Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Where did you get your inspiration for The Blue Umbrella?
I live at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill, a couple of blocks down, is the real Porter’s Store. A few years ago I awoke in the middle of the night to a flash of insight. I recalled that when I was a little boy, many years ago and many miles away, I also lived at the top of a hill and at the bottom was an old store. How interesting! With this strange convergence of my present and past lives, the whole geography of a children’s fantasy novel flowed into my mind. I could set the story right in my own neighborhood! But it would really be the neighborhood of my childhood, which is the deepest source of all writerly inspiration.
There was also a third old store, Foster’s, which I knew as a young man living in a small prairie town. Old Mr. Foster was always talking about the weather and he even made up little poems about it. In winter he might say:
Snow, snow, the lovely snow,
You step on a bit and down you go.
Or on a rainy day he’d say:
Sun, sun, the beautiful sun,
It never shines, the son-of-a-gun!
Listening to Mr. Foster recite his silly poems, one day my imagination got to wondering what might really be going on in that store …
Which character is most like you?
There is quite a bit of me in Zac Sparks—in two ways. Firstly, as a little boy I was very active and excitable and I got into a fair amount of trouble. I used to climb on top of the piano and shout, “Jump, Mommy, jump!” and from wherever she was in the house my mother would have to come running to catch me. And I once pushed the neighborhood bully off a high stone wall into a big tub of water! I picture Zac, under normal circumstances, as being like that.
This story, however, does not take place under normal circumstances. Zac’s mother has died and he’s been plunged into a dark situation, so for most of the book he struggles with grief, shock, fear, and confusion. This changes him. While he still has “sparks” of mischief and excitability, on the whole his behavior is much subdued, his natural character repressed. Interestingly I think this side of him reflects, to some extent, my adult self. Life has a lot of hard experiences that can knock you sideways. At some level aren’t adults trying to get back to the fully alive children they once were?
So yes, I identify with Zac. But to say which character is most like me, I have to admit it’s Ches. I like Ches a lot—so much that I decided to write book two in the series from Ches’s point of view. Talk about repressed! Due to his background he has so many problems. But precisely because of that, he has a great journey to make from darkness to light.
Who is your favorite character?
Chelsea! I love her because she is the one who has most retained her childlikeness. Through her connection with Eldy, she has resisted all pressure to conform to the evil that has Five Corners in its grip. Book three in the series will be from Chelsea’s point of view and I can hardly wait to write it!
This story seems to be an allegory. Did you start out intending to write an allegory or did it just happen?
For years I’d written nonfiction books with a message, and I was tired of that. I had nothing more to tell anyone; instead I just wanted to tell a good story. I had just turned fifty and I realized that fiction is what I’d really wanted to write all along. Somehow I’d gotten away from that, and it was time to return to my original dream.
So with The Blue Umbrella I set out with no message in mind, no allegory, just a story. As I went along, I myself was very surprised at the spiritual depth that developed. But I don’t think this makes my book an allegory, so much as a work of literature with an allegorical dimension. An allegory tends to feel wooden because there is a clear one-to-one correspondence between all the elements of the story and some other reality. An allegory is so linked to what it represents that it cannot really stand on its own, whereas a good literary story, while it always points beyond itself, is fully alive in its own right.
Did you know how The Blue Umbrella would turn out? Were you surprised by any of the plot twists or characters?
At the outset I had a vague idea of the ending, which turned out to be completely different! Other than that, all I had were a few key scenes, places I wanted to get to. And I emphasize the word places. Books begin in different ways—sometimes with a character, sometimes with a bit of plot or setting. The Blue Umbrella is very much a novel of setting. From the beginning what was most vivid in my mind was the place: Porter’s General Store at the five corners. Especially vivid was the all-important second story of Porter’s. I’ve never actually been there (in the real store, I mean), but I did have a chance to visit the upper story of another old building down the street, while it was being renovated. This was a former service station that was being turned into, of all things, a chocolate factory! When the owner took me upstairs, I saw this huge room that looked like a dance hall, with a beautiful hardwood floor and no pillars, illuminated in the most extraordinary way by late-afternoon light. The building had one-hundred-foot beams, which meant (obviously) they were cut from trees at least a hundred feet tall. You don’t see that anymore. My visit to that upper room was the inspiration for the Weatherworks.
Because I began my book with a setting, and not much else, the plot and characters came as a complete surprise as I wrote. I kept trying to make an outline but this didn’t seem to work for me. In fact I discovered that I didn’t really know how to tell a story, how to keep a plot moving over the long haul of a novel. Finding myself in the midst of a very steep learning curve, eventually I took a course that turned out to be exactly what I needed. The course was called Story, taught by Robert McKee—really a screenwriting course but wonderful for novelists, too. I can’t recommend it highly enough. (McKee also has a book by the same title.)
What is your favorite type of weather and why?
I love thunder and lightning and wind. It goes back to my childhood when (just like Zac) I used to stay up with my mother late at night to watch storms. As it happens, the place where I live now (on the West Coast) doesn’t have much electrical activity, but we do get a lot of rain. There’s nothing I like better than an all-day rain. It’s great writing weather! When the sun shines, it feels like a person should be outside enjoying it. But I’d rather have a good excuse to stay indoors and read and write.
When did you decide to be a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was eleven years old. In grade 7 I had a great teacher who taught a form of creative writing that she called Intensive Writing. It was really a sneaky way of getting us to write poetry. From the moment I discovered that I could simply look at something (such as a spider spinning a web; I think that was my first topic) and write about it—and not just about it but my feelings about it—from that point I never looked back. I grew up in a family where deep feelings were repressed, never talked about, and so the idea that I could explore my feelings in writing was revolutionary to me. It seemed totally radical, and still does. Writing is a way of bringing one’s inner life out into the open, and so bridging the two, and this is the most world-changing act a person can do. We all have these secret lives that we ourselves, often, are hardly aware of. To transform secrets into words and share them with others is truth.
In my pursuit of writing as a career, I made many mistakes. I’ve made even more in living my life. But somehow one thing I got right, both in writing and in life, was that, if I was going to be a writer, it meant not focusing on anything else. It meant not having any other career. It meant believing firmly enough in my artistic vision that, as long as I followed it faithfully, everything would work out. And it has. During my twenties I did a lot of odd jobs to support my writing—everything from library work to farming to garbage collecting. But for the last twenty-five years I’ve done nothing but write full time. And I love it!
Are you a disciplined writer or do you just write when you feel like it?
Yes! I write every day, five days a week, and usually I feel like it. I wake up in the morning thinking, “Oh boy, I get to write today!”
Having said that, I normally don’t start until about 3:00 p.m., and then I write for three or four hours. Any longer and I soon get burned out. I start late in the day because, if I started any earlier, I would just keep going and become a workaholic. That’s how much I love writing. So for me, the only way to have a life is to have it during the first part of the day. I also need time for planning, thinking, reading, handling the business end of writing, and just staring out the window or listening to music. Writing requires a lot of “nothing” time for mulling and daydreaming. Without that, creativity doesn’t happen.
If I occasionally come to my writing desk and don’t feel like writing, I just do it anyway, like being on a hike and putting one foot in front of another even if I’m worn out. It’s like priming a pump: Pour in a few words, crank the handle a few times, and soon the stream is flowing. If I don’t know where to start, I start where I want to. I try to identify one phrase or sentence or image that I find really intriguing, even if it’s just a fragment and doesn’t seem to be what I should be doing. Writing is fundamentally about writing what I want, not what I should. Otherwise it stops being fun.
What is your favorite novel?
My favorite books these days are children’s books. I began reading them ten years ago, in preparation for writing my own, and it was a great revelation to read these stories as an adult. Children’s literature allows an author to be idealistic in a way that modern adult literature does not. There are happy endings, heroic characters, a clear battle between good and evil, and portals leading to other worlds—all things that reflect, I believe, the deepest truths of life.
I love The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and some other classics. But right now I believe we’re in a new golden age of children’s literature, and I’m very excited about some books that have appeared more recently. For example, there’s Harry Potter (of course!), Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, and many others.
My favorite novel of all time is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn—full of page after page of pure, gorgeous, totally absorbing storytelling. Stevenson’s Treasure Island is like that too; you get so deeply lost in the story you don’t even notice you’re turning pages. Another of my favorites is Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—partly because I recall so vividly reading it as a boy, probably right around the time I began thinking of being a writer. I have a photograph of myself reading this book, which I think was the one that first opened my eyes to the imaginative possibilities of other worlds.
What is the main thing you hope readers remember from this story?
Weather: how it looks and feels, and how it suggests something much more than meets the eye. I want readers to remember Zac in his room at the Aunties’ house, listening to the wind as it moves tree branches against his windowpane like someone tapping to be let in.
Have you ever wondered why weather is the number one topic of conversation? It seems like the smallest sort of small talk, but I think weather is really a very BIG topic. This is obvious in our own time, when the world is heading for climate disaster and everyone’s talking about it. But even just normal chitchat about weather is, I believe, far more significant than it appears. I think it’s a safe way for people to acknowledge something very important. We all have a deep yearning to discuss the big questions in life (such as “Why are we here?” and “What’s it all about?”), but often we cannot talk freely because there are so many different beliefs and it just gets really awkward. Weather, however, is something right in our faces that both deeply affects us and that we can all agree on. It’s perfectly obvious if it’s raining or snowing or the sun is shining, and it’s also perfectly obvious that such magnificent phenomena reflect a greater reality. Weather is the ultimate metaphor.
Monday, October 26, 2009
I am not ashamed of the gospel,
because it is the power of God for the
salvation of everyone who believes:
first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
Are we, the body of believers, ashamed of the gospel? Why are we so easily intimidated into silence—into letting those whose hearts are blinded by unredeemed sin remake our holidays, determine what is politically correct, and remove any mention of God from our schools, our government buildings, and our national treasures?
Perhaps we lack the passion to safeguard what is sacred because we’ve lost the courage to share our faith in our daily lives. Do we believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him—that without Him, and Him alone, unbelievers are doomed to hell? Are we deeply concerned for their eternal welfare?
I confess to you that this was a difficult book to write. I did not start out writing a story that made a bold statement about the choice we all have to spend eternity with God or without Him. But my characters fought me the whole way and forced my hand to proclaim the truth, even at the risk of sounding preachy.
As I’m writing this afterword, the war against Christmas is raging all over America. How dare we “offend” the godless by holding to a blessed tradition that pays homage to the Word made flesh who gave His life so that we don’t have to live in darkness. These well-meaning individuals believe they can find peace on earth without turning to Him who is our peace. It can never happen. The only light in this dark world was lit in Bethlehem two thousand years ago and continues to burn today in the hearts of believers. He is both the Giver and the Gift, our only hope.
Most of us will never have a divine appointment like Brill’s, when our faith will be tested to the death. But almost every believer will face situations when, like Vanessa, we must choose to stand firm on that which cannot be compromised, even if it costs us dearly.
I have a feeling most of us don’t have to look past our own family, friends, and coworkers to find people who need to hear the message of the cross. Have you lamented that if these should die without a saving knowledge of Jesus, they would be doomed to a fate far worse than death? Perhaps you’ve tried to broach the subject but have been rebuffed?
Are you bold enough to try again? Or to give this book to them because you care more about their eternal future than the possibility they’ll figure out why you gave it to them? When we stand before God and give an account of our lives, it won’t matter if our efforts to share the gospel were met with jeering and rejection. What will matter is that we were obedient to the Great Commission.
Isaiah 55:11 promises that the Word of God never returns empty and that it will accomplish His purpose. Brill certainly experienced that, and so did Vanessa. Only the Holy Spirit can bring a person to the place of repentance and faith. Our job as believers is to tell the good news, and I loved being able to weave it into this story. If it touched you, please pass it on to someone you care about.
And if you read this story and would like to know more about how to become a Christian and begin a personal relationship with God, feel free to contact me through my guestbook page on my Web site (listed below).
I can hardly believe we’ve finished book two. Join me in the final book of the trilogy, The Right Call, where we go back to Sophie Trace and see how the Jessups are doing—and what Vanessa decided to name the baby. And whether Ethan’s friendship with Vanessa turns into something more. But don’t get too comfortable. Mystery and suspense abound!
I would love to hear from you. Feel free to drop by my Web site at www.KathyHerman.com and leave your comments on my guest book. Or look me up on Facebook. I read and respond to every email and greatly value your input.
1. In Romans 1:16, the apostle Paul makes a bold declaration: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” What do you think it means to be ashamed of the gospel?
2. Is there ever a legitimate reason not to share the gospel? Can you give examples of what might be a legitimate reason and what would be an excuse?
3. Can you think of times you’ve been bold about sharing your faith and times when you’ve been reluctant—or even ashamed? Can you explain what motivated you either way? Do you think God wants us to share our faith, even if we haven’t been called to the “mission field” as it’s generally understood? What might be a broader definition of mission field?
4. First Corinthians 1:18 tells us, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” What do you think this means? Do the words make you feel more inclined or less inclined to share your faith with an unbeliever? And why?
5. Do you know people who see the salvation message as foolishness? Have you ever tried to explain to an unbeliever what the Christian life is all about, only to be ridiculed? Patronized? Made to feel defensive?
6. Have you ever tried to hold an unbeliever to the same moral standard as yours? Should you? Who or what brings a person to a saving knowledge of Christ? Without the mind of Christ, can that person even understand he or she is lost?
7. If you found yourself in Brill’s circumstances, dialoguing with your attacker, do you think you would have the courage to share your faith? Do you think Brill’s firm belief that when she died she would be with the Lord gave her strength?
8. Why do you think Brill’s persistence in the face of death made an impression on Merrick Fountain—was it just what she said about God, or was it more than that?
9. Do you agree with Brill’s assertion that everything happens for a reason—even the really difficult things? If so, can you give a Scripture that supports it? Have you ever seen evidence of this in your own life? Could you believe God would use it for good even without seeing evidence?
10. Romans 8:28 makes a strong statement of faith: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” How did God use Brill’s dire circumstances for good in this story? If she had been murdered, would that have negated the truth of Romans 8:28? Is it possible that a believer’s suffering, even at the hands of a killer, might serve God’s higher purpose? Is that hard for you to accept? Be honest.
11. Vanessa’s sinful choices resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, and her choice not to abort the baby resulted in a severed relationship. Both choices, one wrong and one right, initially brought her sorrow. What was it that motivated her to make the right choice and not abort the baby? Do you believe she could have been happy for long if she had gotten an abortion? Or if Ty had changed his mind about breaking up with her?
12. Do you think God can use even our mistakes for His higher purpose? How did He use Vanessa’s good and bad choices to bring Ty to the place of realizing he needed God?
13. Which do you think is the better teacher: blessing or suffering? Does God use both? Which has made a bigger impact in your life?
14. Which do you think is more important if we are to be ambassadors of the gospel—what we say or what we do? Or can the two be separated? Which do you think is more likely to offend an unbeliever—our sin? Our hypocrisy? Our apathy?
15. If you could meet one of the characters in this story, which one would it be? What would you talk about? What did you take away from this story?
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Monday, October 5, 2009
Writing a novel set in the world of the restoration of old buildings has always been a dream of mine. The idea of renovation is in my family’s blood. I’m an interior design professional. My brothers are rehabbers. My husband, Jim, and I have survived the renovation of three houses.
I know the upheaval well, the despair of having no control, the agonizing over style decisions, the budget constraints, the disagreements between contractor and owner, and the emotional roller coaster of unexpected problems and unanticipated gifts along the way. Together my clients and I have accepted big disappointments, celebrated tiny successes, and experienced the inexpressible elation at seeing what was once in ruins—old, broken, useless—become, with all its quirks, a beautiful, completely renewed, and usable place for people to share life again. Looking back on all those projects, I can echo the sentiment in the opening line of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Many of you are probably, like me, HGTV fans who watch the many shows about fixing up old houses. You find yourself glued to the glimpses of contractors and owners engaged in the process. You live vicariously through the rehabbing, renovating, and restoring.
I can relate. I’ve always been captivated by old buildings. Poring over books about art, architectural styles, and decoration from all over the world has always been one of my favorite pastimes. As I’ve traveled internationally and visited many of the places I’ve studied independently and in the course of my education in design, I’ve become even more passionate about restoration. (I’m the woman you might see sitting on a bench along the wall of the Sistine Chapel, silently weeping as I take in Michelangelo’s magnificent masterpiece in the simplicity of that sacred space.) I can talk forever about the importance of preserving buildings that are testaments to the creative impulse, the hours of painstaking effort, the motivation and dedication of artists, designers, craftsmen, and artisans from previous eras. All were, no doubt, imperfect people—but people used as instruments in God’s hands to create perfectly rendered works of art that endure and can stir our hearts so many, many years later.
For me, there’s something quite magical about walking into an old place, with all its history, where so much life has been lived, where so many events and significant moments have taken place—the happy ones, the sad ones, and all the everyday moments and hours in between. Imagining who might have inhabited a house, how the family came together, the love they shared, their conversations, the tears and laughter, is irresistible to me. I find inspiration as I imagine how they celebrated and grieved, how they overcame adversity, how they survived tragedy, then moved on to enjoy life
within the old walls once again.
One of the joys of my life was visiting the little northern Italian village, nestled among olive groves high up in the Apennine Mountains, where my maternal grandparents were born, grew up, and married before emigrating to America in 1920. A short lane connects their two families’ farmhouses. In between them stands a small, now empty house of ancient, mellowed stone where my grandparents lived as newlyweds. How full my heart felt as I walked over that threshold! I pictured them as a young couple in the first blush of matrimony, with all their hopes and dreams … before their brave journey (separately) across a wide ocean to a strange land where all was unknown. Within those aged walls, did they speak of their fears as they prepared to leave their homeland, certain they’d never see their parents and siblings again? What kind of courage did that require? What words did they use to comfort and reassure one another? I wondered. I could see, in my mind’s eye, my grandmother stirring a pot of pasta as my grandfather stoked the fire. I could even hear the crackling of the firewood, smell the slight wood smoke.…
A few artifacts remained of their time there, and I was delighted to be able to take them back to America with me. Now I treasure and display them in my own home because they connect me with that place and time and remind me of my rich heritage—all stemming from that small structure, still standing, solidly built so long ago.
I love the metaphor of restoration, which is why I came up with the idea for the Project Restoration series—stories that would follow both the physical restoration of a building and the emotional/spiritual restoration of a character. Perhaps in the Project Restoration series, you’ll find a character who mirrors your own life and points you toward the kind of restoration you long for.
After all, God is in the business of restoring lives—reclaiming, repairing, renewing what was broken and bringing beauty from ashes. I know, because I’ve seen it firsthand. For many years, I’ve worked in women’s ministries. I’ve seen many women—as well as the men and children they love—deal with scars from their past that shape their todays and tomorrows. They all long for restoration—to live hopefully, joyfully, and productively once again—but that also requires forgiveness. Forgiveness of others (whether they deserve it or not) and, perhaps most importantly, forgiveness of oneself in order to be healthy and available to God. Clinging to past hurts or “unfairness,” hostility, anger, grudges, resentment, bitterness, or allowing abuse to alter your self-worth renders your life virtually useless. Unforgiveness shapes your perception of yourself, your outlook on life, the kind of relationships you have, and keeps you in “stuck” mode. It leaves you without hope, in a dark, emotionally paralyzing, spiritually debilitating, physically draining state and causes so much unnecessary pain … even addiction.
Yet God Himself stands and waits, extending the gift of restoration. The light of His love shines on all those dark places deep within us, exposing what needs His healing touch, renewing hope, providing freedom from bondage. This is the type of restoration I’ve become passionate about too. For when our souls are gloriously freed through God’s renovation, we become whole, useful, and able to extend the forgiveness we have experienced to others. Our hope is renewed. Then individuals, families, churches, and entire communities can be transformed!
What event in your past do you need to let go of? It is my hope and prayer that you, too, will experience the renewal that awaits you through saying yes to God’s invitation of heart restoration … and the life-transforming joy that will follow.
2. What struck you about Pastor Han’s story? Were you comfortable with him sharing his secrets with Samantha? Explain.
3. How would you describe the relationship between Oliver and Taller, as brothers? In what ways does their perception of each other affect that relationship? Are there ways in which you can relate, with your own siblings?
4. What’s the first hint that Oliver has some “issues” with his mother, and her expectations of him? How are these hints confirmed as the story develops?
5. In what ways has Oliver been affected by his father’s death when he was a young boy? How was the Barnett family dynamic affected? Look back on your own childhood. What issues have influenced the way your family interacts, even now?
6. In what ways has Samantha been affected by her mother’s death—and the manner of her death—when she was a teenager? How was the Cohen family dynamic affected? Looking back on your teen years, do you remember words spoken that you wish had never been spoken? If so, how have those words altered your perspective of that person? Of yourself?
7. How did you feel about Oliver hiring the Pratt brothers as carpenters on the project? If it was your decision, would you have hired them? Is it easy for you to give people “second chances”? Why or why not? What was your reaction when Oliver receives conflicting advice about his decision from Pastor Mosco and Barth? Whose view was closest to your own? Explain.
8. Would you call Paula’s faith “authentic”? Why or why not? What clues can you give as proof of your theory? Do you think Oliver believed her faith was authentic? What would make him think so—or wonder? What, to you, are signs of true Christian belief?
9. How is Oliver different from all of the other men with whom Samantha has had relationships? How did the way he refused to compromise his moral beliefs impact their relationship? Have you ever been in a situation where you had to stick to your guns, morally, and it cost you something? What happened as a result?
10. Besides Oliver’s influence, what other factors came into play to cause Samantha to think about her relationship to God? How did Sarah—a fellow and “completed Jew,” someone more like Samantha than Oliver or Cameron—make a difference in her understanding of Christian belief? In what way(s) can you reach out to those who are similar or different from you in faith and/or background?
11. What’s the difference between law and grace? Explain, using a couple of examples from the book. What do you tend to lean most toward—law or grace? What factors in your background have led you to respond that way?
12. What was your response to Barth’s opinion on how God views suicide? In what way(s) do Barth’s words influence situations you may have faced with hurting people in the past?
13. Do you think there was something special about the church building? The windows? Is there such a thing as “sacred space”? Why or why not?
14. What did you think was going to happen when Paula discovers she’s pregnant? Were you surprised by the outcome? Explain.
15. How did God use Oliver to fulfill His plan for “the church,” even when he struggled with transforming a church building into something else? How might you use your current circumstances and stresses to help touch others’ lives and build “the church”?
Monday, September 28, 2009
Happy New Year! Could I possibly have a better job? I spent last night counting down to the brand-new year on the upper deck, next to the topless area that, thankfully, was not in use due to the hour. Though I must say I’ve seen plenty of those people only minimally interested in the sun and mostly interested in the parade, if you know what I’m saying. Last night I danced with not one but three doctors, one of whom is recently single and from SPAIN. He showed me how they eat one grape for every chime that sounds at midnight. Muy interesante. Unfortunately, he (Miguel? Manuel? Something like that) had to catch an early flight out of port to get back to saving the world, one surgery at a time. I certainly did not stand in his way. Where would all of us be without professionals like him?!
Having a very difficult time getting a hold of my daughter, who appears to be stuck in the late nineties with regards to her emotional maturity. I’ve already written at length about her similarly troubling FASHION time warp and will not take more time on the subject here. To date: twelve phone calls, ten answering-machine messages, two postcards, all unanswered. Considering taking more drastic measures.
Mia is pregnant by that wretch of a Scandinavian. I’m nearly beside myself with horror and grief. I never should have let her watch that sex ed. video in sixth grade. My work experience has been called upon without pause; there’s something so comforting to people in having a sunny disposition in the face of crisis. Just this morning, as I was picking up Mia’s mail, her neighbor, a very nice black man who might be related to Barack Obama, said I looked like the face of sweetness itself. I smiled a winner smile to show my gratitude but had to wipe away tears on my way back up to Mia’s place. Goes to show: The show must go on but the actress leads a lonely life. Listened to Barbara Streisand the rest of the morning.
Wazzup wazzup wazzup! I’m hip to the hop with urban culture and putting down ROOTS in Chi-town. This is a city that explodes with high adventure and new experiences, not the least of which is soul food. Silas and I have visited three of his favorite restaurants. At Sugar Snap’s, I became fast friends with our waitress, Shanelle, who has invited me to her house to teach me
how to braid hair. She swears it doesn’t matter that my last cut left me with no longer than two inches of length. I was forced to believe her. I mean, remember when Oprah showed up one day—just like that—with long and perfectly coiffed curls? If she can do it in Chicago, so can I! Peace out.
Mia is not far enough along to be acting so miserable. She absolutely wigged today when I surprised her by cleaning out her closet. Apparently waffle-print henleys are still all the rage among tree-huggers. She insisted on keeping ALL NINE.
Chicago has lost its luster. The heat today will reach a scorching 101 degrees, no breeze, 92% humidity. WHY oh WHY did I quit my job?!?!
Sweet Silas brought me a bouquet of baby’s breath today. Told me it reminded him of me, beautiful and delicate but undervalued by those who need my help. That man made me cry, I tell you. August, doesn’t matter the exact day. Hot, hot, hot, miserably miserable. I refuse to take public transportation just on the sweat principle. Even children seem tired out by summer. Were there not Lake Michigan, I think the entire city would go mad. I tried discussing the lunacy of living here with Mia, but she was not particularly receptive. Must be the final trimester. That and the swelling.
Mia’s due date, come and almost gone. I’m so nervous, I’ve taken to giving free manicures to all the women in my building. Warned Silas tonight that when I’m finished with Mrs. Whittinghouse on the second floor (a prospect that gives me the willies, I must admit), he’s next. He threatened to bring Mia over to the hospital himself and have them induce.
4 Asiago bagels from your favorite bagel shop
4 large portabello caps
Soy sauce, sake or white wine, lemon juice
Sliced white cheddar, Pecorino Romano, or in a pinch, Swiss
1. Slice bagels and spread with butter. Set aside.
2. Brush mushroom caps with olive oil. Sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
3. Fire up the grill and slap on the mushrooms, trying not to think about how much better a fillet would be. Grill 2 minutes or so on each side. During the last minute add the bagels to toast. Watch the bread carefully or this step could end badly.
4. Meanwhile (or before you start, depending on how adept you are at multitasking), pour into a small saucepan ~1/3 c. soy sauce, ~1/3 c. sake or white wine, and some fresh lemon juice. Please don’t press me on exact measurements; you’ll know if it’s wrong and then you just doctor it up. Let this concoction reduce for 10 minutes or so.
5. Mayo: Chop up some fresh dill or smoosh some dried dill in your hands. Add to mayo and mix. I also add a splash of lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Again, exact measurements are not really the issue here.
6. Assemble sandwiches. Bagel first, then mushroom, reduced wine sauce, romaine, cheese if desired, and a spread of mayo.
7. Present to vegetarian love interest with nonchalance, a smile, and the promise of a chocolate dessert. Make this enough times and she won’t even mind that her mushroom shares a grill with your steak.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Did anything about the characters or events of 86 Bloomberg Place surprise you as you wrote the series?
Because I never outline my stories, I’m often caught off guard by my characters. I was shocked when Kendall slept with Matthew Harmon and even more shocked when she went down to LA to stalk him. When it turned out she was pregnant, I wondered, What’s it going to take to get to this girl? Then I was surprised to unravel Lelani’s story and why she’d left Emma with her parents in Maui. I was almost as surprised when Lelani stood up to her mom and fought to get Emma back. Then I was shocked when Kendall almost drowned, and there was a brief time when I thought she might lose her baby. Instead, she found her faith—and Killiki. That was fun. So, yes, you could say I get surprised all the time.
How much of your own life is represented in the lives of these four women? Do you identify more with Megan, Lelani, Anna, or Kendall?
I feel like I have a bit of all of them in me. Like Megan, I tend to be fairly grounded and practical. Also, I worked for an interior designer, and I’ve organized/decorated for several weddings. Like Lelani, I can sometimes be a quiet observer as well as a peacemaker. Like Anna, I worked as an editor for a small publishing house. Kendall is probably least like me, although I have to admit to having done some pretty impetuous things in my lifetime.
Which one of these characters ended up being your favorite in the series?
Kendall, for sure! At first she made me crazy and I wanted to shake her. But at the same time, I loved her childlike qualities. She was fun and impulsive and slightly naïve in a worldly sort of way. But she was also on a path to self-destruct. Still, it was fun to see a character go through all that and finally find God in a big way that totally transformed her life. I believe in those kinds of miracles.
You’ve written so many novels for and about young women. Why is this audience so close to your heart?
Partly because I came to faith as a teenager and am fully aware of what a huge impact that had on my life. But besides that, I think it’s really hard being twenty-something these days. Romantic relationships are tricky to navigate, friends come and go, careers don’t necessarily stay on track, parents can be difficult, and what happens when you make a bad choice? My hope is that readers will live/learn vicariously through these characters and be encouraged to live their best life.
If your readers could take away one idea, promise, or hope from the 86 Bloomberg Place series, what would you want that to be?
I’d like them to feel hopeful that all things are possible when you let God be the major influence in your life.
2. Lelani and Kendall had to deal with the “interference” of Mrs. Mendez and Mrs. Weis in their celebrations and plans. What did you admire about how they handled these challenges? What would you criticize?
3. How did you feel when Gil suggested Lelani move their wedding to Maui for her mother’s sake? In what ways did the idea help or hurt Lelani? Do you think Alana’s apology was connected to this gesture?
4. What gave Kendall the strength to overcome her sisters’ condescension and exclusion?
5. If you were Lelani, would you have agreed to a face-to-face meeting with Ben? How would you have handled that encounter?
6. Megan observed that Kendall and Nana had a lot in common. What were their best common qualities? Do you have a friend or loved one who is both very different from you and a lot like you? What does this relationship mean to you?
7. What do you think was the root cause of Anna’s and Megan’s “man trouble”? Could it have been prevented? Why or why not?
8. Was Anna’s makeover of Chelsea selfish or altruistic?
9. Compare the ways in which each character’s mother influenced her choices and self-confidence. Identify examples of how a negative action on the mother’s part nevertheless led to a positive result in the daughter’s life.
10. Over the course of the series, which character’s journey most closely mimicked your own? What lessons learned by this character connected most personally with you?
Thursday, September 10, 2009
1. Where did you get Mbube’s name and how do you pronounce it?
Mbube is a Zulu word for lion, and it is also a form of African song, sung most often by men. Mbube is pronounced “Em-boo-beh.” I like to think of him as Bob Marley meets the Hulk. I don’t know why, but all the guardian angels in my stories appear in my mind as Africans. Africa was the continent that sheltered Jesus Christ as a young child when King Herod was hunting for Jesus to kill Him.
God reminds us in the Bible that “out of Egypt I called my Son.” Africa gave shelter to a young Christ, to God, and I believe there is an evil out there that has never forgiven Africa for that. If Africa protected the young Jesus, it’s easy to imagine angels as supernatural Africans who protect us, too.
2. You’re saying you believe in the Devil?
I believe there is an active, intelligent evil in this world, an evil that is at work to destroy everything God considers beautiful. This evil has several names in Scripture: the Enemy, the Evil One, Satan, Lucifer. Those names have become so perverted in our culture that I hate to even reference them. The Devil to us is a mascot for canned ham. It’s a masterful piece of public relations, don’t you think? The Devil as a mascot for ham, angels as sweet cherubs that offer no protection, and Jesus as a wise teacher in cool sandals but not really capable of outrageous miracles. Everything in that scenario is so innocuous; it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up. There is a shocking truth hiding beneath that thin frosting. Someone is hoping we don’t scrape through it.
3. How did you choose the subject matter for each book in the Scribe series?
I picked the three most important moments in medieval history that changed women’s lives forever:
• Anne Boleyn gave us the right to read, including, but not limited to, the right to read the Bible. (And thus, book one, In the Shadow of Lions.)
• The women who survived the Black Death, though their names are lost to us, created a culture of survivors who launched the great Renaissance of science and art. We, too, must answer the question they faced: Amid so much suffering and pain, how then shall we live? (And thus, book two, In the Arms of Immortals.)
• For the final book in the series, I will be telling the tale of the witch hunts in medieval Europe. Women with strong wills, strong minds, or women who no longer had families were targeted for death. “Christians” both instigated the murders and stopped them. The Church was forced to confront perilous questions: What, and who, defines a woman? Are women more prone to sin and moral weakness? Do women have an equal place in God’s kingdom? (And thus, book three, In the Eyes of Eternity.)
I think book three will be, by far, the most difficult book to write in the series. But it is my belief that we are indeed “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” These women of our past are waiting for us to make courageous, dangerous decisions … or suffer again as they
4. Did you exaggerate the symptoms of the plague? It seems that people died very quickly. Were you just in a hurry to finish the book?
Eyewitness accounts claim victims could die within a matter of minutes. Many stories were of a plague victim walking down the street, and if someone went out to meet them, the healthy person died within minutes of contact. Some historians and scientists refuse to believe these claims, for the claims do not fit our modern beliefs of the plague.
We also assume past generations were not as smart as we are. (This applies to the Bible as well. Although the books that compose the Bible were written by eyewitnesses, we refuse to believe what they tell us because it doesn’t fit our modern beliefs.) One question I try to ask myself as I research is, “What if it is all true? What if those eyewitnesses were right, and some died within minutes?” We would be able to immediately rule out all the plagues we know, which take much, much longer to kill. We would be left with no explanation … and we are of an age that cannot bear to live without explanation.
Which was, for me, the greatest problem of the Black Death and this novel: the question of why? Why did God allow a plague to sweep in and decimate the world? We often hear the estimate that the Black Death killed up to half of Europe. That’s true, but we should also say that the plague wiped out a huge number of people all over the world, including Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and even remote frozen islands. Why would God allow that? Was He
mad? After all, every plague mentioned in the Bible was associated with a divine punishment for bad behavior. God had set a precedent of sending plague as punishment.
When the plague struck, everyone asked, “Why?” They immediately began pointing fingers. The Jews, in particular, were blamed. Thank God, the wise Pope spoke out against this belief and ordered that Jews be left unharmed. (But he was unable to stop many mass murders.) I can only begin to explain this violence when I remember the AIDS epidemic at its beginning. The hate and violent speech directed at gays stunned me. Those claiming to be Christians said they “knew” as a biblical certainty that God had sent AIDS to punish gay people. (Children were dying, too, but this was conveniently ignored. Was God mad at them or did His divine wrath just have a scattershot pattern?)
So much damage is done by Christians when we attempt to answer the question of why. No answer suffices, no words can heal that wound. It is a sacred suffering. Perhaps if God gave us answers, we would find comfort in them instead of Him. How many senseless words are spoken at bedsides and funerals? “It was God’s will.” “This was God’s plan.” “Everything happens for a reason.” We find comfort in them and we shouldn’t. There may be a truth in those statements, but none of them is the whole Truth. We have to find comfort in the mystery of God, and there are no human words that can reach into that place and illuminate it. We were not created with minds that allow us to comprehend the ultimate answer, yet God left us with the capacity to question. That’s the mystery in itself, I guess.
5. You say the Black Death was the death of the angels. How did you see this reflected in art from the period?
In the art that was created after the Black Death, Christ became more “human.” Crucifixes began to show a suffering Christ, a God in pain who was naked and bleeding. Christ was still portrayed as divine and “untouchable” in many paintings, with gold and illuminating light, but we now needed to emotionally connect with His suffering. Art also began to show Death walking among the living, walking with priests, menacing unsuspecting women from dark shadowy corners.
A fascination with demons crept onto our canvases, while angels went from strong, sizable defenders to chubby babies who could barely hold their heads up, much less carry a sword. Art from this period has profoundly impacted our spiritual lives today. We still picture angels as sweet, innocuous beings, while we imagine demons as powerful creatures to be feared. We are out of balance.
6. How long does it take to write a novel?
I don’t know. I’ve never written one. I have, however, written a lot of sentences. I write one sentence, and then do this over and over, day after day, until I find I have filled up hundreds of pages. Then I begin deleting sentences, one by one, over and over, day after day, until I find I have deleted dozens of pages. Then I send it to my editor and bury myself face first in a plate of chocolates.
If I begin thinking about writing an entire novel, I’ll choke from stress. Novels are big undertakings. But sentences? I can write those.
2. How can we learn to live without answers? Does this make us fools or faithful? Explain your answer.
3. What are we to do with the anguish we feel when we (or those we love) are victimized without reason and there is no justice to be had on earth?
4. Only Lazarro, as priest, was allowed to hear confession and give last rites (Last Unction). As the plague progressed, the pope allowed all women to assume this role too. Priests could not attend to all the dying, so women were allowed to comfort others in the name of Christ. This was the first time women were allowed to speak in God’s name to a dying world. Why was this moment important in women’s history? Do you see any ripple effects of this decision down through the ages and in society today? If so, name a few.
5. What does it mean to be healed? Is it only physical, or is there more to it? Do you believe there can be total healing on earth? Why or why not?
6. In his final scene, Del Grasso tells Gio to never ask the question “Why?” Instead, ask the question “How?” In your life, have you ever been tangled up in the question of why? If so, tell the story. In what way(s) have you let go of the whys and started exploring the hows? “How, then, shall you live?” (Bonus points for anyone who can find the Scripture verse that inspired this line!)
7. The Black Death was called “the death of the angels.” It was the time when the Age of Fear began. Which rules your life: faith or fear? Why? Why is it easier to respond to a crisis out
of fear, rather than out of faith?
8. If you could change the ending to In the Arms of Immortals, which two people would be alive and married to each other at the end of the story? Why would you choose this ending?
9. If you could go back in time and witness any event in history, what would it be and why?
10. If you could talk to your guardian angel, what questions would you want to ask?
Monday, August 10, 2009
1. What was the inspiration for Safe At Home?
It was an accumulation of three things, really. First of all, a few years ago, Major League Baseball celebrated an anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s life. I don’t remember if it was his birth or death or signing with the Dodgers, but it piqued my interest and motivated me to explore what he’d gone through.
Second, every summer my wife, Sally, and I take a minor league baseball trip. We usually catch three or four games in Greenville, South Carolina; Asheville, North Carolina; Columbus, Georgia; or Lexington, Kentucky. We love the Atlanta Braves, but there’s something especially charming about minor league baseball. You’re close to the players, the people, the promotions, sometimes even the food is homier than you find in the big leagues. It’s a much more intimate experience—the kind baseball fans truly savor.
The third piece of the puzzle fell into place during one of these swings. About five or six years ago we were at an arts festival in Asheville, North Carolina. At one of the vender stations, a young African American couple there was selling items commemorating the Negro leagues—photographs, plaques, T-shirts, and more. Some of the items displayed the logos for the Detroit Stars, the Homestead Grays, Indianapolis Clowns, Kansas City Monarchs … and it all was signed with the vendor’s tagline: “For the brothers who played, but didn’t get paid.” If I recall, a portion of the profits went to a group who provided for Negro league players and their families.
Those things came together and got me thinking about black players breaking the color line, and about what that might have been like in the more intimate venues of minor league baseball. And then, once I came across a few good source materials, I became fascinated with writing a story about this volatile time in history.
2. Tell us about your relationship with baseball when you were growing up. Are there any similarities between you and the characters in Safe At Home?
Actually, I didn’t become a baseball fan until I was an adult.When Sally and I moved to Atlanta in 1989, neither of us was a knowledgeable fan. But being in a major-league city for the first time (the Braves barely qualified then; they were 63-97 that year and finished last in the division), we thought we ought to have the experience. We went to a few games and started listening to the Braves broadcasters: Don Sutton, Pete Van Wieren, Skip Caray, and then, a season later, Joe Simpson. The chemistry between these guys was infectious. They were likeable, and play by play, situation by situation they taught us all about the game.
Then, in 1991, the Braves made their improbable charge from worst to first. They were one game behind the Dodgers (the Braves were in the West Division back then) going into the last week of the season, and hysteria gripped the city.We were glued to the TV every night. The iconic tomahawks could be found everywhere—on mailboxes, attached to skyscrapers, dangling from car antennas. The whole city stayed up late waiting for scores from L.A.
Sally and I went to the next-to-last game of the season. It was October 5. David Justice, our right fielder, caught the final out in a 5-2 win over Houston. Nobody in Atlanta will ever forget Greg Olson, our catcher, leaping into John Smoltz’s arms. The Braves had clinched a tie for the N.L. West. But then the strangest thing happened: The players stayed on the field. The fans stayed in their seats. The coaches, the vendors, the announcers—everybody stayed. Together we watched the end of the Dodgers/Giants game on the JumboTron (or whatever it was called then) in center field. When the Giants beat the Dodgers, there was jubilation at the old Fulton County Stadium.
We’ve been serious fans since that day, but our affection for baseball is a direct result of the Braves announcers. Pete Van Wieren, the professor; Skip Caray, the crusty curmudgeon; Don Sutton, the patient teacher who has something nice to say about everybody; Joe Simpson, the average player who relates to every man. They were always welcome guests in our home. Before the 2007 season the television networks busted up this team. We’re still grieving.
3. What surprised you most as you did research for this book?
Here’s the first and least surprising answer: Anybody, from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, is shocked by the fervency of segregationist attitudes. Looking back to this time, you have to be astonished by the fear of white southerners, by the apprehension and paranoia following the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The language, attitudes, and anger—is beyond our imagination today.
The other thing that surprised me was the patience and good nature of the black players of the era. Many of them consciously and deliberately modeled Jackie Robinson. I believe they had some vague notion that they were engaged in something bigger, something that transcended baseball. They persevered for unselfish reasons. They persisted, not only for their love of the game, but for the greater good of society.
A third thing that surprises me is how far we’ve come. The segregationist attitudes that existed just fifty-plus years ago were so extreme, so rabid, that it’s hard to look at that time and compare it to now. Today I walk my dog through our Atlanta neighborhood and pass and wave to black neighbors and think nothing of it. But not so, fifty years ago. Some of those who read early versions of the manuscript commented on how hard the story was to read. They had forgotten (or had never known) what things were like in that era. We’ve got a long way to go in race relations; it is still, perhaps, the defining issue of our country, and we remain, largely, a segregated society. But we’ve come a very long way, and I think that gives us reason to hope for the future.
4. How would you describe the intersection of faith and life in this story?
In the course of the story, Jack reflects on his situation and surmises, “It’s hard to have faith in chance.” He’s acknowledging the fact that there’s always more to a situation than meets the eye. Throughout this story Jack and the other characters are wrestling with the truth that all things, even those we don’t understand, those that have no hint of redemptive purpose, must ultimately work for good. And the working out of that good takes place in and through the lives of ordinary men and women.
Another thing we see in the story is the corruption, not just of people, but of the “powers and authorities” of the world. Jack and Rose Marie and Bud and Burt—all the characters in the story, and all the people who grew up in that time—none of them knew a society that wasn’t segregated, that wasn’t, fundamentally and essentially, unjust. The culture and society were flawed, and the people were a product of that impersonal, cold, inflexible system.
As we’re doing this interview, I’m working on a sequel to the story. In the next book Jack befriends Martin Luther King Jr. During the Montgomery bus boycott, Jack asks King about timing. He wants to know “why now?” Why, when the buses have always been segregated, is this the time to take action? King explains (and the dialogue is based on his actual words) that when the system itself is flawed, when institutions have veered from the path of righteousness, we’re compelled to act. He tells Jack that Christians, when they see powers and authorities behaving in ways God didn’t intend, have a duty to respond.
That’s what’s going on in Safe at Home—ordinary men and women are coming to grips for the first time with a crooked system, and slowly, through the actions of their ordinary lives, transforming it, realigning it, making things as they ought to be. In this story we get a glimpse, I hope, that it is our relationships, our mundane interactions, our conduct—with teachers, repairmen, checkout cashiers—that are the means by which the world is transformed, renewed, and redeemed. In this make-believe story we also discover the truth that no-name players in anonymous cities have been an intricate part of God’s plan to redeem the world.
And by the way, I love the fact that this is still occurring in baseball. Look at the starting lineup of most teams today. You’ll find white guys, black guys, Asians, and Latinos playing side by side. In a spot here and there, you’ll also find Australians and Canadians. Baseball, at least this facet of it, is a great example of healthy, productive diversity—of one (team) from many (ethnicities and nationalities).
5. What do you hope readers will take away from reading Safe At Home?
Most importantly I hope that when they come to the final page, they’ll be able to honestly say, “Now that was a good story.” I want readers to care about Jack and Rose Marie and Chris. I want them to pull for Percy and empathize with Walter and Roberta. I hope, in some vicarious way, readers struggle alongside Burt and Joe. And I even hope they understand what’s going on in Bud’s mind.
It would thrill me to know that readers were anxious to pick up the book and continue from the last turned-down corner, eager to see what happens next, and then, when they came to the end, to be disappointed that it was over.
Beyond that I hope they come away with some appreciation for what anonymous people living regular lives accomplished through the sport of baseball … one small town at a time.
6. What has been the most rewarding aspect of writing? The most challenging?
The most challenging part is, to the extent of my limited ability, to make full and beautiful use of the English language; to take the twenty-six letters of the alphabet and sculpt them, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, into a narrative that’s delightful to read, that might, if I’m extraordinarily lucky, cause someone to read a sentence twice just because it’s so darn pretty. You can’t have a good story without strong characters. You can’t have a compelling narrative without an engaging plot. But what I love most is our language, the sound of the words rolling off the tongue, a rhythm and cadence that ensnares the reader; that’s enchanting and addictive.
And the most rewarding thing? To go back and read a paragraph for the fiftieth time and still think to myself, Not bad … not bad at all.