Jim and Peter Fenton are father and son.
And they are both authors.
But rather than Peter following in his father’s footsteps, Jim has followed in his son’s footsteps, with his first book, “First Circle,” published in May, following his son’s “Abandon All Hope” in March.
“Abandon All Hope” is a play, a dark comedy and a postmodern parable featuring progressive Christianity. Peter’s previous play, “See Amid the Winter Snow,” was published in 2020.
Peter began writing plays at age 14, when, with encouragement from English teacher and theater director Sue Fisher at Conestoga Valley Middle School, he wrote “Good Knight and Goodbye,” which was performed on the school stage. Seven years later, he wrote “The Thousand-Year Rose,” a fantasy comedy, also staged at the middle school.
Peter, 25, is a graduate of Wheaton College, an evangelical liberal arts college in Wheaton, Illinois. He resides in New Hope and until the pandemic worked for a theater in Philadelphia, where he worships at Beacon Presbyterian Church.
“Abandon All Hope,” with a title inspired by a line from Dante’s Inferno, features three college freshmen — a scrappy feminist, a naive evangelical and a cocky logistician who arrive in hell (an infernal dorm room) tasked with a diabolical game by a fun-loving trickster demon, who is a glamorous “wine mom”-type in a fiery red cocktail dress.
“First Circle” is a 383-page magical realism novel that Jim wrote between 2003 and 2006 and then let sit on a shelf until this year, when Peter introduced him to City Limits Publishing, a small independent press in Nashville, Tennessee. The novel is based on mentor relationships, which Jim used in his work as an executive coach, leadership development consultant and talent management executive. Now semi-retired, he leads an entrepreneurial consulting business.
“I came up with a set of characters first, then the storyline,” Jim said. “I’ve always been intrigued by faith — what is people’s faith journey?”
The novel features a pugnacious professor battling aggressive cancer and six random individuals who receive cryptic communications from a guardian angel.
“Over the course of the story, their connection becomes clearer,” Jim said. “The takeaway is to listen to a presence beyond us…. It nudges from the spirit…. I want to bring the unchurched into the faith community.”
Jim and his wife, Beth, worship at Forest Hills Mennonite Church, Leola. They also have a son, Matthew, 30, of Mechanicsburg; and a daughter, Julie, 29, soon to be a chemistry professor at Penn State University.
A deeper commitment
Peter delved deeper into his writing after his “very favorite writer,” Christian columnist and author Rachel Held Evans, 37, died in 2019.
“When Rachel passed away, I asked myself, ‘What am I doing with my writing career?’ I was motivated to write something that mattered, that would stay with people,” Peter says.
When he was furloughed from his job at the Bucks County Playhouse, he moved in with his parents and devoted 12 hours a day, five to six days a week to writing “Abandon.”
“My mind was in a dark place,” he said. “I was devastated. My life was flipped upside down. Writing was an important part of channeling my anxiety and nervous energy.”
His first draft took about four weeks to write and was “not very good.” He spent the next four weeks nailing down the characters and rewriting the main plot, which he describes as chiseling a rock to make a statue.
His dad was the first person to read it.
“It was very memorable because I didn’t like the first draft,” Jim said. “But it was powerful because it helped him move forward. He took my input constructively and said, ‘Let’s try again.’ ”
Peter said he knew he had an idea but the execution wasn’t there yet.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle where it is now,” he said. “It got more nuanced. That’s what people write about in reviews.”
One of those reviews was by Tony Gapastione, of Redwood, California, a progressive pastor-turned-filmmaker. It came via an online screenwriting seminar that Peter joined.
“He heard my pitch for ‘Abandon’ when I was deep into the second draft. He said, ‘This is really interesting. Can I read it?’ After he read it, he wrote back and said, ‘I love this. Would you be interested in staging a table read online?’ ”
The virtual reading, on July 31, 2020, was live, public and free and is still on YouTube. (See it at lanc.news/Fentons.) Peter took the role of Evan, whom he describes as “the cheesy Christian.”
“Seeing how people responded, that’s when I knew this is going to go somewhere,” he said. “Even though the world was not getting any better — the pandemic was raging, no one knew when theater was coming back — the response has been incredible. It’s been very beautiful. I can tell I’ve started some good conversations and made people laugh.”