An Interview with BJ Hoff

Rachel’s Secret is your first historical novel set in the Amish culture. Why did you choose Amish country as the setting for The Riverhaven Years series?

I’ve always loved to work with contrasts in my fiction. The idea of two people living in entirely different cultures who form a relationship based on trust and faith and love intrigued me. I quickly grew fascinated with the idea of an Irish-American riverboat captain—who comes from a hard world, even a dangerous one because of his work on the river and also with the Underground Railroad—and Rachel Brenneman, who grew up in a sheltered Amish community of plain, caring, and gentle people who keep to themselves and look after their own.

Forbidden love is a theme in Rachel’s Secret, and cultural differences and authority figures are obstacles to romance for several of the characters. Do you think cultural differences strengthen or weaken a relationship?

That probably depends on the people involved, as well as just how significant the differences are. Both Rachel and Gant are strong-willed individuals, and even though Rachel has been raised to submit to authority, because of Gant, she’s finding it difficult to be submissive to the leaders of her church and community. At the same time, Gant finds it nearly impossible to accept the idea that a leadership could exert such influence over an adult, namely Rachel–a woman once married but now widowed, who definitely has a mind of her own. One of them has to change, or the relationship must end.

Is there any historical record of the Amish helping in the Underground Railroad?

I haven’t come across any documented evidence, but there are “hints” and brief mentions in some of the Underground Railroad histories that every now and then a member or members of an Amish community did aid a runaway slave’s escape to the North. The possibility was all I needed to ask myself “what if?” and plan a story that included that premise.

In writing this book, what impressions were you left with about abolition and the Underground Railroad? Did anything you learn surprise you?

I had actually read a great deal about the Railroad and abolitionism over the years, long before I ever thought of writing about it, so my research held few surprises. One of the things that struck me throughout my reading, though, was that the “heroes” of these movements were ordinary people, just like us. The Underground Railroad and abolitionism weren’t effective because of the involvement of mostly pastors or celebrities or folks of unusual courage. They were successful because ordinary people believed in freedom for everyone and were willing to take chances and face the kind of risks that could—and sometimes did—land them in harm’s way or even in jail.

There are many Irish-American characters in your novels, Jeremiah Gant being one example. Why are you so interested in Irish immigrants?

It’s true that my family tree is almost exclusively and exceedingly “green.” I suppose that’s what led me to years of reading about the Irish and Irish Americans, particularly during the period of the “Great Hunger” of the 1840s (the Potato Famine) and the subsequent Irish immigration to the United States and Canada. I was also privy to countless stories passed down through my family that had to do with the experiences of my ancestors.

I’ve found that when I begin to develop a novel, I often know more about the background and setting than I thought I did. Bits and pieces of what I’ve read and heard over the years come back to me, sometimes a fragment at a time. My family, as well as so many years of study and research—and an ongoing interest in Ireland’s struggles—undoubtedly account for the fact that writing about the Irish and Irish Americans is as natural to me as reading about them.

I’ve also learned from my readers over the years that they seem to enjoy reading about the Irish and Irish Americans as much as I enjoy writing about them. Their interest never seems to wane, so naturally that helps to motivate my own interest.

What can you tell us about Book 2 of The Riverhaven Years?

Book Two, Where Grace Abides, will test Rachel’s faith and her love for the forbidden “outsider”—Jeremiah Gant—while Gant’s own hopes and dreams are dealt a life-changing blow, rendering the vow he made to Rachel seemingly impossible to honor.

In addition, many of the other characters first introduced in Rachel’s Secret now find their gentle, unassuming lives of faith jeopardized by a malicious outside influence. At the same time, those striving to help runaway slaves escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad face deception and the danger of discovery.

Tell us a little about some of your recent release, American Anthem.
American Anthem is a rerelease of a trilogy of books: Prelude, Cadence, and Jubilee, now together in one volume. The story is set in 1870s New York. My hope is that it allows the reader to step into another time and place where they will share the hope and dreams and triumphant faith of some special people they’ll grow to love. I’ll let the back cover copy describe the book:
“At the entrance to the city, an Irish governess climbs into a carriage and sets out to confront the man who destroyed her sister’s life—a blind musician who hears music no one else can hear …
On a congested city street, a lonely Scot physician with a devastating secret meets a woman doctor with the capacity to heal not only the sick … but also his heart …
In a tumbledown shack among hundreds of others like it, an immigrant family struggles to survive, and a ragged street singer old beyond her years appoints herself an unlikely guardian …”

What will people find on your web site, and your web log, Grace Notes, How do you interact with your readers?

From the time I first began publishing fiction, it’s been important to me to connect with my readers. I’ve found that two of the most effective ways of doing that are personal correspondence and maintaining a web site. The latter includes a web log where readers can meet with me, ask questions, and get information about previous and new releases. Grace Notes is also a place where I try to provide information about writing in general. I’ve discovered that many of my readers are also interested in writing their own books, and I want to encourage that interest. I’ve found a web site and a web log to be good avenues for interacting with both readers and other writers on a fairly frequent basis. We also have some fun every now and then—and contests!

A little more about BJ…

Author of: The Riverhaven Years (Book One: Rachel’s Secret, and Book Two: Where Grace Abides), American Anthem series, Song of Erin, the Mountain Song Legacy series, the Emerald Ballad series, and other bestselling historical novels.

Favorite Scripture verse: 1 Corinthians 1:20: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”