B.J. Hoff interview on Focus on Fiction

Christian fiction author B.J. Hoff
Thoughts from Christian author B.J. Hoff
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Focus on Fiction is pleased to feature

B.J. Hoff

B.J. is a best-selling novelist who has won a number of awards and regularly delights a worldwide reading audience. She is the author of numerous books including An Emerald Ballad series, Cloth of Heaven, Ashes and Lace, The Penny Whistle, and the new American Anthem series.  She is also the winner of Christianity Today's Critic's Choice Award for Fiction, a Gold Medallion Award finalist, and winner of numerous Excellence in Media Silver Angel Awards. B.J. and her husband make their home in Ohio and share a love of music, books, and family get-togethers with two grown daughters and one grandson.


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Focus:   B.J., you've been a contributor to the fiction world for a number of years.  How many books have you published?

B.J. Hoff:  Including the third volume of the American Anthem series (my current work in progress)--20 novels. I've also published 5 devotional/inspirational gift books. 

Focus:  As a Christian author, how important do you feel it is to maintain balance in fiction between the dark realities of tragedy and sin and the hope of redemption?

B.J. Hoff:  How do you show the hope of redemption without showing the reality of our fallen nature or convey the grace of God without portraying the depravity of man? And could we ever appreciate the light if we're not aware of the darkness? Writing fiction from a Christian worldview means writing the whole story, not just the "good parts." It means writing about the world as it is, not just as I'd like it to be. For the Christian novelist, the balance is a tenuous one, but if interpreting truth and reflecting reality are to be incorporated into what I create, then I need to observe that balance as carefully as possible.

Focus:  Your fantastic new historical novels, The American Anthem Series, are available now.  Can you tell our readers a bit about books one and two, and give them a sneak peek at what's coming in book three?

B.J. Hoff:  I'm going to let an excerpt from the back cover copy introduce each of the first two books:

Prelude: "From the crowded tenements of New York City to the opulent mansions of the Hudson River Valley … from the music of evangelistic crusades held in a skating rink to the soaring strains that fill the concert hall …

At the entrance to the city, an Irish governess (Susanna Fallon) climbs into a carriage and sets out to confront the man who destroyed her sister's life--a blind musician (Michael Emmanuel) who hears music no one else can hear …. On a congested city street, a lonely Scots physician with a troubling secret (Andrew Carmichael) meets a woman doctor (Bethany Cole) who shares his heart for healing …. In a tumbledown shack among thousands of others just like it, an immigrant family (Conn and Vangie MacGovern and children) struggles to survive, and a ragged street singer appoints herself as an unlikely guardian."

Cadence: "A saga of the men and women whose love shaped America's heart and America's music. Cadence takes you on an unforgettable ride through the bustling world of nineteenth-century New York--the glittering rooms of stately mansions and opera houses … a magical, snowy Central Park where fur-clad lovers huddle close and share their feelings--and their fears … a squalid apartment where ragged children care for their opium-addicted mother …. 

In the music room of an opulent Hudson River estate, a young woman sits down at the piano to play music she would never share with the maestro she secretly loves …. On the edge of  a New York City slum, a dedicated young female doctor and an arthritic Scots physician climb into their carriage for a mysterious house call …. On a teeming city dock, a desperate, unemployed Irishman hears the scream of an abused stallion and buys his family a new life by running to the rescue."

And in Jubilee (Book Three): "At his secluded mansion in the Hudson River Valley, the blind musician, Michael Emmanuel, is forced to confront an old temptation he'd thought long vanquished, only to realize that this time the mask of deception wears the face of one he loves … In the crowded city streets of New York City, physician Andrew Carmichael is threatened not only by a deadly enemy from his past--but an unlikely nemesis cloaked in a clergyman's robes …. And in a life already haunted by tragedy, the dauntless Vangie MacGovern meets a new calamity head-on as she struggles to save both her unborn child and her eldest son."

Focus:  Your American Anthem book chapters each begin with interesting quotes.  Would you like to share any quotes you've found particularly inspiring?

B.J. Hoff:  Chapter Thirteen in Book One of Prelude, is introduced with a verse from Jeremiah that happens to be one of my favorites from Scripture: "For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord. "They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope." (Jeremiah 29:11--NLT)

Focus:  What do you feel is the greatest message with which God has entrusted you, and why have you chosen fiction as the medium for that message?

B.J. Hoff:  Difficult question. Each book I've written--from the very first title on--has been dedicated to God and prayed over continually, right up through the final page.  Always, I ask that He will convey whatever spiritual truth He wants communicated through me, so I genuinely believe that God is in control of any "message" that emerges from one of my books. But based on years of feedback from my readers and  editors--and my own sense of God at work through what I write--it seems to me that if there is one common "theme" that recurs in my books, it's Hope. Time after time this is what I hear from those who read my work. It isn't anything that I plan--I never begin a book with a "message" or a "theme" in mind … that's in God's hands … but Hope does seem to be a common element in what I write, and if it is, I'm deeply grateful. For where would we be without it? It's hope--our hope in God, in His Word, in His goodness and His grace, His promises, and His plan of salvation--that at times keeps us from total despair and enables us to endure. 

Focus:  You've said your stories usually begin in your mind with a certain character.  Can you tell us a little more about your story creating process?

B.J. Hoff:  Every novel I've ever written has begun with one character. All the other characters and the story that eventually develops seem to evolve from that character and his/her life and choices. For example, in my current series, the American Anthem, I began with Michael Emmanuel, a blind musician.  I began to question what might make a celebrity--in Michael's case, a celebrity in the music world who is also a Christian--turn his back on a life of fame and wealth and influence and leave it all behind.  In my earlier series, the Emerald Ballad, I began with the idea of an Irish renegade poet (Morgan Fitzgerald) who toted around a minstrel's harp and dedicated himself to thwarting the British at every opportunity. His life took an entirely different turn than he would have expected--a different turn than I expected--and, as was the case with Michael Emmanuel of the American Anthem, Morgan's life was the beginning of an entire series of books and a cast of some of my favorite characters.

I'm often asked if I outline, or just how carefully I "plot" my novels. In truth, I don't outline at all--writing fiction has always been much like a "journey" to me. I simply sit down with my character or characters and "take a trip." This kind of writing can, of course, mean some detours and wrong turns, and an author who writes this way isn't always as prolific as one who begins with all the details in place, but it's the only way for me. I did try outlining and meticulous plotting with my first couple of novels, but I found the process so  restrictive I made no progress at all. The editor I was working with at the time pointed out to me that each writer is different in the way he or she approaches a story, and if my way was to "wing it," then that's what I needed to do or else end up supremely frustrated. At that point, I pitched the outlines and the notes and started doing it "my way."   And that's how I've done it ever since.

Focus:  Do you write your novels strictly to entertain or do you hope to teach your readers something as well?

B.J. Hoff:  Neither.  It's my belief that a novel is meant to be a reflection, an observation of life and our world. The differences in characters--their history, their personalities, their struggles, their very lives--can account for a measure of entertainment, for pathos, even for comedy in some cases.  But my intention is to hold a mirror up to each character's life, so that ultimately, what a reader grasps or experiences doesn't depend on any attempts on my part to entertain or instruct, but on the characters themselves as they live out their lives--their stories--and allow the reader to share those lives. 

So, although a reader may be entertained or come away from a novel with new insight that might change them in some significant way, I would never write a novel simply to entertain or to teach. A story should be much more than an agenda: it should be an experience. 

Focus:  One of the most amazing experiences I've had was a visit to the Reader Review page on your website.   I couldn't hold back tears!  Would you be willing to share some of the comments you've received from readers, and tell us how their words have encouraged you?   

B.J. Hoff:  Through feedback like the following and other reader correspondence, I am continually reminded--and continually blessed to see --that God works in countless and unexpected ways to take my books, and those of so many other Christian writers, into the world to encourage and strengthen, to touch hearts--even change hearts--and attract others to Himself and the hope that only He can offer. Even after all these years, I still stand in awe to see what He can do with the words of one writer and the faithful, unrelenting  prayer support of family and friends.

"(Your books) … made me realize that, in the midst of evil, pain, and our own personal hell--God is with us, and light truly does come out of darkness." (R.K., Co. Fermanagh, No. Ireland)

"(Your books) … blessed and encouraged me, giving me a renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm for my work …. I just wanted to thank you and let you know that you have given to our ministry here in Cambodia more than you may have realized." (K.H., Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

"I'm going through a difficult period in my life … (your book) gave me back my faith. I want to thank you for … the truth that comes straight out of your heart." (D. P., Cassano Magnago, Italy) 

"I've been encouraged in my faith to see again how God keeps His hand on and shows His love to His people." (B. W., Papakura, New Zealand)

"Your book has given me new courage." (S.M., evangelist to Ireland)

"Through each of your characters, I feel more of the Lord's light shine upon me … you write to the heart of the people." (L.Y.W., Wellsville, NY)

"I found my heart and my spirit stirred to new faith, renewed certainty that God is more than able to overcome my self-perceived inadequacies …. " (M.N., Lakewood, Colorado)

Focus:  Is there a particular book among those you've written that you would especially recommend to our readers?  If so, why?

B.J. Hoff:  Like any other writer, I would hope that readers might somehow make their way to all my books. But if a reader could gain access to only one of my works, I suppose I'd especially recommend my current series in progress, the American Anthem--because time and again, but particularly throughout the development of this project, God has so clearly pressed upon my heart the significance and importance of the following words penned by one of my favorite hymn writers, Fanny Crosby: 

"I cannot sing the old songs, For me their charm is o'er. My earthly harp is laid aside, I wake its chords no more. The precious blood of Christ my Lord Has cleansed and made me free, And taught my heart a new song, Of His great love to me."

Focus:  What response do you hope to stir in the readers of your stories?

B.J. Hoff:  More love for Him. More glory to Him. Unending thanks to Him. And, perhaps …a "new song" because of Him.

Focus:  Besides posting reviews on your website, how can your readers and fans be an encouragement to you?

B.J. Hoff:  Certainly, "glowing reviews" on the internet bookstore sites--Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Christianbook.com and others--all help to give the books more outreach. What really sells fiction is word of mouth. I'd encourage readers to share the wonderful comments they've sent to me and their other favorite authors with their family and friends, their church family, bookstore staff, organizations and clubs, internet message boards, and, of course, with librarians. By doing so, they encourage me--and all Christian writers--and help to get the word out about the books they love and what God is doing with Christian fiction. 

But more than anything else, the most important thing they can do for me is to pray for me. Please … pray for me.

Focus:  Is there anything else you would like your readers to know?

B.J. Hoff:  Yes. I want to thank them for their loyalty--and for their patience with me. I'm not a writer who can develop my novels quickly. How I wish I could! So I deeply appreciate their willingness to wait on each new title--and their notes and cards of encouragement while they wait!

I genuinely love hearing from my readers. They can e-mail me through the e-mail address on Focus on Fiction, or from my web site.  Or they can write to me through my publishers, who will forward their mail to me.  I also want to encourage readers to visit my web site, www.bjhoff.com regularly to keep updated on new books or other news. 

Just one last thing: I know that many of my readers are also in the ministry of "communicating Christ." Some are writers, some are musicians or artists. Some are teachers or librarians or pastors or nurses or doctors or full-time moms and dads. Many work "behind the scenes" in the church or are part of the decision-making process in their local congregations. While a number of them are constantly in the "limelight" as they serve, most are among the "unsung heroes" as they work quietly backstage in Christian service. Whoever they are, wherever they are, whatever they're doing in their daily lives to share God's love, I want them to have a copy of something I wrote years ago (which also appears in the front of Cadence, Book Two of the American Anthem). God pressed these words upon my heart during a time when many writing colleagues were undergoing an especially difficult struggle in their publishing experience--and I keep them always before me for my own encouragement:

"It matters not if the world has heard

Or approves or understands ….

The only applause we're meant to seek

Is that of nail-scarred hands."  (BJ Hoff)


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