Christian author Jody Hedlund releases her latest Historical novel Newton & Polly A Novel of Amazing Grace.
Please welcome Jody as we delve into the inspiration behind the story of this famous hymn.
1. Hello Jody, You’ve written about many other true historical couples. What drew you to write about Newton and Polly?
Like most people, I’m familiar with the song Amazing Grace and knew it was written by John Newton who’d once been an atheist slave trader. I’d even heard a little bit about John Newton’s saving grace moment when he was aboard a ship during a life-threatening storm and cried out to God.
However, I’d never heard anything about the love of his life, Polly Catlett, until I began to dig a little deeper into his life. It didn’t take me long to realize that Newton had a passionate love for her, and his love for her affected just about every decision he made for good and bad. Theirs is a beautiful love story, one that God used in a powerful way. I decided it was a story the world needed to hear.
2. Polly Catlett is one of those forgotten women of history. Since most people have never heard of her, she can’t be all that important, can she? What role did she really play in Newton’s life?
Newton readily admits in his autobiography that he fell in love with Polly Catlett at first sight. He says this: “At the first sight of this girl, I felt an affection for her that never abated or lost its influence a single moment in my heart.”
He was completely taken with Polly so much so that every time he visited her, he overextended his stay. Such irresponsibility cost him at least two different jobs and in the end was one of the major reasons he was captured and impressed into the king’s navy.
When Newton’s naval ship sailed away from England, he was so depressed that he contemplated suicide. He said: “Nothing I either felt or feared distressed me so much as being thus forcibly torn away from the object of my affections.”
During his time away as he was involved in the slave trade, Newton’s love for Polly never diminished. If not for his passion for her, he probably wouldn’t have boarded the ship that took him away from Africa. He wouldn’t have experienced the life-threatening storm on the way home. And he might not have written Amazing Grace.
So, yes indeed Polly Catlett was incredibly important. If not for her, the world may never have known the most amazing hymn ever written.
3. You always do an enormous amount of research for each of your historicals. What was your research process like for Newton and Polly and what was the hardest part about it?
The first part of my research process for Newton and Polly involved reading as many biographies about John Newton that I could find. The one I found to be the most accurate and helpful was called, John Newton From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken.
Another book I found especially helpful was John Newton’s autobiography, Out of the Depths. His accounts are both insightful and inspiring.
After learning as much as I could about both Newton and Polly including their backgrounds and personalities, I then researched the historical context of the story—the political and social climate, the war with France, the slavery issues, pirating, smuggling, impressment, and all the other issues common to the mid-1700’s.
Once I’d gained an understanding of the bigger picture, I familiarized myself with the smaller details such as clothing, food, homes, and everything else that I could learn about Georgian England. This micro-level research is usually the hardest for me. I want to be as accurate as possible in every detail from what hairstyles the women had to the clothing the sailors wore. But it’s not always easy to locate all the information I need.
4.Whenever fiction is based on true people or events, authors have the added challenge of maintaining integrity to the truth. How do you balance fact with fiction?
I always make it my goal to stay as true to the known facts as possible. I want to represent the people and events that I write about as accurately as possible. So for example, Newton and Polly really did meet at a young age. Newton really did claim to have fallen in love with her at first sight. He overspent his time at the Catletts on numerous occasions and lost his jobs in the process. Because of his lack of character, the Catlett’s forbade further contact with Polly. He was impressed into the Royal Navy but later deserted, was whipped, and demoted. He was later transferred to a merchant vessel and from there spent time dealing in the slave trade in Africa.
Yes, it’s important to remain true to the facts. However, if that’s all a fiction writer did the book would turn into a biography. The challenge then is to take the facts and craft them into a riveting tale that readers can’t put down. In order to do that, writers often have to add additional plot lines and characters. Since history doesn’t record everything and we weren’t there to see what really happened, writers have the liberty of interpreting the gaps and adding in things that could have occurred.
I always write with this motto: Build the framework with true facts, but then fill in the unknown and decorate the house with enough color and drama to make a good story.
5. What do you hope readers walk away with after having read Newton and Polly?
During the very last time I read the book while I was doing my last edit, Newton’s return to God brought me to tears. I hope readers, too, are overwhelmed by the sense of God’s presence and grace in Newton’s life.
More than that, I pray that readers will have a new sense of God’s grace extended toward them, that they’ll realize that no matter what they’ve done or where they’ve been, that God is waiting to draw them into his outstretched arms into his amazing grace.
6. Newton was a prodigal son. He was estranged from his family during his rebellious years, but later made peace with his father. What hope does Newton and Polly offer to parents dealing with children who have left the faith?
As a one-time prodigal child now experiencing a rebellious child of my own, I take a great amount of comfort in Newton’s story. First, I revel in the knowledge that God can take our mistakes, turn them around, and use them for His plans and purposes.
Second, I take comfort in Newton’s story because it reminds me that no matter how far our children stray into sin or even atheism like Newton, that they are never too far beyond the reach of God. We as parents need to do our job planting seeds, praying, and encouraging our children in what’s right. But ultimately God is the one who woos and wins our children to Himself.
From a human perspective, Newton looked hopelessly lost, especially as the years began to pass without any sign of change. But we as parents can find solace in knowing that through all of the pain and heartache, God has not abandoned us or our child. He’s there and His plans are at work, even when we can’t see them.
7. Clearly “grace” is an important theme in Newton and Polly. But what other issues or themes does the book address?
Actually, the book is full of various themes. One major theme has to do with the timeless conflict between Christian and cultural values. In the mid 1700’s smuggling had become so commonplace that people turned a blind eye to it and even condoned it, especially if they wanted to avoid hardships and even persecution. I hope the book challenges readers to evaluate how they might be going along with cultural values instead of living with truth and integrity.
The book also sheds some light on the controversy of the slavery issue at the time, giving insights into those who supported it as well as the growing abolitionist movement (which was still in its infancy during this part of Newton’s life).
Another theme is how to handle singleness. Like Polly, it’s all too tempting for single adults to grow impatient in waiting for the “right” person to come along and to begin to consider compromising values for fear of remaining single.
8. Now a few questions about your process; How many books have you written so far?
Newton and Polly is my 14th published full-length book (not including novellas). In addition, I’ve written four more books that are already slated for publication in 2017 and 2018. So a total of 18 books are either published or are in the pipeline. I also wrote an additional five books at the beginning of my writing career that I lovingly refer to as my “practice books” (which are sitting in a closet and will never see the light of day!).
9. About how long does it take you to write a book?
My writing pace varies from project to project. My historical fiction (like Luther and Katharina and Newton and Polly) generally are much more time-consuming to write than my other books. They require weeks and weeks of concentrated research simply because they are so much more complicated. Not only does the researching take longer, but the writing does too because I have to stop and do additional research.
On average, I’d say that my historicals take me about 5 months including the research, first draft, and then self-editing. Obviously, once I’m done and turn it into my publisher, there’s still a lot more work that goes into getting the book ready for publication. But my first draft process usually encompasses about five months.
10. What’s life really like as an author?
Many people have misconceptions about what it’s like to be an author. When people think of authors, they usually think of JK Rowling or Nicholas Sparks. In reality, most authors never reach that level of fame, never make millions, and never get movie deals.
In fact, most authors are hardly able to eke out a living. The market has become so flooded and competitive that very few authors can gain enough traction to break out and become a big name.
That means most authors have to work really hard to keep their careers going, working long hours with little glamour. In the end, most authors keep going, not because of the glory or money, but because of their love of telling stories.
Thank you Jody, for spending some time here. Before you go what’s coming up next in your publication schedule? What can readers look forward to?
In January of 2017, readers can look forward to the 5th and final book in my Beacons of Hope lighthouse series! Be looking for a cover reveal soon!
Then in March of 2017, my third young adult book, For Love and Honor releases. This book spotlights the third knight in the series, Sir Bennet and tells how he finds his one true love.
In June of 2017, I’ll be unveiling a brand new series published by Bethany House. More information coming soon!
Jody Hedlund is a best-selling and award-winning author who loves history and happily-ever-afters. She makes her home in Midland, MI with her husband and five children. When she’s not writing another of her page-turning stories, you can usually find her sipping coffee, eating chocolate, and reading.
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