Author Jillian Webster was raised in Zeeland, Michigan, but after being disfellowshipped by Jehovah’s Witnesses at the age of 19, Webster began her journey of self-discovery and fulfillment, which ultimately brought her to another Zealand — New Zealand.
While she was in her 20s, Webster traveled around the world for fun. When she was 27, she decided to take advantage of the working holiday visas that New Zealand offered.
Seeing the world outside of her Zeeland bubble was nice, but she said she wanted to live in another country.
“I just wanted the experience of living in a foreign country not just for traveling,” Webster said. “I wanted to get a bank account, I wanted to get a job and I wanted to live in a house with other people and experience that whole other side of life.”
Deciding she was only going to spend six months in New Zealand, Webster had a job set up in Chicago, but when those plans fell through, she chose to finish her working holiday visa, which lasted for another six months.
Webster quickly fell in love with the country and the people in New Zealand while on her working holiday visa. When the visa ended, she was able to get a skilled migrant visa to live and work full time in New Zealand as a dental hygienist, having been in the dental field for several years in the U.S.
“I’m still at that same job seven years later, and it’s still the best job I’ve ever had,” she said. “Then the receptionist introduced me to her husband’s friend, and we went on a blind date and then that guy became my husband. One thing after the next, everything just fell into place.”
“Some people don’t believe in fate, but it felt like fate. All of these things just came together, and I made the decision to come to New Zealand in two weeks.”
It was after Webster was living in New Zealand that she first got the idea to write a book detailing her travels as a young person. Her first book, a memoir titled “Scared to Life,” is about walking away from Jehovah’s Witnesses, losing her family forever, her travels and the journey she took to eventually find herself, according to her website.
Webster said she believes her decision to leave the religion strongly affected her decision to become a writer.
“My mom is a Jehovah’s Witness, but my dad isn’t,” she said. “I was raised with my mom and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, but at a certain point when I was a teenager, I moved in with my dad, who’s not a witness, and then I continued to go to Kingdom Hall, as they call it.”
“I was living in both worlds, which was confusing as a teenager. I was living with family that wasn’t the same religion, so they were celebrating holidays and I wasn’t really allowed to.”
Webster said that experience of living in two worlds was what inspired her to begin journaling, stating that it helped her to make sense of things.
Becoming shunned or disfellowshipped as a Jehovah’s Witness means cutting off all contact with people in the religion. For Webster, this meant losing all contact with her mother, stepfather and younger siblings.
“Being disfellowshipped as a teenager was quite a traumatic experience, and when I left, they had told me that I would never find the life that I was looking for and that it didn’t exist,” she said. “So, then I made a choice that I was never going to make decisions based on fear.”
Webster said Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the end of the world is coming any day, which is why they strongly discourage things like higher education and travel. However, higher education and travel were things she wanted to experience.
It wasn’t until years later that Webster got the idea for her dystopian trilogy, “The Forgotten Ones.”
“I first got the idea after the attacks on Paris in 2015, and I read a poem by Warsan Shire,” she said. “As soon as I read that, the idea for the novel just came out of nowhere. I saw the opening scene of the first chapter.”
The poem is called “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” and in the poem, the character holds an atlas in their lap and asks it where it hurts, to which the atlas whispers “everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.”
The trilogy follows the journey of protagonist Maya, who lives in the mountains of New Zealand in the world of “our children’s children,” Webster said. The world in the books has been completely changed by global warming.
Despite the dystopian world the books are set in, Webster never uses the words global warming or climate change in the books.
“I don’t have an agenda to push, and I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty,” she said.
The second edition of the first book in the trilogy, “The Weight of a Thousand Oceans,” was released July 13, and the second book in the trilogy, “The Burn of a Thousand Suns,” will be released Aug. 3.
The second edition of the first book now includes book club questions and the first three chapters of the second book.
“I’ve always wanted to add that, so when new readers read the first book, they can immediately start reading the second book,” Webster said.
Webster noted her journey hasn’t been conventional.
“I remember my grandfather telling me there’s no rule in life that it has to be so hard,” she said.
But Webster said deciding to make her own way in life is how she got to where she is now.
“There are no rules in life, really, it’s just the rules that we make are the rules we choose to believe because that’s what everyone told us the rules are,” she said.