Sarah Collier is your typical teenage girl, slightly overweight with a mouthful of braces. The child of two famous heart surgeons who rarely have time for their daughter, Sarah looks forward to spending her Christmas and summer breaks with her loving Grandma in Twilight, Texas. Of course, the hot and sexy boy-next-door Travis Walker makes her visits all the more special. With each year, she fantasizes about her future which she hopes will include marrying her one true love.
Josie Marcus loves her job as a mystery shopper. Spending someone else’s money without a care in the world is the perfect profession for this busy, single mom. In her latest caper, she finds herself evaluating a high-end lingerie chain fully stocked with lacy bras and skimpy panties. Realizing she might need some reinforcements, Josie enlists the aid of her reliable best friend Alyce in order to properly size up the shop.
November 1, 2010
Sometimes I wish we could just go back to simpler times when we didn’t have so many multimedia sources clogging our day. Whether it’s the Blackberry or an iPad, it seems as if we are connected 24/7. If you’re like me, sometimes I just want to get away from it all. Our lives have become so consumed by technology that it’s disheartening. Gone are the days when handwritten letters and good old-fashioned conversation were of the utmost importance. Now, texting and e-mail seem like the only ways to communicate.
This month’s Jen’s Jewels Cynthia Keller addresses this very topic in her new release AN AMISH CHRISTMAS. Just in time for the holidays, she tells the story of a tony suburban family who winds up losing it all, only to discover what truly matters in life. Set in the Amish country, Cynthia beautifully intertwines the two diverse cultures, bringing to light the challenges of the world in which we live today.
As part of this interview, Ballantine Books has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end of the column. And, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your holiday season.
Jen: Since we live in the age of information, I was quite taken aback due to the lack of information available about you on the web. There is practically none! So that my readers may have a glimpse into the life of the woman behind the words, please share with us your educational and professional background.
Cynthia: I was born and raised in New York City, attended Hunter College High School, and then Brown University. I returned to New York after graduation, where I worked in video production for several years. I started writing for magazines and then moved over into nonfiction books and, finally, novels. Eventually, my husband and I decided to move to Connecticut. We’ve been here ever since.
Jen: Please describe for us your “Ah! Ha!” moment when you chose to pursue writing as a career.
Cynthia: There’s actually an incredibly specific answer to this. My first real job was in video production. Over several years, I kept feeling I wanted to move from the technical/producing side to the creative side, but I wasn’t sure I had the nerve. I had never studied writing, and I didn’t know where the pull was coming from, but it continued to grow stronger. My older sister was living in Brazil, and I went to visit for two weeks, which turned into four weeks. On the next-to-last day, when I had been away for so long that I was really removed from my job and everything familiar to me – away from what made up my day-to-day identity, really -- I took a chair down to the beach in Rio at sunset and sat there alone for a long, long time, just thinking about what I wanted to do in life. That was when I realized I secretly wanted to make the jump to writing. When I got up from that chair, I knew I was going to return home and quit my job to write. And I did.
Jen: Your career took flight writing under the pseudonym Cynthia Victor. First of all, why did you choose to write under this name? And, describe for us the type of novels you have written.
Cynthia: Cynthia Victor was actually two people. The Victor half was Victoria Skurnick, who is now my literary agent. We wrote seven novels together. It was a very happy writing partnership and we remain the best of friends today (I thanked her in the acknowledgements to AN AMISH CHRISTMAS because this has been yet another wonderful professional endeavor we’ve shared). Our books were contemporary fiction about all sorts of characters and situations.
Jen: Your latest endeavor AN AMISH CHRISTMAS is a timely book that addresses the fall of the American Dream. How did you arrive at the premise?
Cynthia: The original concept of the book was of a non-Amish family spending the holiday with an Amish family. The way I endeavored to get the family to that point brought together things I’d been thinking about and some of the problems we’re all facing today. Consumerism, technology, the economy, and raising children – so many topics came together in this.
Jen: Throughout the novel, you share with us tidbits of information about the Amish way of life. In terms of research, how much was needed in order to accurately portray the Amish people?
Cynthia: I read as much as I could get my hands on about the Amish, books, articles, online, whatever. Then, I went to Lancaster County to do research in person. It’s so important to me to do right by these people. I have the utmost admiration and respect for them.
Jen: What was the most fascinating bit of information you discovered?
Cynthia: There was so much! Right off the bat, one thing I could point to is the concept of rumspringa. At sixteen, Amish teenagers are permitted to go out into the world a lot more if they choose, and do things that aren’t normally allowed. They then decide if they wish to be baptized into the Amish faith. It’s a fascinating, complicated issue, with all sorts of pros and cons.
Jen: The Hobart Family’s lifestyle will resonate loud and clear with many tony suburbanites who, like them, lived a life with minimal financial constraints prior to today’s recession. At the beginning of the story, the mother Meg is bothered by her children’s lack of respect for their privileged life. What is the catalyst that brings Meg to this critical point?
Cynthia: I think she ignored a lot of small things, but the children’s sense of entitlement and their attitudes – having no appreciation for what they had, not even grasping how well-off they were – finally became too obvious for her to ignore. When she sees that her daughter views buying a $500 dress as no big deal, and her son is indifferent to the fact that he’s lost his expensive retainer three times, then she has to face the damage that has been done.
Jen: Cell phones, iPods, and computers dominate their social interaction as a family. Meg is quite bothered by their intrusion. Why does she choose not to address this with her family? Or, do her indirect comments to the children serve as her means of confrontation?
Cynthia: Kids and their computers/cell phones/iPods, etc. is a huge issue. How much is too much? How do you get them to cut back? These are very difficult questions for everyone I know. At this stage, it’s especially complicated because a lot of parents (including me) don’t fully understand the technology, so they can’t even tell what’s going on. Is your child actually doing homework on that laptop, or just chatting with friends? You can keep arguing with your kids about spending less time online and so on, but how do you control what they do out of the house, or once you leave their rooms (unless you confiscate the phone or laptop, which leads to a much bigger fight)? It becomes an exhausting battle. I don’t claim to know the answers. Meg didn’t choose to make this a big issue in the house, even though it bothered her. Her husband also made it worse by constantly bringing home new gadgets, so she couldn’t expect his support on this.
Jen: Meg’s relationship with her husband James is nearly non-existent as they appear to be two ships passing in the night. When their relationship reaches the breaking point, who or what is to blame? Meg? James? Or, society?
Cynthia: A family with three children is a busy family, and keeping things running smoothly does demand a lot of time and attention from spouses; it’s easy for couples to find themselves caught up in the day-to-day, drifting apart. However, James is clearly the one who committed the act that turns their world upside down. One thing I’d hold Meg responsible for is the way she buries her head in the sand about the family finances. I don’t believe being ignorant about those matters, just hoping for the best, works out in the long run (especially given the warning signs in her husband’s odd behavior). You could say society encouraged them to strive for the big house, more money, the lifestyle, etc., but now we’re getting into a much bigger question of personal responsibility and values. The bottom line, though, is that James bears the guilt for his actions and the way he deceived his wife.
Jen: Due to their uncertain economic future, the Hobarts leave their life behind. On their way, they are involved in an unfortunate accident and wind up being taken in by a lovely Amish Family. The Lutzs warmly welcome them into their home. Why are they so willing to do this?
Cynthia: The Amish are kind and caring people, and David Lutz certainly appreciated that James crashed his car so that he wouldn’t hit the buggy.
Jen: At the beginning of their stay, Lizzie and Will Hobart are quite disrespectful to the Lutz Family. Why are they so reluctant to accept their generosity? Is their close-mindedness a reflection of their upbringing or merely a result of their surroundings?
Cynthia: As Meg unhappily realizes later, the children know little of the world outside their comfortable lives, so they are perhaps less curious and open-minded than other children might be. They’re miserable about everything that’s going on in their lives at the moment, and this is yet another, huge step away from their familiar world. At the same time, they’re teenagers! I know lots of polite, engaging, lovely teenagers, but ask any parent just how rude their teenagers can be (especially around their parents). Further, initially, Lizzie and Will view everything and everyone in the house as supremely uncool, and they don’t want to be associated with that.
Jen: Of the three Hobart children, Sam seems to make the adjustment to a simpler way of life the best. Why is this so?
Cynthia: Sam is younger and hasn’t reached the teenage state; he’s not invested in playing it cool. He also has a somewhat anxious personality. When he is freed from the pressures and stresses of his world, he finds a tremendous relief. Not all of us are well-suited to the fast pace of today’s world. Sam thrives at that slower, gentler pace.
Jen: One of the Lutz’s children Ben must decide whether to return to the Amish life or forever leave it behind. In what way does his decision mirror that which the Hobart family faces?
Cynthia: Just like the Hobarts, he is making choices in the story about who he is, who he wants to be, and what’s important to him.
Jen: Meg makes a connection with Catherine Lutz, a bond that she will always treasure. What makes these two such kindred spirits?
Cynthia: Meg has tremendous admiration for Catherine and the way she goes uncomplainingly about her busy day. Looking back at her own easy life, Meg understands how she mistook busywork for real work, and how work gives meaning and joy to Catherine’s life. Through Catherine, Meg sees how unnecessary all the trappings of her old life were, and why they didn’t bring her or anyone else in the family real happiness. When Meg’s children misbehave and then cause the buggy accident, Catherine exemplifies the values of kindness and forgiveness. At the same time, Catherine develops an affection for Meg as she figures out that Meg is in a bad situation and is struggling to make sense of it. She appreciates Meg’s willingness to learn, to pitch in, and her genuine interest in their way of life.
Jen: Let’s switch gears now and talk about your promotional plans. Will you be involved in a book tour?
Cynthia: We haven’t had any discussions so far about a book tour. There are so many other outlets through which to communicate with readers now, however, opportunities that didn’t even exist until recently.
Jen: Do you participate in author phone chats? And if so, how would my readers go about scheduling one?
Cynthia: I’d be delighted to. I’m in the process of setting up a website, and I’ll let you know as soon as it’s up and running. In the meantime, readers can email me at Contactcynthiakeller@gmail.com or contact Lisa Barnes at Ballantine Books, and she will pass on the message to me.
Jen: Are you currently at work on your next novel? And if so, what can you share with us?
Cynthia: I am working on the next novel, and it is also about the Amish. I’m very excited about it. It’s a completely different approach, and will cover different aspects of Amish life and identity. The details will have to remain a surprise!
Jen: Thank you so much for bringing my readers a joyful glimpse into the Amish holiday season. Your book addresses such a timely issue of financial loss for middle class families. Well done! I wish you much success in the future. Happy Holidays!
Cynthia: I’ve really enjoyed it! Thank you for your kind words and for the opportunity to talk with you and your readers. Happy Holidays to you and to them as well!
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Cynthia Keller. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy of AN AMISH CHRISTMAS today. Better yet, how would you like to win one instead?
Okay, be one of the first five readers to e-mail me with the correct answer to the following trivia question and you’ll win. Good luck!
What is the name of the Amish family in AN AMISH CHRISTMAS?
Later this month, I will be bringing to you my interview with New York Times bestselling author Anne Perry. You won’t want to miss it.
Until next time…