Regency Catholic Interview with Catholic Author Therese Heckenkamp:
Q: As a Catholic author, what do you consider is the purpose of art in general, and literature in particular?
Art can be a wonderfully fulfilling means of expression and enjoyment for the artist, while at the same time it (hopefully) entertains and/or entices others to ponder and take something away from it. Ideally, art should give glory to God by reflecting, if even in a very small way, the beauty and wonder of His creation.
As for literature in particular, most people turn to it for entertainment, so they should find that there, but hopefully they find something more, perhaps glimpses of a higher beauty, a higher truth. Glimpses that will linger and inspire. Literature gives us a valuable opportunity to examine life in a way we may never otherwise consider.
Q: There are different theories on style of writing. Looking back at the various styles of classical literature, do you believe modern authors are capable of producing what will some day come to be recognized as Classical literature?
Yes, I do believe some modern authors will produce literature that will be someday be considered Classical literature, but I also think this literature will be quite different in style from the Classics we know today. It will be unique to our own time period and undoubtedly influenced, for better or worse, by this time period. If the writing and the theme and the story are memorable enough and touch enough readers, the books will be remembered and will endure the test of time.
Q. Some have suggested that as authors we should adapt our writing style to make it more modern, action oriented, etc. Others say an author has to find their own unique voice in order to be a success. Still others have suggested that one should reflect the style of writing of the type of book one is attempting to write, e.g. Regency fiction authors should be reading Jane Austen to get them into that mindset, etc. Which theory on style would you agree with, or do you agree with any of these? And do you find your writing style has been influenced by your favorite authors?
I believe there is some value in all these theories, but a writer should also be careful not to become restricted by following any of these theories as hard and fast rules. It doesn’t harm writers to strive to make their fiction lively, with some action, as this generally keeps reader turning pages—always a good thing! And we have so much to compete with these days: the lure of computers, television, video games, etc.
A unique voice can be a good thing, if it is a voice readers will enjoy hearing. But if the writer tries too hard to come up with a unique voice, this can end up making the voice sound artificial. It’s probably best to let it come naturally; as one spends more time writing, their voice will develop. As for reflecting the style of a certain genre: if I’m going to classify my novel in a certain genre, most readers do come to the genre with certain expectations, and I don’t want to disappoint. However, a variety of styles can be refreshing, and if all books in a certain genre sound too much alike, that would be dull.
Finally, I do think my own writing has been influenced by the authors I read. Some of it is a subconscious soaking in, while reading, of what I like and don’t like, what seems to work, what doesn’t, and what leaves a lasting impression. In my teens I read a lot of suspense books, authors like Lois Duncan and Victoria Holt. I moved on to Christian fiction, and when I discovered specifically Catholic fiction, I fell in love. I realized this is the genre I wanted to work in. So I’ve ended up writing novels that I call Catholic suspense.
Q. There are many “modern classics” that juniors and seniors in high school are obliged to read, e.g. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Beloved, Things Fall Apart, etc. what are some modern classics that you object to, and what are some that you think sincerely deserve the title?
I suppose I would have to be more well-read to really do this question justice. As a homeschooled student, I was spared being required to read questionable modern classics. In college literature, I do recall reading offensive pieces that simply had no morality whatsoever, and I didn’t enjoy them or feel they enriched my life in any way; instead they left me with a feeling of bleakness and pointlessness, reinforcing the fact that I didn’t want to write like this. No, life isn’t perfect, far from it. But even in the darkest of situations, there can be light and hope. I don’t think it’s healthy mentally to mire readers, particularly impressionable students, in stories that offer mainly confusion and despair with no redeeming sense of truth and goodness. I do believe that evil and darkness can be depicted in fiction, but it should not be promoted. A modern classic I would suggest is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.
Q. It seems that many Catholic authors in their writing struggle with balance between presenting the Faith in such a way that we aren’t bashing readers over the head with it, and leaving it out altogether; it’s a subtle art. Have you experienced any trouble in doing that, or do you ever feel that you perhaps do not say something as strongly as it needs to be said for the sake of not offending your audience?
This can certainly be a tricky area. Incidentally, neither one of my two novels started out as being intentionally Catholic (simply because, at that time, I didn’t realize there would be readers for this type of fiction). But some Catholicism crept in anyway, because this is an important part of who I am. My first novel, Past Suspicion, contained minimal Catholic aspects, but it was recently slightly revised and republished with more of the Faith worked in.
Over time and with numerous manuscript revisions of my second novel, Frozen Footprints, the Catholic elements became absolutely essential to the characters and the plot. With a third (a work in progress) manuscript, I knew from the start that it would be predominantly Catholic, and I’m so happy to have discovered the Catholic fiction niche, because this is the type of writing I’m drawn to.
Some authors may write their first draft with an overload, perhaps, of Catholic elements and may find that, to make the story less bogged down, they need to trim some of it. Sometimes, less can be more effective, more striking and memorable. Catholic writers should always remain true to the Faith, of course, while keeping in mind that they are writing fiction, and the story should entertain, not preach. Since I now picture my audience as, first and foremost, a Catholic audience, I figure they will appreciate the Catholic references. At the same time, I do want my books to be wide-read and perhaps influence others to think about the Faith, so I do find myself considering how certain aspects might strike a non-Catholic. I want to make sure my presentation of Catholic material is honest but not off-putting. I do my best, asking God to guide my words, and then I write. When I’m ready for feedback, I ask some select people to read my work, and if things are too preachy, they will point it out and I’ll reconsider whether the material should remain or be revised. I find that getting other people’s honest feedback is very valuable in helping to figure out how to strike the right balance of religious content in a story.
Q. What other genres and age groups do you see yourself writing for in the future?
I would like to write for children as well as teens and adults. I know that’s a wide range, but it keeps things interesting. I have a middle-grade novel manuscript that I’ve been sitting on for about ten years, but it needs revisions before it would be ready for publication. I enjoy reading historical fiction, so I would like to try my hand at that someday–if I can handle all the research.
Q. Certain Catholic writing has attained the status of classical literature, i.e. books by Evelyn Waugh, G.k. Chesterton, Graham Greene; in your view, what is it that differentiates their novels from today’s Catholic novels? What do you see as some of the major failings of popular Catholic novels today in the context of long-term success?
I don’t know how qualified I am to answer this, as there are still many Catholic books on my to-read list, but here are my meager thoughts: classical Catholic literature earned this title because these stories are so well-crafted, entertaining, unique, and unforgettable, that readers just kept on reading them. The books weren’t just for Catholics, but were and are enjoyed by readers of many faiths. I don’t think these writers were, above all, trying to teach Catholicism, but they let the Catholicism enrich the stories in a way that was fascinating enough to enthrall almost all readers.
Thus for the popular Catholic novels of today to enjoy long-term success, they need to have the ability to be read and enjoyed by most readers, not solely Catholics. The fact is, too much preaching will scare many readers away. Additionally, the writing itself must be seamless, the story engrossing and memorable. So many countless elements make up a classic, and of course most books, even very well-written ones, will not stand the test of time. There must be something additional, something that resonates to the very heart and soul of the reader, a human condition that can be related to by people no matter what era they live in, that makes a book truly timeless.
Q. We currently don’t have a Catholic fiction section in our bookstores. Given the limitations of the modern reading public and publishing companies towards Catholic authors, do you think modern Catholic novels that headline under “Catholic fiction” will ever be able to reach that block-buster level of popularity one sometimes sees in the Christian fiction market?
Good question. It would be a wonderful thing to see, indeed. Sadly, I don’t know how realistic it would be in this day and age, but then, God-willing, it’s possible. All Catholic fiction can technically also be classified under Christian fiction, so if other Christian books can make it, why not Catholic ones? If a book is read and enjoyed by enough people, it could happen. And that would be a wonderful thing for our culture!
Q. It seems that there has been an upswing in the number of small publishing companies whose sole interest is in publishing Catholic fiction. Yet, the Catholic fiction market seems like a chicken and egg scenario for the Catholic author – not enough demand, so not enough publishers, not enough published, so there is no demand because the public doesn’t even think of it as a genre. In recent years have you seen any growth in the demand for Catholic fiction that justifies the establishment of these new companies?
I can’t say for sure, but I hope the demand is increasing. I think it hinges on awareness. As awareness of this genre continues to grow through the many Catholic channels online and the promotion that is done by diligent authors and publishers, hopefully the number of readers will grow, too. If readers enjoy these books, they will spread the word and come back for more. Even if there hasn’t been much growth yet, I’m very glad that there are publishers out there willing to give these books a chance and help encourage the market growth.
Q. Each year that goes by gives you more experience as an author. Have you found that your opinions have changed on anything in regards to the Catholic Fiction market? Do you have anything new to add, and what is one thing that you have found invariably stays the same?
Yes, although it may seem difficult, it is not impossible to break into this market. It takes prayers, patience, and perseverance. Opportunities seemed very limited even just a few years ago, but now I think the opportunities for Catholic writers are increasing. The growing web presence gives us more chance of reaching Catholic readers directly, through Catholic forums, blogs, websites, reviewers, etc. A new Catholic fiction publisher, Tuscany Press, just held a contest for works of new Catholic fiction (offering cash prizes and publishing contracts)—what a great opportunity!—and they plan to run this contest on an annual basis. I’ve also found the Catholic Writers Guild to be valuable in offering a support group for Catholic writers, as well as resources for promotion, marketing, and overall networking.
An important thing I have learned is that we writers need to make a huge effort to market our work—not just before publication, but especially after publication—if we want to find any type of readership. With so many books out there, the chances of someone just “stumbling” across a book are very slim (unless it is put out by a huge publishing house). We need to build awareness by promotion.
Finally, one thing that stays the same: if it’s fiction, readers (and publishers) are still, above all, looking for an entertaining read. Catholic fiction can’t stand simply on the fact that it’s Catholic. The fiction has to be compelling.
Thank you for this interview opportunity and for such thought-provoking questions!