Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found…
Now remembered as the author of the world s most famous hymn, in the mid-eighteenth century as England and France stand on the brink of war, John Newton is a young sailor wandering aimlessly through life. His only duty is to report to his ship and avoid disgracing his father until the night he hears Polly Catlett s enchanting voice, caroling. He s immediately smitten and determined to win her affection.
An intense connection quickly forms between the two, but John’s reckless spirit and disregard for the Christian life are concerns for the responsible, devout Polly. When an ill-fated stop at a tavern leaves John imprisoned and bound, Polly must choose to either stand by his side or walk out of his life forever. Will she forfeit her future for the man she loves?
Step back through the pages of history, to uncover the true love story behind a song that continues to stir the hearts and ignite the faith of millions around the globe.”
You’ve written about many other true historical couples. What drew you to write about Newton and Polly?
Like most people, I’m familiar with the song “Amazing Grace” and knew it was written by John Newton who’d once been an atheist slave trader. I’d even heard a little bit about John Newton’s saving grace moment when he was aboard a ship during a life-threatening storm and cried out to God.
However, I’d never heard anything about the love of his life, Polly Catlett, until I began to dig a little deeper into his life. It didn’t take me long to realize that Newton had a passionate love for her, and his love for her affected just about every decision he made for good and bad. Theirs is a beautiful love story, one that God used in a powerful way. I decided it was a story the world needed to hear.
Polly Catlett is one of those forgotten women of history. Since most people have never heard of her, she can’t be all that important, can she? What role did she really play in Newton’s life?
Newton readily admits in his autobiography that he fell in love with Polly Catlett at first sight. He says this: “At the first sight of this girl, I felt an affection for her that never abated or lost its influence a single moment in my heart.”
He was completely taken with Polly so much so that every time he visited her, he overextended his stay. Such irresponsibility cost him at least two different jobs and in the end was one of the major reasons he was captured and impressed into the king’s navy.
When Newton’s naval ship sailed away from England, he was so depressed that he contemplated suicide. He said: “Nothing I either felt or feared distressed me so much as being thus forcibly torn away from the object of my affections.”
During his time away as he was involved in the slave trade, Newton’s love for Polly never diminished. If not for his passion for her, he probably wouldn’t have boarded the ship that took him away from Africa. He wouldn’t have experienced the life-threatening storm on the way home. And he might not have written “Amazing Grace”.
So, yes indeed Polly Catlett was incredibly important. If not for her, the world may never have known the most amazing hymn ever written.
Whenever fiction is based on true people or events, authors have the added challenge of maintaining integrity to the truth. How do you balance fact with fiction?
I always make it my goal to stay as true to the known facts as possible. I want to represent the people and events that I write about as accurately as possible. Yes, it’s important to remain true to the facts. However, if that’s all a fiction writer did the book would turn into a biography. The challenge then is to take the facts and craft them into a riveting tale that readers can’t put down. In order to do that, writers often have to add additional plot lines and characters. Since history doesn’t record everything and we weren’t there to see what really happened, writers have the liberty of interpreting the gaps and adding in things that could have occurred.
I always write with this motto: Build the framework with true facts, but then fill in the unknown and decorate the house with enough color and drama to make a good story.
The title of the book says, A Novel of Amazing Grace. In what ways does the theme of grace come out in the book?
The theme of grace is very prevalent throughout the book because inherently that’s the theme of Newton’s life. In other words, I wouldn’t have been able to accurately write this book or portray Newton’s life without showing the amazing hand of God at work in drawing him back to the truth of the gospel.
Not only did God spare Newton’s life during a life-threatening voyage back to England from Africa, but God spared Newton numerous other times, during his youth and also while he was in Africa working as a slave trader. Newton should have been a dead man. But God saved him time after time, and certainly not because Newton was righteous.
In fact, Newton was vile, blasphemous, and mocked and rejected God. But through it all, God never stopped loving Newton. When Newton finally dropped to his knees and wept over his sins, God was there waiting to draw him in with outstretched arms. That’s truly Amazing Grace.
Clearly “grace” is an important theme in Newton and Polly. But what other issues or themes does the book address?
Actually, the book is full of various themes. One major theme has to do with the timeless conflict between Christian and cultural values. In the mid 1700’s smuggling had become so commonplace that people turned a blind eye to it and even condoned it, especially if they wanted to avoid hardships and even persecution. I hope the book challenges readers to evaluate how they might be going along with cultural values instead of living with truth and integrity.
The book also sheds some light on the controversy of the slavery issue at the time, giving insights into those who supported it as well as the growing abolitionist movement (which was still in its infancy during this part of Newton’s life).
Another theme is how to handle singleness. Like Polly, it’s all too tempting for single adults to grow impatient in waiting for the “right” person to come along and to begin to consider compromising values for fear of remaining single.
On one level my writing muscles are incredibly strong, and I feel that I’m writing better now than ever.
On another level, Newton and Polly was the hardest book I’ve ever written. Not only was the unfamiliar setting and time period challenging, but the story itself posed issues, especially with the large gaps in time. I couldn’t include everything or the book would have been hundreds of pages long. So I had to decide what to leave out and then how to summarize the passing of time.
The story was also challenging on a personal level. I went through a period of spiritual rebellion during my youth, and so the story dredged up feelings regarding that. Now as a mother of a prodigal son, I found that writing about Newton’s rejection of God and his estranged relationship with his father took on a much more personal meaning.