A Conversation with Michael J. Sullivan, Author of Necessary Heartbeak
What inspired you to write this story, mixing time travel with ancient times and customs?
I grew up with a romantic, idealistic view ofthe church. Over the course of many years, this view eroded, especially during the winter of 1983–84. I was without money and a roof over my head, riding the E train in New York City at night. I sought help from many, including a family friend who helped run a church. He turned me back into the cold New Year’s Eve night in 1983. As I sat on the train pondering, I started to write this novel, drawing on some of the key childhood experiences that still touch my soul today. And I wondered whether this was the church I wanted to be part of in the future. I found myself questioning the wrong person—Jesus Christ. So I wanted to send my characters back in time to restore the meaning of life to myself. I wanted my characters to be part of history’s most important moment. I wanted them to experience what the true meanings of love, faith, and sacrifice really are.
Tell us about your research on Roman and Biblical times. How much is real and how much is enhanced by your imagination?
I tried to stay faithful to the actual events, but I wanted to look at those events from the perspectives of the characters. My first editor, Jenn Kujawski, was instrumental in the research. We dedicated many weeks, even months, to this particular part of the process. The great benefit of this experience was that I learned so much about Jesus Christ, the person.
Can you tell us about your personal faith?
It continues to evolve. I’m human. I question certain aspects of it. As I go along in these books, I learn more through the research process. I continue to gather a greater understanding of what an incredible role model Jesus is for me and for anyone else.
Has your faith ever faltered, like Michael’s?
Yes, many times. It was at an all-time low after I watched my mother die from cancer at the age of forty-seven. She suffered so greatly, and I wondered why she had to endure so much pain at such a young age.
Michael and Elizabeth both have rather volatile relationships with their fathers. How were you able to capture teen angst so well?
I have two daughters myself. As they get older, they become more independent emotionally. I utilized some real-life experiences and allowed them to unfold on the page.
How did you create the character of Leah?
I first wanted the character to be of a background different from Michael’s so I could show that people have much more in common than they realize. In addition, I incorporated several personality characteristics of women I’ve met and admired.
Is the story of Leah’s husband based on real events?
No. I wanted to take the emotional temperature of the times, when confrontation between Jews and Roman soldiers erupted daily. I wanted to show the reader some of the normal tragedies a woman would have had to endure.
The novel captures the viewpoints of a middle-aged father, a teenage girl, and a woman from Biblical times. Which character was the hardest to write?
The most difficult character was Leah, because extensive research was involved. Being of Christian background, I needed to pay particular attention to this character. We spent many, many weeks researching every little detail of Leah’s home, how she would make a living, and the relationships she would have.
Which character was easiest?
Michael. Most of the material associated with him comes purely from my heart: my experiences, my emotions, and my feelings regarding past and present relationships.
Which is your favorite?
Leah is no doubt my favorite. She is intriguing, strong, possessed with the ability to understand the reality of any situation. I built this character from many different women I’ve come across in my life. It was fun to revisit those particular experiences.
You have a successful career as a sportswriter. What made you decide to start writing fiction?
I’ve sat on this story idea for a very long time,over two decades. I’ve tried to revisit it on several occasions, but could never find the proper angle. I spent many nights wondering why my mother was dealt such a severe fate, suffering the ravages of cancer. There were days when a feeling of hopelessness engulfed me, and I wouldn’t know where to turn for answers. One hot May night I awoke with my answer. I dreamed I was on that street when Jesus was riding the donkey, Palm Sunday. I was chasing Him, trying to ask Him why we have to suffer.
Do you lay out your plots beforehand or are there surprises in the writing process?
I would say both. The Biblical scenes were prepared inan outline. And then the characters took over: their personalities evolved, their strengths and weaknesses were unveiled. Some of the flashbacks were written a couple of decades ago, refined and polished over the past couple of years.
Was there ever an ending when Michael and Leah ended up together?
Good question. I’m in the process of answering that in the next book.
Which authors and/or books have most impacted your own writing?
The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, is one book I could read or listen to over and over again. His ability to simplify what life can be to us all motivates me to try and make every day a great one.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
When you’re writing, give yourself ample opportunity to absorb yourself in the story. And it’s fine to incorporate the experiences that move you. There’ll be some rejection—all writers have to listen to many different opinions about their work. But remain faithful to yourself and the work.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
I’m currently writing the sequel, called The Greatest Christmas Gift. It picks up with Michael and Elizabeth in Northport seven months later.