Thursday, 22 April 2021

Behind the Scenes: Down by the Water by Jo-Anne Berthelsen


Today we go 'behind the scenes' as Jeanette (Jenny) O'Hagan interviews Jo-Anne Berthelsen.

Jenny: Congratulations on your new release. What inspired you to write Down by the Water?

Jo-Anne: I often wonder what my maternal grandparents would think about being a large part of the inspiration behind my latest novel, if they were still alive! Down by the Water is set in the early 1900s in various places in south-east Queensland where my grandparents lived. It follows the journey of Meg Porter, whose plans to study art are cut short when a family tragedy occurs. 

I kept my grandparents’ photo in view on my desk to inspire me as I wrote this novel, but it was my own memories of them—their personalities, mannerisms and even the sound of their voices—and also the things my mother and they told me about their lives that helped me shape Meg’s story and add more colour, depth and authenticity to the novel.

But beyond that, I had what I hope was a God-inspired, deep desire to write a novel that would highlight some key themes I believe are so important for us all such as experiencing God’s love and grace, giving and receiving forgiveness, dealing with guilt, coping with grief and using our God-given gifts to build others up. I wanted to highlight too how God calls us and draws us closer in different ways, according to our own unique personalities and temperaments. The more creative, artistic people may come to faith in God in an entirely different way from the more rational and intellectual among us, but their experience of God is real and valid too.

Jenny: It sounds like a treasure trove of family history-inspired story telling and spiritual insight. Fill us in more about the book. Does it fit in with your previous fiction titles or is it stand alone?

Jo-Anne: Down by the Water is a stand-alone novel, although it may end up with another to stand with or alongside it eventually—we’ll see! After I wrote my first novel, Heléna, back in 2004, I vowed and declared I would never write another historical novel because it adds another whole layer of complexity to the writing journey, with so many facts needing to be researched and verified. But then the idea for Down by the Water began to emerge—and soon I was hooked. As it turned out, I loved delving more into the history of Brisbane in particular, where I myself grew up, and also that of towns such as Helidon, Rosewood and Harrisville, where my grandparents lived.

Jenny: Having adopted the city as home since my Uni days, I love books and shows set in Brisbane. Something to look forward to :) What do you enjoy most about writing fiction?

I love the freedom of being able to create my own story and my own little world, so to speak, bringing my characters to life and giving them a voice. So often as I write a novel, I sense God right there beside me, almost whispering in my ear and enabling me to listen to where the story seems to want to go. And that can be such a fulfilling, rewarding experience.

Also, while I love writing non-fiction, I have found I can get away with sharing concepts or challenges in novels that could well be harder for people to consider or accept in a non-fiction work. For example, as one of my characters grapples with forgiving someone, I can show what forgiveness involves and how it can impact our lives so much, hopefully without sounding too ‘preachy’, rather than merely explain about forgiveness to my readers. And that gives me great joy.

Jesus’ own words about why he used parables—or stories—when he taught encourage me too in this regard:

The disciples came and asked, “Why do you tell stories?”

He replied, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories; to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. Matthew 13:10-13 (The Message)

Jenny: You have written some memoir/non-fiction books. What motivated you to write Soul Friend and Becoming Me?

Jo-Anne: I loved writing Soul Friend because I wanted to inspire others not only to seek out someone to be their spiritual friend or mentor but also to encourage them to be a spiritual friend to someone else. Soul Friend is a personal and quite intimate account of my own journey with my lovely, wise soul friend Joy and the warm, life-giving relationship that developed between us during our fifteen years of meeting together. I wanted to share my struggles with self-doubt and the challenges I faced in this period of my life openly from the heart, so readers could identify with my journey and see the value of having someone help them deal with such issues. I used to call Joy my lifesaver often. Above all, she truly believed in me and encouraged me to become all God had called me to be as a woman in ministry, then as a writer—and this helped me so much.

Then a few years after writing Soul Friend, I sensed God prompting me to write another memoir that would look at my whole life rather than only part of it—and eventually Becoming Me: Finding my true self in God was published. I chose the image of the Russian dolls for the cover to convey how God can gradually remove those things in our lives that restrict us, until we are free to become more of the person God created us to be. And I decided to include questions at the end of each chapter to encourage readers to undertake their own journey of allowing God to remove these layers, as they too experience God’s deep love and grace and wonderful acceptance.

Jenny: You've touched a bit on this already, but how does writing fiction differ from writing non-fiction?

For me, writing fiction is a lot harder and more time-consuming than writing non-fiction, for a start! I think both my non-fiction books took around eight months to complete the first draft, whereas each of my novels has taken at least a year and often much longer, as in the case of Down by the Water, which took around four years.

I remember once how relieved I felt when switching from writing a novel to a non-fiction book. Now I could simply state the truth and get straight to the point. Now I did not have to think about how to build my story or how to develop my characters or how to keep that tension going until the last page. Yet in writing memoir, such things still need to be taken into account to some degree at least. But I cannot let my mind roam free and invent facts about my life or someone is bound to let me know! And I cannot invent anything about my inner journey with God either, as I am accountable to God, I believe, to write with integrity. And the same applies when I write my weekly blogs (see

In writing fiction, in a sense everything I write still has to be ‘true’, in that it needs to present God and those deep spiritual themes I love including in my novels to my readers as best and as truthfully as I can. Yet now I can let my imagination soar. Now I can allow my characters to grapple with these truths in all sorts of ways. Now I can weave a story that will hopefully draw my reader in so that they not only enjoy the story for itself but also are gently drawn closer to God in the process.

So much more I could say here—but perhaps that should be my next book?!

Jenny:  That sounds like a great subject for your next book. :) Do you have any plans for further books? If so, what are they?

Currently, I am considering exploring the journey of one of the other characters in Down by the Water, rather than writing a sequel that continues Meg’s story, which was my original plan. But more and more, I am thinking what fun it might be to write something quite different—perhaps a novel set in a retirement village far, far away from the one in which we live?! Alternately, I have been thinking of reworking some of the over six hundred blogs I have written and shaping them into some sort of themed collection of devotionals. So many possibilities!

 Jenny: Indeed! And some great possibilities for future books. Thanks you, Jo-Anne, for taking the time to share about your books and experiences.


Jo-Anne Berthelsen is a Sydney-based author of seven published novels and two non-fiction works, Soul Friend and Becoming Me. She holds degrees in Arts and Theology and has worked in teaching, editing and local church ministry. Jo-Anne loves encouraging others through both the written and spoken word and is a keen blogger.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Jo-Anne :) I was encouraged by why Jesus told stories, especially when so many people (including the people around me) don't take them very seriously. All the best with your next project.

    1. Thanks for the opportunity to be interviewed here, Jeanette--and yes, I remember being encouraged years ago too by those words of Jesus I quoted from The Message. I think if people don't feel fiction is worthwhile writing, then it's hard to convince them otherwise, but keep going! All I can say is I have found non-Christians will accept and read a novel much more readily than a 'how to' type non-fiction book. God bless.

  2. Thanks for sharing so much here Jo-Anne, and thanks for facilitating this Jenny. My writing hasn't progressed much over the past couple of years due to family circumstances and pressures on the home front. I feel encouraged and inspired to jump back in ... baby steps of course. I have both your non-fiction books in print Jo-Anne, so I must revisit them soon ♡

    1. So glad you feel encouraged and inspired again, Josephine. I had a gap of four years between publishing my second non-fiction book and this latest novel, mainly because of family and church commitments--but COVID gave me the opportunity to get to and finish the novel at last! God bless.

  3. Thanks for the lovely interview, ladies. Jo-Anne, I loved your wrap-up of the vast differences between writing fiction and non-fiction. I completely understand why historical fiction might be hardest of all, so congratulations on the completion of another one :) And I appreciate your opinion that although harder, fiction allows the inclusion of a lot of material for consideration which might be too hard for non-fiction. Well done indeed.

  4. Thanks so much for all your lovely comments, Paula--I can see you understand well what I was trying to say. And yes, it was a big effort to write and complete my latest novel, particularly with its being historical--I think I'm still recovering! But I'm so glad God enabled me to do it. Re the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction though, I think I could write for ages about that. And some days too I simply feel more like creating an imaginary story and imaginary characters, while on others, I am burning to write a piece of non-fiction that gets straight to the point. We're very complex creatures, aren't we--and to be honest, I like the idea that, as authors, we can't be put in a box!