Monday, June 15, 2009
An Interview with Bonnie Grove
In a charming outdoor bistro in Italy, a smiling woman sighs over
the perfect espresso and gazes out toward the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately, this isn’t Bonnie Grove, who has never visited Italy
nor laid eyes on the Mediterranean. In order to chat with Bonnie
we must zip our down-filled parkas to the chin and trudge headlong
into the northern winds to Canada. We find her huddled near the
fireplace inside a Starbucks gulping a mochaccino and waving a pen
high above her head. “Anyone have a rhyme for ‘igloo’?” she hollers
into the crowd. She tosses the pen down. “Yeah, me neither. This is
why I don’t write poetry.”
AfterWords Interviewer: So you’re no Sylvia Plath wannabe. We can live with that. Tell us, why do you write?
Bonnie Grove: Oh man. I KNEW you’d ask that. I keep thinking I
need to come up with a really good answer for that question. It’s on
my to-do list.
AW: Uh … so you don’t know why you write?
BG: Oh sure I do. I just don’t know the exact words to explain it.
It’s complicated. I didn’t start out to be a writer. I meant to be a
psychologist. That’s the road I was on when I started writing. What
drew me to psychology were the stories behind the human experiences.
And what drew me to writing is the human experiences inside
the stories. So, I don’t know if I’m a successful writer or a failed
AW: That’s tough. No wonder you write about mental breakdowns.
BG: Tell me about it.
AW: Still, your background in psychology must have come in handy while writing Talking to the Dead.
BG: Yes. I have a great deal of respect for the field. I’ve been privileged
to sit with individuals, couples, and families while they try to
put their lives into words; try to voice their experiences. In those
sacred moments, I have felt God’s presence so near, so immediate it
literally caused me to fall silent. And it’s that story—the story of God
present in our immediate turmoil that I wanted to tell.
AW: That’s why the tagline on your Web site is “Life is messy, God is love”?
BG: Exactly. Hey, if you order the pumpkin muffin, I’ll share it with
AW: Uh, okay. Thanks, I guess.
BG: Anyway, yes. My life is messy (picks several pumpkin muffin
crumbs off her shirt). I bet you’ve had moments of mess in your life
AW: Sure. We all have.
BG: Yep, we all have. I’ve left behind the notion that life should
be something else, something, I don’t know … perfect? Or neat, or
whatever it is. I’ve given myself full permission to shift through the
truth of my life. I tromp around in it, knowing God is there beside
AW: So, is Talking to the Dead a work of fiction, or is it a fictionalized autobiography?
BG: It’s trickier to talk about than it seems. Kate’s story is a work of
fiction. I haven’t lived through any of the actual circumstances Kate
went through. So the short answer is: Kate is not me, and this is not
my story. But, on another level, we have all lived her experiences.
We’ve all lived through loss, grief, shame. It’s the journey toward
making sense of our lives, making sense of the bad. Is there such a
thing as an emotional autobiography? If so, I guess that’s what I’ve
written. Including the good parts, like forgiveness and love.
AW: Let’s talk about love. The romantic scenes in this novel are deeply affecting, without resorting to clichés or sentimentality. What’s your secret for handling the romance element in your novels?
BG: Love is lived out in the everyday. Sweaty palms and thrumming
hearts can only get you so far and while they are fun, they aren’t the
hallmarks of mature love. It’s important, when talking about love, to
get beyond the gooseflesh rush of passion and talk about long-haul
love. Kate and Kevin’s dysfunctional love had moments of brilliance.
It had to, or why would he hold such sway over Kate? And Jack’s love,
well, that’s love of a different kind, isn’t it? Steady, honest, transparent.
He is in my mind a model of a man of integrity in love. When
God is the center and source of your love, it can’t help but transcend
cliché and sentimentality.
AW: Where did the character of Kate Davis come from?
BG: Like most of this book, she came in bits and pieces at first. I
began with attributes I wanted to explore through story. Her feistiness,
her confusion, and her strong sense of irony were the first three
characteristics I knew she had going for her. In time, thank God,
she moved out of that two-dimensional world and became a three-dimensional
character. Her feistiness morphed and developed into
emotional intelligence, survival, and, ultimately, hope. Her sense of
irony brought moments of light and relief, and then, again led to
hope. It was her confusion that was most fun to work with. She
keeps having conversations she doesn’t mean to have. She goes into
something thinking she knows what she wants to say and what needs
to be discussed, but somewhere in the course of the conversation
she loses track of things and is left wondering, What just happened?
It was in writing the scenes involving Kate’s confusion that she came
AW: Alive? I’ve heard authors say sometimes their characters talk to them. Did that happen to you?
BG: Yes. It’s a bit strange, but I’ve come to understand it as two parts
of my brain talking to each other—a way to resolve dissidence using
picture and sound. But it’s fun. Kate was the character who spoke to
me most often. But Kevin and I had some difficulties too. Dead people
aren’t especially chatty—so getting into his head and writing him as
a fully alive person took effort. I was struggling with a scene and I
demanded, “Say something, Kevin!” and he said, “I’m too good for this
scene. Write a better one.” That’s when I truly understood him. And
yes, I wrote him a better scene. It was the only way to get him to talk.
AW: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
BG: A great reading experience—that may sound like “a given,” but
it was important to me to try to write a book people would want
to read—enjoy on several levels, so that is a huge hope. On top of
that, I hope the reader will let her imagination drift, allow herself
to ask questions of herself, her life, and in doing so discover just
how immediately close God is to her in that moment. That is where
clarity comes from.
AW: In her endorsement, Francine Rivers says, “It takes a gifted and intuitive writer like Bonnie to bring humor into the middle of such a serious story. She made me laugh in several of her scenes with ‘counselors’ and their philosophies.” How did you manage to bring humor into the story?
BG: First off, let me say I’m honored that Francine Rivers enjoyed
the book. I am a massive fan of hers and it is more than an honor that
she read the book and offered such a generous endorsement. But, to
answer your question about humor: Did you know there is an entire
field of psychology that looks at humor? How it works, what it does
for us, why we use it?
AW: Get out!
BG: True. Fascinating stuff. Two keys to the use of humor: type and
timing. You must use the appropriate type of humor that fits with the
situation. And your timing must be bang-on. You can’t fudge timing.
In this novel, I used humor to take the pressure off the reader, to help
her take a deep breath and relax before plunging in further. (Stuffs
more muffin in her mouth.) And that’s all I have to say about that.
AW: How do you write a novel?
BG: (between bites of pumpkin muffin) How do I write a novel?
I don’t think I’ve written enough novels to answer that question. I
know how I wrote Talking to the Dead, but I’m at work on a new
novel and the process is completely different. Maybe that’s the
answer—it’s different every time. Or, maybe after a few more, I’ll
have some concrete notion of how I write a novel. Truthfully, I hope
it’s the former.
AW: Did you say new book? What can you tell us about it?
BG: At the moment it is untitled but I fondly refer to it as Gabby
Wells: The Musical.
AW: It’s a musical?
BG: Ah, no. But it’s all the fun drama of a musical, without the
singing, or dancing. Or music. It’s the story of a women who finds
Jesus, begins reading the “red words” (words of Jesus) in the Bible,
and then is framed for murder.
AW: Oh my! That sounds—hey, you ate the entire muffin!
BG: Oh. I did, too … Sorry about that. If we get another one, I’ll for
sure share that one with you.