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Interview with Cathy Gohlke

Cathy Gohlke is an award-winning author of historical fiction—one who has dreamed of being a writer since early childhood…well, amongst dreams of being a teacher, an actress, a detective, a spy, a disc jockey, the next Annie Sullivan, an archeologist, the ice cream truck driver—and many other things. Cathy says she has accomplished some of those occupations through doing research for her books. She has a rich family history and clearly loves all things historical: exploring ruins and historical sites, old diaries and books, and attic trunks. She also loves campfires, reading good books, and those special moments when she's writing and "feeling in sync with the Lord, prepared and partnered" for the mission He has given her.

Cathy, you have one of the most interesting websites I've visited. I love all the family photos and tidbits of family history you've included. It isn't hard to figure out that family is very important to you. Is your family supportive of your writing?

They are supportive now, but that has been a growing process. For many years most in my family saw my writing as a hobby and considered it “another of Cathy’s ideas.” Even when my feature stories, poems, and essays began to be published, and my plays and skits were performed locally most of my family smiled indulgently, but reminded me that it’s very hard to get a book published. They commended the work I’d done, but cautioned me not to be too discouraged if my book didn’t sell, for no one in our family had ever done that.

Surprisingly, my uncle was one of my greatest encouragers. He said that a sure way to know if I’m working in the will of God is to ask, “Do I have joy? Is this yoke easy? Is this burden light?” —Talk about a word in season . . . what a gift that was!

The turning point in my family came when they saw my book on store shelves and realized that readers, and judges (of the Christy Awards) valued my work. Since that time they have grown not only supportive but wonderfully encouraging.

I empathize with writers who know well the paraphrase, “A writer is not without honor, save in her/his own household.”

Sometimes it takes awhile, doesn't it? I like the way your uncle thinks! ☺ Promise Me This is your third novel—and the cover is gorgeous, by the way! What do you see as most significant to the success of your publication journey?
I love the cover, too, and appreciate so much the beautiful job the designers at Tyndale House Publishers did!

Most significant to the success of my publication journey is that I’ve been able to write the stories God has laid on my heart, and that He has brought me into contact with an agent and editors who capture the vision for those stories. What a tremendous gift—such freedom—to be who and what He made me!

Amen! Balancing writing time with other responsibilities seems to be a challenge for most writers. What do you find most beneficial in helping to create that balance?
Even though I make “to do” lists and diligently work to meet deadlines, I struggle with maintaining balance. I tend to be a “nose to the grindstone” researcher and writer and sometimes lament that I can’t keep all the balls in the air. I’m gradually learning to let go of some of my old expectations, knowing that I can’t continually fill the basket with new responsibilities without taking out some of the old to make room.

Recently I heard author and speaker Kendra Smiley speak of maintaining priorities—which is the key to balance. She envisioned writing (in very drippy watercolors) her list of priorities, each in a different color, then hanging the list up wet. She began with Our Lord at the top. Beneath that she wrote her husband’s name, and beneath that her family and so on, until she’d listed all her obligations. Because the watercolors were so drippy, whatever was at the top of the page dripped down, coloring everything beneath. Most significantly, Our Lord, who is at the top of every list, influences or permeates everything. I’m trying to keep that illustration in mind and put its lesson into practice.

And sometimes I just need to ask for help.

What a powerful demonstration, even second-hand! As a writer of inspirational fiction, your faith is obviously a huge part of who you are. How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
It is all one thing. Faith and spiritual life are in every breath I take, in every decision I make. The Lord knit me together—as He did all of us—as one entity. The joy of storytelling is my opportunity to share through words what He has done and is doing—in me and in the world around me. The struggles my characters face may be similar or very different from the struggles I’ve faced. But the journey to the heart of God that my characters make is the journey I’ve traveled in some form. We recognize if fellow travelers are footsore or hungry or weary. We understand that and as writers relate that through story. The joy is that we can sit with characters and readers in darkness, bear the lamp of understanding, and together walk into the light.

The first book I wrote I began writing as simply an Underground Railroad story, not intending that it be considered a Christian novel. But by the end of the first chapter my main character was struggling to make sense of the chaos around him, trying to understand the complexity and contradictory nature of the world of slavery in light of what he knew about God’s love. After that I decided that storytelling is like everything else in a Christian’s life—all roads lead home.

Beautifully said! What do you consider the greatest moment of your writing/publishing career?
Perhaps it came when I was working on my second novel—always a fearful step. (It’s so easy to believe that writing and having a first novel published was a fluke and that you’ll not be able to do it again.)

There came a point when I just didn’t know what to write next, couldn’t figure how to get my characters out of the box I’d painted—why what they were doing mattered. I even considered giving up, but prayed hard about that. Wasn’t writing this story what God had intended I do? And, if not, why was I doing it? Why was I writing at all? The work was too hard to be doing for my benefit alone. The trail my mind went down was long, and discouraging.

In the days that followed two insights came to my attention and mind in ways I can only consider Providential—insights that created turning points for my characters and “aha moments” in the story. They were also insights into my own life—very strong and very personal. I remember staring out my office window in wonder, and thinking, These are my Ebenezers—my precious stones of remembrance that the Lord has helped me.

Since that time I’ve struggled with storytelling, as all writers do. But I’ve never doubted that the Lord is at the helm of this ministry, that we’re in this boat together, and that what happens on the ocean is all up to Him. My job is to show up each day and work as faithfully for His glory as I know how. That sense of being called, of being led, directed, loved and cared for, is the greatest joy and the greatest of freedoms.

Who/What spurs you to write? Where do your story and character ideas come from?
I love our Lord with all my heart. I write for His glory and the stories come as He lays a need on my heart. As I surrender to Him the sources and resources He’s placed in my hand, the story illuminating that need unfolds—not simply and not always neatly, but always in time.

Writing is my way of making sense of the world, of putting into perspective the struggles of humanity and of my own—past and present—of trying to see the world as God sees it, as He redeems it by pursuing and claiming one heart at a time. I want to know what gives Him joy, what breaks His heart—those are the stories that matter, the stories that bring me continually closer to Him.

Frederick Buechner expressed it best, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Finding that place spurs me on.

Characters are composites of people I’ve glimpsed, known, or imagined.

Your website clearly paints a picture of your family as storytellers. Growing up around creative minds is bound to be a bonus when one chooses a career as a writer. I would think it also creates something unique and special in a child that would carry over into adulthood. What element of your family's creativity and "uniqueness" do you think most defines your own writing?
Every member of my family loved to read and valued history and stories as gifts. My parents and grandparents freely told tales from their own family histories, and my grandmother patiently taught me how to do things the “old way.” All of that made the past very real to me and I use those things in my writing.

Both of my parents fostered a strong work ethic, and my mother encouraged the love of learning new things. We were taught never to assume that we’d be given anything for free or that education was our right. Money was tight. If we wanted to learn or do something our parents would help us if they could, but most often we had to find or make our way—we figured out the steps needed to get there and walked forward. Achieving our goal was the reward. It all sounds very practical, but it opened a broad road for a writer intent on research.

Fill in the blank. If I could have only ONE ultimate wish for my writing and know it would be realized, that wish would be . . . that my stories draw readers into a closer, living, breathing relationship with our Lord.

I can't think of a better purpose thing to wish for! Any parting words?
I’m praying for the hearts and minds of all the pen warriors here. Writing can be a difficult and solitary pursuit. We have a formidable enemy that would like to defeat us through discouragement. But the King of Kings and Lord of Lords leads us, and cannot be defeated.

If you feel the exhilaration of this journey, encourage another writer in joy. If you feel its weariness, talk with the Lord and seek His heart. Reach out to your sister and brother writers. God has blessed this uniquely called body so that we might encourage and bless one another.

Thanks for sharing with us, Cathy!
It has been my pleasure, Delia. Thank you for your insightful questions, and for this opportunity to share my journey!

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