If you’re lucky, you just know. Fairfield native Alena Dillon knew she wanted to write from an early age. She did the requisite sports, youth groups and choir available to most suburban children, but words — stories— were her passion.
In fifth grade she wrote her first novel — a take on a popular Disney movie released at the time, “A Kid in King Arthur’s Court.”
“In seventh grade I would just write unassigned short stories for my English teacher,” recalled Dillon. “She was very generous with feedback, even though they were so tragic and terrible. They were always about someone dying.”
And as often is the case, writers are voracious readers.
“Growing up I was more of a mystery reader,” said Dillon. “I still remember the Box Car section at Mill Hill Elementary School Library.”
One of her favorite memories is meeting best-selling mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark at a local book signing.
“My mom pulled me from school to go, “ remembered Dillon. “I told [Mary Higgins Clark] I wanted to be an author, and she wrote ‘Think royalties’ in my copy of We Will Meet Again.”
Following high school, where she was voted “Class Writer,” Dillon went to UConn and then to Fairfield University for an MFA in Writing. From there, she moved to teaching creative writing at St. Joseph’s College, a small Catholic school on Long Island, where both she and her husband (whom she met at UConn) began teaching. And she also got to know the group of nuns who ran the school. This led to the idea for her first published novel, Mercy House, about three nuns who run a home for abused women and one of whom has to face her own past.
"...It was a pleasure to get to know her and put her on paper.”
“My direct superior was a nun,” explained Dillon. “I just got this deep admiration for the nuns there, their work and their dedication. I have such a deep respect for them and was fascinated by what would commit somebody to such selflessness. Contrasted to that, they are also so human — they danced, stashed chocolate, laughed often — an interesting quality to such superhuman people.”
Dillon was there during the Apostolic Visitation in 2010, during which the Vatican was visiting all nuns to ferret out any non-doctrinal leanings of the sisters.
“I can’t say I was privy to what was going on,” admitted Dillon, “but I gleaned there was a whiff that they felt under-appreciated. They put all their lives to this and were now being investigated. If found in violation of church doctrine, they risked losing their livelihood; they were in a very tenuous position.”
Ultimately, the Vatican delivered a report that was very positive about nuns in the United States according to Dillon.
Mercy House went through many different versions, according to Dillon. Originally she envisioned it as told from the points of view of the three nuns running the shelter, but when she entered the main character’s perspective — that of 69-year-old nun Sister Evie — she knew hers was the story she had to tell.
“There was a spirit, a vibe to her that I just felt,” explained Dillon. “I knew her backstory, I knew her intimately. It was a pleasure to get to know her and put her on paper.”
"I have such admiration for the nuns and reverence for the faith in general."
Early reviews for Mercy House have been very good. Although, you will find those who see it as a criticism of the Catholic Church.
“Criticizing the Church is not my intention,” stressed Dillon, who put in months of research to flesh out her story in realistic fashion. “There are villainous Catholic characters in my book, but I’m only criticizing those individuals. I have such admiration for the nuns and reverence for the faith in general. It’s only those who have committed wrongdoings I intend to hold accountable.”
While not Catholic herself (her father’s family is Catholic, however, as his her husband), Dillon doesn’t feel she needs to be Catholic to write about nuns.
“I hadn’t considered that someone could say ‘you’re not Catholic,’” said Dillon. “It could be a hindrance to understanding people unlike ourselves if we can only ever stay in our own lanes.”
With a 50,000-unit print run, it sounds like HarperCollins is expecting Mercy House to do well. (A 25,000 print run, for instance, would be considered very good for a new author.)
Dillon has a second book, about a gymnast training for the Olympics, slated for 2021. Meanwhile her editor is looking at yet another potential book for publication.
Now living outside of Boston, Dillon still teaches online courses at St. Joseph’s and continues to write every day.
“I’m fortunate to have a husband who shares childcare duties,” she said. “I get the first four hours of the day. He gets the second.”
And when it comes to the actual writing, Dillon still hasn’t found her favorite system.
“Some people are really structured, making detailed outlines,” said Dillon. “I’ve tried doing that; I’ve tried just starting writing and seeing where it takes me without any sort of endpoint in mind. It usually takes me writing the entire book to see what it and the characters are about. After the draft, I re-envision it as opposed to revising it.”
Mercy House will be available online and in bookstores on Feb. 11 and Dillon will be signing copies at Fairfield University Book Store at 1499 Post Road in Fairfield on March 19 at 7 p.m.