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?
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.
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.
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.