Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels, including Count The Nights By Stars, winner of the 2023 Christianity Today Book Award in Fiction, and Under The Tulip Tree, a Christy Award and Selah Award finalist. As a woman of mixed heritage—her father’s family is Hispanic and her mother’s roots go back to Germany—she has always celebrated diversity and feels it’s important to see the world through the eyes of one another. Learning from the past and changing the future is why she writes historical fiction.
In this interview, Michelle shares some of her thoughts with us about her latest book, Appalachian Song.
FF: Where did your inspiration for Appalachian Song come from?
When my editor suggested I write a book with a midwife as one of the main characters, I knew right away I would set it in the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee. My husband and I enjoy spending time in the charming town of Gatlinburg, and the Great Smoky Mountains have become a favorite place to drink in the beauty of God’s world. One of the fascinating sites we like to visit while we’re there is the Walker Sisters cabin. The simple life these five women chose to live, deep in the mountains of Appalachia, captivated me. Although Appalachian Song is not their story, they served as inspiration for Bertie and her family.
FF: How will this story appeal to families impacted by adoption?
Adoption is a beautiful gift from God. Our extended family has been blessed through adoption, as have the families of many of our friends, and I wanted to explore the process by creating characters who experience the different sides of adoption. I also have a friend who is a birth mother who gave up her son. She was young and unmarried, like Songbird in the book, and the pain and heartache she experienced touched me in a profound way. Every adoptee and their parents—birth and adoptive—have a unique story to tell, and my hope is that Appalachian Song will remind them, as well as readers who haven’t been touched by adoption, that God’s plans are perfect, even when we can’t understand them.
FF: Who was your favorite character to write?
It is always difficult to choose a favorite character in my books, because they’re all so special in different ways. But I think my favorite character in Appalachian Song is Bertie. She’s feisty, yet compassionate. Wise, yet has questions about life. Much like the rest of us, her faith has been a journey with ups and downs, doubts and fears. Her love for her family is fierce, yet inclusive to the point of allowing a young, unwed mother-to-be into her heart. Songbird was a very lucky girl to have found her way to Bertie’s cabin. (Bertie would tell me it wasn’t luck at all, and I’d have to agree with her.)
FF: How do you approach writing characters whose life circumstances (such as being adopted) are different from your own? How do you explore their unique perspectives?
Because I have several family members and friends who are adopted or are adoptive parents, I drew inspiration from their lives and what I’ve witnessed over the years as they’ve navigated infertility, abandonment, the foster care system, foreign orphanages, and ultimately legal adoption. Writing a fictional story that involves circumstances I haven’t personally experienced, however, requires sensitivity, because I never want a reader to be hurt or offended by the challenging journeys I take my characters on. No two adoption stories are alike, and that’s how I approached the writing and research process for this book. I wanted to tell the different sides of adoption, from the birth mother’s perspective, to adoptees and how they feel about themselves, to people who open their hearts and homes to a child who isn’t biologically theirs.
FF: What role does faith play in this story?
As a believer in Jesus Christ, I’ve seen and experienced the goodness of God. I know he can bring hope into circumstances that seem hopeless. In Appalachian Song, you’ll find some characters whose faith is strong and others who are barely hanging on by a thread. Bertie, Songbird, Walker, and Reese are all on a faith journey, whether they recognize it or not. God doesn’t always make his plans clear to us. In fact, he often leads us down paths we’d rather not take. But what I’ve found, and what I tried to portray in the book, is that when we put our trust in God, even in the hard times, the blessings that follow aren’t at all what we imagined but are exactly what we needed. Ultimately, I want to remind readers that no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in, there is Hope, and his name is Jesus.
FF: How have you found your historical stories connect with modern-day readers?
Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NLT) says: “History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.” Because I write historical fiction, I often have my nose in a history book. What I’ve found is that the author of Ecclesiastes was exactly right! So many of the topics I write about in my novels—slavery, human trafficking, teenage pregnancy, adoption—are issues that people have been dealing with through the ages. Those same issues are in the news headlines today. But what I try to illuminate in my books is that, although the problems and challenges we face today are not new, all of us can be part of the solution. We all have the opportunity to do something to help someone else along their journey. And when we do, maybe, just maybe, we can change history.
FF: This story features several midwives. What did you learn about midwifery through your research and writing?
To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about midwifery before I began research for the book. Both of my children were born in a hospital environment, which only became common beginning in the 1800s. Midwives, however, have been delivering babies since the beginning of time. In Appalachia, each mountain community usually had their own midwife. These “granny women” were knowledgeable about herbs and tended the sick as well. Many hippie communities in the 1960s and ’70s also had their own midwives, and it was through a book written by one of these women that I learned the most about midwifery. Today, midwifery is on the rise, and I know several women who’ve chosen to give birth to their babies at home with the help of a midwife.
FF: Who is your favorite literary character? What do you like most about him/her?
Louisa May Alcott’s beautiful novel Little Women introduces us to Josephine “Jo” March, and Jo is probably my favorite literary character. When I was ten years old, my mother read Little Women to my sister and me. We were old enough to read the book on our own, but the summer we three “women” gathered in our den to read the book is a special memory for me. Jo was an aspiring writer, as was I. Her imagination often carried her away, as did mine. She loved her family and would do anything for them, including selling her hair to buy a train ticket for Marmee to go tend her wounded husband. I love Jo’s spirit, and if she was a real person, I have a feeling we would be great friends.
FF: Which authors have inspired you or your work?
I was in high school when my mom brought home a book called Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke. That book was my introduction to Christian fiction, and it changed my life. I saw that there was a difference in Janette’s story from the grocery-store romance novels I’d been reading. Not only was it a sweet, clean romance, but there was hope in Marty and Clark’s lives. Years later, as a mother of two grade-school boys, I began writing my first novel. I had no clue what I was doing, so I attended a writers’ conference. Francine Rivers was the fiction track teacher. I’d never heard of her (crazy, I know!) but I left that conference a huge fan. These two amazing authors have inspired me on my writing journey. Not just because they have the gift of telling a great story, but because of their strong faith in God and their obedience to Jesus’s command to “go and tell” the Good News. I’ve long aspired to be like Janette and Francine when I grow up.
FF: Do you have any new projects you’re working on?
Yes! I’m currently working on a new time-slip novel set on a Tennessee walking horse farm in Tullahoma, Tennessee, in the 1940s and 1960s. When Mattie Taylor’s twin brother dies in Vietnam, she runs away from the pain. A telegram with news of her dying mother brings her back one year later. A tenuous truce is formed between Mattie and her father through an unlikely source: an old German Bible. Mattie is shocked when long-hidden family secrets are revealed, including a connection to an infamous Nazi. Can healing come even in the face of her beloved mother’s death?
Genres: Southern Fiction, Historical
Release Date: October 3, 2023
Forever within the memories of my heart.
Always remember, you are perfectly loved.
Bertie Jenkins has spent forty years serving as a midwife for her community in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Out of all the mothers she’s tended, none affects her more than the young teenager who shows up on her doorstep, injured, afraid, and expecting, one warm June day in 1943. As Bertie and her four sisters tenderly nurture Songbird back to health, the bond between the childless midwife and the motherless teen grows strong. But soon Songbird is forced to make a heartbreaking decision that will tear this little family apart.
Thirty years later, the day after his father’s funeral, Walker Wylie is stunned to learn he was adopted as an infant. The famous country singer enlists the help of adoption advocate Reese Chandler in the hopes of learning why he was abandoned by his birth parents. With the only clue he has in hand, Walker and Reese head deep into the Appalachian Mountains to track down Bertie Jenkins, the midwife who holds the secrets to Walker’s past.
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