My photo of my church's interior, taken early one morning.
While the vast majority of my books and stories are historical fiction set in 1860s America, my lone little contemporary romance, Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, is close to my heart. It also is closest to who I am.
My character Lins Mitchell is an assistant pastor serving a church in central New Jersey, something which also describes me. We are not the same age, though. I am way past forty! And I have a 30 years’ vocation in churches, while Lins has only 15 years of experience. And yet, we both have spent about ten years or so in the same church.
Lins loves rock’n’roll. And so do I. When I’m in the car, I listen to WDHA, a rock station based in northern NJ. I listen the collection of music I have on my iPhone when I’m at the gym. The seed that grew into Heart Soul was planted early one morning on my way to the church office. I was stressed out and tired that day. Suddenly Lenny Kravitz’s song “Fly Away” came on and I found myself wondering what would happen if I had a hit novel or sold a script. Would I leave the church? Would I stay? And so Lins’ dilemma was born. In Heart Soul she not only gets the chance to “rock out one more time” but also meets a man with whom she falls in love. To paraphrase the Clash: should she stay, or should she go?
But I love rock. And I don’t mean Christian rock. I’m not trying to discredit the genre. I know many people who enjoy it and find inspiration in it. But that said, I tend to find more meaning and hope in popular music. It also pumps me up. Listening to Lzzy Hale or Dorothy clicks that female empowerment thing while I’m at the gym, making an old broad in her 60s not just able but willing to conquer the treadmill and the weight circuit.
And yet I have never been in a rock band. Never, ever. Okay, as a teen I did teach myself to play chords on the guitar. It was the 60’s after all, and the first song I learned was the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” And I did go through a singer-song writer phase in my early 20s. The best way I can sum up that experience is: Carole King I was not. And so, these days I’m strictly an “in-the-car” singer. Full disclosure: That’s not entirely true. I’m also an alto in the church’s choir, but I don’t do solos. I just like singing.
The church I currently am serving has given me the germs for some great characters found in the fictional Church of the Epiphany: the excitable yet caring secretary Sue DeLuca; the thoughtful and supportive pastor Drew Palmer; the Abbey sisters, a trio of irrepressible yet loveable teenagers; and a congregation of other slightly quirky characters. As far as I’m concerned, the book partially is a love-letter to the place where I still work. There are a couple of scenes that involve confused parishioners trying to set up or clean up a large coffee urn. Those scenes are factually based. I have helped volunteers with that thing more than a few times. And this past Sunday, a church member and I were searching for the coffee that we put in said urn. Gotta love it.
I also include a brief scene in which the high school Sunday school class pays absolutely no attention to Lins. Yep. I’ve been there, done that, too.
Also like Lins, I know what it’s like to be doing one thing and suddenly have to change gears because a problem, a question, or a person needs my attention. This is not an unusual situation. It happens all the time. When you work in a church, which basically involves working with other people, you never know what is going to happen day to day. I always walk into the office expecting to get certain things accomplished, only to have my plans exploded when someone walks in the office door. And yet that is the very thing that keeps me in my vocation. I never know what is going to happen. Do I get frustrated? Sometimes, yes. But I’ve also learned that Someone else is beside me and moving and acting through it all, and that keeps me keeping on.
As for the character Kenny Jameson, the homeless Navy veteran, I have never known a guy like him. But I have known – and still know – people dealing with homelessness and poverty. I know what it’s like to buy a sandwich for a person who needs a meal and to give someone food from our congregation’s pantry. Twice a year our church hosts homeless families through the Somerset County Interfaith Hospitality Network. We offer shelter, food, and friendship for a week. The big thing I’ve learned from this experience is that homeless people just happen to be in a certain situation that we call being “homeless.” But they’re still people. Not surprisingly, so is Kenny in Heart Soul.
In my mind, the Church of the Epiphany looks very much like my own church. It’s an older stone building with stained glass windows. It still has an organ – perhaps a pipe organ – and uses hymnals rather than projected lyrics and a rock band. That’s probably because I don’t really relate to praise music and prefer more traditional hymns. Surprise! I bet you were thinking I would be drawn to band-driven praise music. Nope. I like my rock heavy but prefer my hymns traditional. Go figure.
As for the other characters in the book, they come from other places. For instance, Patti is drawn from a good friend of mine who used to pull the “Auntie Mame” thing on me every now and then. As for the band, I made them up. I don’t know anyone really like Neil, Joey, Yankee, and Ben. But they sort of emerged and developed their personalities as I went along.
One last note: I actually have lived in Point Pleasant. I was there for about a year until the apartment I was renting went condo. Fortunately, a parishioner rescued me by letting me rent her house in Shark River Hills (Neptune). But I have fond memories of living in Point. It’s a quintessential Jersey Shore town. Some of the places there that I mention in Heart Soul actually exist, and I treat them with the same respect and love with which I treat the church. And why not? I love my state. New Jersey is quirky, frustrating, and amazing all at the same time. It takes a bit of grit, determination, and perhaps a bit of masochism to live here, but I love the place.
So that’s my story. That’s how of all the things I have written, Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll has come the closest to who I really am.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder