Ginger snap cookies with milk in milk bottle with cinnamon sticks
#65: Clare Vanderpool 2012
Life Stories and Yodel-ay-hees, January 18, 2023
In this episode, Newbery Medal winner Clare Vanderpool shares how stories transform us and how to maintain our most honest selves. She also sings a few yodel-ay-hee’s from her book Moon Over Manifest.
Major works discussed:
- Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
- The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography by Sidney Poitier
- Death Comes for the Archbishop, My Antonia, and One of Ours by Willa Cather
- Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
Heidi Groenboom: [00:00:05] Today on Rewrite Radio, Newbery Award Winner Clare Vanderpool shares how stories transform us, how to maintain our most honest selves, and she also sings a few yodel-ay-hee’s from her book Moon Over Manifest. Please enjoy Clare Vanderpool from the 2012 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Jennifer Holberg: Well, good morning.
I hope you have—as I told the session earlier, I hope you have located the exit nearest to you and will save yourself rather than the person sitting next to you. I don't think that there's anything under your seat for flotation devices or anything like that, so. Didn't realize we were doing that at Calvin College, but you learn.
I hope you've been having a wonderful time at Festival. Have you? Yes? Yes? Good.
You may be wondering why we have Festival in April. Some people will often say, “Well, why don’t you have this in June or July, when there's not so much hustle and bustle and more parking?” And I do wanna tell you that we in the English Department really believe strongly that this is central to the mission of Calvin College and central to the experience of our students.
You'll notice we have a very large student committee. And so if you see any of those kids walking around with green shirts on, I'd really encourage you to say thanks to them. They're giving up a lot of their time, a lot of their weekends, a lot of their homework. But we really do appreciate the work that they do. And they make the Festival have the character that it does.
Well, I'm so delighted to be doing this session this morning. I am a childless spinster, but nevertheless, I am an aunt. That was a joke. You can laugh at that. That wasn't a cry for pity. Although if there are single people here, hey, you know, look me up. I've never thought of this as a dating thing, but hey! That might be why I'm a childless spinster. Hmm, forty-four and clues in.
But I do have two nieces, and so I really do enjoy keeping up with the best in children's literature, and that's certainly what we have this morning. Like many of you, I've loved to read for as long as I can remember. So when doing research on Clare, I found that she was known to have practiced my own childhood trick of hiding a novel in her textbook. And so when I found out about that, I knew I had discovered a kindred spirit.
Clare's delightful new novel—available for purchase everywhere—the 2011 Newbery-Award-winning Moon over Manifest offers an equally delightful heroine: Abilene Tucker. Love her. From the very first page of the novel, you're captured by this winsome and delightful young woman. And the novel is full of mystery and humor and friendship and narrative inventiveness—just about everything else you need for a smart, fabulous novel. And I teach the novel, so I know.
Moon Over Manifest tells the story of the folks who live in Manifest, Kansas. And I understand there's a whole group from Wichita. So shoutout to Wichita. Where are y'all at? Woo! Okay, come on now. You gotta be more like, don't be Kansan over there. Oh. All right. Well, whoop it up there, the two of you. Okay. Seriously. Come on, Kansas in the house.
So, it tells the story of folks who live in Manifest, Kansas—clearly decorous people in Kansas—based on Clare's own family history. But Manifest is more than a Depression-era town. In the words of Herman Melville, which form a theme for the book, “It is not down on any map. True places never are.” Novels strike us because they take us to these true places where we find out more about what it means to be human, more about how to truly love our neighbor.
A native of Wichita, Kansas, Clare lives in the same neighborhood where she grew up, within walking distance of her parents and sister. She has four children, and according to her website, she's been reading a lot of Jane Austen. Hooray! She has a very funny FAQ on her website. It includes jokes about the Dressbarn, which I enjoyed. I love her description of her life on her website, too. This makes me wanna be friends with her, so I'm trying not to look too pathetic, like, “hellooo!”
So here's what her website says:
I grew up reading many wonderful books in a lot of strange places. Books like Harold and The Purple Crayon, Anne of Green Gables, and Island of the Blue Dolphin in places like dressing rooms, the bathroom and church – like you’ve never read a book in church.
[00:05:05] While I do have a college degree in English and Elementary Education, my best education has come from reading, listening to family stories, looking out the car window on road trips, pretending to be pirates with my brother, and just plain imagining. Besides writing, I like to go to the pool with my kids, browse at the bookstore, have a neighbor over for tea, watch reruns of Monk, have a lot of kids playing in our house, and go out for dinner with my husband. Life is good.
Wouldn't you wanna be friends with that? Yeah, hello. She has a new book forthcoming in January entitled Navigating Early, and so we should be on the lookout for that. Please help me welcome Clare Vanderpool.
Clare Vanderpool: Thank you for that. Great introduction. You're a great opening act, you know, you kind of worked the crowd a little bit, getting everybody comfortable, laughing. It is really an honor to be here. And before I really begin to talk, I just wanna say how much I've been looking forward to this event.
Because my life changed kinda significantly a year ago last January, when I got an amazing phone call about this Newbery Award. And so many wonderful opportunities have opened up—lots of travel, lots of speaking around the country—but it's always me doing the speaking. And I was so looking forward to this event to not only get to speak, but to get to just float in and out of everybody else's lives and workshops and stories and talks. And I have thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed it.
I'm a writer of children's stories, so I'd like to begin with a question that a kid would ask: What is the universe made of?
Kids always ask the big questions. Questions that either make you squirm or cough or sputter or scratch your head or say, “Go ask your dad.” One time my oldest son, Luke, pulled me aside. He was about 10 at the time. “Mom, I need to ask you a question.” So he takes me in his room. I was like, Oh, this is big time. And you know, he was about 10 going on 20. So he kicks his feet up on his desk and kind of sticks his hand behind his head. He said, “Tony was telling me something, and I wanna know if it's true.” So he kind of gives me Tony's version of…I should have prepared that part a little better…um, sex. And he said, “Is that true?”
And I thought, “Oh, wow. You know, this is…I’m gonna rise to this occasion.” And I said, “Yeah, well, that's pretty accurate.” And I said, “You know, but let's put it in a little bit of a context—when you're 30, and you get married—” and you know, on from there. And so his wheels are turning, and he's putting it all together. And he said, “So do you and dad do that?” And I thought, “Wow, these questions are getting a little tougher.” And I said, “Yep, four times!”
So let's go back to an easier question of what is the universe made of?
Whether you're a creationist or an evolutionist or something in between, the universe does consist of something. So what is it made of? We're in it. We're surrounded by it. We're made of it. We should probably know what it is. That same son, my inquisitive Luke, is fascinated by scientific theories. He's older now; he's 17. And he likes to get online and listen—he'll find videos, and he'll listen to renowned physicists on all kinds of theories of the universe. They have their string theory, particle theory, subatomic theory—whatever, I'm just throwing out names. I don't really know what they mean.
And I have found—this is kind of a little secret I've found—there are certain keywords or catchphrases that can make you sound really smart. Subatomic particle theory is one. West Bank of the Gaza Strip—that always, you know, implies some kind of knowledge. Global summit. Vernal equinox. And if you can work them all into the same sentence, you sound like a genius. So, like, I hear they're having a global summit on the subatomic particle theory next week during the vernal equinox on the West Bank of the Gaza Strip, you should go.
And this is the really big secret: if you add one word to the beginning of that sentence, it will make you not only sound smart, but very cool. Can you guess what that one word is? I bet you know what it is: Dude. Dude, I hear they're having a Global Summit—changes the whole tone of it.
[00:10:00] So now that we've established my brilliance and my cool factor—and believe me, my children aren't even here, and I can feel them rolling their eyes at home: “Mom, quit before you make it worse.”
So back to the question of what is the universe made of? I'll share with you my theory. My bold assertion is that the universe is made up of story. We are told that in the beginning was the word—just one word. And it's not even dude. A word so powerful, so unfathomable, so creative, so explosive that it did explode into an all-pervasive story that involves every one of us. That is an amazing thing. That we are all part of this one story. We are part of the drama, the mystery, the comedy, the tragedy. Each one of us has a leading role. And it is my belief that we are all transformed by that story.
So what do you think of my story theory? I really should come up with a more scientific name for this theory, something like Quantum Theory of Story. I can tell some of you are reserving judgment. Maybe I should give you my credentials before you buy into this theory. I'm not a scientist. I don't even play one on TV. I didn't spend the night at a Holiday Inn Express. I am quite simply a mom. I'm a writer. And I am from Kansas, which is of course the home of most of the great philosophers, physicists, and farmers. But I am not one of them.
So let's start with my primary role. Don't you hate when those people get up and they talk about their kids and how old they are and how cute they are? Okay, so I have four children. Lucy is 11, Grace is 14, Paul is 16, and Luke is 17. So what does that tell you about me? I get interrupted a lot. I have three people in my life who know so much more than I do. Can you guess which three those are? Yeah. The ones with “teen” somewhere in their age.
Speaking of teenagers, I will have to say—I mentioned Grace is 14, and I went into this whole adolescent girl thing with a little bit of fear. I'd heard stories from friends about the drama and the, you know, the mood swings—and I don't do well with drama or mood swings, but it's been much better than I anticipated. So for any of you on that horizon…. She has her moments here and there, and recently we were talking about something that she felt the need to draw to my attention to something that she felt was unfair. And I said, “Well, you know, I don't play favorites.”
And she said, “Well, you kind of do.”
And I said, “Really? Who?”
And she said, “Lucy.”
And I said, “Oh sweetie, that's just not true. Paul's my favorite.” You know, and she seemed to be feeling better after we cleared that up.
It does bring me to the next thing. I also have four people who on a regular basis dispute the idea that I might actually be funny. And I have four stories that are completely, utterly, and wonderfully intertwined with mine. Five if you count my husband, and we probably should count him.
To the topic at hand, sometimes when you're asked to give a talk at a conference, they ask you way in advance for the title of your talk. So, you know, it's usually in the middle of while you're doing several other things and you figure out something and send it off, and then the time comes when you actually have to start preparing and you go: Now, what did I call that? Oh yeah, that's what I'm talking about. What was I going to say about that?
I know my intention had been to refer to other books, maybe quote significant passages to illustrate their transformative effect. But as I really started preparing this talk, I realized I was delving more into my own need for story and my own transformation from it.
The fact of the matter is the greatest transformation that has taken place in my life has happened in two very different and very parallel way— through my writing and through my role as a mother. And in both we're talking transformation with a capital “T.” In terms of motherhood, it is truly a game changer.
Marriage, yes, you know, there's things that you adjust and change and, you know, this partnership develops, this covenant. Motherhood changes everything, in my experience. The basic things, the priorities of life, the daily routine—but I would say even the very lens through which I view the world, the way I pray, my faith. The way I love my children has certainly informed my own relationship with God.
[00:15:07] The same is true of my writing life. When I actually started writing with intent and purpose, when my oldest child was born—before that I was working a full-time job that took a lot of creativity, a lot of energy, a lot of time. So my plan was, you know, wait, I'm gonna hopefully have children. I wanted to stay home, be a stay-at-home mom—and, you know, as we all know, when you have a baby for the first time, you just have so much time and so much energy and so much creativity that it's the perfect time to start the Great American Novel. In reality, as it turned out, those two creative endeavors sometimes don't work well together.
But I was in it for the long haul, and as time went on, I was learning to write and learning to be a mother in tandem. And there was a certain creativity that worked in a very compatible, symbiotic way. I'm not one of those writers who says “I always told stories to my children and they liked them, so I decided to put them in a book.”
In fact, I get little warning bells when I hear that. It just sounds a little too pat. For me, it was kind of the other way around. I've always had a very strong need for story. For hearing them, reading them, telling them. After the Newbery Award was announced—they publish your Newberry acceptance speech in the Horn book, and then they also ask you to ask someone in your life to write a profile just to, you know, let people know about you.
And in my case, since Moon Over Manifest was my first and only book, I knew there would be attention on that because I was just such an unknown commodity. I didn't have any other books for people to reference. There was no, you know, it's not like I had been at events or speaking or anything like that.
So when my editor called and mentioned that, she said, “Is there someone that you would have write this?”
And I said, “Well, my sister is the obvious person.”
And so she was starting to craft this. My editor, my agent were both in contact with her, trying to help her put it together. And they said, “You know, people are gonna want to know how this happened. Did Clare write stories in high school? Did she enter writing contests?”
Annmarie said “No, no, she didn't really.” You know, in high school they don't really give you creative writing assignments.
They said, “Well, was she on the school newspaper? Did she do writing for that?”
“No.” And then, you know, you start to feel almost, like, apologetic, almost—like maybe it was a mistake! I don’t know. Annmarie, I think, explained it fairly well: that from the time I was a kid, I have always been a storyteller. I, you know, something would happen at school, and I think by the time I was walking home, I was already formulating it into a story for when I would be at the dinner table or whatever.
And some of this was fostered by family members. In fact, I would say my brothers were probably my first critique group. If I told a story at the dinner table and it was a little flat or a little lackluster in the way it was told, I had these two brothers who would say, That's stupid. Or, So what was the point of that? Or, That's it? That's the whole story?
They're brothers. I can take that. I was not offended. I never interpreted it to mean make something up to make it better. It was just make it better. Finesse it. Work on the craft. And that's what I would do. So I've always been telling stories, and apparently when I land on a good one, according to my friends, I have no problem telling it again and again and again. I don't know if any of you are like that. Sometimes if I start in on one of my old standbys, one of my friends will say, “Oh, here she goes, story number 52.”
And I did realize that this is spot-on recently. I was at Office Max and I signed with the little electronic pen on the thing, you know, after you swipe your card. And the guy took the pen and he put it in the thing point-first—you know, you could put it this way or—he put it in point-first.
That reminded me of this lady at Walmart who, when I did that, she scolded me and said, Oh no, you never do that. Somebody could poke their eye out. So when the guy at Office Max did that, I said, “Oh my gosh, that's so funny. This lady at Walmart—” I started telling him, and he goes, “Yeah, you told me that the last time you were here.”
[00:19:51] So, if you hear the same story twice in this, just don't point it out. I do have my anthology of, you know, life stories. There are a couple that are my favorites since this whole Newbery thing has happened—well, really since the book was published. So I'll give you a choice. Do you wanna hear a story number 25 or 38? I'll save whichever one you don't pick for the discussion that I give later on. All right, we'll just go with 25.
There's my friend CY, her little son, Jake. He's kind of a little special needs kid. Before the book came out—it was just in a galley form—he called me one morning and said, “Hey, Clare.” He was so excited about the book. He calls me Author. He said, “I want you to come to my classroom and talk to the kids about the book.”
And I said, “Okay, well, does your teacher know?”
“Well, I'm gonna tell her. Just come to my class at 10 o'clock. I'll tell her.”
I said, “Well, Jake, you better talk to your teacher and, you know, work it out and call me again. We'll set up a time.”
So a couple of days later, he calls in the morning from his house. “Okay, Clare, I talked to my teacher. Come to my classroom at 10 o'clock.”
And I said, “Okay.” You know, he's setting up my first speaking gig. That was a pretty cool thing. And I said, “Well, how long is it?”
There's this pause. “Well, why do you need to know that?”
I said, “I just need to know.”
He's standing in his house. He says, “Well, it's like from the living room to the kitchen.”
I said, “Okay, well.” However long it is. So we get there. It was great. I talked to these kids; they were very excited. And after the whole—you know, as a new author, there're just these wonderful milestones you look forward to—you know, getting the phone call that your book has sold, doing your first speaking event.
And Jake was then part of the next big milestone after the class visit. He just looked up to me with his big eyes and he said, “Clare, will you sign a book for me?”
Yes! And so I said, “Oh, Jake, that is so great. I would love to sign a book for you.”
And he said, “Okay, can you make it the fourth Lemony Snicket?”
Oh, okay. So we had the big book launch at the bookstore near our house, and Jake was there. I called him up. Signed the fourth Lemony Snicket for him. I said in the signing, “Jake,” you know, “To Jake—maybe someday you'll want me to sign one of my own books.” And he has yet to ask me for that. I even pointed it out the other day that he hasn't asked me for it and he just kinda laughed.
So as I said, some of this talk evolved as it went along, and instead of having lots of quotes from works of literature, I delved more into my own connection to story. I began to focus more, even, on oral stories that I grew up with and that enveloped me as a kid. This made a lot of sense to me, and, you know, we really do have a long, long history of storytelling. We know that it is part of being human, this need to tell our stories. The references go back throughout history—back to hieroglyphics, back to cave drawings, and the important role of the storyteller in a community.
So those times of coming home and telling stories—I don't think I realized it at the time, but telling those stories started to shape and mold me. Not only into a writer, but into a person. Dare I say, transform me: the way I viewed the world, the way I paid attention to what was going on around me.
So how does story transform us? How does it change us? Story is around us, in us, beyond us. So a better question is how can it not change us? We know there's power in a story. Sometimes we can feel it in a visceral, physical way—which I just think is amazing and wonderful. I have those moments sometimes watching a movie or reading a book—you know, when something very sad happens and you feel your heart squeeze, something scary is happening on that dark and stormy night and you feel your skin prickle. Or the tension is mounting and there is a sense of dread or anticipation when the door is slowly creaking open, and you don't even realize that you're holding your breath. And of course, the many elements of story that make us laugh or make us cry. When there is that just physical response.
When my children were all little, my husband is a huge home improvement guy and was always in the middle of a big project, so we had, you know, sheetrock dust everywhere, walls knocked out. I was pregnant with our last child, and all this renovating was going on. He called home before he was coming home from work and said, “Hey, this fireplace guy is coming over.” We had been told we couldn't put a fireplace where it was supposed to go, and he was gonna come and take a look at it.
And I just felt myself go, “Oh, great.” I was kind of done with the day, ready for Mark to come home and take over. Mark said the same thing.
He goes, “I know, I so don't wanna be doing this, but he's coming.” So we both are kind of dragging our feet. The guy shows up, and he walks in equally dragging his feet.
[00:25:10] He's like, “Oh man, it's been such a day.” You know, we're all in this same kind of funk. And he just gets out his tape measure and jabs it here and jabs it there. And he said, “Well, I can tell you right now your problem's gonna be the flue.”
And I said, “What, you're gonna be too sick to put it in?”
And there was that kind of—I could tell there was this moment, like he thought: “Is she serious?”
And then we all just started laughing, and it was a physical, you know, breath of air basically. And the endorphins just got flying and he stayed for two hours and we had a great time. There are those defining moments that are part of this transforming, effective story—experiences that clarify or define who we are.
And so much of this happens through stories that surround us when we're young. I had recently read Sidney Poitier’s—I didn't read it, I listened to it on tape—his autobiography or memoir. And he has this wonderful voice, and he was telling his story of growing up in Jamaica and—you know, a wonderful childhood, really.
And it was when he was 15, I believe, his family moved to New York. You know, a huge change in his life. He encountered racism, violence. He told a story of walking home one time and close to dark, I guess, and a police car was following him. And they said to him, “You keep walking all the way home, and don't turn around, or—” I don't remember what exactly the threat was. But he was petrified. He would see the reflection the whole way home, in the store windows, of the police car.
So those are experiences that can completely affect and change a person. But in his account, it didn't change the way he viewed himself. In his heart, he said, “I am not who you say I am.” And he kept using the words “I was already formed.” Kinda makes me choke up just saying that, you know, his 15 years where he had a different life experience already shaped and formed who he would be the rest of his life.
I mentioned I have a son, Luke, who's 17. Probably sophomore year, he started talking about wanting to go into the military. And we were in the car one time, and, you know, I'm not anti-military. My husband was in the military. I'm just pro-Luke. And so I asked him, “Why? What is this draw? What is this attraction?” He had expressed it enough times that I was taking him more seriously.
And he gave me a very well thought-out sophomore answer: “I don't know.” So I kind of thought that was going to be it. But a couple of days later, he came into the kitchen, and he said “I've been thinking about that question you asked me.” And he gave me a more thought-out answer. He said, “I just really like that whole physical element, the camaraderie, the discipline.” And he used the words “Finding out what you're made of.”
And I understand that. I get that. Those are all good things. That's what I said to him. Those are all good things. But I said, “The one thing I would challenge you about a little bit is looking for someone or something else to define you. To tell you what you're made of.” And I used Sidney Poitier's words; I said, “You are already well-formed.”
Does this mean he's done growing? No. Does this mean he shouldn't be open to new ideas and new experiences? No. It just means that he already has a well begun story that he brings to the table. He isn't going out into the world a blank slate. He knows things from his own stories, the ones he's lived and the ones he's read.
This is the beauty of story, especially for young people. They have the opportunity to try on a character in their imagination. And this provides its own kind of transformation.
You know that commercial—I think the first time it was aired was during the Superbowl last year or the year before. The little kid in the Darth Vader costume? And he, you know, he’s trying all these things and he holds out his hand in front of his dad's car, and it starts. Well, his dad, you know, has used this automatic starter. But you know, it's just such a wonderful commercial. My son's name is Luke. You should see his bedroom, it is Star Wars mania. And so when I see that little kid in the commercial, that is my son that I'm seeing.
Let me find my place here again.
[00:30:00] As far as I say, you know, trying on a character—this kid in the commercial has tried on this costume. And I know, for both of my sons, they have imagined themselves as Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. And in doing so, they've experienced the value of what one person and only one person can do. They've carried that one ring to rule them all through perils and trials that no person could bear. And they made it through. They've tried on the role of Sam and in doing so, they know of friendship and loyalty.
My daughters have imagined themselves left behind on an island of blue dolphins, and they grew strong, resourceful, and independent alongside Karana. From their own life story, they all know about being on the outside, being on the inside, experiencing success, failure, betrayal, forgiveness, disillusionment, and hope. Blank slate? I don't think so.
The question is, how do we retain those experiences? All that is written on our slate—how do we keep those experiences from drifting off into an irretrievable memory? Through story. All those memories, experiences become a story that we can draw from like a deep well.
I had a period of time in my life when I kind of feel, in retrospect, like I lost my story for a while. And I really had never thought of this. I went to a grade school, you know, first grade through eighth grade with all the same kids, my neighbor kids. And then my parents chose a high school for me to go to along with my brothers that I was the only one going to. All my friends were going to the other school. And I didn't wanna go there. Kind of went kicking and you know, fighting it.
It was a private school, very wealthy kids that went to this school. Wonderful kids—I'm, you know, this is about my experience there. They really were wonderful kids. But there were just differences, you know—economically, we were at a different level. These were people who had all gone to grade school for many, many years together. So I came in, and it was challenging. As it went along, I had many wonderful experiences. Loved my time there. I would say the hardest thing was that they didn't know me.
As we did get to know each other and develop friendships, through no one's fault, there was a little bit of lack of knowledge that got me off-kilter a little bit. And I don't think I realized this until recently, actually. I had gone to a nearby town to give a talk after the book came out, after the Newbery was announced. A couple of my high school friends came to visit, came to the talk, and afterwards they were both just kind of wide-eyed and saying, “Oh my gosh, you know, we can't believe you wrote a book. We didn't know you were interested in that. I can't believe you could—you know that you got up and you spoke and you were articulate and you were funny.”
And I just was a little taken aback, because my grade school friends, who I am still in contact with—their version is so different. They're like, “Oh yeah, we always knew, you know, you were always interested in—you always liked reading, you always liked writing.” There were just things that they knew about me that just wasn't there with these high school friends. And I think during those high school years, I kind of allowed their version of me to become my version of me.
And like I said, I don't really think I noticed that until later in life. My confidence level was a little lower. And…I think basically the way I would describe it is I had lost touch with my own story. And I think that's a very sad thing.
A bigger example of that: my dad right now is in the throes of Alzheimer's. About a month ago, we had to take him to a local care home. The transition was better than I think we expected, but still, when we would go to visit—you know, my dad is a very happy person, a very social person. And I just was not used to seeing anxiety in his face.
He's always had a wonderful relationship with my kids. He has funny ways of expressing himself. And I was just a little worried for my children, that their memory of him was going to become this memory. You know, in a prolonged period of decline, I think that can happen.
And so it's important for me to take my children and—a couple of them in particular, Grace and Paul, have both really amazed me with their intuition. They can ask the right questions that just… pull him back to himself, I guess in a way.
[00:35:00] You know, they'll ask him questions about life on the farm. They were talking all about chickens recently, you know, “Did you have to kill chickens?”
Well, you know—that's clear in his mind. So the worry lines go away. The disorientation goes away a little bit. He becomes more himself. He uses his old vernacular; he says funny things like “thunderation” and “hot diggity dog,” things like that. “Well, I’ll be darned.” And then just the atmosphere in the room changes, because he becomes connected to his story. And, that just is a relief to all of us.
Which kind of leads into this other transformative power of story, which is a sense of wonder. And when I see that play out with my children, I'm filled with a sense of wonder. Just, you know, something that lies outside of ourselves and our own experience. We might as well call it what it is: sometimes, when we read a book, it's like time travel, you know, where we can step into another time, another place. This disruption—if I wanna sound smart, it's the disruption in the space time continuum—and the story takes us out of our present experience.
My youngest daughter, she's in fifth grade. And she was a reader, but not hugely into it until last summer. She got totally hooked on the Percy Jackson books. And she would get in my bed in an afternoon or in the morning with her sunflower seeds and read her book.
And, you know, there's lots of 'em, so she had all summer that she was reading through these. And I remember laying next to her one night. She's glued in this story, you know, someplace completely other than my bedroom. And all of a sudden she just went, “Ooh!” Like that.
And I said, “What? Did something happen?”
You know, I don't know what it was, but I loved it.
And just this kind of ability to transport, I think. I was watching—I guess it was on the History channel—something about the Titanic recently. And this man who has been a longtime expert historian all about the Titanic; he has things that have been actually dredged up from the bottom of the sea that he goes through.
And he said, these things are in really horrible condition. They're, whatever, moldy, I don't know, but the smells, he said, are so, so bad and just fill, you know, his lab or his room with these horrible smells. And he said, until the day we found these little vials. And they were vials of perfume. And he said, “When you opened them up, this smell was there.” From whatever year it was, 1912 or 1914?
And he got teary and he said, “You know, it just made me realize that this was a real time, a real place, real people. And I was there, I was smelling the same thing they would have smelled.” It was really kind of a moving thing.
I don't know if any of you have those stories that pop up in your mind when you're driving in the car that can make you laugh just as they did the very first time you heard them or the first time they happened. Mine, if you ever see me driving, and I'm kind of belly laughing, it's probably because I'm thinking of when my sister was 19, I think she was a freshman in college and she was selling Cutco knives. Did you ever have somebody come to your house? (laughter)
You know. So she's in her world of summer fun. But she has to give these presentations, and I guess her group leader or whatever was all gung ho. And so he calls this meeting of the group at nine o'clock at night on a summer evening, which did not sound fun to her.
So she gets there, and there's this 12-pack of Pepsi sitting on the table. And they're all waiting and he drags out this lengthy kind of motivational speech, and he keeps talking about stuff and, you know, “What do you think’s in those cans?”
So they all have to give their answers. And he says, “Success is in those cans. Because success comes in cans, not cannots.”
And my sister said that she said, “You bought a 12-pack for that?”
So when that memory comes to mind, it's like the perfume. I just smell it, I feel it. And she's back to her 19-year-old self.
I just wanna check the time here cause I wanna make sure we leave time for questions. Okay. Skip that part. Skip that part. Okay. I won't skip this part.
[00:39:50] As far as books that have shaped me, affected me. When I was a senior in high school, we had a choice of taking an AP chemistry class or an AP biology class. And it was a small school. I knew I didn't wanna take either one. I knew I wasn't gonna go into a field of study that would require either one. Don't ask me how I thought that I could just ask to do something else, but I did. And as it turned out, I got to take a one-on-one class with an English teacher, Mrs. Hill, who had done her whole dissertation or something, Master's thesis on Willa Cather.
So she and I got to read together Willa Cather. All year we’d have just little one-on-one conversations or go to lunch and talk about Willa Cather. And for me, talk about transformative. You know, Willa Cather's books, especially Death Comes for the Archbishop, My Antonia, One of Ours—these are so rooted in place. Her sense of place, and the way the landscape shapes those characters and shapes the story spoke to me in a very deep way. I am very connected to place, so I'm very grateful for that experience in those books.
I would say I had an equally transformative experience with Flannery O'Connor. Not her short stories. I don't really get those. I would love to—you know those questions where people say, if you could have lunch with a person, living or dead, who would it be? I would love to have Flannery O'Connor explain some of those stories to me.
But her book Mystery and Manners on writing, I love. And especially the part where she talks about being a writer of faith. And she's had people ask her, “How can you be a Christian and a writer–or, a good writer? How can you be a Catholic and a writer? Doesn't that limit your creativity, your art?”
And she says in her very unapologetic way: “It's the exact opposite. While we are, in one sense, bound by truth, we are liberated by it as well. We are free to observe realities such as the good and the beautiful alongside the base and the grotesque. We don't have to focus on one more than another. All kinds of conundrums and juxtapositions: love, abandonment, alienation, suffering, redemption, unconditional love, mercy, grace. Mystery—the kind that gets solved and the kind that remains a mystery. Every human experience imaginable.”
And these are profound truths that are part of our story, part of our human experience. And it has had a profound effect on my life as a writer. Any art that denies the truth or an authentic expression of what it means to be human in a part of the human story is flawed and incomplete.
There was a guy who wrote a critique or a blog—I'm not sure what it was—of my book Moon Over Manifest. And he was critical at one point, saying that kids aren't ready for mature themes like redemption. And I wish I could go back and find that because I never was able to really find it again and kind of look, write down exactly what he said, but I do remember that part. Anyone who thinks kids can't handle mature themes must have never been one. Kids do ask the big questions.
My son Paul, he's 16–when he was about seven, we were laying in bed or, you know, I was telling him goodnight. And he said that he had heard something about how blood, when it's in your body, is not red. It's, I think he said blue. I dunno if there's any scientists in here. But apparently it has something to do with once there's a wound or blood is exposed to oxygen, then it's red. So he said, “I'm wondering if that's a bogus theory?”
And I said, “Oh, I don't know. You know, maybe it kind of makes sense.” So we're talking about that, and there's a big pause.
And he said, “You know, sometimes when I think about God and about Jesus, I wonder if that's a bogus theory.”
That’s my seven-year-old son. They ask big questions. And I think they deserve thoughtful responses. And that's what I strive to do in my writing.
So, another tough question: What if we can't find the redemption or the mercy or the grace in our own story? I think it's there, I hope it's there, but sometimes we can't see it in our own. What if the anxiety and confusion don't go away? What if we become separated from our own story? We have to look outside of our own story to someone else's, or to history, or to a work of fiction.
It is through story and our connection to who we are and our place in the world that we find our bearing. That we can make sense of who we are and the world around us. I kind of describe it like a bat’s sonar: sending out story into the world and waiting for someone to ping back.
[00:45:06] And for a writer, this requires a certain amount of courage and trust to send out those stories. In my book, Miss Sadie, she is the storyteller in the story. She is a very significant character. She's a diviner who really only tells stories from the past, and she is the keeper of the story for the town. She bears the story. She bears the pain of the story until someone needs to hear it—someone like Abilene Tucker, who comes along, and it's time to make that story known. To manifest. That's what a diviner does.
A story involves a teller and a listener, a writer and a reader. This implies a relationship. We hear of the story of the road to Emmaus—and I always, for some reason, picture Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in one of their road movies, off on the road to Emmaus. (laughter)
The day after Jesus rises from the dead—and they're talking to each other about all that has happened. They're telling the story. Jesus joins them, and they don't recognize him. He says “What are you guys talking about?” “
“You don't know what's been going on?” So they tell him the story. We usually focus on the part of that, you know, when they actually do recognize him. They recognize him in the breaking of the bread and in a meal together.
But it's interesting: when he became present to them, whether they recognized him or not, he was with them when they were telling the story. We become present to one another through our stories. And what a wonderful calling it is to be a storyteller. Every character—this is one of the most wonderful things I've learned from writing—every character, no matter how peripheral or seemingly insignificant to the story, each character has his own story to tell.
And as the storyteller, I am bound—in fact, it is my sacred duty—to know that story. To understand it. To honor it. And I hope that carries through in my life as well.
A local bookstore near us, Eighth Day—they're the ones selling the books here, Warren Farha. And he has a bookmark that he puts in almost every book that he sells. And it says: “Be kind. For everyone you meet is waging a great battle.”
What I've learned from storytelling—and this started from the time I was very young—is to pay attention. Because everyone you meet is telling a story. And I'll close with just a little portion of Moon over Manifest about that very thing, about the importance of story.
It involves a little bit of singing, so I'll warn you ahead of time.
“For the love of Pete, Lettie, if you don't sing something a little more cheerful, Abilene and me are gonna throw you on a train and not wave goodbye.”
“Don't worry, it gets better,” Lettie said reassuringly. “My soul and my shoes were all wore through, no money or job in sight. But once I hit the tracks, my burdens at my back, I hopped that train in the pale moonlight.”
I couldn't help but join in. “Yodel-ay-hee. Yodel-ay-hee. Yodel-ay-hee.”
Ruthanne sat down, her back against a rotted tree trunk, and opened a knapsack. “I guess if we have to wait for the eye of newt and heart of toad to present themselves, we might as well get comfortable. What'd you bring?”
We'd agreed that we would each bring some food to share during our outing. Ruthanne pulled out three liverwurst sandwiches. I produced a dusty jar of pickled beets I'd found in Shady’s pantry. They wouldn't have been out of the running next to the liverwurst sandwiches, but then Lettie produced a tin with two cookies in it. She handed one to me and one to Ruthanne.
“Gingersnap!” I said, biting into one, its sweet spiciness giving me a thrill. “Where's yours?”
“I already had my fill. It was my sister Susie's birthday on Tuesday, and as a surprise, we all agreed to go without eggs for breakfast this week so Mama could exchange them for sugar at the grocer’s,” Letti explained. “She made a dozen gingersnaps.”
“Here, have half of mine,” I offered. Lettie took the half with some reluctance, I thought.
Ruthanne took one bite of her cookie and then another. “Your mama sure makes a fine gingersnap. My mama always says she was born to manhandle a cast iron skillet but your mama was blessed with the lighter touch of a baker.” Ruthanne ate the last of the cookie. “Sing us a song, Lettie.”
Lettie beamed. “I lit out on a dark and dreary night…”
Later, with the two of us at a time sharing the weight of the bucket, we started back to Shady’s place, looking hither and yon for any ghostly movement.
All three of us crawled into bed, one beside the other, listening to the sound of a harmonica in the distance. It was probably just a folk tune being played, but after Ruthanne's story, it sounded like a mournful wail.
[00:50:03] When Lettie and Ruthanne were quiet, I reached for the not-so-shiny Liberty Head silver dollar in my windowsill collection of mementos. I tilted it slightly to catch the glimmer of moonlight. It no longer surprised me to find connections between the articles in the box and Miss Sadie's stories. Still, some things were a mystery. I thought of our stash of worms outside. The life churning in the bucket was a mystery. How did Miss Sadie know things like where to find worms in the moonlight? What happened to the man who lost his foot in Uncle Louver's trap? Who or what was haunting the woods? Was it the Rattler? I put the silver dollar back in its place beside the Wiggle King lure.
These many questions swarmed in my head, leaving me restless and uneasy. But it was the look on Lettie's face that night in the growing moonlight that made me wonder the most. The way she'd beamed when Ruthanne had asked her to sing us a song. I thought I knew a thing or two about people. Even had my list of universals. But I wondered. Maybe the world wasn't made up of universals that could be summed up in neat little packages. Maybe there were just people. People who were tired and hurt and lonely and kind in their own way, in their own time.
Once again, I felt off balance, as if I was playing tug-of-war, and the person I was tugging against let go.
Lettie, half asleep, sang, “Once I hit the tracks, my burdens at my back, I hopped that train in the pale moonlight.” I admired how Ruthanne knew what I did not. That Lettie hadn't had her fill of gingersnaps. With six kids in her family, she had more than likely given up her own cookie and traded something for an extra one to share with us.
The moonlight shone on the silver dollar and I thought of Miss Sadie's story of Jinx and Ned. Of Uncle Louver's ghost story. Of Lettie's story about having had her fill. Of Ned's letters and Hattie Mae's “News Auxiliaries” that I read like bedtime stories. And of Gideon's story I was struggling to learn.
If there is such a thing as a universal—and I wasn't ready to throw all of mine out the window—it's that there is power in a story. And if someone pays you such a kindness as to make up a tale so you'll enjoy a gingersnap, you go along with that story and enjoy every last bite.
Yodel-ay-hee. Yodel-ay-hee. Yodel-ay-hee.
Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.