Dialogue with an Adventist writer from Canada
Trudy Morgan-Cole is the product of an Adventist home and education. She grew up as a fourth-generation Adventist in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. She received all her education in the Adventist system, finishing elementary and high school at St. John’s Seventh-day Adventist Academy in Newfoundland, and then graduating from Andrews University in 1986 with a B.A. in English and history. After working as a teacher in Ontario and Alberta, she returned to her hometown, where she earned a master’s degree in English and counseling psychology from Memorial University. Morgan-Cole is an experienced writer; Review and Herald Publishing Association published her first book in 1986, before she graduated from Andrews. During the last 25 years, she has published 20 books (her 21st is coming out this fall), both in Adventist and secular publishing houses. Some of her books have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Finnish, and Serbian (forthcoming). For Adventist readers, perhaps her best-known works are the biblical narratives Esther: A Story of Courage (Review and Herald, 2003) and That First Christmas: Yosef’s Story (Review and Herald, 2009), and her collection of articles about women of the Bible published under the title Daughters of Grace (Review and Herald, 2009). Currently, Morgan-Cole divides her time between writing and teaching adult learners in the Murphy Centre in St. John’s. She is married to Jason Cole, a mechanical engineer, and they have two children: Chris, 13, and Emma, 11.
Mrs. Morgan-Cole, how and why did you start to write?
I cannot ever remember not writing or not wanting to be a writer. I was very lucky to grow up in an Adventist family where that seemed to be a very reasonable aspiration. I grew up in an atmosphere surrounded by books, so it seemed very natural to me to start writing my own stories. I have always been writing, as long as I can remember. I think I first wrote for publication when I was 9. I wrote a poem to the church magazine Our Little Friend, and to my utter shock, they not only accepted it for publication, but they gave it a full page with illustrations. So I guess that was a huge boost; it made me think of writing as a reasonable way of spending my life. Writing for me has always seemed the obvious thing to do.
What kind of pieces do you write?
First, as a reader, I love reading stories, but also memoirs, biographies, and historical books. As a writer, I love stories. I think there is a tremendous power in a good story. It is true that I have written all sorts of things: articles, devotionals, and essays; however, I have always come back to writing stories, either what are commonly called biblical narratives or historical fiction.
Do you feel the Seventh-day Adventist Church understands and values what you do for a living?
Well, without the church publishing houses and magazines, I have doubts I would be a writer. As I said, that is how I started as a writer. The Adventist publishing industry has always been very good to me. This is the place where my writing has been nurtured and encouraged. I have met wonderful people in the publishing ministry of the church. In fact, my first book would have never been published if the Review and Herald would have not organized a contest and picked mine when I was still in college.
You have written some books of narrative based on Bible characters and others based on plots not specifically related to the Bible. Do you feel a difference when writing one or the other?
The difference in the market you are writing for does have an effect on what and how you write. As a professional writer, you always write for an audience. In my case, I often write books that hopefully will be published by a Seventh-day Adventist publisher and that will be sold in Adventist Book Centers and other Christian bookstores. I know that people who buy books in those markets have certain expectations. So even though I like to probe questions about faith and about the Bible in my writing, I understand that depending on the market you are writing for, there is a boundary beyond which you do not want to push those questions. Within those parameters, I write differently when thinking of an Adventist or a non-Adventist audience.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we are mission-oriented. We live for mission. No matter what we do, we are supposed to be missionaries. How do you relate what you do to the mission of the church? Do you feel you are somehow making a contribution?
It is an interesting question. Those of us who write for Adventist publishing houses must be aware that we are preaching to the choir. That is not necessarily wrong. I think it is good to write books for Adventist readers, portraying our values and our beliefs in a positive way. As well, I think almost everything our publishing houses produce follows this goal: they are books written by Adventists to be consumed by Adventists, to perhaps strengthen, or challenge, or build up their faith. But often it does not reach beyond those walls. When you write for a general public, however, you need to know that you are writing for a mostly very secular audience. In this context, what I feel I can do with the gifts I have is to raise interesting questions about faith and hopefully portray people of faith in a positive way in a world that is often very dismissive. This may not be the same as taking people to a prophecy seminar, but it implies touching a market that the Seventh-day Adventist Church often does not touch at all. At least in North America, most people with a literary education may never attend a prophecy seminar. They are not interested in most of what we as Adventists have to say. While my books for secular audiences may rarely prompt anyone to run to the church pew on Sabbath morning, in all of them I try to portray faith as a part of life to be taken seriously. Perhaps at this time, I should say that my elementary and high school education gave a strong foundation for living my faith in a secular world. Although the school was owned and operated by Adventists, the majority of enrollment was non-Adventist, and this gave me a perfect environment: a challenge to live my faith and an opportunity to understand the lifestyle of my non-Adventist friends and witness to them as opportunity arose.
Can you give us an example of how you portray faith as an important part of life?
Certainly. In my new book being published this fall (The Forgetful Shore, by Breakwater Books), for the first time I write specifically about the Seventh-day Adventist Church, even though it is a book intended for secular audiences. The story is set in a region in Newfoundland at the time of the First World War. Before writing, I did a lot of research, reading the local newspaper reports of that decade, and I discovered that at that time, the media were quite friendly to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They were even given chunks of the front page to report what was being said at Adventist meetings. The thing is, many Adventists of the 1910s were using the events of the day to proclaim the soon coming of Jesus. So in this book, one of my characters is a young woman of that time who, disenchanted with what life has to offer, starts attending Adventist meetings and becomes very interested in being part of the Adventist Church for a time. I portray that in a way that is respectful, but also questioning. As the war ends, this young lady, who has learned to love the Sabbath, keeps nevertheless wondering whether Jesus is coming during her lifetime. I too grapple with similar questions, so I enjoyed probing those questions in this last book. I guess what I try to do as an insider is see our church the way other people see us.
You said that after reading your books, you want secular people to start asking questions. What kind of questions?
Well, I want them to start wondering about the role of faith and God in everyday life. In everything I write, I am fascinated with the concept of God’s grace and how it comes through to us in our lives. So I guess the best I could hope for any of my books, especially for the ones marketed outside the Seventh-day Adventist Church, is that someone who is very skeptical and cynical about religion might read a book of mine and may be steered to think about God and the possibility of seeing life in a new light. In my work as a teacher, I see that many of my students are very cynical about the church they grew up in – whatever church it was – and about organized religions in general. So in my writing – and I hope in my life – I try to say, “There are also really intelligent and sincere people who take this very seriously and who seriously believe in God. And yes, we are flawed and fallible, but it does not mean that God is not real.”
Who are some of your favorite authors?
To name a few: among Adventist authors I like June Strong and Penny Wheeler, the best storytellers our church has produced. Among non-Adventist writers, I like Canadian author Margaret Laurence, a brilliant novelist with great insight into the human spirit; contemporary American novelist Marilynne Robinson, whose novels are infused with a very rich view of spirituality and faith; and British novelist Sharon Kay Penman, who has a gift for bringing history to life like no other author I know. I could mention many more, but I had better stop here.
Talking about novels, how do you view Ellen White’s concept on novels?
This is too large and complex a subject to talk about in a short interview such as this. However, the problem is not so much what Ellen White has said about novels, but what some of her “interpreters” have made out of what she has said. On the whole, Ellen White is balanced in her views.
What advice would you give to a young Seventh-day Adventist who feels he or she has the gift for writing the kind of literary works you write?
My advice for any young writer is to read as much as possible and to write as much as possible. And not to give up, because writing – and especially writing for publication – can be a very discouraging process. Also, anyone who decides to write has to find his or her own voice and figure out what to say and to whom to say it. For some people, this may mean writing for the church, in Adventist magazines and periodicals. But I think there is a tremendous need – not only in writing but also in all the arts – for Adventists to be able to engage the real world. As a church, we need more people who are able to relate to the world in ways other than through evangelistic efforts. There is a need for more Adventist writers to relate to the world the same way an Adventist engineer or plumber does, and to be able, through their craft, to explore our unique view of the world.
Marcos Paseggi is a professional translator and freelance writer living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.