Beth is one of the best known women and teachers in the evangelical Christian market. After years of writing Bible studies and non-fiction books encouraging women, Beth Moore expands her author territory into fiction with her debut novel, The Undoing of Saint Silvanus (Tyndale House)…
Beth, you’re well known to millions around the globe as a Bible study teacher, speaker, and the author of nonfiction books including So Long, Insecurity. What made you decide to write your first work of fiction?
I was ambushed by the love of story from both sides of my bloodline. My mother all but ate books, and from the time I was six years old, my father managed movie theaters. My fate was sealed. I still love both forms of entertainment, but to this day, what I love best about a movie is not landscape or costume. It’s dialogue. It all boils down to words with me.
Before I could write my ABCs, I’d cat-scratch pretend cursive all over Big Chief tablets from the Piggly Wiggly, playing like I was writing a book. Through the years of writing Bible study curriculum and nonfiction trade books, I’ve been drawn like a magnet to the stories of the men and women in Scripture that seemed particularly complex. David and Absalom, for instance. Miriam and Moses. I love narrative. I love imagining what these lives of faith were like away from the page and how these men and women in the sacred pages interacted with those in their sphere of influence. Sometimes those imaginations would turn into creative writings.
Way down deep in my heart I wondered if I’d ever try a novel. Bible study curriculum is my first love and keeps me busier than I can even manage, so I couldn’t imagine how the time would present itself. Still, that seed was down in that soil, where I figured it would always stay.
One day in discussions about So Long, Insecurity, [editor] Karen Watson glanced across the table and asked out of the blue, “Hey, Beth, have you ever thought about trying your hand at fiction?” I felt the heat go to my face like someone knew something on me she wasn’t supposed to know. And I don’t know how else to explain it—it was like she tipped a cup of water right over that soil and that sleepy seed started waking up.
I went through something really hard not long after that. Something I wasn’t free to talk about. There at home, trapped in my imagination, a storyline began to sprout, green and gawky but with enough semblance of form, I kept at it. I couldn’t have imagined I’d ever keep writing it, let alone finish it.
The Undoing of Saint Silvanus is a unique title. Can you tell us who—or what— Saint Silvanus is?
Please hear this word through a wide but ever-so-respectful grin: Nope.
New Orleans is a fascinating setting for your novel. Why did you choose to place your first work of fiction in this particular locale?
When I was fifteen, my little brother and I, the only two kids left at home, took a grueling two-day road-trip with our parents to our cousins’ house in Florida for vacation. Houston reaches Florida by the long, skinny arm of Interstate 10, the only decent bicep of the trip being New Orleans. I have no idea what got into my father’s head, but he decided to trot the four of us right down Bourbon Street. We’d only recently moved to Houston from a small town in Arkansas, so we hadn’t even acclimated to crowds yet. I’m pretty sure he had no idea what he was going to walk his family into the middle of.
I was not an innocent adolescent. Our family had dangled on the precipice of hell for several years. I would have told you I wasn’t naive, but I’d never walked by a strip bar in my life. Not sure I’d ever driven by one. The pictures posted at the front doors were explicit and so disturbing that I couldn’t shake them out of my head for years. Dodging drunks, we finally made our way to Jackson Square past painters and sidewalk entertainers and palm readers. It was the wildest thing I’d ever seen.
Fast forward many years, and Keith and I would go back to that city for anniversaries and bask in the deep-fried goodness of New Orleans’s brighter side. Still plenty spicy. Just not as seedy.
Fast forward a few more years, and I was asked to teach the women of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church at their annual conference. I guess it was as close as I’ve ever come to love at first sight. That whole congregation accepted this white girl like I was one of them. To be loved and embraced by them is still one of the greatest honors and joys of my ministry life. We are blood kin in Jesus. My Bible study Breaking Free was taped in their auditorium.
When my younger brother was transferred there for work, FABC also threw their arms open wide to him. He attended that wonderful, warm church for several years until he was transferred again. New Orleans is second in my heart only to Houston. I’m not sure I can explain exactly why. I’ve had a complex relationship with it. But that’s just it. I’m somehow rarely drawn to simple relationships.
Readers are wondering about the striking cover: can you give us a clue as to what the three sharp finials on the wrought iron gate represent?
The thought didn’t come to Karen and me until we were deliberating over covers, but when we finally decided on that one, we thought perhaps those finials were pretty decent representations of three primary characters in the book, all just about that strong and just about that flexible.
The characters who populate Saint Sans are multigenerational and multiethnic. How did you come to select your cast? Are they fictional representatives of people whom you’ve come to know?
I always figured if I ever wrote fiction, the characters would have a certain obligation to mirror the figures in my life, particularly since I have known and loved some terribly quirky people, but that just didn’t happen. They are all bits and pieces of this one and that one.
The one male resident comes very close to a man I love dearly but not so close he’d even recognize the resemblance. Caren, the young medical student, is patterned after a friend of mine in New Orleans by that same name, but only in physical appearance.
The novel demonstrates how the power of Christ can break the bondage of generational patterns of sin, a theme you explored in your groundbreaking Bible study Breaking Free. Are there ways in which you feel a novel can deliver this message even beyond the scope of a nonfiction work?
I deeply hope so. I think virtually any reader can recognize how darkness and detachment and disillusion can invade an entire family. These toxic dynamics can be so pervasive that the thought never even occurs to us life could exist any other way. We just accept things how they are and don’t realize how dramatically God can change us and, through us, perhaps an entire environment. I’m praying for someone to pick it up who could never picture herself as the type Jesus would seek out.
I don’t know what people on the sidewalk think they’re seeing through the windows of a church, but after thirty years of active, hands-on ministry, I promise you, those inside have had the same kinds of problems, addictions, fears, crises, losses, disappointment, injuries, and tragedies. But the thing is, you could live in a church and still never let Jesus do what He longs to do.
What are some of the compromises depicted in The Undoing of Saint Silvanus that many women make in search for security and the desire for relationship?
For starters, so many girls, starting in early adolescence, think they’re only as valuable as they are desirable. Women develop an inordinate measure of their identity from how men respond to them. You’ll see some of the effects of that in the novel. As many great guys as we know and can find out there, only Jesus gets to define an individual’s worth.
A lot of women are also trained to think that any man in your life or bed is better than no man. They don’t know who they are apart from a man. I’m pro-relationship and still believe in romance, but how on earth do we know what we have to offer any relationship when we do not even know who we are? Until we begin to know who we are, our choices regarding what we want can get woefully skewed.
How can shame and failure drive us away from God and the people we need most in our lives?
It’s can be one big miserable cycle. We feel shame and we don’t even know why. Our shame sets us up for failure. Our failure creates more shame. Increased shame brings on more failure because we naturally act out of our deepest beliefs. And that’s the way it goes until it either buries us or we let God break the cycle.
Shame always thrives in secret so we avoid letting the very people in who could help us the most and point the way out. But all that can change. And then we can be the ones who point the way out for others.
Which of the characters in your book best illustrate the need to build bridges toward healing?
I’d have to say the two that start out on opposite sides of the Golden Gate. Never underestimate the huge step that can be taken by crossing a smaller bridge, though. As I reflect on the story line, small bridges are all over it.
You’ve said that “home doesn’t have to look like home to be a home.” How does Saint Sans become a home for the characters you describe, and what does that say about the need we all have for a place to call home?
We all long to belong, perhaps now more than ever with the diminishing role of the extended family and the unfulfilled promises of online relationships. Based on what I’m seeing and hearing out there in countless large groups, I am certain of this: we have never been in touch with so many people and never felt more alone. What can throw us off is that we often think we can’t belong together if we don’t look alike, seem alike, think just alike. We will miss some of the most wonderful people we’d have ever encountered if we are unwilling to look beyond skin tones, stereotypes, socioeconomics, and church walls.
How has your own family responded to your first work of fiction? Can we anticipate more novels in the future?
Do you want to hear something wild? This is the first book of mine I think Keith Moore may read from beginning to end. Makes me laugh. He has supported and prayed over every book I’ve ever written and been so proud to keep a box of them in the back of his pickup truck to give away. But I’ve never seen him sit down with one and appear to get lost in it. It has intrigued me, pleased me and made me really antsy.
I’ll tell you what’s awkward: putting on my mascara for work in the morning while he’s within eyeshot, his face in the novel, and I’m trying to read his expression in the mirror to see if he likes it or not. He’s especially proud of it somehow. He told me that again this morning.
My daughters are so happy I did it. Amanda has always wanted me to try it because she has memories of bedtime stories I made up for them when they were little. She is a very busy pastor’s wife and mom and was expecting their third child over the last months I worked on the manuscript, so she never read any of it in process but encouraged me profusely to stay with it.
Melissa couldn’t have had a bigger impact on the novel moving to press. Her role caught me by surprise because she’s usually neck-deep in academic work.
My intention was to have my big brother as my first reader. I chose him because he appreciates the genre, he’s tremendously creative, not easy to please, and gut-honest. He’s also way outside my serving world and I felt like, if he canned it, nobody would ever even have to know it existed. As it turned out, he had a work crisis and couldn’t read it.
That’s when Melissa stepped in and insisted she was my reader. I initially argued that she’d have a hard time telling her own mother, “Bless your heart, you’ve worked so hard but it stinks.” She countered that she could do it and I handed it over.
The feeling of vulnerability was nearly overwhelming. It was nothing but crickets for the next 48 hours and I was so nervous I could have thrown up.
Finally I thought up a reason to text her about something else entirely and she jotted back an abbreviated reply: “Can’t talk right now. Wrapped up in a novel.” I was so relieved, I laughed and cried. As for my grandkids, they simply wanted to know if they were in it. Made me laugh and made me wish I could say yes!
More novels? I just have no idea. No plans for another right now but I didn’t plan this one. So many factors would have to come together for me to know it was the will of God. A story line, obviously, but also a steadfast sense that a temporary departure into fiction serves an important-enough purpose to carve out the many hours it takes. I want my life to bear fruit in the name of Jesus to the glory of God.
If my shot at this genre bears very little fruit in the lives of readers, I’ll know my job is to stick entirely with nonfiction. I have dear friends who are called by God to primarily write fiction, and at times they take temporary departures into nonfiction. They’re looking for the same thing I am: leadership from God on the best use of their gifting and time to His great glory. We want to please God and serve in a way that really helps people. My nonnegotiable calling is to teach Bible study. That one stays in place no matter what. God willing, that’s what I’ll do till I die.
But I so hope and pray someone is also served and helped by the story woven through the chapters of this novel. Dear Lord in heaven, I pray this wasn’t a colossal waste of time. We’ll find out.
Many authors write a bit of themselves into one of their characters. Do any of the residents of Saint Sans have a little ‘Beth’ in them?
Not nearly as much as I thought they would! But they’re all the kind of people I’m somehow drawn toward, for better or for worse. Jillian reflects some of my old insecurities—at times in the novel, painfully so. Adella, the manager, has a little bit of me in her but not as much as I planned. I don’t know what happened there. I just started liking the characters for themselves. They each sort of went off their own way.