Author Q&A: Shelley Shepard Gray Talks Amish Fiction, Self-Publishing and More

Last Fall, RT reviewer Leslie McKee attended the American Christian Fiction Writer's conference in St. Louis. There, she interviewed several Inspirational authors who spoke about their craft, books and trends in Inspirational fiction. Today, we're sharing Leslie's interview with Shelley Shepard Gray, whose The Promise of Palm Grove comes out next week. Take it away, Leslie!

I had the privilege of attending the annual ACFW conference, which was held in St. Louis, MO on September 25-27. Over the course of the trip, I was able to interview a number of today’s top Inspirational authors. Over the course of a few blog posts, I’ll be sharing some of those interviews with you.

On September 26, 2014, I spoke with Shelley Shepard Gray, who writes both historical fiction and Amish themed stories. Here’s what we discussed:

What made you decide to leave teaching and pursue writing?

I was teaching sixth grade. It was about my 11th year, and they started wearing me out. What I started doing at lunch was reading. One day, I had forgotten a book. I had always thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to write a book?” So I turned on my computer and after finishing my lesson plans, I wrote chapter one. But I wrote at the beginning really as a hobby. It was something I liked to do for me. Then when we moved to Ohio, I joined a local writers group. And I was on my way. I wrote at first as Shelley Galloway. I published [with] a small publisher, and then I wrote for Harlequin, their American line. I think you and I can agree that teaching is tough. People are like, “I can’t believe you write so much.” Well, there is hard work, and then there’s being with 12-year-olds all day. This is awesome! I get to make up stuff in my basement. It’s the best job in the world. I was a good teacher, but I knew it wasn’t my passion. So I think I will let the teaching profession have the best people, and I will just keep writing fiction for as long as people want to read it.

You write both Contemporary and Historical stories. Which do you prefer?

I know that Inspirational fiction is what I was meant to have published. I like writing both the Historical and Contemporary fiction. It’s a good mix for me, because I usually write more than one book at the same time. It seems to keep all my writing fresh. I got interested in Historicals, and I got really excited when Zondervan said I could do this trilogy set in Chicago during the world’s fair of 1893. I also like writing things with a little bit of suspense. So it was really fun to put myself in a whole different world.

How did you begin writing Amish-themed stories? Was it living in Ohio?

You know, it was. I live just an hour away from an Amish community. I was talking with someone at church about how I wanted to write Inspirational fiction. This was years ago before it really got busy. She was like, “Amish fiction is going to be pretty popular, I think. You live right there, why don’t you give it a try?” So there were people at my church and I was asking them, “Can I do this?” This guy I was sitting next to said, “[Y]ou should meet my wife. She grew up Mennonite, up in Sugarcreek. Her friend is Old Order Amish.” You know, things like that just don’t always happen. As a writer, you’re just trying to get someone to listen to you and hope that they like you. It all just fell into place. It felt like the right fit. So my Amish friend helps me, and it’s been great. When I asked her what I should focus on, I expected her to give me all these pearls of wisdom. Instead, she said, “Shelley, you just need to write a good book.” She’s a reader, too, and she said, “That’s the most important thing.”

What can you tell me about your next project?

I have 5 books coming out in 2015. I’m currently finishing up my third book in the World’s Fair Mystery Series, which is [currently] called Engagement at Hartman Hotel. I’m also working on the third book in the Amish Brides of Pinecraft series. So I’m excited.

What do you think of the current trends in Christian fiction?

The rise of [Inspy] publishing is exciting! I feel Inspirational fiction can be for anyone. Even people who normally read secular work will find a lot to admire about Christian fiction. I know that has been the case with [Secrets of Sloane House]. When I went to RWA Nationals and signed in the Avon room, I was one of the few inspirational authors there. A lot of people were interested in Amish fiction, but a lot, almost everyone, was interested in Sloane House because they just thought it sounded like a good book. I think Christian fiction is trying to become more open and let everyone become a fan. I think it’s thrilling. When your only audience is someone who already reads Christian fiction, it’s like you’re preaching to the choir. I’m hearing from all kinds of people who picked up Sloane House because it had a pretty cover. And it looked interesting. They liked that it had a faith message, but it didn’t hit you over the head on every page. Even my daughter, who doesn’t read Christian fiction, picked it up. She’s down at a sorority at the UK and she read it in two nights. Next thing I know, all her sorority girlfriends are going out and buying it. That sure was an audience I never thought I’d get! It’s been exciting. There’s something for everyone.

What are your thoughts on the self-publishing trend?

At first, I didn’t understand it. I guess it’s because it took me a very long time to get published. It took me three years to first get published, to sell my first book to Harlequin. I look back at all those manuscripts I submitted, and I was so hurt by their rejection. But now I realize, they weren’t good enough. There is a reason they were rejected. When I hear from people that, “I got one rejection and it hurt my feelings so I’m going to go ahead and self-publish,” I kind of feel like, “Hmm, almost like you need to pay your dues.” I’m a voracious reader. I read a lot on my Kindle. A lot of times I will read a book that’s been self-published, and I’m finding that the quality is improving. I guess now there’s something for everyone. I’m excited about the publishing world and how there are so many ways that someone can now read a book. You know, my son is 23, and a lot of his friends are huge readers because they can read it on their cell phone. I think that’s great. I think it’s neat that the publishing industry seems like it is so much bigger. There are so many different avenues. As long as people want to read, I’m a huge proponent of that.

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Check back for more interviews from the conference! And visit our Everything Inspirational page for even more exciting content!