Historical Fiction, Memoir and Spiritual Mentoring with Jo-Anne Berthelsen

Today it’s my pleasure to welcome author and speaker, Jo-Anne Berthelsen, to the blog. (And be sure to read to the end for a fabulous giveaway.)

Thanks for joining us, Jo.

Getting to Know You

Your first novel was published in 2007, but you led an interesting and varied life prior to taking up the writing mantle. Can you share two or three fun snippets from those earlier years?

So many stories come to mind from my years as a high school teacher, full-time mum, assistant editor, secretary, theological student and local church pastor! Once, as a young teacher at an exclusive girls’ school, the high heel of my shoe broke off during the first period, so I had to limp around the whole day and put up with some of those very critical girls sniggering at my plight!

One lunch hour at my editing job, I became so frustrated at hearing people who claimed to be Christians criticise others and gossip, that I announced I planned to jot down all these interesting snippets in a ‘little black book’, then read them out at our end-of-year Christmas dinner. It was amazing how the tone of our lunch hour conversations changed after that! As a result, my little black book became a fun record of bits and pieces we could all laugh at again when read out at Christmastime.

Then once when I was on our pastoral team, a very disturbed girl ran away from her carer, so I had to help chase her around the streets near our church, then follow her on and off a train, then help coax her back. It was scary, but certainly must have looked funny to anyone else

Weaving Real Elements into Historical Fiction

Wow, I bet you could fill many ‘little black books’ with your exploits. Your seventh novel, ‘Down by the Water’, has recently been released. Can you tell us a little about the story and the inspiration behind it?

Down by the Water is an historical novel set in Queensland in the early 1900s. It follows Meg Porter’s journey, after her plans to study art are cut short when a family tragedy occurs. Instead, Meg marries Richard McPherson and, as she supports him and cares for their growing family, she also embarks on a journey of dealing with the past and of receiving God’s love and grace.

I hesitate to say this novel was inspired by my maternal grandparents’ lives, as it is not their actual story. However, they certainly influenced a large part of the content.

For example, the story begins in Helidon, a small Queensland country town where my grandmother grew up, and I feature other country towns where my grandparents lived too. Also, I had photos of them on my desk as I wrote, which inspired me to weave aspects of their personalities into my story, either consciously or subconsciously.

But beyond that, my key inspiration in writing Down by the Water was what I hope was a God-given desire to create a strong, moving story that would not only be enjoyable to read but also highlight several deep themes I believe are so important—forgiveness, receiving God’s love, using our God-given gifts, coping with grief and loss, and appreciating the unique faith journeys we each take.

Research Tips for Unearthing Historical Facts

It’s interesting how you’ve been able to weave some actual details into your fictional story. I’m sure that adds a lot of realism. This isn’t your first historical novel. How difficult is it to get the details correct when writing in different time periods? What are your favourite research tips or tools?

It can be quite tricky to get those historical facts right. For example, with Down by the Water, I thought I had worked out from online articles exactly where the Queensland National Art Gallery was situated in 1909—and yes, it was called that back then! I discovered it first opened in a room of the Brisbane Town Hall in 1895, but it was relocated to the newly constructed Executive Building in George Street in 1905. As a result, I had to make my main character walk down George Street to an art exhibition rather than down Adelaide Street!

As for a favourite research tip, try to doublecheck online historical information—and perhaps find people who lived in the places you are writing about. While they might not have been alive in the time period of your story, they often remember details from their parents or grandparents. While writing my first novel Heléna, set in Czechoslovakia during World War II, I found it so helpful to be able to interview several Czech and Polish migrants I knew.

The Benefits of Spiritual Mentoring

In your memoir ‘Soul Friend’, you talk about the special relationship you had with your spiritual mentor, Joy. How did that relationship come about and how did it impact you? If someone was thinking of embarking on a similar journey, either as a mentor or the one being mentored, what advice would you give them?

Joy (Jo's mentor and friend)

I have called Joy my lifesaver many times and in fact called her that in the dedication of my first novel. I first met Joy when she was the facilitator of a small group I was part of during a prayer ministry course and I immediately warmed to her. I loved her gentle, gracious manner and the way she listened to God and prayed with such sensitivity. Later, when I was at theological college and needed to find a spiritual mentor, I immediately thought of Joy. She agreed to meet with me regularly—and I can truly say this became such a life-giving relationship for me over many years. 

One of her greatest gifts to me was that she truly believed in me and encouraged me to become all God had called me to be as a woman in ministry, then as a writer—and this inspired me so much.

As for any advice I would give someone considering being a mentor or being mentored, I actually have some information about this here on my website. But in both cases, I would encourage anyone to pray about the right mentor or mentoree before committing themselves, to observe those around them in Christian circles whom they admire and would like to learn from or those whom they feel they could help, and also to listen to advice from friends or church leaders as to the best ‘fit’ for them personally.

Dealing with Self-Doubt, Insecurity and Perfectionism

You have some great information on your website about spiritual mentoring. I’d encourage readers to click on the link you’ve provided above for some great insights.

You certainly don’t shy away from making yourself vulnerable in your writing. In your second autobiographical work, ‘Becoming Me’, you share honestly about your own battles with self-doubt, insecurity and perfectionism. What helped you to work through those issues? What would you say to anyone who might be struggling with some of those things?

I see the grace of God at work in my life as being the key factor in helping me deal with these issues. At times, I believe God has spoken directly to me in a powerful, transforming way during worship or prayer or through Scripture, showing me how I was created with such love and care and how I don’t have to try to impress to earn acceptance. At times too, other Christians, including Joy, have encouraged me and prayed for me. But I have also found that, as I step out and take risks in my life in God’s strength, then that self-doubt begins to melt away and I become more secure and more fully that person God created me to be.

To anyone struggling with these issues, I would say stay close to our wonderful God, who knows us through and through, loves us perfectly and accepts us just as we are. And as you do, I encourage you to be open to change and to grow as God leads you in ways that are just right for you.

What’s Next?

That’s certainly some great advice. What’s next on the horizon for you, Jo?

Hmm—good question. It might be a sequel to Down by the Water. Or it might be a spin-off from this novel, perhaps exploring my character Alice’s journey—or Isobel’s—or Emma’s! Or it might be something quite different—perhaps a novel set in a retirement village far away from the one in which we live (!) or even a collection of some of the over six hundred blogs I have written. 

The mind boggles—the possibilities are endless! But apart from all that, I am so looking forward to getting back to speaking more, as the COVID restrictions lift.

You’ve been so faithful and consistent with those blog posts, Jo. I know they’ve touched many people. Thanks so much for sharing with us today.


Jo has kindly made available an autographed copy of one of her books for one lucky reader. If your entry is drawn, you will have the choice of either her new historical novel Down by the Water or her memoir Soul Friend.  In order to enter the draw for the prize, just add a comment below by midnight on Saturday 20 March 2021 (Australian Eastern Standard Time). In your comment, please specify which book you would prefer. The winner will be chosen at random from the eligible comments, and their name will be published in the comments section of this blog post, in my next newsletter and on the Nola Lorraine Facebook page. As the prize is a print book, this giveaway is only available for those with an Australian postal address. (Hopefully, I’ll be able to have other giveaways in the future that will be open to anyone.) For full terms, please click here.

Author Bio

Jo-Anne Berthelsen is a Sydney-based author of seven published novels and two non-fiction works, Soul Friend and Becoming Me. She holds degrees in Arts and Theology and has worked in teaching, editing and local church ministry. Jo-Anne loves encouraging others through both the written and spoken word and is a keen blogger.

Social Media Links

Where to Buy Jo's Books

You can buy Jo’s books direct from her website: https://www.jo-anneberthelsen.com/buy.html

They are also available through Koorong and Amazon.


15 Responses

  1. Thanks Nola for your fabulous interview with the wonderful Jo-anne. Love your work, girls. You’re both on my favourite author and mentor’s list.

    Jo-anne, how exciting to learn of your ancestral connection with Helidon and it’s influence on “Down by the Water”. In the mid-eighteen hundreds, both my great-grandparents and my husband’s settled virtually either side of the highway from there – mine at Murphy’s Creek (before it was called that) and my beloved’s at Upper Tent Hill Creek.

    In an interesting twist, I discovered the actual location of my great-grandparents’ home when, at an organiser’s behest, I participated in a Bush Poet’s Competition in Toowoomba many years ago. Along the way I hit it off with a Blue Mountains based poet who came second in the grand final. His great auntie who lived on the Sunshine Coast came to the celebratory dinner and shared our table. As we chatted away, she mentioned she’d grown up in Murphy’s Creek. When I mentioned my familial connection, she replied, “Oh yes. I know where they lived. My friends bought the property from them and turned it into a dairy.”

    We knew that the original home had been destroyed in a bushfire, but that they’d rebuilt it around the original fireplace. We visited the property, and the resident at that time turned out to be a Christian; she invited us inside where we saw the original fireplace.

    Sadly, the house no longer exists – given the location and signs of severe water erosion near where it was, we’re guessing it may have been lost in the deluge of 2011.

    The personal connection makes the history all the more fascinating, doesn’t it?

    1. Thanks for your comments, Mazzy–that’s such an interesting and amazing story about your ancestors in the Murphy’s Creek/Helidon area. My great-grandparents, the Wrights, owned the Helidon Quarries just outside of Helidon, where the stone for St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane came from and also the original part of the University of Qld, I understand. And re the floods in the Murphy’s Creek area in 2011, that was in my mind when I included a flash flood in my novel ‘Down by the Water’. I don’t think a flood actually occurred near Helidon back in 1910, but I knew it was at least possible.–a bit of poetic or historical licence going on there!

    2. Hi Mazzy – Thanks for sharing your story. It certainly is a small world. Have you got any plans to write up your family stories? I’m sure it would make interesting reading. And yes, it’s those family/personal aspects that bring the history to life.

  2. Thanks Nola and Jo-Anne for this interesting interview. We know Helidon quite well. Some of our cousins were evacuated there during the war.
    One of my aunts came from Grantham in that area. We knew this from our earliest years as they lived across the road from us – they in Manly and we were in Wynnum, in the same street. Their home was called “Grantham”.
    We used to drive through Helidon to go to Toowoomba before the Warrego Highway was built. Also people from our church in Laidley lived in Grantham. They were severely affected personally by the 2011 floods.
    I really enjoyed reading this.

    1. Thanks for that, Heather. I moved to Toowoomba in 1989 before they built the bypass and I used to drive through Grantham and Helidon. Sadly those towns weren’t as prosperous after they built the bypass. Thanks for sharing your family connections. And yes, I think those floods and their aftermath will be in people’s minds for a long time yet. Very sad. Thanks for commenting.

    2. Glad you found our interview interesting, Heather. I remember your telling me after my book launch for ‘Down by the Water’ that you knew Helidon quite well and also had connections with Grantham. I grew up thinking everyone must know Helidon and Rosewood and Harrisville that I mention in the novel, because my mother and grandparents talked so often about them, having lived there. But one of my manuscript readers here in Sydney had no idea they are real towns–she thought I had made them up! And just last week when I was book signing at Penrith Koorong, a couple of people I chatted to had never heard of such places either. Perhaps I should have included a map as well as a family tree in the front of my novel–a bit late now!

    1. Thanks so much for your lovely, encouraging comments, Elaine. I’m so glad you enjoy my writing. I loved creating this latest novel of mine, even though it took a few years to complete and lots of hard work–of course! And yes, there’s a lot of backstory to this novel that I hope has made the story richer for everyone.

  3. Hi Nola and Jo-Anne. What a great interview, so good the hear from you Jo, and the stories from some of the other readers too on the history and knowledge of Helidon and surrounding areas. Don’t you just love it when a story really resonates with readers?
    I love historical novels and memoirs and am looking forward to reading Down by the Water. I would love to hear more too on how you tied your grandparents’ story into this.

    1. Thanks so much, Kaye, for your lovely, enthusiastic comments about our interview–and also about historical novels! I do hope you enjoy ‘Down by the Water’, when you get to read it.

      Re how my grandparents’ story influenced the novel, this happened in so many ways as I wrote. For example, my grandmother was an artist, as is my main character Meg in the novel. And my grandfather was a teacher at Rosewood for a while, as Meg’s husband Richard is in the story. And they also had a general store in Red Hill in Brisbane for some years, then another one in Harrisville, as my characters do in the novel. Also, my grandfather was a reporter for the local newspaper during his years in Harrisville and a lay reader in the Anglican church, as Richard is too. But even beyond that, as I wrote, I could almost hear my grandparents’ voices in my head, so I’m sure some of the dialogue in the novel and even the things Richard and Meg say at times reflects this. Yet various other facts in the novel differ from their actual story. For example, they had seven children, whereas my characters have only five. And I cannot honestly say I knew much about my grandmother’s spiritual journey, whereas my character Meg’s journey is played out in detail in the novel and is what drives the whole story really. I could go on, but perhaps we can chat about this at a future Omega Conference, Kaye?!

  4. Congratulations on your new book, Jo-Anne. I know what you mean by having ancestors influence your story, while the story not really being about them. I did that with my Great-Uncle Charlie, who went to WW1 as a 21 year old, was awarded 3 medals for bravery, and three months before the end of the war, he was killed in action. His was a tragic story, and I felt it would be wonderful to connect with what happened to him. Of course, I have not had that story published, as I wrote it as a screenplay.
    Still, those ancestors pop up in stories, don’t they.
    All the best with this new work.

    1. Thanks so much, Meredith, for all your lovely comments. And it’s such a relief to hear you understand what I mean when I say this novel is not my grandparents actual story, although they strongly influenced it! Some folk look at me a little strangely when I try to explain that, but it’s what novelists do all the time, I believe–take facts and people’s personalities and things they have heard others say in real life and blend them together in all sorts of ways with their own thoughts and imagination to create a whole new story.

      And Meredith, I reckon your great-uncle’s story would make an excellent novel, even just using the bones of his story that you mention here. Maybe it could be your next project, to turn that screenplay into a novel–could that be done? I’m aware though you have another whole series of contemporary novels being published right now–all the best with them!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing Nola and Jo. I am embarking on my first novel (historical fiction) set in the Darling Downs so it has been wonderful to read about your journey Jo. It is a very daunting journey for me but reading author’s journeys like yours really does inspire me. I would love to enter for “Down by the water” Thanks again for sharing.

    1. Hi Leisa! Thanks for your comments above. I’m so glad our interview has inspired you to keep writing your own historical novel, set not far away from the different towns where mine is set.

      And you know, just this week, a lady asked to borrow my very first novel ‘Helena’, published back in 2007. Then today, she brought it back and asked to borrow the sequel to it–and she told me she enjoyed that first novel of mine even more than my seventh and latest one, ‘Down by the Water’! I laughed, as back then, I knew nothing about writing novels! Yet of all my novels and non-fiction, I think that is the one that has sold the most copies–although today it probably wouldn’t get published, as styles of writing have changed since then. All that to say, Leisa, that I’m so grateful God enabled me to write that first novel of mine–and I hope your own journey with your first novel will be as joyous and fulfilling as my journey certainly was for me. God bless!

  6. Thank you for all of your lovely comments. The giveaway is now closed and I can announce that the winner of the random draw is Mazzy Adams. Mazzy has chosen a copy of ‘Down by the Water’ for her prize. Thanks again Jo for a great interview and for making the giveaway possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *