This thought runs through my mind every time I finish reading a Denise Hildbreth Jones’ novel. As her delightful characters step right off of the page and into my heart, I laugh, I cry, and everything in between. Her stories delicately unfold with such warmth, wit and wisdom. And the best part of all? Just as Jesus Christ is the center of her life, Denise’s characters also find Him central to theirs.
I was introduced to Denise and her books a few years ago through her sister-in-law. She had given Denise a copy of Living Real magazine and expressed that the magazine was right in line with the theme of her ministry. Denise and I chatted via email and she asked me to read a review copy of The First Gardener. I was hooked! I later met Denise in Camden, SC at a Women’s Vacation Bible School event which her ministry hosts. This past summer I had the privilege of interviewing her when she came to lead a Women’s VBS hosted by Spring Valley Baptist Church in Columbia.
Q: Of the novels you’ve written, which one is your favorite?
A: I get asked that a lot and I don’t think I have a favorite. Whenever you write fiction, each book comes from a piece of your own story, and through each book I think I’ve processed a little more of my personal story. That’s why I don’t have a favorite. The one that has been the biggest gift to me is Hurricanes in Paradise, only because, after my divorce, I really didn’t think I would have anything to say again. So the way God birthed that in me was a friend gifted me with a trip to spend the week at the Atlantis Hotel. I had had some memories from my first marriage there and the Lord did such a healing in my heart from that pain. It’s from that healing that the Lord gave me the idea for Hurricanes in Paradise.
I just finished Hurricanes in Paradise, the third novel of hers I’ve read this summer. This story follows four very different female characters, one of whom is a high school principal; witty, wise and a bit flamboyant. These women will absolutely knock your socks off. Each arrives separately at the Paradise Island resort to get away from their painful, but very intriguing pasts. They become immediate companions and develop a fast friendship through some unexpected twists and turns, dangerous detours, and very suspenseful moments, just like the path of a hurricane. (You know the storm is coming but you don’t know exactly when or how hard it will hit.) As these delightful ladies come face to face with their hurtful pasts and a real hurricane, much needed healing begins.
Q: How do you hone in on your craft?
A: Well, let’s take Hurricanes in Paradise for an example. I’m sitting right there at the Atlantis, in a conversation with friends, and I knew I had a story. I spent a portion of the time I was there absorbing the atmosphere, because I love to take people to real places. I usually go on an intense hunt of my surroundings and I research them. I figure out their history; I taste their food; I experience their culture, because I want to bring my reader into whatever the setting is that I’m offering them.
There are times that I know who all the characters will be. Then sometimes I have no idea who my characters will be, and as I start writing, they just kind of show up.
Once I start a book, I write a scene a day. Then, I go back the next day and reread what I’ve written. I usually have a beginning and I know the end, but I don’t know how I’m going to get there. My stories unfold to me just like they do to my readers. Every now and then in my quiet times with the Lord, He’ll give me a picture of something that will happen in the middle of the book or the middle of a scene and I’ll jot down the details and know that’s a place I want to go in the story. I really do believe that the Holy Spirit guides the story, because I’m really not that good of a writer. Honestly, Melanie, when I finish a story, I don’t know how it all came about.
Denise, a southern girl through and through, has strong roots in SC. She graduated from the University of South Carolina with a BA in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in Sports. Shortly after graduation, she moved to Nashville to chase her dream of becoming a Christian singer. Dream crushed, and years later, she lives in Franklin, Tennessee, alongside her husband, Philly, five bonus kids, and a dog. This sweet daughter of a preacher man is the author of nine books, a Bible teacher, and founder of Reclaiming Hearts Ministries.
Penning Christian fiction novels has led Denise on a journey of reclaiming her own heart – the heart Jesus created in her when she became His child – and the heart He is continuing to mold to be like His. Her joyful heart seemed to slip further and further away as she went through a very difficult time in her life. After years of heart wrenching cries out to God to fix a marriage that was broken, she realized the inevitable. Reconciliation would not take place, and her worst nightmare became a reality. Divorce became part of her story.
The Lord has used her gift of writing to heal Denise and help her rediscover her heart which had been suppressed by shoving her soul into a dark closet and refusing to fight for herself. Dealing with the shame of divorce, and seeking to understand why a failed marriage happened to her, took a huge toll on her life.
Q: You share often with your audiences the following two phrases. One, “It caused my heart to shut down,” and two, “I didn’t laugh for a very long time.” Could you explain what you mean?
A: Sure. I think the process of the shutting down of a heart looks different for all of us. It comes from our own experiences and I often say that the shutting down of our hearts is our own sin. No one else can shut our heart down separate from abuse as a child when I believe, God shuts it down to rescue you and captures it for you. But even in something like that, there has to be a moment in that where you decide the enemy will not rob anything else from you. For me, the shutting down process began very early on as I grew up in a very legalistic denomination where my view of God was skewed in that I thought I had to be good enough for God to love me. And (through a lump in her throat) I still struggle with that. It’s a lie from the enemy. I didn’t know better. It’s what I was taught. Then, when my dream was crushed as I moved to Nashville, as everyone was much more talented than me, I lost a piece of my heart to insecurity and fear. Then when my marriage was broken so quickly, to just survive and not get a divorce, I began using coping skills that were very unhealthy, and in the process of that I became a shell of a person. I wouldn’t voice my opinion, because I didn’t want an explosion to occur. I would try to hide what was really happening. My biggest regret in my marriage is that I didn’t fight for my heart; that God-given voice put in the soul of me inside my marriage. I don’t know if the outcome would have been different, but I know I would have been different. I look back and realize now that when God gave me the character of Savannah, from the series Savannah from Savannah, she was such the antithesis of who I was in that season of life. She said what she thought and she was adventurous, crazy, fun, and sassy. I remember my mom saying to me as I wrote, “Baby, that’s you.” And I said, “Mom, that’s not me.” I had so formed to my shell that as I look back, Melanie, I see that that was God wooing me back to Himself into the open with Him to show me who He had created me to be. I didn’t see that until I was outside of my marriage. As I always say, “God will woo us or push us to Him,” and I think that’s what the divorce was for me. But it took the pushing of God for me, unfortunately, but once I got there; it’s kind of like birthing a child. Once you get to the pain place, you have two options; you either push through the pain and you birth that beautiful life God has called you to have, or you abort the process leaving you with something dead. And I had been dead long enough. I looked ten years older than I look now. I wore the heaviness, and I didn’t laugh. I didn’t even do the simple things I loved; I didn’t even know what I loved; I didn’t even know how I liked to wear my hair and that’s the honest truth.
The Denise I’ve come to know and admire is very much alive with an incredible love for Christ. With occasional tear-filled eyes, she continued sharing about her healing process.
Q: What was your relationship like with Christ during this very difficult time in your life?
A: It was real and alive, but still bound in a place of legalism and religiosity. I fasted and fought for my marriage to survive. I believe if it hadn’t been for my relationship with the Lord, I would have had a nervous breakdown with all we walked through. The Lord kept me and I had some very good friends, but very few who knew the whole of my story. There was finally a time when we separated in 2003 that he finally got honest and it was the first time I felt like I could get honest. It was also the first time that people knew where we really were. So, from 2003 until 2007 when we divorced, it was a new day. That journey of honesty led me to know my marriage was over and gave me the ability to walk away, because if I had been who I was in ’03, I don’t believe I could have. The Lord was very present and there was so much work that my heart needed to do to learn about and understand how God loved me. For whatever reason, I couldn’t see it in the middle of that until God led me to a Christian counselor who walked through this journey with me. I went on an extended fast that year and told the Lord to bring anything to light that needed to be revealed. I told Him that He alone knew what I needed to release me from this marriage, but if 10, 20 plus years down the road he is going to be the man you created him to be, I’ll stay. About two weeks after my fast ended, everything was exposed even to the point that I had no idea the extent of where his heart was. He and I had a conversation one night about where he was and he made it very clear that where he was, was where he intended to stay. I felt like the Lord said, “If you stay now, it’s not because I called you to stay. It’s because he’s your god and I’m not your God.” And I realized that not getting a divorce had become my god.
Our lives don’t usually follow our plan. Life takes us on detours that we never saw coming and brings circumstances beyond our finite understanding. But Jesus Christ knows our hearts better than anyone else, and His desire is for us to love Him with all of ours so we can bring Him the most glory possible. Nothing flows through our lives that He doesn’t sift through His fingers first. It’s in the rough, unchartered waters that Jesus holds us tighter, calms our spirits, and wades with us through the dark places and into the light.
Q: With writing, Marriage Conferences, Loving Nashville (a ministry to women in strip clubs), and Women’s VBSs, how do you balance it all with family and still keep yourself spiritually fed?
A: There are three pillars to our ministry and the first is that the ministry doesn’t function unless I’m filled. For me, that involves alone time and deep times of spiritual renewal (required daily). So I have a very protected time in my day that I don’t answer texts, emails, or phone calls, and as a part of my healing process I’ve learned to say, “No”.
The second pillar involves the people God has brought our way who believe in and love what we do, and releasing them to do what they do best. When my children are with me, they have my time. They aren’t with me all of the time and Philly travels a lot, so I do have quite a bit of time alone. Since God hasn’t released us to have children of our own, ministry is where He has placed me to use the skills He has gifted me with.
The third pillar is spiritual discernment. I have learned to only say yes to those things I believe He truly wants me to be a part of. Just like right now, I have no book in my head and haven’t been working on anything for almost a year. So, for whatever reason, God has said this is the season for your voice and not your written words.
I move in my life by inspiration now and not obligation. That was a huge step at reclaiming my heart, because I moved by people’s obligations over me for a very long time. And now the question is, “Lord, what are You asking me to do?” I don’t make plans anymore and ask Him to bless them. I say, “What are Your plans?” It’s like Moses we spoke of last night at VBS. If You call me to it, You’re the I AM; You’re the Equipper, and I can trust that. It doesn’t mean I don’t get tired or have melt-downs. It does mean that I’m able to come back to what I know is true.
Q: In your latest book, Secrets over Sweet Tea, where did you get the idea for the crazy, fun, pastor’s wife, Scarlett Jo Newberry?
A: I wanted to create a character that was as alive as I could envision, and when I think of what it means to live this alive, reclaimed heart, she was it. She is discerning, transparent. She’s okay with not being okay with everybody. She doesn’t operate from a place of religiosity or spirituality. She operates from a place of authenticity and relationship, which I think is what Jesus is moved by – authenticity.
She loves her food. She tastes it. You know, you watch people who are living in perpetual distraction and they don’t even know what they’re eating. She’s fully engaged wherever she is and in whomever she’s with, and I love her. She may be my favorite character I’ve ever written, next to Savannah.
Q: What is God teaching you right now?
A: I’m learning how to be more courageous; my word for this year. I’m learning what courage looks like in regards to where God has called me in this next season. Because I’m always very aware of the needs of others, I’m happy to learn what I need to accomplish His will. I’m also trying to be a good steward of His voice; continuing to recognize that for Him to speak to us is a gift and that my heart stays at a place where it’s willing to listen and be taught; to trust that if He wants to change course midstream, then the planner in me can be okay with that.
My new author friend with her contagious smile is bringing much glory to Jesus Christ. Her deep faith overflows into her real life through a beautiful reclaimed heart.
So whether Denise escorts you to Charleston, SC, Savannah, GA, Franklin, TN, or some other southern heaven, her characters (and readers) are always embarking on a journey to discovering real Truth and reclaiming their hearts… whether they know it or not. •LR•
Melanie Shull is the founder of Living
Real magazine. She is a wife, mother, singer, songwriter, and speaker.