Ellen Gable on Integrating Faith and Fiction

a-subtle-grace-w350When it comes down to it, I’m a fiction reader. Oh yes, I read plenty of nonfiction in any given year, but, for me, fiction is the payoff, the reward, the icing on the cake of my favorite hobby.

Over the last few years, since I’ve been an “official” writer of sorts, I’ve gotten to know some writers, and some of them write fiction, and not just any fiction, but good fiction.

Today, I’m thrilled to share a conversation with one such writer. I’ve known Ellen Gable (Hrkach) since I first cut my teeth with more than just a blog post in the middle of cyberspace. She’s been an encouragement to me and to many, many other writers as well.

Her latest novel, A Subtle Grace, was just released, and that’s the excuse for an interview. But don’t worry, I didn’t let that stop me from picking her brain about what it means to live a truly integrated Catholic life.

She was kind enough to send an excerpt of her book, too, and that’s at the end. Enjoy!

SARAH: Ellen, I’m in awe of you. This month your latest novel, #5!, A Subtle Grace, comes out. Tell us a bit about it and what inspired you to write it. 

ELLEN: Thanks, Sarah!  You’re so kind!

A Subtle Grace takes place in 1896 Philadelphia and is the continuing story of the O’Donovan Family. At 19, Kathleen is the oldest O’Donovan child.  She says a prayer to St. Agnes to send her a sweetheart.  She eventually falls in love with the charming and incredibly handsome son (Karl) of the local police chief.  Is Karl the sweetheart for whom she is waiting? She is convinced but her family isn’t as certain.  Enter Dr. Luke, the new physician in town.  He’s a kind and gentle man who becomes smitten with Kathleen.  Of course, she only has eyes for Karl.  A disturbing turn of events will give Kathleen the answer to her question, but it may not be the one she is expecting.

In our 21st century “friends with benefits” society, many young women are giving their bodies to men who have no intention of marrying them (and vice versa). Both men and women are fueling their sexual appetites to the point where they can’t control them. Date rapes/sexual assaults are on the rise. How has our society gotten so out of control?  It begins and ends with chastity, or sexual self control.  For these modern men and women who have bought into the “friends with benefits” lie, sex is merely a physical urge to be gratified; they can’t see that sex is meaningful, mysterious and beautiful only to be shared with one’s spouse.

Obviously, I was writing a story that takes place in 1896, but I wanted to show that outward appearances can often be deceiving.  There were many good things about living in the 19th century and one of them was that no man could court a girl without her father’s permission.  Even then, as illustrated in the novel, it wasn’t foolproof.

You juggle as much as anyone I know, Ellen. How do you keep your focus on your priorities and keep your life integrated?

I try to attend daily Mass whenever I can as well as reciting the daily rosary.  I organize my day, usually a written list of what I have to accomplish for the day.  My daily list is HUGE!!  And often, as I’m crossing things off, other items are being added.  Even so, this helps me to keep on track.

Of your pursuits, what gives you energy and the motivation to continue? How do you avoid getting burned out?

Ellen Gable Hrkach

Ellen Gable Hrkach

My favorite thing to do is to write fiction.  I also love to read.  When I’m not writing, I’m reading.   In order to avoid burn out, I don’t push myself to write a particular novel until I am feeling inspired to do so.  I’ve learned that even if I have a good story and have outlined it, it’s not ready to be written until I feel inspired to do so.

Also, I try to keep active.  I often sit at the computer 10 hours a day and I know how important it is for me to exercise. If I’m feeling well physically, I always have more energy and motivation.  So I try to get on the treadmill or walk outside four to five times a week.

Last, but not least, having a strong faith life gives me the spiritual motivation to continue.

Much of your writing involves Catholic themes. Tell us about the themes of your new book, A Subtle Grace.

The themes include redemption, love as a feeling versus love as a choice, true love versus infatuation and discerning one’s particular vocation in life.  AnnMarie Creedon, author of Angela’s Song, gives the best one line synopsis and lists the themes in her review: “A Subtle Grace is the masterfully written illustration of the difference between lust and love, rashness and fortitude, and merely existing and truly living.”

What are your hopes for A Subtle Grace? What do you hope readers gain (even if only a great story well told)?

If they only walk away with the enjoyment of a great story well told, that’s wonderful!  However, I do hope that readers will embrace the following: that life is always gift, that sexuality is a beautiful gift meant for marriage and that the value of a person is not in their physical appearance, but who they are inside.

* * *

(Excerpt from A Subtle Grace, copyright © 2013 Ellen Gable Hrkach, used with permission.)

I witnessed another human being coming into the world.

Kathleen’s head sunk deeply into her feather pillow as she stared upward.  She tossed back and forth as sleep eluded her. How could she possibly rest after what she had just witnessed?

The clock downstairs struck quarter past three.  Her younger siblings hadn’t wakened during the night – Mama had kept fairly quiet during labor – but in the morning, all of her brothers would be excited to discover that they had a new sister.

After five brothers, it seemed like having a sister was an impossible dream. For a moment, Kathleen thought of her own vocation, confident that it was marriage and motherhood.  Her “coming out” reception last year when she was 18 was a tremendous success.

Why, then, was she not married yet?  Two of her friends from high school, Margaret and Anne, had already married.  Kathleen was beginning to think she might become — heaven forbid — an “old maid.” It was essential that Kathleen meet her future husband immediately to stave off this terrible fate.

Kathleen lifted up the small holy card she used as a bookmark, a picture of St. Agnes holding a lamb, two doves hovering nearby. St. Agnes, where is my sweetheart?  Please send him to me soon!

After reading her inspiring story a few years previous, St. Agnes, virgin and martyr, had become Kathleen’s favorite saint. In the fourth century, Agnes’ virginity was preserved despite the young saint being stripped naked and taken to a brothel to be violated by a group of men. The saint was saved when most of the men could not go through with the heinous act. The man who wanted her to forcibly marry him was struck blind.  She was eventually martyred.

Kathleen paged through the earlier entries of her journal until she came to January 20th of last year, on the eve of St. Agnes’ Feast Day, where she’d written down a prayer/poem to St. Agnes.

January 20th, 1895

Now good St. Agnes, play thy part,
And send to me my own sweetheart,
And show me such a happy bliss,
This night of him to have a kiss. 

On that January day a year and a half ago, she had recited the prayer, then had finally fallen asleep. Indeed, she had dreamt of a man.

His face was blurry like an Impressionist painting, except with less detail.  The man leaned in to kiss her, but his lips only gently brushed against hers. Immediately, Kathleen knew that this was her beloved. She couldn’t explain how, but she could tell that his heart was pure and true and good. All of a sudden, the man vanished and in his place was a blue and green hummingbird hovering above her. How would she recognize her sweetheart if she could not see his face?


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