Despite over a year of conversations about the plot and characters in the Emily books, it was on the eve of drafting Heaven to Betsy that game-changing inspiration struck. I discovered a terrorist group operating in West Texas, my childhood stomping grounds. As a potential plot river, it was timely (in light of terrorism in the name of religious beliefs occurring around the U.S.: Boston, Chattanooga, and others). But it is different from those. This is a domestic terrorist group of U.S. citizens which bases its judgments and actions on Christian beliefs, not Muslim ones. Think Westboro Baptist Church. I’m not going to name the group, because its name doesn’t matter. All terrorism is terrorism. All these groups are, to me, using religious interpretations to make judgments upon which they base actions.
Now, I’m no religious scholar, but I am quite familiar with Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged, and I was taught that Judgment was the job of a higher power. I admire evangelists who seek to convert through education and legal, nonviolent, nondestructive persuasion to make the world a better place and save souls, even in situations where I may not share their beliefs.
I despise terrorist acts.
I despise them even more when they’re happening in the community where I grew up, in the name of the religion practiced by myself and so many wonderful people there who are living positive lives of positive acts and positive intentions. I do not appreciate a terrorist group using my faith as the justification for their bad acts.
(I know Muslims who feel this way, and I feel sure most people would feel this way about any affiliation of theirs where a splinter group misuses their name and beliefs.)
So, as a result of me discovering this group, the Mighty is His Word of Emily’s world was born, an Army for God, willing to do things that the God I know doesn’t sanction.
Honestly, it felt goooooood to write about them. To let the story find its way to me, to feel the tentacles of all the story lines weaving themselves around this cult, to untangle them carefully at the climax and slip Emily, Jack, and Betsy from their grasp. To give them an ending I felt was just for the fictional version. I loved writing about the compound, the Hodges, and Emily’s indoctrination. [My real favorite in this book, though, was Phil’s mother. Writing that scene was a highlight for me.]
As usual, I won’t spoil the plot for you, but I will add that since I centered this novel more in West Texas and less in New Mexico, I honed in on the Hopi Native Americans for the story’s “magical realism” and sought Emily’s maturation through her reliance on her spirit animal.
I also began to explore something deeply fascinating to me, that I see as a future for the Laura books: equine therapy (equitherapy or hippotherapy) for children.
It occurs to me that in writing about this cult I am, in a way, judging their judging. I’ll have to ponder on how I feel about that for awhile You can “judge” for yourself in Hell to Pay.