Publishing a novel can put the fear of God into a writer, particularly when the book addresses religious subject matter. When I conceived my novel, Glass Halo, I wanted to write about a priest because ordained men seem inherently interesting characters vested in mystery. My great-uncle was a monsignor; and as a cradle Catholic, all my life I’d known priests—not, of course, in the Biblical sense.
But in Glass Halo, my protagonist—Nora Kelley, a stained glass artisan—does come to know Father Vincent DiMarco in the Biblical sense. I never intended to debut with a bodice-ripper. I endeavored to write a book about vocation, conversion, and higher love.
In my original manuscript, lust between Nora and Vin went unconsummated. My literary agent had high hopes for my manuscript. Many editors expressed admiration for my style, but disliked my story, consistently complaining that my book lacked a pay-off. They wanted my characters to fall into the hotbed of fornication.
I held out. So did my supportive agent. But after several years and several dozen rejections from major publishing houses, she insisted that if I wanted to sell my book, I’d need to add sex to the mix.
I agreed that if I found a scene warranting the characters’ caving in to a taboo roll in the hay, I’d add carnal knowledge. But the dirty deed would need clear motivation.
I wrote a brief lovemaking scene that then required rewriting the last portion of my manuscript—not without trepidation. I feared selling out my original authorial intent. I feared the sex scene would shame me and anybody associated with me. I feared turned-on characters might turn off readers. I feared readers’ assumptions that I had coveted thy neighbor’s pastor. And I feared trespassing on the Catholic Church’s moral high ground.
When editors wanted even more sex, I opted to publish independently. I never set out to emulate Anais Nin, but I decided to stick with my most recent draft, which seemed a stronger story.
To assure I hadn’t committed heresy, I consulted half a dozen “professional” Catholics. I enlisted as readers my pastor, a permanent deacon, a Jesuit priest, two monsignors, and a longtime consultant to the dioceses of the United States. All six readers assured me I hadn’t endangered my immortal soul. Nor was I setting a precedent: Graham Greene’s character had gone all the way. All my expert Catholic readers were men. Several gave me blurbs for my book jacket.
But, as I feared, when I submitted my book to the Catholic Fiction Writers’ Guild for their Seal of Approval, they rejected Glass Halo. These readers happened to be women. They thoughtfully commented on the literary quality of my writing and the “titillating” nature of my novel. Yet they could not recommend my title for Catholic bookstores.
Disappointed, I accepted their criticism, but decided against their advice to rewrite Glass Halo with a Church-approved ending and publish another edition. I discerned possibilities, but I feared a rewrite with my main characters reverting to hand-holding would never ring true. To retell the story would be bearing false witness because Nora and Vin had crossed the line. There was no going back on my words.
I opted instead to move ahead and focus on finishing my next novel, Only Wild Plums, which, I fear, contains its own strains of controversy.
But fiction reflects life, and life includes controversy. The title Glass Halo reminds readers that we humans fall into frailties. If we have haloes, they’re delicate as glass. I wanted my novel to present a priest as a human being fraught with all the complexities of most men. I drew characters sympathetic despite shortcomings.
Fear shackles Nora. She’s afraid of life, and with reason: She suffers post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from horrific domestic violence. She’s scared to love again; even frightened to work again, given that glass played a role in her shattered past.
Vin, too, wallows in fear—primarily fear of his primal instincts about Nora, not the first woman he’s drawn to despite his priestly vow of celibacy. Frustrated, Vin drowns his dread in alcohol, which only results in more anguish.
As the author of Glass Halo, my lingering fear is that I wrote a book too mainstream for some Catholics, and too Catholic for some of the mainstream. But in the end, Glass Halo garnered glowing reviews, was named a finalist for the 2010 Santa Fe Literary Prize, and taught me an indelible lesson: Publishing demands courage.
Glass Halo is available through FridayJonesPublishing.com, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and bookstores everywhere. View the book trailer here and read an excerpt here.