Hoosier author Philip Gulley sees a little of himself in Sam Gardner, the beleaguered main character in Gulley’s “Harmony” novels.
Like Sam, Gulley is a Quaker pastor in a small Indiana town, often at odds with church authorities about his progressive religious views. A few years ago, an unsuccessful movement sought to strip Gulley of his ministerial credentials because of his beliefs.
It comes as no surprise then, that in a forthcoming novel, Sam is in hot water with the church and gets fired for performing a same-sex marriage.
“He didn’t realize,” Gulley said of Sam’s character. “He was doing a favor for a Unitarian pastor friend, and he was asked to do a wedding at the last moment, not realizing that it involved two women. And by the time he realized that, he didn’t feel he could say no to it.
“Even though his church told him ‘Don’t do that,’ he went ahead and did it, and now he’s getting fired. … So Sam ends up losing his job. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that; haven’t finished the book yet. I’m kind of anxious to see how Sam handles it.”
Gulley will read and discuss his books in a free public appearance at 7 p.m. Feb. 22 at the Brown County Public Library in Nashville. The program is part of Brown County Reads, a communitywide effort to encourage residents to read and discuss the same book.
“Home to Harmony” was chosen as the first book for discussion by the library and the Brown County Literacy Coalition, sponsors of the event.
Gulley has written 17 books, including novels, short stories and theological-centered works of nonfiction. He has found that success to be liberating.
“As soon as I began earning an income from writing and didn’t have to depend on a church income, I did experience a certain freedom. And it’s as good an argument as I’ve ever found for bivocational ministry, because when you depend on the church entirely for your livelihood, you do experience a sense of a lack of freedom in speaking your mind,” he said.
Gulley said he hopes people have fun reading his fiction. But sometimes his most rewarding moments are when people tell him how they’ve read his work aloud.
“It’s when somebody comes up to you and says ‘My mom was in the hospital and she was dying and for the last three days of her life I read her your book.’
“That always makes me feel good, maybe because I’m a pastor and I sit at a lot of bedsides. I know how difficult and awkward and painful that can be. And the idea that my books would make that experience a bit easier for folks is gratifying.
“That begs the question: If I only had three days to live, would I necessarily want to hear a Phil Gulley book? I don’t know that I would, but I’m glad they do. I’m surprised, and I’m flattered and honored that they do.”
Gulley said the series’ town of Harmony is based on his hometown of Danville, and though the novels are set in the present era, they really reflect the simpler lifestyle he experienced in Danville growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I don’t think you’ll find a cell phone in ‘Home to Harmony’ because I wanted it to seem to be like a quality of life that was present before these 24-hour news cycles and the constant contact with the cellphones and texting and all of that,” he said.
Stori Snyder, director of the library and a member of the coalition’s board of directors, proposed the event, and said that although it is new to Brown County, the concept of a community book read has been successfully presented in many other communities.
“It’s a good way to try to get the community together and have a unified conversation about something,” Snyder said.
And the fact the book is set in a small Indiana town makes “Home to Harmony” a good fit for Brown County readers.
Gulley said characters in the book are based on people he has known, or are composite characters reflecting a variety of real people. But he said none of those people have ever complained to him about their portrayal, partly because he always changes their names and never admits who the basis for a character is.
“And it’s a funny thing about human nature,” Gulley said. “When people say, ‘You based that on me, didn’t you?’ it is always one of the nicer characters. Dale Hinshaw is kind of the ignorant man, and no one has ever come to me and said ‘You patterned Dale Hinshaw on me, didn’t you?’
“We always try to picture ourselves as a bit more virtuous and heroic than we probably are.
“It might be that sometimes I have gotten a little carried away with the virtues of Harmony,” Gulley said. “My experience in life seems to be that sometimes the Dale Hinshaws of the world get it and sometimes they just don’t. And sometimes they go to the grave with significant issues that haven’t been resolved and broken relationships that haven’t been healed.
“So a lot of times when I write, I maybe put a little happier ending on it than circumstances in real life might merit. And I like to talk in my writing about what could be possible. And certainly reconciliation is always a possibility if we’re open to it. And growth.
“And I’d like to think that’s even true for the Dales of the world.”
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