Janet Oberholtzer and I have a lot in common. We both grew up Mennonite in Pennsylvania. We are both living lives we never imagined as children.
Janet’s story, as you can see from her memoir book jacket, describes her miraculous recovery from a terrible accident.
I have been gently turning down offers to read and review new memoirs due to the stringent deadlines for my own manuscript. So when Janet contacted me via Twitter to ask if I would review her book, I said I could not, but that if she wanted to send me a copy, I would send questions to her for an interview post.
It’s a tribute to the power of her story that when I opened the book, I couldn’t put it down. I read it all the way through and then wanted to know more. Below are my questions and Janet’s answers.
1. Please begin with a short summary of your memoir story.
From my publisher:
In seconds, a family vacation became a nightmare when a horrific auto accident decimated marathon runner Janet Oberholtzer’s legs and shattered her pelvis. It seemed unlikely she’d even survive, let alone put back any of the pieces of her life. Her determination carried her through the difficult physical recovery but was no match for the depressing emotional and spiritual trauma that followed and proved almost fatal as Janet struggled to come to grips with her new normal. Today this heroic woman is leading a full life and back to running half-marathons. Because I Can is a story that will give you hope … whether you have physical limitations or if your world feels hopeless due to difficult circumstances, unwanted changes or the monotony of life.
2. Growing up Mennonite seems to have been part of the shadow you sometimes experience in your soul. Can you describe how this happened? What kinds of experiences left you feeling fear and judgment in Mennonite community?
The strict traditional Mennonite sect I grew up in placed more emphasis on following the church rules of how one dressed and what activities one could do then on a personal spiritual journey. I began struggling with this during my teen years with the final straw happening as I planned my wedding. To select a wedding date, an engaged couple went to visit the church bishop. I expected this visit to include conversation about the importance of marriage, whether we loved each other and how we could keep our marriage strong, etc.
Instead he talked about what we could or couldn’t do at our wedding. My dress had to be a plain mid-calf length dress with no lace. I had to wear black nylons and black shoes. We couldn’t have flowers, a tier cake or anything fancy. The list went on and on.
We had a traditional Mennonite wedding because I knew my dad wouldn’t pay for any other wedding, but soon after that time, we pulled away from the traditional Mennonite culture and church.
In my 20′s, as I figured out who I was outside of that culture, I disliked everything Mennonite, but with time my pendulum has reached a more balanced place as I’ve become more aware of the myriad of other Mennonite sects that provide a more positive experience and that do amazingly good things locally and around the world.
3. Your terrible accident came at a time in your life when you were very vibrant and active–a mother, business woman, church member, and runner. You went from vivid life to muddled memory, forced inactivity, spiritual doubts, and fears so strong you occasionally even considered suicide.
Yes, exactly … that sums it up well. And I didn’t have the skills to process all the changes. About half of Because I Can is how I discovered that to process the changes, my mind and spirit had to go through a time of renewal.
4. Please share how you came to tell your story. What got you started as a writer? What has kept you going? What is the Rhizome Cultivate Contest? How and when did you enter?
I was an active kid, but I was also the kid who often had a pen and paper in her hand. At age 15, I read Julie by Catherine Marshall. As I finished the book, I decided I’d like to be a writer someday. While many Mennonite groups value a college education, the strict sect I grew up in did not. So I didn’t have the option of pursuing my desire at that time. I married at age 20 … three boys and a business soon followed. During that time, the only writing I had time for was business plans, marketing material and a seasonal column in a local paper.
After being injured, I wanted (and friends/family encouraged me) to write a memoir. I began writing while also learning more about the craft of writing. I attended writing seminars, took classes and went to writing conferences. After five years of many stops and starts I finished the rough draft and was ready for the next step. The publishing world is tough, so I hired a freelance editor. Her first review almost made me want to give up the idea of publishing, because some sections of my manuscript only needed minor changes, but others needed a complete rewrite. After picking myself up off the floor, I locked myself in a motel room for a week and tackled the needed changes. My editor declared it successful and ready for publication.
I looked into the options from traditional publishing to self-publishing. I queried some agents, then heard about a contest at Rhizome Publishing, where they were giving away a publishing contract for one manuscript. I love winning things, so I tweaked it some more and finally sent it in the day before the deadline. It won the contest. And as they say, the rest is history … it was released on September 20, 2011.
5. Please tell what you have learned about book publishing and book marketing from you experience of writing and selling your book.
It’s hard work. Harder than I ever anticipated! But it’s also rewarding. I’ve begun hearing from people all over the country. Some are struggling with their own physical challenges, others identify with my struggle with depression or with the spiritual doubts and questions I have. Plus I heard from amazing people like former college presidents who read my book
6. What has happened to you and your family since the end of the book?
We are doing well. We’ve moved about ten miles from my hometown of Morgantown to a house my husband remodeled. He works in construction, sometimes with a local builder and other times remodeling houses he buys/sells. The boys are in various stages of college, internships and finding their dream jobs.
7. Are you planning to write another book?
I would like to … I’m considering a few options now. I have a few friends who have amazing stories to tell, but they aren’t writers, so maybe I’ll write their stores. And someday I’d like to try fiction.
8. What gives you joy right now?
Running, being outdoors (in warm weather), reading and having meaningful conversations where I learn more about the other person, myself and/or something I’ve had questions about.
9. One of my own themes in telling the story of what it is like to grow up Mennonite is pride v. humility. Do you think a culture can enforce a humility ethic? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to try to do that? What have you learned about pride and humility by writing your memoir?
This are great questions … but I’m not sure I have answers for you right now, I’ll have to think about that for a time.
Thanks, Janet, for this glimpse into your life and your new life as a published memoirist. Congratulations on your book. Those interested, can order the book and/or connect with Janet by following these links: You can order paperback copies of Because I Can at Janet’s website and on Amazon. Or order for your Kindle or Nook. You can connect with Janet on her blog, on Twitter and on Facebook.
But first, please offer your questions and comments in the space below. Janet will respond and so will I.