I first met Sara Roberts Jones when we were housemates with three other girls for six months during an internship in the Northern Virginia area. She had a southern accent, loved sweet tea, and introduced me to the Sense and Sensibility soundtrack. We have been friends ever since.
Sara loved to write even then, and was working on a fantasy novel when we lived together. So it was an honor to get to peer read her novel, The Fellowship, prior to publication! I must admit I was a little nervous. I knew she was a great writer, but when you’re reading the work of a friend who has put a lot of time into their project, you really want to like it!
I didn’t need to worry, because I quickly become engrossed in the plot and was soon reading it–not as a favor for a friend–but because I sincerely wanted to find out what happened to the main character, twenty-year-old Bekah.
It’s not easy for twenty-year-old Bekah to return to the Fellowship of True Christian Churches. Church authorities dictate what she wears, who her friends are, how she falls in love, and what she can do with her life.
But Bekah hopes to show the “Fellowship girls” a bigger future to live for, while staying safe within the boundaries of the church.
Then Bekah learns of a long-buried secret that left an abuser unpunished and free to prey on more victims.
She’s always been told that if they all remain faithful, the Fellowship will protect them from the world. But who will protect them from the Fellowship?
Sara’s novel tackles a heavy topic: spiritual abuse. However, Sara is so witty and sarcastic both in person and in her writing that she balances this dark topic out with humor and grace. Excited to be able to welcome Sara to the blog today!
Can you introduce us to yourself and your family?
I’m 39, a Mississippi native now living in Virginia. I attended public school until I was 14, and then was homeschooled for high school using Bill Gothard’s ATI program.
Darren and I have been married for 15 years. We’ve got four children (two girls, two boys) ranging in age from 14 to 6. We homeschool all of them, and I do mean “we.” When I began writing my novel, Darren took over the school planning, about half the instruction… and all of the laundry.
This is your first published novel, but you’ve been writing for a long time. Can you share a bit of your writing background and how the idea for The Fellowship came about?
I wrote my first novel when I was 17. It was about a princess who had to go into hiding when rebels took over the country. The heroine was passive, the hero overly gallant, the villain annoying, and the plot… well, there wasn’t really a plot. It was a terrible novel. I adored it.
When I was 21, a former public school teacher got me a job at the local newspaper. I was completely out of my depth, writing about city council meetings, county supervisor meetings, doing interviews, typing up local news. But I learned as I went.
During the baby/toddler years, I kept a blog just to be able to write something. Then I got my nerve up and contacted the editor of a local parenting magazine with an idea for an article. She liked my article, liked my blog, and I freelanced for that magazine for five or six years.
So when life settled down enough that I could seriously look at starting a novel, I was already primed and ready to write.
You tackle a weighty issue—spiritual abuse—in an engaging and even exciting way. How do you think your novel might have a unique perspective on this topic?
Most novels that deal with spiritual abuse and cult-like societies are usually bleak and hopeless in tone. There’s a lot of angst, anger, and horror. Very little warmth or humor. The society is weird and harsh. It doesn’t look anything like our normal everyday life. The protagonist is almost always someone who lives in the system but wants to break free.
The books are good to read in the sense of understanding what some people have to endure—but the world they create is alien. It’s not one that your ordinary American Christian can relate to at all.
I told my story from a different angle.
First of all, like many “cults,” the Fellowship doesn’t really look like one at first. It’s a fairly boring, if slightly odd, church. Even its theology sounds pretty good on the surface. (It’s that “complete obedience” that’s the kicker. No matter what a group looks like on the outside, if there’s authority without accountability, you’ve probably got a cult.)
Secondly, life in the Fellowship isn’t all gray gloom and horror. The family and friendship ties are very strong. There’s also a warm sense of belonging. Humor helps people cope with the high demands of an abusive system, and there’s a lot of it—mockery and sarcasm being the most subversive.
And thirdly, I was intrigued with the challenge of showing why someone would go back into the system. That’s what my heroine, Bekah, does.
Of course, she goes in thinking she can fix some of the problems that she sees. She doesn’t realize that as soon as someone points out problems, that person becomes the problem. The Fellowship doesn’t change; it merely grinds down its opponents.
But my own story is one of recovery and hope, so that’s the story I told in my novel, too.
Can you share a bit of your own personal experience and how that played into how you developed your story?
When my parents decided to homeschool me at age 14, they chose Bill Gothard’s ATI program. It looked great and promised great results—Godly young people who obeyed their authorities and changed the world.
I learned quickly not to question anything, because questioning authority led directly to God’s punishment. The God I learned through ATI was angry and vengeful; the only way to avoid his “correction” was to make commitments to high standards. Obviously I never could keep all of these commitments perfectly, so I lived in constant fear of God’s wrath.
Even when I got married and walked away from it all, these ideas lived on in my head. Then I reconnected with other former ATI students on Facebook and found out that our stories all had the same elements in them. I desperately wanted to tell our stories of brokenness, legalism, and hope for recovery.
(And a small part of me really wanted to explain to my many longsuffering friends why I was so darn weird during those years.)
We are going to continue our conversation with Sara tomorrow. Hope you’ll come back to join us!
Where can we find you online?
I’ve got several articles on RecoveringGrace.org.
On Facebook, Sara Roberts Jones Author.
And you can purchase The Fellowship on Amazon.