From Biographer of John Paul II And Fulton Sheen to Teen Fiction
Author Janel Rodriguez Ferrer on Writing and the New Evangelization
One of the lasting legacies of both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI will be their commitment to the New Evangelization — a re-proposal of the faith in new and creative ways.
Janel Rodriguez Ferrer, a New York City-based writer, wants to contribute to the New Evangelization. She has ghostwritten for the famous Nancy Drew series, but now Rodriguez Ferrer is writing a teen-fiction series in which she incorporates her own upbringing — and, most notably, her Catholic faith — as a way to put the New Evangelization in action.
How long have you been writing, and why did you start?
My mother was always taking my sisters and me to the public library. My sisters and I were all avid readers. My twin sister even gave up reading for Lent one year when she was about 11 because she felt it would be a big sacrifice. As a result of all this reading, I guess, I was inspired to write — to create my own versions of my favorite things: books! In fact, I like to tell the story of when I was 9 years old and told my family I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. It was my twin sister (who would later become one of my editors) who taught me the word "author" to better describe what I wanted to be. So it’s safe to say that I’ve been writing since I was a child. I always really looked forward to tackling any kind of creative-writing projects when they were assigned in school, and it’s what I did at home for fun. My father used to buy me blank books and special ballpoints just for writing stories. I still have a memory of a snow day, when school was closed, and I got to stay home and write. I remember writing that the main character was eating sticky buns because I was, too.
You’ve previously written biographies of John Paul II and Fulton Sheen. Why these two figures?
Actually, I was contacted by Servant Books to write the book on Fulton Sheen. They had originally wanted Father Andrew Apostoli [the well-known co-founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and vice postulator of the cause for Venerable Sheen’s canonization] to write the book, but he was too busy. Then they wanted Michael Aquilina, writer extraordinaire (of Catholic books) to do it, but he had other books he was working on. So how did I, a relative nobody, compared to these well-respected pillars of the faith in the modern Catholic world, get the assignment? Believe it or not, Mr. Aquilina remembered me from a piece I wrote for his magazine New Covenant (a great Catholic family magazine which had to shut down after 9/11). He recommended me to Servant, they emailed me, and, after a phone call and a couple of meetings, I got the job.
I was later contracted to write the book on John Paul II because Servant liked what I did with the Fulton Sheen book. At the time, Servant was publishing a whole series on 20th-century holy men and women who were on the track to sainthood. They had already put out books on Edith Stein and Padre Pio. As you know, they’ve both since been canonized. John Paul will be soon, and I expect that Fulton Sheen will soon follow.
What was your response to the news of John Paul’s canonization?
I was thrilled, of course, but not at all surprised. Since he lived in the modern age, so much of what he did and preached and taught was literally recorded on video and in other media. His life and the religious expression of it was so public — in imitation of Christ, who did everything out in the open — that he seemed to truly give his whole self to his role as shepherd of the Roman Catholic Church. And we could use an intercessor for the dignity of the human person, an intercessor for life. I also love that he makes a really great intercessor for World Youth Day and the arts. The day John Paul II is canonized will be a very happy day for me.
Most recently, you’ve switched over to teen fiction — why?
That was the dream, actually, ever since I was a tween and teen myself and devouring the popular paperback series fiction available at that time. I usually cite the
Trixie Belden series as my inspiration. She was a spunky teen detective who I preferred over Nancy Drew. She lived in upstate New York and solved mysteries with her brothers and her "crew" of friends. She was younger than Nancy and more flawed than her, too. Ms. Drew always bordered on Barbie-like perfection. But I wasn’t one of those girls who thought, "I wish I could be like Trixie and solve mysteries with my pals." Instead, I was always thinking, "I wish I could write a Trixie book," which later became, "I wish I had created this series" — then, finally, "I wish I could create my own series!"
I had written my first draft of the first book in my series when I was still a teen myself. I was 19. But I put it on hold for a long time. It wasn’t until I was writing the Fulton Sheen book, actually, that I was reminded of what I could do under a deadline, and I thought: "Let me update that book."
While the series is not specifically Catholic, there are elements of the Catholic faith that are integrated into the characters, correct?
Yes. As you could probably tell by the name The Arts-Angels (Brushstroke Books, 2012), there is a connection to the actual archangels, particularly St. Michael, in the book. When I was a teenager, I wore a religious medal of St. Michael for a while and even wrote a poem about him. In Drawn to You, Gina chooses Michael for her saint name at her confirmation in honor of both her father — also named Michael and who shared the same rock ’n’ roll dreams as she, but who failed in his pursuit of them — and Angel Dominguez, her guitar hero, whom her father also admired and who graduated from the same school Gina later gets accepted into.
So the main character is indeed Catholic, and she also has an uncle who is a priest, whom she goes to for advice. Since my own father is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of New York, and my mother is very active in the Church (she even worked in a rectory office for years), the Church was a second home to me when I was growing up. As a result, I can count many priests among my personal friends and even view some of them as kinds of "spiritual uncles." Writers are advised to "write what you know," after all, and while I don’t know what it’s like to have my own high-school rock band, I do know what it’s like to be a Nuyorican teenager [aka a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, like the author] growing up in New York City with close ties to the Roman Catholic Church.
Do you see this as one potential model for the New Evangelization — reaching people and getting them curious about Catholicism through subtle and indirect ways?
I feel that when religion is present in fiction it’s too often for one of only two reasons: to tear down that religion or to preach it up. That results in books with heavy-handed agendas that overshadow the storyline. This does not make for good fiction.
On the other hand, Catholicism is misrepresented in fiction all of the time. With The Arts-Angels, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to present the Catholic faith as part of the main character’s life in a very ordinary, normal (and accurate) way. It’s present, although not preached. This way, even the readers of different faiths would be able to not only read and enjoy the books, but be able to accept Gina as someone like them. And if kids end up Googling St. Michael and learn about spiritual warfare, I think that’s great.
I think we need to realize that a great many of the children and teenagers in the world today practice a faith or belong to an organized religion. It is part of their everyday reality. For some reason, writers are afraid to include this in children’s literature, and their characters just sort of float around in a Godless existence. I actually find this disrespectful to young readers who have a faith life and a prayer practice. As authors, we should not be alienating our readers by ignoring the fact that they practice a religion — or worse, by bashing their religion in our books.
I hope the readers feel empowered to express themselves creatively. I am a big advocate of the arts. It is my personal spiritual belief that the arts are God’s way of sharing the joy of his creative power with us. The ability to make music, dance, paint pictures — these are gifts that should be discovered, expressed and celebrated, but not exploited.
What’s next for you?
I will continue working on The Arts-Angels series. The second book in the series will be out on Sept. 29, the feast of the Archangels and one year after the first. I also have another Fulton Sheen project, this time with Ignatius Press, in the works. I will be able to tell you, perhaps in another interview, more about that project when it is more developed. I look forward to his canonization, which I strongly believe will happen — because there is no doubt in my mind that Fulton Sheen is a saint.
writes from New York.
- Aug. 25-Sept. 7, 2013