Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Catholic novelist Ruth Hogan Herne about her latest novel “Refuge of the Heart”. Ruth is a gifted storyteller; I was captivated by the characters, plot and message of this novel before I finished reading the first chapter. Her prose is well-written, and the dialogue sounds true to life. My reaction to this novel reminded me of the English poet and philosopher Samuel Coleridge’s term “the suspension of disbelief”. “Refuge of the Heart” passed Coleridge’s test of a well-written book because I forgot I was reading fiction.
However, “Refuge of the Heart” is not merely a well-written Christian romance; it tackles complex moral and social issues with equally complex, multi-layered characters. It is actually a parable about the triumph of faith and the strength of the human spirit to thrive, not just survive, adversity.
Remember, Jesus was a storyteller
Although Catholic scholars and serious writers might overlook works of fiction in favour of sober spiritual reads, they might consider the fact that the Son of God did not write essays but told simple parables, leaving His listeners free to unearth deeper meanings.
At first glance, Christian romance would not seem to be a likely vehicle to bring up topics like sexual slavery and genocide but Ruth illustrates the power of fiction to deal with such delicate topics. Without knowing all the gory details from the past, the reader experiences the emotional repercussions of a traumatic life through the eyes of Lena, a refuge to the States. As Mitch, a well-to-do district attorney and political figure, falls in love with Lena and comes to care for her little sister, their two worlds collide.
The social commentary is subtle, simply part of the dramatic tension of the story because Ruth is a storyteller, not an essayist. She laughed at my insights but had to agree with me; she does not shock her readers with overwhelming facts but still manages to inform and challenge them just like Jesus did when He told His parables.
Catholic Stand: Ruthy, you are a mother of six and a grandmother who lives in the country. Even though you have experienced the harsh realities of poverty, you still delight in other people and still enjoy adorable little children.On your blog and author pages, you present a warm, approachable author who invites readers to relax, have a cup of coffee and ask questions. In my opinion, it is a brilliant way to brand yourself, to articulate who you are, what you have to say and who you are saying it to.
Do your readers respond to this invitation to ask questions? Do their comments and insights affect how you write your next book?
Ruthy: I love being called brilliant, I’m going to take that word and just frame it and put it above my sink so my children will see it and finally be convinced!
All kidding aside, yes, my readers like to chat with me on my blog. Now as for that affecting my writing, well, yes and no. I think the main thing that has propelled this amazingly successful midlife career is that I write the kind of books I like to read. I love people, I love kids, I like chatting and getting to know folks. So when I’m writing, I want readers to feel like they’re part of the neighborhood as if the characters are the neighbors down the road.
Catholic Stand: “Refuge of the Heart” is much more than a Christian, “clean” romance novel. I find some Christian romances to be written so self-consciously, I cringe as I read the inserted Bible verses or stilted prayers. In contrast, your spirituality is obviously integrated into the process of writing.
Do you see writing as a vocation, a call from God? Do you write spontaneously or do you write by following a plot line, a diagram of the novel?
Ruthy: First, thank you for that opening sentence. I wanted to touch hearts and souls with this book, and that was Holy Spirit inspired, absolutely. I’m so glad you felt that way about it.
This is such a good question, and one that’s probably different for each author. I see my writing as a calling. I knew as a child I wanted to write books that helped people, the way books helped me. Books and kind librarians and Girl Scout leaders and teachers were my lifeboats as a child, they were what kept me believing that God had other plans for me.
Being able to write these stories now is the culmination of that childhood knowledge. Not a dream; it wasn’t as if I hoped to write someday. It was more that I knew I’d write someday, and that I would touch hearts, but I had to do it on God’s time, not my own. Having a big family, like you, made writing pretty much impossible. I couldn’t disengage from my kids to engage in writing because it takes focus, but it’s all worked out beautifully because the Christian market was opening up at the same time I was getting up at 4:00 AM to write! God’s perfect timing!
I write spontaneously, with a story idea or proposal in mind. I don’t do diagrams or outlines, because I’m not sure how the characters will react until I put them in a situation, and those situations arise as I write. So I’m a “pantser” who goes into the book knowing the story I want to tell and then weaving it around that idea.
Catholic Stand: Are the main themes of “Refuge of the Heart” important to you? Are they connected to personal experiences or are they issues God has put on your heart?
Ruthy: The thread of sacrificial love is wound throughout this story. It’s a concept best demonstrated by God and Christ, and one we can wind quietly through our everyday lives, simply by putting others first.
I was a child born into a poverty-stricken family at a time when my parents kind of just fell apart. They both ended up as alcoholics and our home was a wretched place from my earliest memory. My brilliant mother had finally hit a wall she couldn’t climb; she stopped drinking when I was in my thirties. Knowing her sober was like finally meeting her, face to face.
So the theme of overcoming rough pasts, women empowerment, and using faith to strengthen us is present in every book I write to varying degrees. Lena’s story idea came to me from two directions. My daughter went to Asia to visit a refugee camp outside of Burma/Myanmar, the Karen people who’d fled to Thailand to avoid the kind of persecution Lena faced in Chechnya.
At the same time, an influx of insurgency was happening in Chechnya. I saw an Internet blurb about a small, Catholic enclave that disappeared, and I thought what if one survived? That’s how the story began, trying to see how Lena survived, how she got out, and how different life is her, comparatively.
Words of wisdom
When I asked Ruth if she had any last words of wisdom to pass on to aspiring writers, she stressed the publishing world is brutal, not only for writers but for publishing companies as well; many simply fold and disappear. Catholic writers must be flexible as well as tough, dedicated to writing even if they remain unpublished for a season. Although she speaks from experience, Franciscan Media has now stepped up to fill the gap.
May God continue to bless your writing, Ruthy.
You can buy Ruth’s novels through Franciscan Media and Amazon:
Franciscan Media, formerly known as St. Anthony Messenger Press, has branched out to publish more Catholic fiction. This news is inspiring for Catholic writers like Ruth Logan Herne who has been forced to delete even fleeting references to priests or the Mass in her novels when approaching generic Christian publishers. As a Catholic fiction writer, Ruth has struggled to get published even though she now has almost 30 published novels. Although many unpublished novels still sit on her shelf, Ruth continues to write at least 1,000 words every day for the last thirteen years. Prior to publishing with Franciscan Media, “Refuge of the Heart” had been rejected by nine different publishers. Ruthy was ready to push the button and self-publish when Franciscan Media expressed interest in this Christian romance novel.
First published on Catholic Stand