We continue with our series of interviews with Australian authors. Welcome to Jo-Anne Berthelsen whom I met in Sydney last year at the Omega Christian writers group in Sydney.
Could you tell us some of your background and how you got into writing?
Besides being a mum to three children, I’ve worked as a high school teacher, an editor, a secretary and also as part of a church ministry team. I have always wanted to write but had never felt the time was right to start. However, in my mid-fifties, soon after finishing at our church, I sensed God was showing me clearly it was high time to take up the challenge of writing fiction. In essence, I felt God was saying to me with a gentle and loving sigh: ‘Come on, Jo, how many times do I have to show you? Go home and start writing!’
What prompted your first book?
Twenty years before I started writing, I met a Czech migrant whose real life story challenged me deeply. She had lost so much, yet still showed such courage and determination to keep going.
I told my husband that one day I would write a story about her, but by the time God challenged me to start writing, our Czech friend had passed away. She had no living relatives in Australia and we were left with only snippets of information about her life. So I decided to use those snippets to write my first novel, Heléna. I wanted to highlight the importance of holding onto our faith in God, whatever happens in life. While parts of that novel and its sequel, All the Days of My Life, are true, I had to create a whole family around my main character and invent many other aspects of the story as well.
You’ve written in a variety of genres. What are they?
I have written six published novels, all inspirational Christian fiction, with Heléna classified as historical fiction and the rest as contemporary. I’ve also written two non-fiction works. My memoir Soul Friend is the story of my years of journeying with my older spiritual friend and mentor Joy. My second memoir/non-fiction work, Becoming Me explores the theme of finding my true self in God and becoming more of the person God created me to be. Becoming Me is not pure memoir, however, because it also contains reflection questions at the end of each chapter, as well as small amounts of teaching content.
Why did you choose to write fiction?
As I’ve already explained, the choice was thrust upon me because our Czech migrant friend had passed away. I could not tell her actual story but I soon found I loved fleshing out out Heléna’s character. I also enjoyed devising other twists and turns in the plot as I introduced other characters.
Another perhaps subconscious reason I chose to write novels might be that I’ve loved reading them all my life. When I started writing, I longed to give my readers the same enjoyment I’d had so many times myself. I wanted to touch people’s hearts in the same way mine had so often been touched.
You’ve chosen to write Christian fiction – why did you go that route? Could you explain the variety of options facing Christians who write?
Years ago, I heard someone say that stories respect people, because they allow them to listen in on someone else’s journey. Like Jesus’ parables, stories don’t say straight out ‘this is what you are like’. Rather they give readers or listeners the chance to place themselves somewhere among the characters or in the story line and respond. I think non-believers can find Christian novels that highlight some key aspect of the Gospel story much less threatening than some factual explanation or ‘how to’ book and that these stories can soften their hearts to want to know and experience more of God.
I also think it’s important to note what Jesus himself said about why he chose to tell stories or parables, as recorded in The Message version of Matthew 13:10-13:
The disciples came and asked, “Why do you tell stories?”
He replied, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories; to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it.
I honour other Christians who write novels for the general market that don’t explicitly mention God or Jesus, yet are well-written and wholesome. They strive not only to convey some positive message but to be exciting and entertaining as well. In that way, they are creating wonderful ‘music’, just as Christian composers might do, mirroring aspects of God’s creative heart to the world and generally using their God-given gifts and writing as God may well have led them to write.
Still other Christian authors choose some middle ground and endeavour to write ‘crossover’ books that can bridge both the Christian and secular market and I honour them too. I may well choose to go down a similar path myself sometime in the future. But for now, I think I am most comfortable including a fair amount of ‘faith content’ in my novels, all the while keeping them as readable as I can.
What is the purpose of your writing?
I write my novels not only to provide my readers with a clean, enjoyable read but also, as Jesus says in Matthew 13:13 above, ‘to nudge the people toward receptive insight’. With my nonfiction books, each of them had a different key purpose. I wrote Soul Friend to encourage others to find a mentor or be a mentor to others on the Christian journey.
I wrote Becoming Me to encourage readers to discover how they could become the person God created them to be.
Do you have a favorite book among the ones you’ve written? Why?
I love all my novels for different reasons but I think my sixth novel, The Inheritance, is my best fiction writing. As for which of my non-fiction books is my favourite, again, I love them both for different reasons. I love Soul Friend because it is my tribute to my lovely ‘soul friend’ Joy. And I love Becoming Me, because it conveys my heartfelt desire for others to know they are God’s unique and loved creation with so much to offer others.
Who are the ideal audience for your books?
Although, a wide variety of people enjoy my novels, the ‘ideal audience’ would be Christian women between 20 and 40. For Soul Friend it would be for any Christians wanting to be mentored or mentor others. And for Becoming Me it would be younger Christians who want to discover more about themselves and where God fits.
Are you working on something new at the moment?
I am endeavouring to write my seventh novel, inspired by the life of my grandmother, but many things have intervened.
How can we find out more? Where can we buy your books?
My books are available from my website via Paypal, direct deposit or cheque.
They are also in Christian bookstores across Australia, including Koorong, and on Amazon, Book Depository, Books in Stock etc. As well, my last four are available as e-books via Amazon, Koorong etc.