In today’s busy world, we all rush to and fro, and while Joan Hochstetler doesn’t have that market cornered, she’s definitely in the running.
A prolific writer, Joan has written volumes of fiction set in the Revolutionary War period. Her book, One Holy Night, won the Christian Small Publisher’s Book of the Year Award in 2009. And, even more unusual, the award-winning book was published by her imprint, Sheaf House, a publishing company she started a few years ago with the idea of helping other writers.
Fifteen books—and two new imprints later—Joan offers sage advice for young writers who are trying to navigate their way through the world of publishing.
You are a multi-published author, a former professional editor, and now a publisher. How did this writing life come about?
It’s been a circuitous path. I really wanted to be an artist, not a writer, but although I had some talent, I didn’t really feel I had the genius to pursue that ambition. I’ve been an avid reader ever since I was introduced to Dick and Jane, and I did a bit of writing in high school and college, mainly poetry and some short essays—nothing serious. I also wrote articles for the student newspaper published at the regional campus of Indiana University, where I attended before moving to the main campus. I don’t recall writing any fiction at all at that point, though.
When I was a young wife and mother back in 1977, I had a dream one night that was so intriguing I had to write the story to figure out who these people were and why they were doing what they were doing. That turned into my medieval epic tragedy, which I swear I will get published someday! Anyway, after I completed a couple of novels, I gathered my courage and began to submit proposals and collect the consequent rejection slips. Life kept happening, and I kept writing off and on. I finally got an agent in 2002, and she got me my first book contract that same year.
What would you want to do if you didn’t work in publishing?
Over the years I’ve been attracted to a number of careers, all of which are about equally appealing to me. I’d be either an artist, an archaeologist, an interior designer, or a landscape designer. Writing chose me, probably because I couldn’t make up my mind about the other options!
Who/what influenced your writing career the most?
To be honest, the classic stories I’ve read over the years have influenced my writing more than anyone I’ve ever known personally, so I have to credit those authors. They include Charlotte Bronté, Elizabeth Goudge, Betty Smith, Albert Payson Terhune, Walter Farley, Charles Dickens, Rafael Sabatini, James Hilton, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Shakespeare, and many others who escape my mind at the moment.
What’s the story behind Sheaf House?
I never ever conceived that one day I’d start my own publishing house. I’m a creative person. I want to write, not administer and figure out financials and plot marketing strategy. But God always throws a few curves along our path.
Over the years as rejection slips filled up my mailbox, I occasionally muttered to myself, “I just ought to start my own publishing house.” It’s dangerous to challenge the Lord, as I’m sure you’ve experienced in your own life. And back in 2006 after my two published books fizzled and every door slammed shut in my face, I was stomping around the house one day, totally frustrated, and I uttered that threat once too often. This time I heard a distinct voice saying very clearly, “Well . . . why don’t you?” Expectation hung in the air.
I stopped in my tracks. I didn’t have a single doubt as to who was speaking, and I knew that if I didn’t say yes right away or if I hesitated for a split second, reason and common sense would prevail and I’d decide I hadn’t really heard anything and slink quietly away. So I gulped and said, “Okay, Lord, if your hand is in it, I’ll walk through every door you open. You know very well I can’t do this, so if it’s going to happen, you’ll have to do it. It’ll be what you want it to be, big or small, a success or a failure, because it’s yours, not mine.”
At that point, the Lord began opening doors, and he’s still opening them. Every day I’m amazed—though underneath I’m not really surprised. There is literally nothing impossible for God. If he can enable me to run a publishing house, believe me, he can certainly enable anyone to do anything he calls them to do, no matter how unlikely it seems.
Sheaf House is relatively new, but you have received a lot of industry attention, including the Christian Small Publishers Association Book of the Year Award last year for your book, One Holy Night. How many books has Sheaf House published to date?
With the publication of our Fall 2010 list, we’ll have 15 books in print by 12 different authors. We have seven additional authors currently under contract and are going to contract at least a couple more within the next month or so.
What’s coming up next?
Books, of course! Lots of them. As an author, I’m working on completing book 4 of my American Patriot Series, Crucible of War, which is scheduled to publish in Fall 2011. We’re also going to release updated editions of books 1 and 2.
For Sheaf House, this year we rolled out a new imprint for nonfiction, Journey Press. In 2011 we’re introducing another new imprint, Narrow Road Press, which will focus on edgier, grittier fiction that’s outside the boundaries of our main Sheaf House line, including sci-fi, fantasy, literary novels, and speculative fiction.
What are the criteria for becoming a Sheaf House author? Are you accepting submissions?
Unfortunately we’re so covered up with fiction proposals that we can’t accept any more submissions until we make a decision about the ones we’re holding. We’re already scheduling into 2013, so I really can’t consider anything more until at least fall 2011 as far as fiction is concerned. We will look at nonfiction, though. We need to expand that line.
When we do accept fiction submissions again, we’ll be looking for novels with a Christian worldview and an uplifiting, redemptive message, though they don’t necessarily need to mention God as such. We’re really not in the market for the standard “CBA” type romances. We prefer authors who push the boundaries a bit and topics that delve outside the usual box in a wide range of genres. For nonfiction, we’re always looking for biographies, autobiographies, important memoirs, humor, Bible studies, and books on topics that appeal to both believers and seekers.
It’s difficult to break into book publishing. What advice would you give young writers who are looking for their first break?
I really think the most important thing for a writing career is to not become impatient and try to hurry the process. Live life and think deeply about what you experience, those you encounter along your way, and what you see, feel, and dream. Read truly excellent, challenging literature that broadens your horizons and gives you insights into life beyond what you can attain through your own experience. I don’t think it’s possible to write well unless you do so.
While you’re honing your craft—and that really is a never-ending endeavor—join a local writers group whose members are serious about their careers, maybe a national or international group too, and attend conferences that are appropriate for the kind of writing you do. Conferences offer workshops that will help you to become a better writer and also teach you the business end of this career—everything from managing your finances to how to format a manuscript and write a proposal. And you’ll connect not just with other writers, but also with editors and agents. Those connections will help you to get a foot in the door. It’s really hard to get an editor’s attention by mailing in a manuscript that then ends up in the slush pile. Trust me, I know.
How does your faith play into your work?
It’s everything. I literally could not get out of bed in the morning if I didn’t have Jesus’ arms to lean on.
Has God ever provided an unexpected “detour” in your life that turned out to be positive?
You bet! I began writing in 1977 and didn’t get a publishing contract until 2002, for Daughter of Liberty, which published in 2004. The sequel, Native Son, released the following year. That was a very long time to wait to get published, but before I even signed the contract, the editor who acquired my books and would have been my champion left the publishing house. The editor who replaced him cancelled the series well before Native Son even came out. And without any support, the books didn’t go anywhere. My agent and I ended up terminating the contract, and then nobody would touch any of my proposals. It was like I’d hit a brick wall. My dreams were absolutely shattered.
But out of that came Sheaf House and the ability to help other authors in the same situation and make sure they had a much better experience in the publishing world than I had. It’s been a calling and a joy. So you just never know what God has in mind when he allows you to walk through the fire, so to speak.
How do you divide your writing life from your role as a publisher? Do you have a writing routine? Where do you write?
You’re talking about balance, and I have no idea what that is. I sure wish I could figure it out! The truth is that there is no typical day for me. I never know what to expect or what’s going to have priority in the next 24 hours. I just climb out of bed in the morning, down my cup of coffee and bowl of cereal, then plunge in wherever the most urgent voices are screaming my name the loudest, whether that’s writing a new scene in one of my own projects or handling Sheaf House business. Row and bail frantically are my modus operandi. That’s what I do. And I LOVE it!!!
Seriously, my goal is to set aside at least an hour at the beginning and/or end of the day to focus on my current work in progress, though I don’t always manage that. I write either at my desk in my office or at the kitchen table on my laptop where I can spread out my research materials more easily. I also have a small digital voice recorder that I carry with me when I’m driving somewhere. Driving seems to allow me to free associate and come up with plot points and dialog. I record my ideas, and then transcribe them when I’m at the computer.
Let’s talk about your latest book. Wind of the Spirit is the third in your American Patriot series. Tell us about it.
Wind of the Spirit released in 2009. It begins with my heroine, Elizabeth Howard, scrambling for intelligence General Washington desperately needs if he’s going to prevent the British from capturing New York. Elizabeth’s assignment leads her into the very maw of war at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, where disaster threatens to end the American rebellion once and for all.
Yet all the while her heart is fixed on Brigadier General Jonathan Carleton, whose whereabouts remain unknown more than a year after he disappeared into the wilderness while on assignment for Washington. Unknown to her, Carleton, now the Shawnee war chief White Eagle, is caught in a bitter war of his own against the white settlers who are encroaching on Shawnee lands, the love of the beautiful widow Blue Sky, the malicious designs of the shaman Wolfslayer—and the longing for Elizabeth that will not give him peace.
Where did you get the idea for the series?
The series really started as a stand-alone book—Daughter of Liberty. Back in the early 1980s, I watched a TV movie that was set during the French Revolution, The Scarlet Pimpernel, starring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. It knocked my socks off! I was so enthralled by the storyline and the characters that I didn’t want to let them go. I quickly decided I had to write my own version of the story.
Not being particularly interested in the French Revolution, I decided to set my novel during the American Revolution and made my main character a woman instead of a man. And then, of course, she had to have a love interest who would be at odds with her dangerous role—basically switching the roles of Sir Percy and Marguerite in The Scarlet Pimpernel. I dove headlong into researching the era, and everything just grew from there.
Besides providing entertainment, what is the one thing you hope readers will take away from the American Patriot series?
I hope that through these stories readers will see God’s hand working in the past and in our lives today so they can have confidence that God is in control of our future. And I want them to understand and value the sacrifices our founding generation made to provide the freedoms we enjoy today. My fear is that if we don’t learn our nation’s history and value the lessons it teaches us, we’ll lose this precious heritage. And once lost, it will be very difficult to regain.
What is your current writing project?
Crucible of War, which is book 4 of the series. This one covers the battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Saratoga, and delves more deeply into the political situation. Of course the various love stories of the characters continue to develop as well.
A few fun questions…
When the words aren’t flowing—or when you want to celebrate if they are—what is your favorite comfort food and why?
Oh, goodness, I’ll eat just about anything! Given my choice, though, I’d probably make up a big batch of fresh salsa and settle down with a bowl of lime chips and a caffeine-free coke. Even when I’m not really hungry, I can eat salsa and chips. I suppose I prefer vegetables to sweet foods because I grew up on a farm, and we always had fresh, home-grown vegetables ripe out of the garden.
If you were a song, what kind of song would you be?
A hymn. The older I get, the more meaningful the old hymns become to me, and the more comforting they are.
Are you a major or a minor chord?
Those two parts battle in my soul. I still haven’t figured out which one is winning.
In the story that is your life, are you the strong, female lead; the girl next door; the mysterious woman behind dark glasses; the super heroine; or the little girl trying to walk in high heels?
I’ve always been the girl next door, alas. HATE that, but there’s no getting around it. I’d much rather be the mysterious woman behind dark glasses, but that just isn’t me.
Please tell us about your pets. Dogs? Cats?
Currently my husband and I don’t have any pets, though we enjoy our grandpuppy, an apricot Shi-Poo named Sadie. My daughter and her family also have two kittens and six chickens, so we can experience pets vicariously. Over the years I’ve had dogs, cats, mice (the kids’ not mine!), and finches. I’m definitely a dog person, but at this point in our lives my husband and I are both simply too busy to take care of a pet. If we had one, I’d feel guilty and constantly agonize about its psychological needs and feel like I needed to entertain it . . .
Thank you so much for inviting me, Kathy! I’ve enjoyed our conversation very much!
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For more information about Sheaf House and its authors, logon to www.sheafhouse.com
For more information about J. M. Hochstetler books, logon to www.jmhochstetler.com/