In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Donita Bundy and Alison Joy interview Christian non-fiction author Jo Swinney. Jo’s eight books cover important and sensitive topics from dating to depression, but her most challenging project yet was co-writing a book on hospitality with her mother, Miranda Harris, after she had passed away.
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In conversation in this episode:
- Jo Swinney, Christian non-fiction author and communications director
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, writing coach, accredited editor with qualifications in theology, writing and publishing blogger at smallbluedog.com, and Gracewriters founder
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of the Armour of Light urban fantasy series
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
Topics covered in this episode:
- Writing techniques for drawing together materials from various sources.
- Self-care practices that help during an emotionally challenging project.
- Getting feedback from appropriate people at appropriate times in the process, to stay on track and also be true to the person who can no longer express their opinion.
- How Jo received publishing offers from multiple publishers over the years, plus how she continued with her calling each time a publishing relationship ended.
- A Rocha, the Christian conservation charity Jo’s parents founded and for which she now works as Communications Director.
- Growing in faith through the process of writing.
Find Jo online:
X (formerly Twitter): https://twitter.com/joswinney
Click the covers below to find Jo’s books on Amazon (associate links that help earn a few cents for Gracewriters):
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters Podcast – Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. Hit subscribe on your favourite podcast player so you never miss an episode and find show notes, useful links and a full transcript at gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, Christian non-fiction author, magazine editor and Communications Director, Jo Swinney.
I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. I blog for writers at smallbluedog.com and you can find links to all my books, blogs and online courses at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I’m a former early childhood teacher living in south-east Queensland. I have four adult children and I’m a mad-keen photographer. I write romance under the pen name, Alison Joy and you can find out more about my books at alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hi, I’m Donita Bundy. For the past 20 years, I’ve been using my theology degree to underpin my preaching and more recently, to inspire my Armour of Light urban-fantasy series. You can find out more about me, my books and all my other projects at donitabundy.com.
Belinda Pollard: Jo Swinney is the author of eight books and many magazine articles. The founding editor of two magazines and the writer and editor of Bible resources. She is currently Communicators Director for A Rocha, a Christian conservation charity. Jo is a world citizen who grew up in Portugal, studied theology at Regent College, Canada and lives in Bath, England with her husband and teenage daughters.
Welcome to the podcast, Jo!
Jo Swinney: Thank you so much for having me.
Belinda Pollard: Jo, you’ve got a number of books out but your latest book, A Place at the Table: Faith, Hope and Hospitality was a very unusual and very special project in that you wrote it with your mother, Miranda Harris.
Can you tell us a little bit of that story? How did it come about?
Jo Swinney: Yes. It’s a painful story so, heads up on that one. I’m getting slightly more used to saying it.
My mother and father were co-founders of A Rocha back when I was five years old and their organisation grew to become a multi-national endeavour and in 2019, they were with work in South Africa and there was a car accident and my mum was killed instantly. My mum had talked about writing a book for a really long time, as in years and years, and I had started tuning her out when she began saying, “I think this is the year for the book,” because, in my mind, if you’re going to do something, do it, don’t just talk about it.
When I came to clear out her study, with my dad, and I found that she had made a really great start on the book, it was bit of humbling moment for me and I decided that I wanted to help her get it over the line. Her contribution to what A Rocha is was not in the science or conservation realm but it was relational really and she had an enormous gift for making people feel at home with her, for feeding them, particularly spiritually, emotionally and for just getting stuck in with people however different, however short a time she knew them for.
At her funeral, we received a letter from the person she used to get coffee from on a particular station, for example, saying he would really miss her!
When I was thinking about how to shape the book, I knew she’d wanted to write on the themes of community and hospitality rooted in the story of A Rocha so that was my starting point. She hadn’t actually written much by way of an official manuscript so this is a 60,000 word book and 5,000 words were in that binder that had Book on the front but she had written a lot in terms of letters and updates to supporters and she’d written talks. She used to write all her talks out long-hand – in handwriting. Pretty much all her writing was in handwriting and she was an amazing archivist.
I had a lot of material and it was a question of shaping it and then completing it. It’s actually about half her words and half mine and it’s tied together with string and tape but it’s quite varied in the types of writing because that was what I had to work with. Unusual in the sense that I was in conversation with my mum but she wasn’t there anymore to have that with me.
It was painful and I can’t really gloss over the fact that it was very painful to write but also quite life-giving and healing.
Belinda Pollard: I find it interesting that you did it on hospitality. I’ve got an aunt who’s really good at hospitality and I tend to think of that as being a really good cook because she’s a really good cook.
Is hospitality as simple as being a really good cook?
Jo Swinney: I think it’s become conflated with entertaining, the word hospitality, and I think in the Christian sense, it’s about the sharing of life and however simple your life is and however stretched you are and whatever your resources, it’s creating a space for somebody, where they are welcomed and accepted.
And because we are physical people and nurtured in every way by food, I think often it doesn’t hurt to be a good cook but I don’t think it’s necessary or even implied!
Belinda Pollard: Are you a good cook, Jo?
Jo Swinney: Well, I don’t like to brag but I do have some happy eaters around my table!
Belinda Pollard: And did you inherit this love of hospitality from your mother?
Jo Swinney: I really did, yes, and now I’ve inherited a whole range of pottery bowls because she was a real one for decanting food from unattractive pans into pottery bowls, never mind the washing up that follows!
Belinda Pollard: When you were pulling the book together – because there’s that emotional side but there’s also the technical side – how did you choose, because I’m thinking back to things like, I couldn’t bear to part with the wall calendar that my father had written in, and I’m thinking about how do you make those hard choices in terms of building a really good strong book and also honouring your mum? How did you go about that?
Jo Swinney: I didn’t trust myself to know what was of general interest or to know what she would have been okay with out in the world because some of what I used was from personal journals. So, I relied really heavily on an excellent editor who worked very, very closely with me. I had a number of secondary readers, deliberately chosen for different reasons, for example, having never met my mum or people who did know my mum and knew what her sensitivities would be.
My main fear was that it would be self-indulgent and not of any wider relevance. I think, because I was worried about that, hopefully that also provided a bit of a check. She wrote a lot about a lot of things so I was very specifically looking for references to food, to relationships, to community, that kind of thing; that was my filter.
The first thing I did was I had to transcribe it from the handwriting so I just went through absolutely everything that I had access to and transcribed it and then I sat back and thought, “Okay, how to use this.”
Belinda Pollard: And how did you manage the process of getting that feedback from the other people?
Jo Swinney: Well, the first people to see it were my father and my three siblings and they have veto rights on everything. And then I worked very closely chapter by chapter with my editor and he had some really, really good pointers. So, for example, he wanted the reading experience to flow so, anytime it looked like I was stepping in and reminding people that my mum wasn’t there or kind of distancing to explain that she said this, at this point, he clipped it out. He wanted us to just both be speaking directly which was really helpful.
He didn’t know her. He’d only met her once, so he felt that just using two different fonts would be enough and he was really reassuring on certain points. He knows his readership well, so, I just tried to trust him and then once the two of us were okay, then I sent it to a wider audience knowing that I’ve got the gatekeeper that I really trusted.
Alison Joy: This is obviously a hugely emotionally challenging project for you. How did you care for yourself during the process?
Jo Swinney: Yes. It’s really important to do that, isn’t it? I had to do it within a three month period for various reasons.
So, in some ways I just parked a lot of things and thought: there will be space and time to do this afterwards. It was during the really beautiful sunny stretch in England so, there were things I did. You know that Mary Poppins, A Spoonful of Sugar, I did to help the medicine go down. So we have a really comfortable outside chair and so when I was doing the transcribing, I would make a really nice drink and sit in the shade and do my transcription outside. Things like that really helped.
I had a team of people praying for me, small but close around me, in a WhatsApp group. With the grief process, I began working on this just a year after, and I had committed to myself when that happened, not to try and control it. I felt the sense of no road map and not having any experience. That, in itself, is extraordinary isn’t it? To get to the age of 40 without a major loss in your life. So I’m aware of how lucky I am in that way but I hadn’t so it was new to me. So, I just thought I’ll just strap in and what happens, happens.
So, there were times when it just crashed over my head. In the beginning, especially, I had some very physical reactions sitting with my mum’s handwriting, as in, I felt enormously sick and struggled to get my breath into my lungs properly and I just had to do it in small, you know, half an hour, go out for a walk, come back, try again.
And it did get a bit easier but I just tried to get through it, I suppose, and do all the things like get good sleep and exercise and time with friends.
Alison Joy: They’re all really good suggestions to help cope. Have you got any others for other writers who have got projects that might trigger deep grief?
Jo Swinney: I went back to see a therapist afterwards and she, irritatingly and very rightly said that when deep things are exposed, that’s a really wonderful opportunity to do more work on them! A kind of medical metaphor of lancing a boil. Writing can unearth things and it’s not comfortable is it, but to try and see that as an opportunity for God’s deeper healing work in us.
And I also think that writing from truth and the present moment, not a parcelled up moment, is a gift to people. It’s not very dignified always or it’s not comfortable, is it? When I think about the writing that has impacted me the most and shaped me… For example, I’m reading Henri Nouwen’s journals from the time he had a breakdown at the moment, and there is such depth there and it’s such a gift that he spoke from that deep dark place so, I would say, take courage from the fruit that will come.
Sit in the pain and it will recede. It just does. It’s God’s mercy to us that we don’t ever live in the acuteness of any emotion. And trust that healing is possible as another wise man says to me a lot, not total healing but substantial healing is very possible in this life and we go after that.
Donita Bundy: Thank you so much for sharing about that specific and incredibly difficult experience but you’ve also written books on a variety of other topics like dating, depression, building a Christian family, the concept of home and lots of Bible resources. Many of our listeners are trying to get their first book off the ground, how did you find a publisher for your first book?
Jo Swinney: So, I know that things have changed since I did. So I was 26, that’s nearly 20 years ago and subsequently there are a lot more writers and possibly less readers so, with that kind of in mind, it was quite simple for me, really.
I went online, I looked at the submission guidelines for a few publishers, I went away and did what they said they needed – a chapter and an outline and a letter and I sent it. And then I had a conversation with the publisher that went on for a few months and they gave me a contract.
I have no idea how that happened. I didn’t have one of these elusive platforms that everyone bangs on about these days. I just had a burning thing I wanted to say which was about depression and at that time in the UK was highly stigmatised. Slightly less so now, thankfully! I wanted to stand up and say, I have it, had it, these are things that helped. This is what’s God’s taught me about shame and identity etc.
Not realising the potential rejection involved, just sent in my little book proposal and there you go!
Donita Bundy: Do you have an agent now?
Jo Swinney: No. The UK Christian Publishing scene is absolutely minuscule so, those agents don’t exist for our category in the UK. If you were writing mainstream fiction, you would go through an agent. I don’t have an agent.
Donita Bundy: When you write new books, how does the publishing process work? Do you build on existing publisher relationships or do you need to start anew with every single book?
Jo Swinney: So, I have written with a few publishers and there’s been reasons. I don’t know if you want the potted summary but, yes. With my first book I thought, “Woohoo, I’m off. I’m going to be a writer!” My first daughter was born at that point and I went merrily in and signed her birth certificate saying that I was an author and off I went!
Then they signed my second book before the first one came out and I think they were really excited about me and the sales were absolutely atrocious, the second book. I wasn’t then the good commercial proposition for them so they cut me loose and I thought the world had ended.
I started to do smaller things, Bible notes and articles – and that was for Scripture Union where I met Belinda. So, I said, “Oh, you publish books. I have an idea.” So, they did my next two and then they stopped doing adult books and so then I was cut loose again. I then was in this funny position of having three publishers wanting to look at my next one and I thought, “Woohoo, now I’ve made it!” That was for Home and then none of them wanted it. So, again I thought, the world’s ended, I am now an ex-writer, whatever.
Often in this life it’s about coincidence and relationships and things like that, isn’t it? Lucky me, I ended up in the same church as the top commissioning editor for a really, really good publishing house, Hodder & Stoughton, and so over the course of a couple of years we had a few coffees and long and short, they did Home and they have done this next one. And the way they talk is, our authors, we invest in our authors and we’re it for you now. And I said that I’ve got another kind of side gig with another publisher who asked me to do an Advent book which is The Whole Christmas Story. I really love the cover so I’m showing you!
Alison Joy: Wow! Awesome!
Jo Swinney: They just commissioned me to do a Lent version with the whole Easter story. But that’s sort of a slightly different kind of writing, I think. So, yes.
Alison Joy: Wow!
Belinda Pollard: It’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s full of fun and tragedy and disappointment and rejection.
Jo Swinney: Yes, I know. If anyone ever defines how to make it and then rest and not fret anymore, then tell me.
I actually never ever will take a publishing contract for granted and it’s an enormous privilege to have your words put into the world with someone else’s input.
I also am very aware that I am a very small fish. My books, they don’t sell anything impressive at all in numbers and I still don’t really know why they get published but as long as I’ve got something to say and my skin is thick enough to take the feedback, I’ll keep doing it, I think, because it’s a calling, isn’t it?
Donita Bundy: When you were getting cut loose, you said, each time, was it as devastating each time or when you got a new publishing deal afterwards did you think, as you went on, did it become easier to keep going?
Jo Swinney: It showed me things I needed to work on so, that identity is not bound up in someone’s acceptance or rejection of me or a letter saying this is your sales figures and look at these and weep, you know.
Belinda Pollard: Oh my gosh!
Jo Swinney: The other thing that helped is that I stopped being entirely freelance. So, at the point when I had those three publishers turn me down on the grounds of not adequate personal branding, I just thought that’s not for me. I’m not in it to build Jo Swinney Inc. That’s not a cause I want to give my life to.
At that point, I started to have employed occupations, as well, and writing is now an add-on to that so, that helps with the perspective, I think.
Alison Joy: I’m just curious, Jo, have you had much feedback about any of your books from people taking the time to write to you?
Jo Swinney: I have, actually. Friends of my mum, mainly!
No, people do write and I’m really grateful for that because it’s somewhat like sending out a bit of yourself into a void. I’m sure you know that feeling but, by and large, quite kind and thoughtful feedback.
The first thing I saw, having said that, A Place at the Table, was someone on Goodreads saying basically what my worst nightmare was which was, “This is self-indulgent and only interesting to people who knew the authors.” So, I haven’t really looked at feedback from that on the World Wide Web subsequently because I can take it for myself but not for my mum.
By and large, people are really kind and I think it’s very generous to take time to write to a stranger to give them encouragement or tell them what their book has meant.
Alison Joy: So, even though you may not have had the sales that you thought you might have had, you’ve obviously impacted people along the way. So that makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?
Jo Swinney: Completely, yes. And then probably for each book there’s one conversation that has made me go, “Well, I would have done it for that. I would have done it for that one person.”
Alison Joy: Now, we’re just going to change direction just a little bit!
You were talking earlier about the charity your parents founded all those years ago, can you give us a little bit more information about it because you’re Head of Communications, is that right?
Jo Swinney: Director of Communications for A Rocha International, so, yes. A Rocha was founded 40 years ago this year, 1983.
It’s a Christian Conservation, Nature Conservation Charity, working to restore people, habitat, communities, the eco system because God loves it and cares for it and wants us all to do well together, made us all to do well together, not one over the other.
So, it began in Portugal with one small field study centre which is where I grew up. Subsequently, it has become 20 organisations in different countries that are bound together by what we call our covenant and I work for the part of it that represents and coordinates and supports the rest which is a surprise to me. I am not someone who likes bird watching although I do love being outside and I love nature but I came back into orbit around the time of the accident and got re-enamoured with what it is and who it is in the world and they didn’t have a communications person so, I applied and here I am.
Alison Joy: So, how do you see the pieces of your writing career fitting together?
Jo Swinney: Well, charity communication is storytelling and this is a story that I have lived and that I’ve seen change and grow from something really tiny and that I spent my early childhood trying to explain to people.
There’s a lot of wordsmithing needed. I have been able to write this last book for A Rocha, all the proceeds go to the charity. The book that I’m working on, at the moment, The Whole Easter Story, is bringing in the creational aspects of the death and resurrection of Jesus and what that means for the whole of creation.
I feel there’s a really nice synergy to the different things I bring and that are useful in this role.
Alison Joy: So, how has your faith fed into each of these tasks? Has it grown from your writing?
Jo Swinney: So, one reason that I still will always, generally if I can, say yes to writing devotional resources, that type of stuff, is because it disciplines me to go deep into a wide range. They’ll tell you which parts of the Bible you have to write on. So, over time I’ve had to adapt to an awful lot of study and wrestling and thinking how to explain this, how to ground it, how to contextualise it in the whole Bible.
In terms of that, that’s really kept me fed and under… I was going to say something very heavy like under Scripture, but what I mean is I feel like the Bible has continued to be a big part of my diet because of my writing, probably. I do read the Bible most days but in a fairly slapdash, light-hearted, skim my eyes over it and on we go.
It’s been good to be forced to do a different kind of study. And then, how it’s fed into my other writing. You know that proverb, out of the heart, the mouth speaks. I feel committed to being formed by Christ and hope that it’s from that, that I write.
I don’t have any illusions that me, as a person, has anything really interesting about me or worth saying outside of that context of the work that’s going on in me in relationship with God. I’m not sure how to pick one apart from the other and I always write with great trepidation and self-doubt, well, bordering on self-loathing really sometimes though!
Belinda Pollard: You’re a normal writer!
Donita Bundy: Isn’t that part of the deal, incredible doubt!
Jo, the Gracewriters slogan is Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. What are your thoughts on this?
Jo Swinney: I think one thing we can really do as writers, for each other, is challenge one another to think Christianly. To be quite rigorous in how we live in culture. I think there’s some mindless absorption that goes on – understandably, it’s the air we breathe and the water we swim in – and we have to be quite disciplined and careful in what we absorb and what we pass on as writers.
We’ve got this amazing opportunity to spend time with people who are reading us. It is a position of influence being a writer so, therefore, I think we owe it to God and to our readers to carefully sift through what’s happening around us and not just mindlessly reflect it back like it’s not a problem. To do that in a way that’s not going put people’s backs up or make them just stop listening to us because they think they know what we’re going to say next, kind of thing.
It’s really tricky but it’s a strange time culturally and there’s some massively strong forces bearing down on our young people, especially.
Donita Bundy: One of the points you raise, I think, most of us write in essence in isolation but the importance of being accountable to a wider Christian community not only in our faith communities where we go to church but I think that for me, it’s one of the great values of Gracewriters is to be accountable to a community of Christian writers. That we are reading each other’s work and encouraging each other but also doing that important role of being held accountable of what you are producing.
Yes, is that glorifying God. Thank you for those points, Jo. Really appreciated your input and perspective. Thank you.
Belinda Pollard: It’s been lovely talking you today, Jo, just some beautiful things that you’ve brought forth and you’ve shared so honestly with us of your situation and I know that that is going to help writers out there who are listening to this. I know it’s going to help them so thank you so much.
How can people find you and your books online?
Jo Swinney: I have a very unkempt website joswinney.com and arocha.org is how to find the charity I work for.
Belinda Pollard: Thank you, Jo.
How about I pray for you before we finish?
Jo Swinney: Yes, please!
Belinda Pollard: Heavenly Father, we thank you for Jo and we thank you for the ways that you have worked through her and her writing in such an amazing way through some very, very tough times. We thank you that her mother is still having a voice and helping people here on this earth.
We thank you for the many ways that you can work through us as Gracewriters and help us to make a difference in the world whether it’s just to one person, just in one small aspect or whether it’s bigger. We thank you that you have a plan for each one of us, Lord.
I pray for all the Gracewriters out there who are working on difficult topics and maybe things that are very, very close to their heart and very painful in some ways and I pray that you will encourage and strengthen them too.
We pray that your will, will be done and your name will be glorified, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jo Swinney, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.
Thank you, Donita Bundy and Alison Joy. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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