A Conversation with Stephanie Landsem
The Well is your first novel. Did your original plans for the novel differ from what you ended up with?
I was very much surprised with how the novel changed and developed as I wrote it. Research is a great source of inspiration for me. As I dug into the history and culture of Samaria, I found fascinating story elements just waiting to be used. I love it when that happens! As to the characters, they changed as well. Mara became stronger while Shem showed more of his weaknesses. Asher’s role expanded, probably because I just loved him so much.
You include a lot of specific details in your novel, lending authenticity to your settings and characters. How did you conduct the research for this story?
I absolutely love the research part of writing. In fact, I can get so caught up in research that I spend days deep in books. The internet is useful but I love finding books that are written by historians, archeologists, and anthropologists. There is nothing as thrilling as discovering that little kernel of historical detail that puts the reader right into the story, experiencing it first hand. Besides, with piles of books all over my desk, I always have a good excuse to avoid laundry and dishes.
The characters of The Well travel across the ancient world from Caesarea to Galilee and Sychar. Have your own travels changed your writing? In what ways?
I’ve traveled since I was a teenager and it never fails to amaze me that as diverse as people are—in language, clothes, food—we are more alike than we are different. We all search for love, for happiness and security, and ultimately we all search for God. No matter what our cultures or geography, God has given each human a hunger to find him. Like Mara and Shem, we are all on a journey to discover his plan for us, no matter if we live in Minnesota, Sychar, or Timbuktu.
Mara was often outside the community of women, though she longed to be part of them. Do you have a community you rely on, both in life and for your writing?
Absolutely, and I’m blessed that my writing and faith communities intersect so much that sometimes I can’t tell them apart. My family is a huge support and always there to lift me up. Friends who have helped me through pregnancies and child-rearing are now glad to be my first readers and my biggest fans. In the past few years, many of the talented writers I’ve met have become instant friends because of our shared love of words, but even more so because of our shared faith. Of course, my larger church community is a huge source of strength and inspiration and where I go for spiritual rest and peace.
Was it difficult to write Jesus as a character in your novel?
Yes and no. I’m always excited when Jesus enters into the story. He’s the only character that is not only real, but present—here and now. I love to imagine what it must have been like to for my characters to meet the Incarnation face to face. On the other hand, he’s not fictional. I can guess what he looked like and imagine what he wore but I’m not comfortable putting words in his mouth. Surely Jesus said much that wasn’t recorded, but I don’t want to guess what that might have been and I don’t think readers want that, either. So I stick to what was actually written down in the Bible.
The different religions and groups portrayed in The Well seem to be at constant odds with each other, from the Jews to the Samaritans to the Romans. Did the religious tensions of the modern world affect how you chose to portray this issue?
We’ve all experienced religious differences—in our communities, among friends, and even within our own families. Since our belief in God is so fundamental to who we are, I think those differences can divide us more deeply than, say, cultural or language divisions. Nava found that believing in Jesus in the midst of disbelief in Sychar required both faith and humility. Humility—not self-righteousness or judgement— is just as important today as we live among differing views of Jesus, God, and religion.
How does your faith influence your writing?
I hope that it influences everything I do, from loving my husband and kids to volunteering at school to battling the daily household mess. And so, when I sit down at my desk to write, my prayer is pretty simple: Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.
Are you working on another book? Can you tell us anything about it?
Yes, and I’m really excited about it. It’s called Siloam and is set in Jerusalem. Like The Well, it is told from two points of view and one is that of a familiar character: the red-haired Roman, Longinus. Siloam is about a Roman centurion looking for peace and a Jewish woman hiding a terrible secret. When a miracle at the Pool of Siloam brings them together, her secret will keep them apart and ultimately lead them both to the foot of a cross on Calvary.