What Catholic Fiction Should Be

Bestselling author Michelle Buckman discusses her latest novel and what makes Catholic fiction Catholic.

Michelle Buckman is the author of six novels, including Rachel’s Contrition, her latest. On Oct. 7, the novel, from small Catholic publisher Sophia Institute Press, was the No. 1 seller in Amazon’s Women’s fiction category, and has continued high on that list ever since.

Buckman spoke about her take on Catholic fiction from her home in North Carolina.

How often do you check your rank on Amazon, and how is it doing now?

I check it daily, sometimes hourly. It stayed on the top 5 throughout October, and as of mid-November [was] still in the top 10 in the Women’s fiction/Mother & Child sub-category. I’ve noticed that it tends to drop on weekends — contrary to what I’d expected — then goes back up during the week. Catholics don’t order lots of books on the weekends. Maybe that’s because they’re at church.

So, what marketing technique pulled this miracle off?

The miracle is that so little marketing was done. The book was actually released sooner than I’d expected — Sept. 30. I was still in the midst of a publicity campaign for another novel — from a different publisher — called Death Panels. It deals with a timely issue, so I felt committed to promote it before the election. As a result, I did almost nothing with Rachel those first few days. My editor had put up a website for the book. All it had was the cover art and sample chapters. I’d put some information on my author website. On Oct. 4, my publisher, John Barger, sent an e-blast about Rachel to all of his catalog customers. That’s when I began watching Amazon. The book started going up in rank. I told myself this would surely last for only an hour or so, but the numbers just kept climbing. When it made No. 1 on Oct. 7, I posted about it on Facebook, and so did my editor, Regina Doman. From there, our Facebook friends spread the word.

That’s it? No other big promotional event?

Not unless you count the continuous novena to St. Thérèse that I had going for this book since the end of August. I ask her every morning to put this book out there wherever she thinks it should be.

When some of my friends heard it had made No. 1, they said they assumed I had done a “Buy My Book on Amazon” day. That’s when an author contacts Amazon, tells them to stock up, and arranges for a special promotion and extra freebies to go with each purchase. Then the author and the publisher call everyone they know, begging them to buy the book on that day. It’s mainly to boost the book’s rank and be able to say you’ve had an Amazon bestseller, even if it was only No. 1 for a couple of hours. We had talked about doing one of these but decided against it.

Speaking of St. Thérèse — she’s a significant figure in Rachel’s Contrition. Two characters in your book, both non-Catholics, find renewed hope from her writings. Tell us why you worked her into the plot of Rachel.

I was reading Story of a Soul around the same time I started writing Rachel. St. Thérèse wrote a lot about suffering. The mental anguish she went through, how desolate she felt at times, seemed to totally go along with what Rachel was feeling. It gave Rachel hope — something to hang on to — to see that Thérèse often felt no connection to God, but trusted in his love and lived in his love just the same.

Your first four books were published by Christian publishers. What prompted you to make the switch (to Catholic publishing) when you already had a following in generic Christian fiction?

When I wrote my first book, I had no idea there was such a thing as Christian fiction. My agent was trying to find a mainstream publisher, but she kept hearing back that my manuscript was “too religious” and I should take it to a Christian Booksellers Association publisher. That’s finally what I did, and since the book was well received in the Christian fiction market, I continued that way for the next few books. I finished writing Rachel in 2005. My agent thought it would be accepted, but the Christian editors sent it back, saying it was too Catholic. I remember watching Pope John Paul II’s funeral, crying, and vowing that I was not going to change that manuscript to hide its Catholicism.

Several years went by until I heard of Sophia Press and that they were looking for new Catholic fiction. I was sure they wouldn’t be interested, since my hero was not a saint, not a Catholic, and not a very good woman. But Regina [Doman, herself a Sophia author] responded to my initial e-mail within an hour, and the rest is history.

What is Catholic fiction?

It’s fiction written by Catholic authors for a primarily Catholic readership, so that we can enjoy a good story and identify with characters who practice our faith. To qualify as Catholic fiction, the Catholicism in these works cannot be just superficial. There has to be more than just a mention of Mass or the Rosary. Faith has to matter to someone in the book, and has to influence his or her decisions. At the same time, the book should not be trying to teach Catholicism. The main purpose is to entertain. It shouldn’t be preachy. For just this reason, I almost deleted the one scene in Rachel where a priest explains why Catholics use statues. I let it stay because I live in the South, and I am so tired of having that particular argument that I kept it in there for the sake of my [non-Catholic] Christian fans who might buy the book.

The cover art of Rachel — a platinum blonde in a little black dress — is kind of edgy for a publisher that is known for reprints of spiritual classics.

We did have some discussion, pro and con, about the art, but it was actually John Barger who gave it the green light. The idea was: Make it clear that Rachel’s Contrition is contemporary — not a reprint of an old story, not a historical novel. It’s the story of a modern woman being affected by Catholic ideas and by Catholics.

Daria Sockey writes from Venus, Pennsylvania.