There's No Place Like Dorsetville

Catholic author Katherine Valentine lives in the rustic Litchfield Hills of western Connecticut — rich ground from which to draw inspiration for her popular, small-town tales of Catholic friends and neighbors.

Her series of four novels, all set in the imaginary town of Dorsetville, are bestsellers in Christian markets. Having been picked up by a major publisher, they're now crossing over to find success in secular markets as well. There's also a chance they'll be dramatized for TV from 20th Century Fox.

Valentine spoke with Register correspondent Barb Ernster about how the genre of “gentle fiction” can greatly entertain its readers even as it subtly evangelizes and catechizes the culture.

Fiction is one of the hardest categories of writing to break into, never mind succeed in. How did you get started?

All of this started in 1980. I had thyroid cancer and I should have died. I had a dream one night that I stood on a mountaintop and God was at my side. I was looking down at the most incredibly beautiful valley and had a sense of incredible peace. I started down the mountain and got about halfway down when I heard his voice saying, “Kate, come back, it's not your time. There's something I want you to do. You have to tell the world that there are two things they must remember: that they never walk alone no matter how dark the valley and, if they really want to honor me, they do it by being servants to their brothers and sisters.”

When I woke up the cancer was gone. I was in my early 30s. I had left the Church when I was 17 or 18, and hadn't been in a church since they changed the Mass to English. I let everybody think this was some kind of spontaneous remission, but I knew in my spirit that God was real. I knew that my faith was real.

I went back to the Church and started talking to God as if he was there next to me. Over the course of several months, it became more fluid and I could speak from the heart as if we were good friends. From 1983 to 1994, I went on this quiet spiritual journey and became very close to the Holy Spirit, who is so important if you want to live an empowered spiritual life.

Eventually the storyline for A Miracle for St. Cecelia's, my first book, came into my heart. I wrote it in nine months and was given a multi-book contract with Viking Penguin publishers. I am now with Doubleday.

Where do your story ideas come from?

I live in a small town and you always tend to write about what you know. I do tell people the story of my spiritual journey, but sometimes people cannot grasp how God works in their lives.

My stories are really parables; [they let me] tell stories of faith in a fictional venue that people will not think is threatening. It's no different than when the Lord told people, “There was this vineyard. …” Once people start following that train of thought, they discover a part of their spirituality that is suddenly awakened. The miracles did not stop with the apostles and God still answers prayers. We miss that God is talking to us all the time. He talks to us through friends, through articles, through nature, and we miss it.

I'm just telling these wonderful little parables that God gives me and, through them, people are finding renewed faith in God's miracles.

Do you really think fiction can bring the Gospel to the world?

Absolutely. I think it's a very powerful form of evangelization, and I just wish that there were more Catholic novelists out there.

My books are working on two different levels: They're helping Catholics come back to the Church and they're helping those who are in the Church to perhaps walk a new path, not through rote prayers but through a deeper, more personal relationship with Jesus. Not the Jesus that's in the portrait with his eyes turned up to God, but the carpenter with dusty feet and the wonderful laugh who would stop and talk to anyone and who would never turn anyone away. That's the Jesus I want to portray, and I hope I do.

My ministry, as I see it, is to share my love of the Church. I try to show versus tell about our faith through the characters and their experiences, why we believe what we believe.

Your books are bestsellers in Christian markets. How do you know they're also reaching secular readers?

They're in the fiction section, not the religious section, at Barnes & Noble. They still haven't hit The New York Times list, but I'm hoping to have a breakthrough in sales — not for the sake of sales but so publishers will start hiring more Catholic fiction writers. They desperately need us. There are 65 million Catholics out there but the light is still under the basket.

What books or authors have influenced you the most?

My biggest influence is the Bible. I always tell people to start with the New Testament, and read it as if somebody had just sent you a letter in the mail and you were opening it to read it. So often God will speak to our hearts and a passage will pop out, or what you read in the morning becomes so pertinent in the afternoon.

We focus so much on the Eucharist. We've also got to focus on the Word, especially in this day and age, if we are going to get through to the culture. How do we expect to know why the Church has made these doctrinal issues against abortion or homosexuality? If we read the Bible we will realize they're not something the Church fathers decided, but that [doctrine] has its foundations in the Word and we're able to respond when people ask us why we believe the way we believe.

What kind of responses do you get from your readers?

I mostly hear about how different situations in the books have aligned with people's real lives. I love the stories about how someone was feeling desperate and alone, and somebody just happened to give them my book, or they happened to see it a bookstore and they don't know why it jumped out at them.

The ones I love the most are from Catholics who haven't been to church. I also have many [Protestant] fans who don't understand why we pray to the saints as intercessors. My books show that.

Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.