Today I would like to introduce you to an author friend of mine. Joanne is the author of two books, and one of my close writing buddies.
Welcome, Joanne! Tell us a little about yourself.
As a lifelong student of the Bible, I’ve done extensive Bible research, taken numerous Bible courses, and had the privilege and the joy of taking four exciting tours of Bible lands. I’ve taught foreign languages and English, and more recently, as an academic language therapist, I’ve helped dyslexic children strengthen their reading and writing skills. I’m a music lover and amateur pianist and especially enjoy accompanying singers.
Wow. That's quite a resume. How did you discover your calling to be a writer?
In a word: gradually. As a youngster in school, I actually found creative writing assignments intimidating. Later I discovered that writing can be a wonderful way to think through an idea in greater depth, and I wrote some articles and a few poems. But when I made an attempt to get a short story I’d written for teenagers published and wasn’t even given the courtesy of a rejection slip, I allowed myself to become discouraged.
In the ensuing years, however, two book ideas—one for young children and one for teens—came to me and refused to let go. These did not feel like ideas I personally had come up with. They felt like ideas I’d been divinely entrusted with, and I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I must share them somehow. Within a few years of the day when an author friend, Angela Sage Larsen, told me about independent publishing, both books—The You Song and Daughter of Jerusalem—had been completed and published.
Eventually I summoned up the courage to send my books to the highly respected Kirkus Reviews to get an unbiased evaluation of their literary worth. It was truly heartening to have a critic refer to Daughter of Jerusalem as “a moving, exquisitely written tale of a young woman’s search for meaning.” It has been a long and circuitous journey to becoming a published author, but a very worthwhile one.
What books have influenced your life most?
First and foremost, of course, the Bible, but two other books have also been especially important to me. Mary Baker Eddy’s book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, has been a very helpful guide in applying the healing Word of the Bible to my life. And Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, has really helped to open up the fount of my creativity since I first read it in 2002. There’s nothing like what she calls “morning pages” to get the juices flowing.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Much as I admire and enjoy reading the works of many different authors, there really isn’t one that stands out to me above all others or one that I try to emulate.
What is your favorite time in history?
I especially enjoy reading about both Bible history and American history. They go back to the roots of what I value most.
We have that in common! Please tell us about your book, Daughter of Jerusalem.
It had a long gestation period! Decades ago the basic outline of a story about a Jewish girl of 14 or 15—marriageable in the first century!—who has a life-changing encounter with Jesus began to develop in my imagination, but though I started doing some historical research, I was not yet ready to begin writing it or even certain that I could. The idea was shelved.
In 2009 I shared the outline of the story with my younger daughter, Meghan Williams, who ended up designing the cover. She was so enthusiastic about it that I resumed my research, but I still didn’t feel confident enough to start writing a novel. I turned to Angela with the thought that we might collaborate on it, but she had a book contract to fulfill first. She recommended I write an outline of the story in the meantime. To my happy surprise, the outline grew and grew until I realized that if I could get this far, I could write the book. And as I did, I felt as if God was gently leading me step by step through this unprecedented and inspiring process.
At first I was concerned that the book might be too short. At 88 pages for the story, it’s a novella rather than a novel. But as I thought of the print-shy dyslexic kids I’ve taught and of the busy lives most people lead, I realized that it could be an asset to have a book that most readers could sit down and finish in about the time it takes to watch a movie. For those who want to explore the story and its biblical roots in more depth, there’s a study guide in the back which includes about 30 pages of discussion questions, Bible references, and a glossary.
What was the most outstanding thing you learned while researching for this novella?
I learned a lot of interesting things about the life of first-century Jews—their menus, houses, clothing, tools, birthing practices, religious observances, taboos, etc. It was especially important to me, however, to know how they would have referred to God in their conversations. I’ve always thought of Yahweh as a Jewish term for God, but it’s actually a form of YHWH, the secret name which was considered too sacred even to speak aloud. So what would they have called God when conversing with one another? My research led me to the term HaShem, which means “the name” in Hebrew—a reference to the name that they were not to pronounce. I also learned that the name Adonai (Lord) was substituted for YHWH in prayers. So both these names found their way into my book.
What do you want your readers to take away from Daughter of Jerusalem?
Most importantly, an appreciation for the healing way that Jesus saw. Interestingly, the paragraph about it which follows Mara’s one-on-one encounter with him was not included in the first draft of that scene. But the following day, I realized that my young heroine would not simply turn around and start walking home after such a life-transforming moment. What was she thinking and feeling after this private conversation with the Master? This realization led me to write about what he had seen in her.
I also hope that if readers come to the book with the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or that all Pharisees were hypocrites who hated Jesus, this view will change. Mary is often thought of as the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, but this woman is never mentioned by name, and there is no indication whatsoever that she was Mary. In my story Mary is a devoted follower of Jesus whom he’d healed of demonic seizures (hence the “seven devils.”) As for the Pharisees, it’s true that most of those on the Sanhedrin did oppose Jesus, but some were also among his loyal followers, including the two who saw to it that his body was given a proper burial. I hope my readers will give them credit for the courage that took under the circumstances.
Any fun behind-the-scenes tidbits you’d like to share with us?
For me the most fun I had writing Daughter of Jerusalem was writing the dialogue. It tended to take on a life of its own, and I was never sure exactly where it would end up. One day, as my husband was walking by my study, I looked up from the computer keyboard and said, “I can’t wait to find out whether he’s going to propose to her!”
What is the next project you’re working on?
Right now I’m more involved in letting people know about the two books I’ve already written. The second one, The You-Song, is for young children. It’s illustrated with beautiful photos of boys and girls playing, working, and interacting with others—being God’s unique and wonderful songs. The text is written from my background as an academic language therapist, so it’s easy to read as well as poetic.
How can readers find you on the internet?
I have a website (joanneotto.com) and each of my books has its own Facebook page.
Thanks so much for being with us today, Joanne! You're book is downloaded on my kindle, and I'm looking forward to reading it.