Tuesday, April 27, 2010
An interesting question. I recently reread my first novel, Appalachian Spring, published 25 years ago, and found a surprising amount of biographical material—e.g., my devotional and other reading at the time, music and poetry that meant a lot to me, my love for nature and the out-of-doors, and the inclusion of deaf signing I picked up while a young woman living with us at the time was teaching ESL. Book #2, Wild Harvest, was set on a Vermont tree farm similar to our own forest in Vermont. My son commented on how weird it was to see himself in the pages of a novel. Book #3, Middle Night, was perhaps the least biographical but picked up elements of my own spiritual life and passion. My current book, The Stones: A Novel of the Life of King David, highlights David’s wife Abigail, my clone. Her strong principles often get her into trouble with her more cavalier husband, and mine create the same problem. :-)
What is one of the quirky things you have done?
While at the airport security check en route to a TV interview, I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to remove my indispensable penknife from my jeans pocket. I had learned from multiple experiences that security folks really don’t like knives. This one was relatively new, the previous one having been confiscated at some other airport. Didn’t want to lose this neat little guy. What to do? I looked around, spotted a large, potted plant near the door. Went over, looked around surreptitiously, and “planted” the knife by one of the stems, leaving just its head above the dirt. Went through the line smiling. Returned next day, retrieved the knife—a bit damp and dirty—and left the airport—smiling. Cathy of Whitaker House said, “Thank God we didn’t get a call from the county jail having to post bail for you!”
When did you first discover that you were a writer?
Long before I actually wrote anything down, I was making up stories in my head. After reading an exciting book, I sometimes felt compelled to “finish the story” and would roam woods and fields to live for a time with those particular characters. Marriage and babies formed a parenthesis in this process, but once past diapers, the old urge returned. My first efforts at writing prompted at least two people to advise me to stick to music. The drive persisted, though, and my first essay was accepted for publication in 1978. With a few more successes, I took a big breath and decided to try a novel. After reading an early draft, a friend scribbled on it, “You are a writer!” That felt very good.
Tell us the range of books you enjoy reading.
Fiction was and remains my first love. When my husband became a pastor and we moved into a parsonage, I discovered in the attic a cardboard box of classics that had belonged to a certain Ella Jane Spaulding. Many were stuffed with clippings on Dickens or Thackery from Sunday news magazines. I dove in, big time! This collection included Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, my all-time favorite novels. I have read each of those multiple times and watched whatever movie versions came along. I am most comfortable with older classics, though I do read contemporary fiction, many times just to relax. My non-fiction reading includes books on Christian apologetics, Intelligent Design, and my son-in-law’s new book, Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationship beyond an Age of Individualism, which has been creating somewhat of a stir (Dale Kuehne, Baker Academics). For devotional reading, I have enjoyed two little volumes on prayer by Norman Shawchuck and Reuben P. Job. I also like anything by Eugene Peterson (who endorsed my David book), Henri Nouwen, and poets such as Francis Thompson, George Herbert, and Luci Shaw.
What other books have you written, whether published or not?
1. Appalachian Spring (Zondervan)
2. Wild Harvest (Zondervan)
3. Middle Night (self-published)
4. The Stones: A Novel of the Life of King David (Whitaker House)
5. Dynamo (still in the works)
How do you keep your sanity in our run, run, run world?
Life is way too busy, and I have fingers in too many pies. The big question is, of course, where to draw the line? Writing is a major drive, but I am equally driven relationally to welcome and interact with strangers or the “little” people in church; to maintain through email, phone, and regular mail a large network of relatives and friends, including a man in prison. I am passionate about missions and serve on the missions team at our church. That too involves much correspondence, sometimes in Spanish, which I don’t speak. My husband of nearly 55 years requires a fair amount of relational time, much of it on daily, hour-long walks. I’m trying online networking but lack the time required for useful interacting. Cooking—yes, I do it, the hard way from scratch; cleaning—just enough to get by; gardening—not as much as I’d like. Trips to Vermont and our tree farm to cut and haul several cords of firewood yearly. Writing gets squeezed in there somehow, but most of my books require years of careful writing and editing. My David book was roughly 15 years in the making. To keep sane, I eat healthy like you wouldn’t believe, exercise (walk, garden, haul tons of firewood, etc.), sleep 7 – 8 hours/night, keep a steady emotional keel and maintain a regular devotional life. And I do Sudoku, the best relaxant I can think of. :-)
How do you choose your characters’ names?
I don’t have a method; I simply cast about for a name that fits the character. No problem with the David book; the names were already carved in stone, though some readers have had difficulty with the multiplicity and pronunciation. I set Middle Night in a made-up world and country, and I concocted different-sounding names, as well, but that too was a challenge for readers.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
We raised three children who, by the grace of God, blossomed into outstanding, spiritually mature adults. They and their children have brought great joy into our lives.
If you were an animal, which one would you be, and why?
Which is busiest—a bee or a beaver? :-)
What is your favorite food?
Homemade bread, fresh out of the oven.
What problem with writing was your greatest roadblock, and how did you overcome it?
Finding time to write is my biggest problem, and I obviously haven’t solved it. As you can tell from one of the above questions, life for me is more than just writing. I think part of the problem may be my dread of one day waking up and having NOTHING TO DO! I seem to be making sure that will never happen until God takes away the bits and pieces, either one by one or en masse.
What advice would you give to an author just starting out?
1. Read good literature.
2. Study why it is good—plot structure, character development, writing style, whatever touch of class is there.
3. Learn punctuation and grammar, like REALLY learn it.
4. Practice writing tight. Take a sentence or paragraph and see how few words you can pare it to without losing either sense or punch. Be ruthless with useless scenes, characters, descriptions—whatever. Make every word pull its weight. Without such chopping, The Stones would have had 800 or 900 pages, instead of 601.
5. Learn to differentiate between authentic and sappy Christian expression. Jargon or cliché-ridden stories turn me off, and probably would a non-Christian reader, as well.
6. Look for readers who know good literature to critique your writing—a fresh one for each of early draft, mid draft, near-final draft. These readers should be literarily a cut above you and not just a fellow writer who is also figuring out the art of writing. Nurture these readers. Take good care of them: they are valuable commodities. Take their critiques seriously. You don’t have to agree with every suggestion, but you should have good reason to override it.
7. Edit endlessly. I go through each of my books 50-100 times, and that’s a conservative guess. I am never totally satisfied.
The Stones: A Novel of the Life of King David is hot-blooded drama—a biblical novel that takes in the sweep of King David’s life from his encounter with Goliath to the deadly consequences of counting his fighting men. He’s a huge man, at once commanding, poetic, earthy, in touch with God. The book is cast as fiction with personalities plumped up but is as close to the Bible version as I could make it.
I’ve always loved the David story for its sheer drama, complex characters, romance, and tragedy. It lacks a certain dimension in the Bible, however, and I wanted to make it come alive and accessible to the average reader.
Sex and violence play a major role in the story, but how to handle such graphic material? David was a warrior, his main occupation. He was chosen by God to complete the job started by Moses and Joshua in reclaiming the Promised Land. The Stones of necessity contains a lot of blood, and readers need to fasten their seat belts right at the beginning. The opening scene of the book is a dream that Asaph the narrator experienced. Despite the word dream appearing three times in that first chapter, readers sometimes start thinking, “Well…THIS isn’t in the Bible!” But one reader noted that it makes perfect sense after reading the entire story. Hang in there! I believe the harshness and brutality inherent in the biblical story provided the necessary setting for David’s enormous passion for God.
Passion for God, yes, but also gross sinning. David clearly stepped over a well-defined line concerning sex, but how do you portray such an act without trampling readers’ sensibilities? Neither I nor Asaph the narrator feel comfortable peering into bedrooms. Sometimes, though, we need to remove our blinders to see the cause and the effect of such an act, as well as the lessons to be learned.
David was also an accomplished poet and musician, surprising, perhaps, in a man so bloody. I look on the Psalms as David’s journal, recording his thoughts and emotions in the context of events as they happened. He lays out everything from high elation and praise for God, to anger and pure vitriol. (See the Imprecatory Psalms.). A man of many passions, he knew how to be angry, he knew how to cry.
So many things that could be talked about: David’s assorted personas; David the man after God’s own heart; David’s hostile but necessary relationship with his commander-in-chief Joab; other major characters, including wives and concubines; the consequences of David’s bad parenting; David as the first national leader who truly understood Israel’s holy destiny; David’s role in God’s redemptive plan and his direct link to Jesus the Messiah. Do you wonder that the novel took only fifteen years to write?
A Stones Study Guide is available for individual or group use in looking more closely at some of these diverse issues. Included in the guide is a discussion of the fear of God and of cherem, the irrevocable giving over of things/persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them. Why would God order the annihilation of entire populations—men, women, children, infants, livestock? David had good reason to fear God!
Please give us the first page of the book.
[Keep in mind that this is Asaph’s dream, not the Goliath story that we know.]
I dreamed of Goliath last night, strangely enough, considering it was Joab, David’s general, who died yesterday. Perhaps emotion was the link—the Israelites’ joy half a century ago when David killed the giant, and mine today when I saw Joab dead on the altar steps.
In my dream, I was trying to question Goliath as I have so many others in compiling this story of David. The picture was silly enough: I, Asaph—all one hundred and forty spineless, Levitical, musical pounds of me, standing eye to navel against this wool-bellied monster who had challenged not only the army of Israel, but the God of Israel, as well. When I talk with people, I try to engage their eyes, but Goliath’s head towered high and remote within its crested helmet. The bloated, belch-rumbling bulge of his middle forced me to bend backwards in an attempt to see around it.
Goliath was striding about, his eye on a flurry of activity across the brook. King Saul, tall against his own countrymen but a twig next to the Philistine, was talking with a young lad who had come upon the scene of the face-off. What were they saying? Why was the boy trying on Saul’s armor, walking as though to test its feel, then shaking his head and removing it? Watching this, Goliath worked his shoulders under his own scale armor and stamped his legs to settle bronze greaves in place.
“Goliath, my lord,” I called. “A few questions, if I may.” I trotted beside him, taking five steps to his one. “What are you thinking of in these minutes before your death? I know that’s pretty personal, but—”
“Whose death?” A reasonable question, but he said the words absently, his attention fixed on the knot surrounding the king and the red-haired boy.
“I see you’re watching David over there. He’s the one who will kill you, you know. I know the end of the story.”
The giant’s shaved jowls hung thick and lumpy, his teeth poked brown and rotten between inch-thick lips. His cropped mane added to the illusion of a naked, weak-eyed pimple atop a furry lump of brutishness. I began to understand that my insolent questions got no answers because Goliath’s mind was big enough only to size up an enemy. His left eye circled dangerously. Like another eye I knew.
David headed downstream where he knelt by the brook to sort through stones, measuring their heft and smoothness. My dream’s eye saw him in simple shepherd’s garb, no armor, carrying only his staff and sling. He splashed across the thin stream and faced the giant, intentions clear.
Goliath stiffened, and when his mind caught up with the implications of what his eyes saw, he expanded another foot and turned black with rage. With a mighty whirl that sent his armor-bearers sprawling, he spit his injured pride in the direction of the Israelite king, who was watching from his vantage point upstream. “Look a’ me,” the giant roared, thumping a four-foot chest. “Some sorta dog you see? No, you see I Goliath. I gnaw warrior bones for supper, but here you serve up sticks. By the mighty power of Dagon and Asherah, I strip feathers and flesh from this stork and feed him to rats!”
“Goliath!” David shouted from below. “Never mind the king.” He stood with legs apart and arms akimbo, head cocked rakishly. The first fuzz of manhood sketched red along a face that was fresh, strong, handsome, fully alive. His voice warbled unpredictably between man and boy.
“That tree trunk of a spear,” the lad called. “I wouldn’t mind having it or the sword your armor-bearer is playing with.” His words were light, but his eyes never left the giant.
“Goliath, you’ve been a lion against sheep till now. But today I come against you in the name of Yahweh, the Lord of hosts, whom your people say is stuck in a box. The God of Israel will act, and you’ll be the one who’ll fatten rats. The world will know from this day on that Yahweh saves, not by sword and spear, not by size and fear, but by his power alone. I’ve killed lions and bears, you know. Their teeth and claws are sharper than yours.”
David’s voice cracked, provoking laughter. Under its cover David laid aside his staff and drew a stone from his pouch. The Philistine armor-bearers danced in anticipation of action at last. Goliath’s left eye began circling again. His face darkened, his arms took on the fur and claws of a bear. A snout, round, fur-flanked and vaguely familiar, poked through his facial armor. Now closer to nineteen feet tall than nine, he reared and roared and was no longer Goliath but a bear-like Joab, David’s loathsome commander-in-chief. With weapons carriers and shield bearer tight to him, he thundered down the slope toward the shepherd boy. But the lad, to my alarm, appeared to shrivel even as the giant grew. The Joab bear raised his arms, and the updraft sucked my robe until I felt myself being drawn toward the great beast’s maw. David and I both cowered before him. As those claws descended, the armor-bearer (whom I also recognized but couldn’t name) sprang from under the shield with the giant’s own sword. With a mighty, two-handed stroke he cut off the great beast’s head. Then he stuck the sword into the ground and leaned on the haft, gasping for breath.
Goliath’s armor-bearer was Benaiah.
Intriguing! How can readers find you on the Internet?
Poke around; buy a book; send an email bouquet or throw a “stone.” :-) You’ll find a page on the website that tells what a lot of people have said about the book. Because of its warrior connections, it has gone over very well with men. You’ll also find a page of funny things that have happened along the “write” way. Thanks for checking me out!
And thank you, Eleanor, for this interesting time with you.
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