When I met Theoni Bell online, I felt like I’d found a kindred spirit. We’re both homeschooling moms, Catholic converts, and history buffs with degrees in writing who are trying to tell stories about the saints. While my first saints books have been nonfiction, Theoni has written historical fiction about the first Marian Apparition in North America. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Woman in the Trees and was excited to chat more with Theoni about writing, books, and motherhood.
TKM: Tell us a bit about Theoni Bell!
Theoni: I converted to Catholicism in my twenties. I was entirely spirit-led, knowing nothing about the history or theology of the Catholic Church. I had simply decided to start praying daily to God, Whom I had been introduced to as an Evangelical in my childhood. After a few months of praying, the week of Easter, I stumbled into my first Mass on the intuition that I should enter a church I saw lit up on a hill while I was driving home.
Naively, I took the Eucharist that night, which brought lectures from my friend in the seminary. The following Easter, I was initiated into the Church. After meeting my husband, we moved from our midwest home to Canada and then to California. We have 4 children, with one in heaven, and I homeschool using Charlotte Mason methods. I have a master’s degree in journalism, so fiction writing is an exciting new art form for me!
TKM: Tell us a bit about The Woman in the Trees.
Theoni Bell: Early in my work on The Woman in the Trees, I began to pray the Our Lady of Good Help novena every time I sat down to write and made sure I had been to confession. Responses to the book have shown me how many facets Our Lady snuck into it.
From one point of view, it’s about a pioneer girl longing for her mother’s love and struggling with the loss of a loved one, while discovering the faith through the seer of an apparition. It’s also about the physical and spiritual survival of an immigrant community in the face of America’s most devastating wildfire. One father said he felt convicted to be a better spiritual leader after reading it. A reviewer said she wept as she read it, realizing things about her relationship with her own unbelieving mother. Children have been fascinated by the fire and pioneer life. In the end, though, the word I’ve heard most in reviews is “hope.” That warms my heart.
TKM: What inspired you to write The Woman in the Trees ?
Theoni: I never planned to write a novel. I had given up writing to focus on educating my children, and I was content. Then, in 2012, we visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. In the crypt, we petitioned Our Lady for another child and that my husband would be accepted into the graduate program that had wait-listed him. Three months later, my husband started his program in Vancouver, and we were expecting our son. This began my devotion to Our Lady of Good Help.
At that time, NO ONE I met knew of her. I couldn’t even find pray cards to buy online, so I laminated my own. She became our family patron. After my husband completed his program, we moved to California. I wanted to start writing books for Catholic children, having two of my own who loved to read. So I prayed a novena and the response was a scene that is now part of my novel. I couldn’t get it out of my head and felt Our Lady telling me to write about her apparition in Wisconsin.
TKM: How did you decide whose point of view to tell this story from?
Theoni Bell: In the first draft, the story was written from a first person point-of-view. It wasn’t working, so I rewrote everything in third-person limited. That means the perspective is Slainie’s, but she couldn’t be omniscient. She had to read it, hear it, or experience it for it to be part of the story. This brings the reader emotionally closer to her, which helps the reader feel what she feels. I could also write from a young girl’s perspective more effectively being myself a woman and having a young daughter who I put into the characters quite a bit.
TKM: Is Slainie at all like you?
Theoni: Like I said, the character is more like my daughter — with one exception. I wrote the story at a time when I still had some painful issues with my own mother, though they were entirely different in nature. I think that my own issues were resolved as I worked through Slainie and her mother’s resolution, though it wasn’t planned this way. Distance from a beloved parent for any reason can be a huge cross. When I adopted Our Lady as my heavenly mother, she filled the voids I saw in my childhood and made it easier to move on. Fortunately, there is great love and respect between my folks and I. We are close now.
TKM: Who is your favourite author and why?
Theoni: I rarely read a book twice, so if I even consider doing so, the author must be a favorite. By this standard, Orson Scott Card is my favorite. I raced through his Women of the Bible series, am currently reading Ender’s Game again, and plan to revisit all the books in his “Enderverse.” My husband introduced me to sci-fi, and I think it’s a perk of marriage to be shown things you never knew about yourself. Other than that, I still feel anxiety in the pit of my gut thinking about On the Beach by Nevil Shute, which makes him a pretty effective author.
TKM: What was the most challenging part of writing The Woman in the Trees, and how did you overcome that challenge?
Theoni Bell: The most challenging part of writing this book was not quitting. It took me five years, and I lost excitement for it about halfway through. Yet, when I prayed, I felt a duty to finish. Juggling homeschool, mental health issues, a pregnancy, moving several times, and household duties was trying. But this project forced me to change in order to make it work.
How am I worthy to write about Our Lady unless that faith I write about is real in me? Not perfect in me, but something I strive for without ceasing. So, I became more prayerful, more attentive to my other duties, and more organized with my time. Like trying not to stay up too late or eat foods that slow me down or make me sick. And praying to Our Lady for my children individually and often.
TKM: What was the most fun or most exciting part of writing The Woman in the Trees?
Theoni: Writing the first draft was enthralling. I stayed up until 3 am some nights as the story spilled out. Learning about the amazing Belgian settlers and reading the items I received from the archivist made it so enjoyable. I love history.
TKM: What advice would you give to a writer just starting out?
Theoni: Contrary to much advice out there, I think following formulas is dangerous, at least when you’re just starting out. You must write freely and creatively until you build confidence. Then, you can heed the books and articles on properly structuring a story and tweak yours.
My second book will be better organized from the beginning, but my first book wasn’t structured at all. It did lead to a lot of reorganizing later, but overall, it was a good thing. Trying to organize things or follow a formula too soon would have stifled me and caused me to censor and self-doubt more. I couldn’t worry about the audience and marketing and all of that while I was trying to learn good sentence structure, accurate description and the like.
Theoni Bell: I really like my kitchen table — leaning back, legs up on the chair across from me, headphones playing some album on repeat. When I need to focus more for editing purposes, I’m up in my office. Headphones on.
TKM: Who is your favourite saint and why?
Theoni: Our Lady of Good Help is my closest confidant and is most likely to answer my prayers. My favorite saint tends to be the one I am currently reading about. I have had an affinity for St. Margaret of Cortona and St. Cordula. Margaret was a convert with a past I could relate to, and she became a penitent to the extreme. That’s something I am BAD at.
Concerning Cordula, her legend says she sailed with St. Ursula and 11,000 virgins to pilgrimage across Europe. As her companions were being martyred by the Huns, she ran away and hid. The next day, feeling contrite, she turned herself in and was also martyred. It is characteristic of me to act impulsively and emotionally sometimes. I’m improving, but I try to make amends and repent when I have been shown my wrongs. Unto martyrdom? I can only hope.
TKM: Do you have another novel in the works?
Theoni: I do indeed have another novel in the works. I am world building right now. It will include miracles and sci-fi elements. It will also have a heavy mental health theme.
More about Theoni Bell
To find out more about Theoni’s books and Our Lady of Good Help, drop by her website. You can also follow her on Facebook and on Instagram for book updates and information about Our Lady of Good Help.