The story ends when Joseph is forced by a British treaty to go back to his Amish home, facing the uncertainty of life in the community from whence he had been taken by force.
I’ve just embarked on writing Christian’s Hope, the third in the Return to Northkill series. It features Joseph’s younger brother, who was also forced by British treaty to leave his adopted Indian family. The book tells the story of Christian’s difficult journey of “reentry” into the Northkill Amish community, particularly his deep ambivalence about embracing Amish faith. In the midst of these difficult circumstances, a budding romance and the influence of a Christian mentor draw him into a neighboring church. Nevertheless, he stays connected to his Amish family and pursues a relationship with them that does not depend on membership in the same communion.
I’m passionate about writing narratives that accurately portray both the beauty and the messiness of human existence as lived out in communities of faith. I aim to write novels that teach as well as entertain, but without moralizing or shaking a finger at seeming inconsistencies. I am gratified, and sometimes a little frightened, when my readers identify so deeply with my characters that they forget there are fictional elements in the story.
Ervin R. Stutzman is Executive Director for Mennonite Church USA. He also served for nearly 12 years as Dean and Professor of Church Ministries at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Cincinnati and Eastern Mennonite Seminary and received his Ph.D. from Temple University.
Ervin was born a twin into an Amish home in Kalona, Iowa. After his father’s death a few years later, his mother moved the family to her home community near Hutchinson, Kan. Ervin was baptized in the Center Amish Mennonite Church near Partridge.
Some of Stutzman’s Herald Press publications include Welcome!, a book encouraging the church to welcome new members and Tobias of the Amish, a story of his father’s life and community. His latest release is the novel, Joseph’s Dilemma. Ervin enjoys doing woodworking projects with his wife, Bonita. They have three adult children, Emma, Daniel and Benjamin.
Order Joseph’s Dilemma here.
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