Most have a snapshot view of Amish life, but Cindy Woodsmall decided to dig deeper. In The Dawn of Christmas, Woodsmall challenges misconceptions about the Amish lifestyle and hopes to show that those communities shouldn’t be put on a pedestal because they aren’t too different from our own.
Zola: The characters in the novel have cell phones—which surprised me! I guess I don’t know as much about the modern Amish community as I thought. Do you often hear from readers who are surprised by their lack of knowledge as to how these people live?
Cindy Woodsmall: Yes. I hear from a lot of people who are surprised and I think that’s the drawing point for why Amish novels have become so popular. People have often seen something on the news about the community and they have a snapshot image in their head and they want to hear the story behind the picture. We see a snapshot and want more—that’s who we are as a society.
And readers do find it fascinating, even when they have an Amish neighbor, there’s so much about their lives they don’t know. For me, in writing, that’s true too. I have Amish friends who read the manuscripts for me, who brainstorm with me, and they still tell me ‘well you’re a little off here.’ With 14 books written I still learn something new about the Amish lifestyle every time I sit down to write.
It’s a lot of fun; it’s probably one of my favorite parts and to have earned the trust of that community. Some people bring me their stories and they say, ‘Here’s what happened to me. Can you use it in a book?’ I assure them it’ll look very different because sometimes they’ll be middle aged with children and I tend to write characters that are younger than that. But it’s a lot of fun.
Zola: What’s the most common thing that surprises outsiders?
CW: On the spiritual and emotional level what surprises them is how forgiving the Amish are to outsiders and yet how exacting they are to those who have been raised in the faith.
So in 2006 when there was the Amish school shooting, some of the men I’m connected to (through interviews and Old Order Amish friends) and my Old Order Amish friend’s sister’s children went to that school. After the shooting, the fathers and brothers went to the home of the shooter’s sister to comfort her and support her. When the U.S. started pouring in money to help they wouldn’t take a cent if it didn’t include her; they said she was a victim too. They have such forgiveness and yet they’re so exacting with their own children, even sometimes shunning their children if they do something really wrong.
In every day Amish life, readers are most surprised by the amount of processed food the Amish use in their recipes—more than you and I! They have all the children their bodies can have, they don’t believe in birth control, so these women use everything they can use to keep their children fed three times a day. It’s about living a simple life, not a pure life. In their communities, there is such a love of family and a desire to keep the community together. They will sacrifice untold comforts and modernization to hold onto that culture and that is really admirable.
Zola: There has been a surge of interest in the Amish community in recent years—from the appearance of Amish romance novels to popular TV shows like Amish Mafia and Breaking Amish. What do you think of television shows like this and how they represent the Amish community?
CW: I participated in helping National Geographic film a documentary on the Amish so I was able to get experience behind the scenes of a film shoot. So when I sat down to watch Breaking Amish for the first time I knew the field producers were helping the Amish. They’d say they were in an Old Order Amish home and you’d see an AC unit. I knew they were just pulling one. I actually made it into a game—what are they saying that I know isn’t accurate? When the show finished and did a hard hitting interview at the end the truth came out and it was what I thought. These kids were raised Amish but hadn’t lived Amish in at least a decade. It’s disappointing.
It’s hard on the Amish community. It’s causing a rift that these programs go in seeking someone raised Amish to put on the show. It does such damage to the community and the family. Amish Mafia, I was told by two Old Order Amish who know people on the show, is just a ton of lies.
Zola: Why do you think America is suddenly infatuated with the Amish?
CW: I think there are a couple of reasons that cover different groups of people that, compiled together, make a lot of people interested. One group of people are the ones who remember what our grandparents lived like: the simplicity and farms. Reading about the Amish, they’re drawn into a simpler time before technology took over our daily lives.
For the younger ones, who don’t remember their grandparents living with barely electricity, what draws them is that there’s a culture inside of America that was here from the founding of America that has held onto their roots, their ways of life, and they keep saying no to technology. How do they work? How do they make a living? The rest of us latch onto every piece of tech that makes our lives easier and the Amish sit there and say ‘no, no, no.’ So…how do they do it?
Zola: You co-authored a nonfiction book, Plain Wisdom, with your Old Order Amish friend Miriam Flaud and before that had grown up close friends with Luann, a Plain Mennonite girl. Have you considered a fictional work based on these close friendships or do you have any other non-fiction works planned?
CW: I haven’t and I don’t have any other non-fiction works planned at this time. I like the fiction writing, staying with my Old Order Amish friends, and being a fly on the wall of their lives. I enjoy seeing how stories can work, what causes characters to clash, and what I can find to use in a story based in reality. The non-fiction…I was really surprised by how much openness it took to write it but when you’re putting it in print for everyone to read…it was a lot harder than we expected. If we were that open the first time, how open do we have to be the second time?
Zola: This book is called The Dawn of Christmas – can you tell us about how the Amish celebrate during the holiday season?
CW: I can tell you a little bit. Of course they enjoy a lot of wonderful food—the women are excellent cooks! Most have been apprenticing under their moms since they graduated 8th grade and they are just wonderful at it. They have Christmas plays at the one room schoolhouse where parents can watch their kids perform (I find it so interesting that they don’t allow TV or movies but allow a play). They celebrate Christmas twice: they have Christmas and second Christmas. Second Christmas is about having extended family come in, eating leftovers, and visiting. They don’t have the tree, but they have a few decorations. They have candles, of course, year round but they add to the atmosphere. Many of them go all out and have beautifully wrapped presents. Really not too different, but the hardest part is for the children who see other people with Christmas trees. My friend Miriam said when she was a little girl she so badly wanted a Christmas tree when she grew up. Overall, it’s just a lot more simple.
Zola: You’ve had strong friendships with members of the Amish and Mennonite communities. But what other aspects of Amish life drew your interest and brought you to begin writing Amish romance?
CW: Well, there were two big things. One was the childhood friendship that I had with a girl who was Amish Mennonite. Neither of our parents liked the friendship so that planted a seed in me as a child. My mother would read to me—all the classics—and when she left I’d reimagine the stories. What if Cinderella had been ugly? What if this hadn’t happened? I’d reimagine the entire story from the start. So when I became friends with the Amish Mennonite girl and we had to navigate our parents disapproval my imagination ran wild with ‘what if, what if.’ It’s the basis of Paul and Hannah because she’s Old Order Amish and he’s Mennonite. And people wonder, they’re both Christian so why are the parents so against it?
Then, as an adult, I reconnected with the Old Order Amish community and was talking to the men, the heads of the households, about writing novels and asking if I could talk to their wives to really make it work. They said, ‘We will help you do this and will support you if you won’t put us on a pedestal. Show our real problems. America has us on a pedestal that we aren’t truly on.’ I said, ‘You just freed me.’ It is amazing, it really freed me. I loved that they said that because it is hard reading about your lifestyle with someone showing the harsher parts of it.
Miriam’s 17-year-old daughter reads them and demands more books! She says it helps her figure out her lifestyle, but I never want to make an Amish person rethink living Amish. There’s good and there’s bad, just like my household. I hope what readers go away with is this is what the Amish have done, this is what worked well and why, and what hasn’t worked well and why.
Zola: Had you read any Amish romances before you began writing your own?
CW: The genre was really new to me. I think I had read one book by Beverly Lewis way back when she first started and I set it aside and didn’t think too much about it. I started writing several years later and I thought I didn’t want to read any more Amish books because I didn’t want to use their research because that wasn’t right and I didn’t want incorrect research about the area I was focusing on. The Amish change district to district and I wanted to represent that. When I began writing, Beverly Lewis was the only author out there and I didn’t want to pick up on her voice when I had my own story I wanted to tell.
Zola: In The Dawn of Christmas readers are reunited with characters from The Sound of Sleigh Bells and The Christmas Singing – was there one character or couple in particular you were most excited to feature again?
CW: Well, I love Beth and Jonah (The Sound of Sleigh Bells)—all the way through. Beth is representative of an Amish friend I have who has never married, which is so unusual, and she runs a dry goods store. My friend didn’t find love and, as a romance writer, I had to give it to Beth and Jonah’s such a romantic hunk.
But I also loved writing the new couple—Sadie and Levi. I think of all my stories this would be, aesthetically, the strongest translation to film. It’d be a wonderful movie with all the horses. My youngest son is in film school and I’m like ‘Write the screenplay!’ And he doesn’t want to do it! Can you imagine, a 19-year-old boy not wanting to write this genre?
Zola: Any dream cast for that film?
CW: Oh wow… I haven’t thought that far ahead. I have dream horses but no dream cast. I actually asked my Facebook friends and readers the other day what actors they liked, not for Levi just in general, and they came back saying names like Gene Kelly and Clark Gable! I guess I’ll have to keep thinking.
Zola: Of all of our novels, is there one couple who stands out as a favorite you’ve written?
CW: I have to say that when I’m writing them they are my favorite couple. No ifs, ands, or buts. But, having said that, I have to say Hannah and Paul. They were the first couple I wrote and I spent so many years with them—between the research and trying to find a publisher. They stick out.
Zola: Was it challenging finding a publisher?
CW: Definitely. They’d say, ‘I love your voice, but don’t write it Amish. We have Beverly Lewis; she’s the Amish writer.’ And I’m thinking, is there only one suspense writer? Does only Stephen King write horror?
Zola: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
CW: Oh you are talking to a girl in Atlanta and indie bookstores are hard to come by, but one I recently visited and really loved is Carpenter Bible Bookstore.
Don’t miss any of the New Year’s countdown! See all of the stories here.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.