Paul Gaus: Tony Hillerman of the Amish
Paul Gaus's Amish murder mysteries offer non-Amish a window into a mysterious but appealing society.
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When I first started writing, I thought my readership would be quite broad. And I suspect that will be true once these Penguin editions are advertised and marketed at a national level. But so far, my readers have been for the most part older people who have been interested in readings from the Scripture, and middle-aged to older people who want to read stories that are not particularly salacious, or charged with sexuality, or laced through with vulgarities. My stories are rather calm, and tame, and decent stories, although they are murder mysteries. They are still what I regard as decent literature that any Christian could be comfortable reading.Skip to next paragraph
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But what I’ve found as I travel is that people of all faiths are reading my books. What they appreciate is that I am addressing a serious issue in my fiction. They are not just frivolous mystery novels. They have “redemptive value,” as one person said it to me.
Interesting. How do you tailor what you write to the needs of that readership?
I did light editing of all the stories so that Penguin could publish the books in a way that would be agreeable to the Christian Booksellers Associations. This involved a few things. Once in a while the sheriff in my stories would use intemperate speech – a damn or a hell or something like that – and we took that out of the story. And in two of the stories there were mild references to somewhat extravagant sexual practices. And these aspects of the stories were not essential to the novel, so I agreed to edit them out. And so now Penguin is bringing out a whole new set of the novels that are identical to the original, but wouldn’t cause a believer to blush in reading them.
I think Americans are ready to read serious literature that is not laced with vulgarity. It’s as if thriller-fiction has risen to the point of a grand spectacle. And my books do not go in that direction at all. My books are tempered, reasoned, quiet, thoughtful – all things other than spectacle. And yet they address a very important problem, and they address the Christian lives that Amish people live.
When I first started writing, I thought my murder mysteries needed a little touch of modern criminality. But a few tawdry words here and there are not necessary to put across an exciting story. So I was happy to make the revision.
Why do you think people are interested in the Amish? Why are you?
People consider Amish to be rather mysterious. They live in reclusive locations. They have a separate society. They evidently believe unusual things, because they dress in old ways and they drive buggies. In Holmes County, for instance, where we have so many Amish people, the biggest industry is tourism. Americans flock to Holmes County to find out: What are Amish people like? Why do they live that way? Where do they get their instruction for lifestyle?
Everywhere I go to sign books, I double my appearance time just answering questions people have about Amish. The curiosity is just endless. And since Amish people are starting to move into all parts of America now, we’re going to see even more interest in Amish things. When I take family and friends on a driving tour of Holmes County, they are astonished to see how Amish people live on their farms. They cannot seem to get over how different it is from what they know. Once they have seen it, they want to know more. That’s what I’m trying to do with my books – show “English” people why the Amish live that way. (The Amish call the rest of Americans English Folk, or Yankee Folk.)
The Amish are pacifists, and very private people. Do you know how they feel about being portrayed in your novels, especially in a way that is connected to violence? Or are they not particularly aware of your work?
Many Amish people will not take an interest in my stories simply because they are murder mysteries. But the drivers of the bookmobiles in Holmes County tell me that my books are always checked out. And the few reviews of my books that have appeared in local newspapers have been very favorable and said my depiction of Amish society was very accurate.