Happy November everyone!! I thought it would be fabulous to kick off the month with an interview with the ever fabulous Jody Hedlund and some behind the scenes of writing the story of John Newton and his wife Polly. I hope you’re encouraged by them and their story (and Jody too!)
1. You’ve written about many other true historical couples. What drew you to write about Newton and Polly?
Like most people, I’m familiar with the song Amazing Grace and knew it was written by John Newton who’d once been an atheist slave trader. I’d even heard a little bit about John Newton’s saving grace moment when he was aboard a ship during a life-threatening storm and cried out to God.
However, I’d never heard anything about the love of his life, Polly Catlett, until I began to dig a little deeper into his life. It didn’t take me long to realize that Newton had a passionate love for her, and his love for her affected just about every decision he made for good and bad. Theirs is a beautiful love story, one that God used in a powerful way. I decided it was a story the world needed to hear.
2. Polly Catlett is one of those forgotten women of history. Since most people have never heard of her, she can’t be all that important, can she? What role did she really play in Newton’s life?
Newton readily admits in his autobiography that he fell in love with Polly Catlett at first sight. He says this: “At the first sight of this girl, I felt an affection for her that never abated or lost its influence a single moment in my heart.”
He was completely taken with Polly so much so that every time he visited her, he overextended his stay. Such irresponsibility cost him at least two different jobs and in the end was one of the major reasons he was captured and impressed into the king’s navy.
When Newton’s naval ship sailed away from England, he was so depressed that he contemplated suicide. He said: “Nothing I either felt or feared distressed me so much as being thus forcibly torn away from the object of my affections.”
During his time away as he was involved in the slave trade, Newton’s love for Polly never diminished. If not for his passion for her, he probably wouldn’t have boarded the ship that took him away from Africa. He wouldn’t have experienced the life-threatening storm on the way home. And he might not have written Amazing Grace.
So, yes indeed Polly Catlett was incredibly important. If not for her, the world may never have known the most amazing hymn ever written.
3. Whenever fiction is based on true people or events, authors have the added challenge of maintaining integrity to the truth. How do you balance fact with fiction?
I always make it my goal to stay as true to the known facts as possible. I want to represent the people and events that I write about as accurately as possible. So for example, Newton and Polly really did meet at a young age. Newton really did claim to have fallen in love with her at first sight. He overspent his time at the Catletts on numerous occasions and lost his jobs in the process. Because of his lack of character, the Catlett’s forbade further contact with Polly. He was impressed into the Royal Navy but later deserted, was whipped, and demoted. He was later transferred to a merchant vessel and from there spent time dealing in the slave trade in Africa.
Yes, it’s important to remain true to the facts. However, if that’s all a fiction writer did the book would turn into a biography. The challenge then is to take the facts and craft them into a riveting tale that readers can’t put down. In order to do that, writers often have to add additional plot lines and characters. Since history doesn’t record everything and we weren’t there to see what really happened, writers have the liberty of interpreting the gaps and adding in things that could have occurred.
I always write with this motto: Build the framework with true facts, but then fill in the unknown and decorate the house with enough color and drama to make a good story.
4. What do you hope readers walk away with after having read Newton and Polly?
During the very last time I read the book while I was doing my last edit, Newton’s return to God brought me to tears. I hope readers, too, are overwhelmed by the sense of God’s presence and grace in Newton’s life.
More than that, I pray that readers will have a new sense of God’s grace extended toward them, that they’ll realize that no matter what they’ve done or where they’ve been, that God is waiting to draw them into his outstretched arms into his amazing grace.
5. Clearly “grace” is an important theme in Newton and Polly. But what other issues or themes does the book address?
Actually, the book is full of various themes. One major theme has to do with the timeless conflict between Christian and cultural values. In the mid 1700’s smuggling had become so commonplace that people turned a blind eye to it and even condoned it, especially if they wanted to avoid hardships and even persecution. I hope the book challenges readers to evaluate how they might be going along with cultural values instead of living with truth and integrity.
The book also sheds some light on the controversy of the slavery issue at the time, giving insights into those who supported it as well as the growing abolitionist movement (which was still in its infancy during this part of Newton’s life).
Another theme is how to handle singleness. Like Polly, it’s all too tempting for single adults to grow impatient in waiting for the “right” person to come along and to begin to consider compromising values for fear of remaining single.
I hope y’all enjoyed hearing a bit more about the writing and inspiration of Jody Hedlund! If you haven’t had the chance, I highly recommend grabbing this book – it’s by far my favorite of Jody’s!
And of course there’s a giveaway! Enter below!
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