Pillar of Fire- An Interview with Joyce Hollyday

Almost eight years ago, I meandered around the house with a bulging belly waiting and waiting for labor to begin. As I waited, I listened to Joyce Hollyday rattle off newly learned facts about weapons in the Middle Ages. At night, I would try to relax my body and she would read the early chapters of this beautiful book I now hold in my hands.

Joyce has written an incredible novel that is healing salve for our hearts in this moment. It is a page turner that takes you into a world and a character who sits in the midst of a harsh world and somehow manages to find a fertile faith, a loving community, and incredible joy.

It is the kind of book you might want to read in the candlelit darkness of Advent or gift to all your friends under the tree. Here are some words from Joyce about the book. I hope you enjoy! – Lydia Wylie-Kellermann

What is this book about?

In an age of intolerance, compassion can be dangerous. Pillar of Fire captures the stunning witness of the medieval mystics known as Beguines. Amid the intrigues of kings and knights, against a panorama of church corruption, Crusader campaigns, and Inquisition trials, these bold women followed their faith and broke all the rules. Spurning cultural dictates of their time limiting women to the roles of wives owned and subjugated by their husbands, or nuns cloistered and controlled by the church, they lived together in spiritually empowered communities.

The Beguines provided safe haven and study in an era when child brides were common and girls were excluded from education. They cared for people suffering from leprosy and those who were dying. The most renowned Beguine, Marguerite Porete, was audacious enough to write a book about the feminine aspects of love and of God. The Mirror of Simple Souls drew the attention of the Inquisition and was burned in a public square in Paris, with the accompanying threat that, if she did not stop writing such “heresy,” she would suffer the same fate. Her story inspired my writing of Pillar of Fire.

Who do you see as the audience?

When I was in Belgium doing research, I discovered that the Beguines are proudly remembered in Europe, with many of their chapels and beguinages designated at UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But this movement that embraced a million women over several generations is virtually unknown in North America. While my particular passion has been to share their story with young women, who face enormous pressure to be thin in body, mind, and spirit, the response to Pillar of Fire has shown that the witness of the Beguines is broadly compelling. Our culture’s loudest brand of Christianity, in both news and literature, is deeply at odds with a faith that is inclusive, rooted in peace, driven by justice, and committed to the common good. My hope is that Pillar of Fire will help fill a hunger for fiction that reflects such gospel values—and perhaps touch other followers of Jesus whose hearts are open to a version of faith that invites conviction and courage.

Why does this book matter in this political moment? and what does it say to our faith right now?

The medieval era of the Beguines and our own share remarkable parallels: dominated by the ideology of empire, the weight of patriarchy, a widening chasm between the well-off and those on the economic margins, and a rise in ethnic and religious intolerance. Anti-Semitism was rife, and the Crusades were a violent, two-centuries-long assault on Muslims. The official church often aligned itself with the princes of power and carried out ruthless campaigns to rout out anything that didn’t fit its definition of orthodoxy.

The good news of the gospel always resides within faithful remnants, on the margins. I always find it comforting to remember that we are not the first ones to inhabit a dangerous, frightening world—and inspiring to discover models of courageous hope. The Beguines remind us that we need one another to be brave. And we can accomplish in community far more than we can ever do alone.

As someone who has written non-fiction for decades, how was the process of writing a novel?

As a journalist with Sojourners, and then as a freelancer for many more years, I was enormously grateful to be able to travel around the U.S. and the world—to stand with coal miners on strike in Virginia and protesters at the Nevada nuclear test site, with Detroit mothers grieving children lost to gun violence and coastal Gullah communities trying to hold on to their ancestral land, with people suffering in war-torn Nicaragua and tearing down apartheid in South Africa. Journalism is scrupulous work to get the facts, voices, and quotes right.

I did a lot of careful research for Pillar of Fire about the Middle Ages, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about convent life, knighthood, falconry, etc. But it’s way more fun to make stuff up. As I was immersing myself in the mysticism of the Beguines, I found that characters and plot twists often came to me as “gifts” during meditative walks and times of prayer—and all too often when I was trying to fall asleep at night. Weaving these into a historical novel was a great joy. I’m deeply grateful to be able to spread that joy around a bit.

If you want to hold this book in your hands too, you can purchase the book here.

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