Can you tell me a little bit about your background and your faith?
My mother's people are Old Order Mennonite-horse and buggy Mennonite, very close cousins to the Amish. I grew up in Lancaster County and lived near Amish farm land. I had lots of Plain friends in the public school system, as well as interacting with my mother's side of the family at reunions. I don't think I'd be writing at all about Amish settings had I not had that particular close tie to them from my heritage.
I grew up Protestant. My dad was a Charismatic pastor of the Families of God denomination. Often we noticed that during a lot of his evangelistic-type services that some of the Amish and Old Order Mennonite couples would come and stand across the street from the church and look in the door. They were very curious and maybe even hungry for more of God or maybe just more of the Scriptures.
Who do you think is reading your books?
I'm getting over 100 letters a week through my website, let alone my snail mail. Here's the gamut-it's interesting. Nine-year-old girls, eighty-eight-year-old women, and men who are in their thirties and forties! I've met men who've stood on long lines on my book tours and they've said things like, "I've read your books and they've changed the direction in my life and I want to thank you." I think they're standing in line for their wife or their mother or their sweetheart or somebody, but no. So it's very interesting the universality of the book. Maybe it's the themes, maybe it's just the education they draw from it, the wholesome entertainment, the inspiration. I hope that's true.
Do you get any feedback from Plain people?
Yes. When the book "The Shunning" first came out in 1997, I started getting letters from women who were shunned -- a lot of them in the Holmes County, Ohio area. One bishop in a remote part of Ohio decided that the book should be banned. My husband said, "Well that's a good thing. It will sell more books."
We've been hearing reports that there's quite an interest among the young people, especially the Old Order Mennonite and some of the New Order Amish young people who are really seeking Scriptures now. And some are saying that my books have stirred a fire in the community.
Why do you think our culture is so fascinated with the Amish?
I think that we as modern people, there's something in us that longs for the simple and the peaceful and just a quieter life. We're just really hectic. I think that's a big draw.
I can curl up and go to another world and I feel peace and I feel less stress. The Amish women work their tails off and it is a tough job, it's a tough life-you know, sun up to sunset. But they're settled with themselves, they're grounded, they know their core.
And I am sure they feel fulfilled-with their large families.
Yes, and their faith. It just intertwines their whole life. It's not just "Oh, we're going to church Sunday." They live out their faith in the way they treat each other, propagating themselves by having many children. They do not proselytize, they don't witness, they don't evangelize at all. So it's very intriguing. I think another aspect to why people seem to enjoy my books, is that, these books are not just fiction novels, they're almost like non-fiction. [Readers] are learning something about a exotic community and being inspired to either build their own faith more strongly or being convicted about the way they've been living. And, they're being entertained in a wholesome manner. I hope to keep that tradition going.
Do you feel that we romanticize the Amish?
Yes. I think I did as a young girl. I was impressed with the simplicity but also the obedience and the order. Sometimes we'd go to the bank and we'd see an Amish women with six or seven children and a couple of babies in tow. They were just so polite and obedient and well behaved. It was quite interesting to me.
My maternal grandmother was shunned from her Plain community, by her father initially, and then it filtered out into the entire church community.
She was a very devout young woman who at the age of 18 began dating a man who was not going to be a Mennonite farmer, but he was going to become a preacher. She was supposed to marry a farmer. That was definitely a big problem. Especially because my grandfather [her husband] left the Mennonite faith.
She removed her head covering, which is a huge problem because that's a sacred symbol. But there are so many varieties of Mennonites. Most of the Mennonites that I know are just like you and I. You wouldn't be able to tell. They wear makeup and the women wear jewelry and they dress modern and drive cars.
When I was writing for children and teens I had the idea to write "The Shunning" because of stories I continued to hear about my grandmother and her situation.
What exactly does a shunning entail? Forcing the person to leave the community and never again having contact with them?
Well, that's a lot of it. Some shunnings are more serious than others depending on the church district.
What's an example of a serious shunning?
A serious shunning would be the description of the shunning that happened to Katie Lapp in my book "The Shunning" -- she was not spoken to, she could not eat with the family, eventually she was turned away, excommunicated, while she was still in her probationary period of shunning. They have six weeks probationary period so that you could see what it's going to feel like and if you don't repent then you're out. If she were to purchase a product or a service from another Amish neighbor or friend, she would not be able to hand the money directly to their hand. They would have to put it on the table and step back and then they would take the money. And after a period of time, if you didn't repent, you're still shunned and you are still hanging around the community, you would not be able to barter at all. You wouldn't be able to sell, you wouldn't be able to buy anything. It's almost like you're dead. In fact, that's what the letters that I get from shunned Amish say: "You're as good as dead."
What's a less serious shunning?
A less serious shunning, you wouldn't be allowed to hand the money directly [to merchants]. You could sit in the same room and have a meal, but your table would be separate.
[The Amish do this] in hopes of the wayward member coming around and repenting. They feel that this is Scripturally based and they feel that this is very important to follow through with it. In their view, it is an act of love.
Does a lot of shunning take place within the community during rumspringa [the "running around" courting period for Amish teens]?
You have to be a baptized member of the church in order to be shunned. So if you're at courting age and you're running around and you're doing wild things, you can't be shunned. You'd be frowned upon maybe if you take it a little too far. But it's interesting that the parents really do kind of turn a deaf ear and close their eyes and let their kids do their thing.
So what kind of "wild" things do these teens do during rumspringa?
I know there are quite a few girls making quiet trips to Philadelphia to have abortions. The reason is, if you have a baby out of wedlock, you're not going to get married. Nobody's going to want you unless it's the guy who got you pregnant.
The boys have cars and hide them. They park them somewhere else-at a Mennonite friend's or somewhere else down the road. And the boys get their hair cut and they start looking just like our guys.
They're drinking. They're doing drugs and they're dealing drugs. It's heartbreaking. They're going so wild because they've been completely cloistered.
They have these woodsies like they had in the 60s. Like Woodstock. They're out in the cornfields, they're out behind bushes. [They're] just as wild and as wicked as a rave. They're not street smart. I feel sorry for a lot of the girls who get caught up in these crowds. I know girls who go in town looking Amish, they go into a gas station or restaurant, they unpack their duffle bag and they come out with the shortest leather skirts they could find. They fix their hair so they don't look Amish, they put on their makeup and they look like street walkers.
Is that their perception of modern teens or "Englishers"?
Well, they want to attract modern boys. They are attracting modern boys. But a lot of these girls go back and marry their Amish sweethearts and settle down-as high as 92 percent in some areas.
I've talked to older Amish men, like in their fifties and sixties and they'll say, "You know, the hardest thing that I ever did was give up my wheels and come back to the [horse and buggy]."
So the teens who are running wild during their rumspringa, that's a very small percentage?
Yes. That is a small percentage of the Amish group. [Mostly] it's a time of going singing, courting, meeting lots of boys and girls, deciding who your mate will be and you're free to come and go as you please.
If you're a good Amish girl, you're courting, you have three or four different beaus and you go out and stay out all night. That's just their tradition. They date under the covering of night. No one knows who they're dating or seeing until two weeks before they're going to be married. It's how they've done it for 300 years.
They'll go out riding around, they're talking, they go to hoedowns. Also, if the boy is really serious about you and you have a church district that approves of bundling he will shine his flashlight on your bedroom window after your parents are asleep. He will then come in the back door and come up and either be entertained in the kitchen where it's warm, or in your bedroom with the door shut. You'd keep your clothes on and lie in bed on top of the covers and talk and date. You get acquainted with each other that way. This is pretty much banned in Pennsylvania, but it's still going on in Ohio. There's not supposed to be sex, but it happens. The tradition started back in the late 1600s when the houses weren't heated and the girls would show off their beautiful quilts.
What are your thoughts on the new reality show "Amish in the City" coming out?
Well, when I first heard it I thought "Oh my word!" Either one of two things is going to happen. The [casting agents] are going to acquire young people who are on the fringe anyway, and how real is that going to be, depicting them? Or two, they are going to get young people from the Amish community who are very sheltered and very naïve. How frightening this could be for them! I have been hoping that it wouldn't happen, actually. I just was stunned that Hollywood would go after a faith-based group like this. I'm very sympathetic to the Amish in my writing. I walk a line. I don't want to offend anybody because this is so close to my own heritage. [The Amish community] has moved heaven and earth to make sure this didn't happen. If you're going to pick on Amish kids, what in the world are they going to do next?
What do you hope comes out of the show, if anything?
I hope [the Amish] will somehow be able to emulate their culture and their faith so that modern American viewers can get some sense of this subtleness, this peace, this simple life. Maybe it will let us all see a side of life that we aren't living.