Interview with Emily Conrad on Justice and Heroism
A discussion about hope, faithfulness, and writing
Back in winter of 2017, I came across an announcement of Emily Conrad’s debut novel, Justice. Here, we talk about what inspired her novel, how she handles doubt, hardship, and the pitfall of perfection. This novel captures Emily’s growth as a writer just a few years after her ACFW First Impressions win (2015) and her position as an ACFW Genesis semi-finalist (2012, 2015).
Your novel “Justice” is about a couple and a baby who is conceived by another man. What inspired you to tell their story?
I honestly don’t remember what initially inspired Jake and Brooklyn’s story because I started drafting it about 17 years ago when I was just out of high school. I do remember, however, that I had trouble writing a satisfying ending to the story until 2012 when I took a seed of inspiration from the account of Mary and Joseph, who were also an unwed couple faced with a pregnancy they didn’t plan for or cause. This seems risky to say because, of course, Jesus’s conception and birth were the results of entirely different circumstances than what occurs in Justice. However, I wondered what it was like when Joseph first found out Mary was pregnant. I wondered about those dreams he had, and how it seems he dropped everything to immediately obey them. I wondered what it would be like to step in as a parent of a child that wasn’t his. I wondered at Mary’s faith and at the reaction of those around them who didn’t know the whole story. Inspired by all of this, I explored as much of it as the different circumstances in Justice would allow.
The key verse you chose for your novel is Zephaniah 3:5. How is this verse integral to the narrative?
Jake and Brooklyn both face injustices and must reconcile those with their faith. Where is God when the worst happens to believers? How can we believe in His goodness in the face of evil and tragedy? I love the King James translation of Zephaniah 3:5, which says “The just Lord is in the midst thereof.” A character in Justice quotes this to Brooklyn, the heroine, at a point in the story where she sees one way that God was providing for her, even when things were very difficult for her. The most important theme that developed the narrative in Justice is that no matter our trials, God is still just, and He is still right there with us, as this verse so beautifully describes.
Brooklyn is assaulted and struggles to understand why God would allow such a horrible incident to take place. Did you draw on real-life experience to build her doubt?
I have not been through what Brooklyn experiences in Justice and had to rely on research for many aspects of her story. However, writing some of the doubts she experiences about God and about herself did come pretty naturally. First of all, I have to watch for self-doubt and perfectionism in my life much like Brooklyn must face it in hers. Also, though Brooklyn’s doubts and insecurities come out of extreme circumstances, we all have disappointed or delayed hopes. In those situations, we must decide what we believe about who God is, how He works, and why. Writing Brooklyn’s story allowed me to explore those questions in ways I hadn’t before.
Jake desires justice but his quest is tainted by anger that eventually interferes with all aspects of his life. How does he cope?
Not well for a while there! But some things I think make Jake hero material are his willingness to listen to people in his life who have earned the right to be heard, his desire for a relationship with God, and his willingness to admit when he’s wrong. These traits are the keys to how he copes.
A man named Harold owns the bookstore across from Jake’s coffee shop. How precarious is his place in the novel?
Harold is important to the novel, and he was a fun character to write. He has his reasons for the things he does, and he’s a force to be reckoned with, even though he only shows up on the page a couple of times.
Did you feel the influence of any other novelists when working on “Justice”?
In 2012, when I had scraped my old versions of Justice and wanted to start fresh on it, my agent at the time suggested I write something that borrowed a classic storyline. I was intrigued by the idea but didn’t know how to apply it. That agent and I ended up parting ways, and as I was trying to figure out what to do next, a friend from church invited me along to hear Liz Curtis Higgs speak. I’ve heard her twice now, and she’s been fantastic both times! After hearing her speak, I had to read one of her books. I got my hands on Unveiling Mary Magdalene, in which she does a study of Mary Magdalene and also offers a contemporary, fictional story inspired by the Biblical account. The concept of writing a story this way intrigued me, and I carried that idea over into Justice–though again, I wouldn’t want anyone to be surprised that there are major differences between Justice’s plot and the account of Mary and Joseph as Justice does deal with a sexual assault.
You published a few nonfiction pieces on various blogs. This is your first novel. Is this a new start for you as a writer?
I’ve enjoyed writing some non-fiction, but fiction is my passion. In eighth grade English, we did a unit on short stories. I had written some stories before that, but after, I just couldn’t stop. By the end of high school, I was writing novel-length fiction. If my count is right, I’m currently drafting my tenth novel (many of which, of course, I’d never show anyone anymore!). Seeing Justice published is a realization of a long-held dream, a new phase to something that started in childhood. I’m very grateful for the opportunity!
You recently wrote that hope does not rest in how people treat us. That it doesn’t depend on our immediate circumstances. Hardships do not necessarily mean we’re on the wrong path. How have hardship and doubt challenged your writing, and the endeavor to publish your novel?
Hardship and doubt have led me to consider quitting writing altogether. I’ve experienced delays, harsh feedback, recommendations to cut large portions of manuscripts–or shelve it altogether. In the moment, these experiences have often led me to wonder why I’m doing this. If this were God’s will, wouldn’t it be easier? What’s the point? Do I really have a gift, or am I trying to force God’s hand? Wouldn’t my life be better spent on something that’s actually achievable?
These hardships are common to writers, and I’m convinced the doubts are, too. Friends and family have bolstered me through the doubts and pointed me back to the God who uses the hardships not to ask me to quit, but to develop me into the writer He wants me to be. I can see how some of the ways these hardships have prepared me for where I am today, and I trust that the hardships I’m experiencing now are preparing me for where He will take me tomorrow.
But also, I’ve seen God overrule hardships. For example, shortly after I was told Justice hadn’t sold and we needed to move onto the next manuscript, an offer came in.
God has the final say. He’ll keep doing what He has planned for me, regardless of hardships. He hasn’t brought any of us into the wilderness to abandon us there. Regardless of how things turn out in this life, in Him, we have eternal hope.
It’s your belief that your fiction is not a quest for literary perfection. Instead, you say your stories are about the faithfulness of a God who pursues broken people with love and redeems them despite their faults. How do these themes manifest in your characters and what do they teach you about yourself as a writer?
I have to remember that perfection isn’t my goal, or I’ll discourage myself right out of writing. I’m incapable of perfection, literary or otherwise. Point and case: my characters. God’s pursuit of broken people shows up in my writing because it seems I can’t write a perfect character. They’re all broken in some way, even when I set out to write one who’s supposed to be an example of unshakable faith.
In Justice, Brooklyn is an example of this. At first, I wrote her story like her journey revolved around healing from the rape, but eventually, I saw that even she had a different, ongoing flaw in her life that needed to be addressed. The reason I hadn’t seen it earlier in the writing process is due to a flaw I struggle with myself–perfectionism. Through writing her character, I came to notice some of the ways perfectionism affected her and myself, and the hope any of us who battle perfectionism can find in Jesus.
Emily Conrad lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two rescue dogs. She loves Jesus and enjoys road trips to the mountains, crafting stories, and drinking coffee. (It’s no coincidence her debut novel is set mostly in a coffee shop!)