Amish romance author Beverly Lewis's PG take on love
Stroll through the romance shelves at any Barnes & Noble, and one subgenre stands out like Harrison Ford in Witness. In a territory marked by heaving chests and flexing muscles, Colorado Springs Christian writer Beverly Lewis keeps sex under her bonnets. But while her Amish romances feature more hand-holding than kissing, more Lord-praising than foreplay, more Pennsylvania Dutch than dirty talk, Lewis has earned a rabid cult following for her emotionally developed alternative to the randy romance novel.
Lewis, who attended Evangel University and worked as a schoolteacher before launching the love lives of the Old Order into the mainstream, might seem an unlikely candidate to have revolutionized romance. Since 1965, the author has lived in Colorado Springs, far from her fictional home of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, though she spends six days a week channeling the other side. But stroll through those same aisles, and you'll find hundreds of additions to this PG and perplexing take on modern romance. (Two of Lewis's books have even hit the romantic jackpot by being reinterpreted into Lifetime and Hallmark movies.) Forget corset-rippers: These are bonnet-busters.
In honor of the annual day devoted to a mass-produced take on love -- February 14 -- we spoke to the author of more than seventy novels in much the same way she speaks to many of her sources. E-mailing us back from her Colorado Springs home, Lewis touched on her writing techniques, research methods and personal heritage in the Anabaptist community. And it turns out that interviewing people snail mail-style teaches you a lot about patience.
Westword: You come from a Mennonite background on your mother's side. What originally sparked your interest in writing about Amish culture?
Beverly Lewis: My initial interest in writing books set in Lancaster County's Amish community was a result of encountering various Amish families during my childhood. Growing up around Amish farmland, I enjoyed the opportunity to witness firsthand their love of family, of the domestic arts -- sewing, quilting, cooking, baking -- as well as seeing them live out their tradition of faith in such a unique way.
What is your first personal memory of Amish culture? How did your first impression adapt over time?
One of my earliest memories was of seeing horse-drawn buggies with little Amish children peering out at me from the back, their legs dangling as they jabbered in Pennsylvania Dutch, sometimes pointing and giggling at my family following slowly behind them in our car. And also of being invited to our Amish friends' farmhouse and sitting at a long wooden trestle table, being served a six-course supper by the older four of the thirteen children. I recall the Amish wife and mother talking rather openly with my own mother about not having as much work to do (especially in the kitchen) because of having many daughters. I was eight or nine years old, I believe. This impression has stayed with me largely because I had never seen adult women, let alone teenage girls, put together a feast for so many people so quickly.
How do you conduct your research?
I've stayed with two different Amish families during two separate summers. I had the pleasure of knowing my parents' Amish friends while growing up in Lancaster County. I continue to keep in touch with many of those Amish friends -- and their grown children, too.
I'm in touch with Amish friends and contacts through letters and phone calls (to their barn or shop phones). And I read various Amish-related periodicals, such as The Budget, and devotional magazines written primarily for Amish women. My Mennonite cousins also answer my questions by simply going over their back fences to ask an Amish neighbor! I'm also in Lancaster County two to three times per year visiting my mother's Mennonite relatives there, as well as Amish friends in Paradise, Strasburg and Newburg, Pennsylvania.
What are the challenges to writing about such a closed culture?
Stretching myself as an author to see through the eyes of an Amish protagonist and figuratively walking in their bare feet...attempting to understand life in a cloistered community ordered from the top down (God, father, husband, older brother, etc.).
What is the most common response to your books? Who is the audience for your writing?
My readers are legion and quite loyal, and I rarely hear a negative response; I must be rather spoiled in this regard. The typical comment from my readers is either "I stayed up all night reading your latest novel, because I couldn't put it down," or "Beverly, I wish you could write faster. I've finished your latest book and I have nothing else to read."
I have tens of thousands of letters and cards and even more e-mails from mostly women ranging from their thirties to seventies, though along with that age group, there are college-age girls and elderly women who stand in long lines to meet me during my book tours.
I've received surprisingly little criticism, although there have been a handful of Amish in Ohio, especially, who have pointed out the scriptural basis for their shunning practices, as if attempting to set me straight. The most common praise? "You originated Amish fiction, and you're still the best Amish author." I also hear from readers that they feel as if they're reading non-fiction, discovering an exotic community and getting a front-row-seat glimpse into the world of the Lancaster County Amish. They also repeatedly say they feel a bond with me, as their author-friend, and that I'm writing stories just for them
Click through to read about Lewis's Amish encounters in Colorado.