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Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

This morning I get in my car and decide it’s a twenty one pilots kind of day. How do I know that? See that guy in the middle of the photo? That’s how I know.

Yeah, I know I’m supposed to be composing fiction. I have a book due to my publisher in a few months. But sometimes a different kind of writing is in order—like the day before Mothers Day, a day when I’m reflecting on important things like influence and legacy and sheer teeth-gritting faith. Let’s see if I can pull those things together with a few snap-shot stories.

About thirty-three years ago, I was in my late twenties, angsting over wanting to have a child, having trouble trusting God with His will. I was taking a fertility pill called Clomid, and I remember one morning dropping one of those expensive tablets. It rolled under the refrigerator, I couldn’t reach it, and I sat down on the floor and burst into tears. How was I going to get pregnant if I couldn’t take my last dose of the month? Anybody ever been there?

A couple of years later (after the miracle happened and my beautiful baby boy was born in the same hospital I was born in), I was lying on my sofa, asking myself a super-serious question. If I’d known this baby was going to eat and cry (and not sleep) twenty-four-seven for six months—with no end in sight—would I have cried over that pill under the refrigerator? No kidding. Ryan was finally down for a nap, I knew I needed sleep, and I couldn’t sleep because my body wouldn’t relax, knowing he was going to wake up and howl any minute. Anybody ever been there?

Five years later, I get a phone call from Cottage Hill Christian School. Ryan’s in serious trouble. His kindergarten class was in the sanctuary practicing for graduation, and one of the custodians interrupted, hopping mad because some imp kept unplugging his vacuum cleaner. Yeah. Funny now. Pretty embarrassing at the time. Anybody ever been there?

Not long after that, I’m singing in the choir at Dauphin Way Baptist Church, trusting my kids to the care of our wonderful friend Rita Catchot during the service. I can see Ryan lying full-out on a pew, apparently asleep (but at least quiet) during the sermon. On the way home, he proceeds to relate the entire contents of the sermon (which included the plan of salvation) to his dad and ask if he can give his heart to Jesus. A year or so later he casually informs us he’s told his sister she needs to get saved too, and explained to her how she can do that. So she did. I hope you have had that experience. Very cool.

And then middle school. Ye gods and little fishes! Can we just skip that period? There’s the rotten raccoon tail nailed to a bedroom wall. There’s the arrow shot across our backyard fence, sailing into the open window of an apartment—thank God the only thing it hit was a mattress. There’s a very clever and cruel poem written to lampoon a science teacher. A cake dumped out of a second-floor church window onto a car below. A dive off a Tennessee riverside cliff into six feet of water. My prayer life took on a certain level of desperation laced with disbelief. Really, God? Is this your idea of a joke?

High school brings more hair-raising adventures. Car wrecks. Crazy girlfriends. A laser pointer (apparently a weapon) deployed in a basketball game. “Borrowed” school keys. Expulsion from Christian school. Public school locker room fights. Hacking the family computer. We try homeschooling, which becomes a blur of reading and discussing some magnificent classic literature, fighting our way through trigonometry and chemistry (both of which ultimately require tutors—thank the Lord for Sharon Whatley and Mike South), me completing and publishing five novels, and taking some truly wonderful field trips together. Then, to our relief, Cottage Hill Christian Academy allows Ryan to complete his senior year and graduate. Cottage Hill Baptist Church, what a ministry you had to our family!

And still the struggle wasn’t over. I’d love for Ryan to tell this story from his perspective, but from my side it looked like pure and unadulterated rebellion. Testing every boundary to see what would stick, what would hold fast, what would remain true. My most horrific memory from that period—and this was, I guess, about ten years ago—is listening to my cherished son state that he had had enough of our rules and he was off to join the army. If we wouldn’t take him to the recruiting office, he’d walk there. The irony escapes none of us, haha! And then when the army rejects him because of a kidney stone, this brilliant kid fails out of his first semester of college and loses a full scholarship—because he simply won’t go to class. The only things remotely interesting, it seems, are computer programming and history!

God intervened somehow with a series of events leading to Ryan living with his Aunt Dianne in Houston. They saved each other, and that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say—within a year he’d joined the Navy, reconnected with a high school friend named Nicole Salter (now his lovely wife), and begun to get his act together. Funny how the voluntary act of submitting to discipline is different from that imposed from the outside. You can’t convince me that God didn’t design us with free will, and you can’t convince me that He doesn’t have ultimate control over his creation. Those two things go together, intertwine, pull in a magnificent tension that our brains can’t comprehend.

Because, you see, in all the seeming chaos of mothering this difficult, insanely creative and intellectual young man, growth and shaping and preparation was going on in my own life as well as his. Nearly every day, as a public school teacher, I encounter difficult, abused, smart-alec, violent, fragile, funny, overeducated, spoiled, talented kids. I can respond and interact with a supernaturally calm confidence because a) God has walked with me through some pretty harrowing stuff and b) the truth of His Word never fails. Never. I mean that. Biblical principles hold true.

That day Ryan angrily strode out of my house, headed to somewhere in north Alabama to join the army, if I could have pictured what would happen on May 12, 2018, I might not have been so distraught. But that’s the thing. Brokenhearted infertile young woman, sleep-deprived young mom, frazzled older mom, worried mother of a prodigal…you’re not allowed to see beyond the moment. And that’s a good thing. Because things can get worse before they get better. Faith is hard.

But hang in there. Trust God and let Him hold you. Lean in.

Today Ryan is a romantic, tenderhearted husband and father, a great disciplinarian, holds down two jobs and has served his country with distinction and honor. And he gives me books and music at every opportunity. And teaches me how to safely handle a firearm. And takes me to lunch for Mothers Day.

So why twenty one pilots? About a year ago Ryan gave me an iTunes gift card (may have been last Mothers Day) and said, “Mom, you need to buy this album Blurryface. You’ll love it.” At first I didn’t. Had to listen a few times to get the lyrics and get used to the rap sections. Now I’m obsessed. It’s happy, hopeful music, with a core of faith that runs just below the surface, intelligent literary references and clever lyric construction. Most of my 60-year-old contemporaries wouldn’t like it. But my 31-year-old son understands me deeply. And when the sun is bright on a spring day and I get to meet him and his family for lunch, I drive with the volume wide open on a song with these lyrics: “She asked me, Son, when I grow old, will you buy me a house of gold? And when your father turns to stone, will you take care of me? I will make you queen of everything you see, I’ll put you on the map, I’ll cure you of disease.”

At lunch we chat with the children—Roz has brought a fuzzy stuffed kitty with red mittens she named Meow-head—and look up the poem about three little kittens who lost their mittens on a phone and read it outloud (who knew it has such a weird twist at the end?). We talk about movies and books, including the one I’m writing. I outline my current plot, ask him for his take, and he promises to think about it (he’s quite talented with suspense storylines). I’m so grateful I didn’t give in to despair and frustration in earlier years. I’m grateful that God really does work all things for the good of those who love Him and are called to His purpose. I’m grateful He loves Ryan more than I do, knows him better than I do, wants his good more than I do. I’ve got a metaphorical house of gold, and I feel like the queen of everything I see.

Grateful I am. Happy Mothers Day!

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Beth 1/1/18

I’m supposed to be composing fresh material for untitled Book Two of The Daughtry House series, so of course I’m going to spend the last afternoon of 2017 doing something else. My children and grandchildren have vacated the house for their own pursuits, leaving me a little melancholy and reflective. Which, I guess, is how you’re supposed to feel on the last day of the year. To ward off the blues, I’m eating sweet potato fries with ranch dressing, one of my favorite things on the planet (right up there with banana pudding)—one of the many tricks I learned from my daughter this year. She’s handy that way.

Also I’m waiting for my toenail polish to dry so I can put on my socks, and my feet are cold. But, you know, priorities.

This has been a very strange year. Second year of a new teaching job, which basically means the honeymoon is over. Everything is upside down and reality sets in. A classroom in a more than fifty-year-old building has collected its share of peeling paint, resident rodents, arthritic air-conditioning units, and 1970’s-era television sets in the closet. Teenagers act like teenagers, grownups say the wrong thing and refuse to back down, and policy makers create paperwork. Teaching is no different from any job in the universe. It’s just all packed into 10 months of the year.

I have nothing to complain about. In fact, I’m blessed beyond measure to have a front-row seat to watch young artists take leaps and fly. To see the “Oh, I get it” look in an intelligent pair of eyes. To reap the fruit of laughter and camaraderie where hurt feelings and anger had threatened to take root.

Back to the strange part. I wrote A Rebel Heart this year, turning it in in early August (a full year after its original due date). Started over three times, and pretty much hated it until I was in the last chapter, which is not the ideal way to tackle a book. Of course I now love it, and the fact that it was so emotionally draining is a good sign. At least I hope so. The Reconstruction Era in American history was a defining time, a confusing time, a forgotten time. I learned a lot, winced a lot, and found some heroes I never knew existed. I hope my readers will be challenged and uplifted. I hope they’ll identify with my hero and heroine. We’ll see.

Then there’s my journey with personal discipline. I read through most of a Chronological Bible. Mainly I just chugged it every day without trying to contemplate too much. But I did find pieces winding themselves into my everyday walk, often informing and explaining and smoothing the quandaries in which I’d find myself. Or creating mysteries for further contemplation.

And I continued into a second year of daily exercise and balanced nutrition. I found this system in June of 2016 through the examples of my two youngest sisters. I’m a notorious lazy-butt, but the physical energy and general sense of emotional chill that settled on my undisciplined life made a believer out of me. Beachbody.com, if anybody is interested. I started with 21 Day Fix and have moved on from there. Really, habits matter. I lost 25 pounds and 3 dress sizes. I’m 60 years old, and this is the best I’ve ever felt in my life. Yes, it’s a sacrifice to get to bed by 9 PM and get up by 4:30 AM to work out for 30 minutes before work. But the alternative is unthinkable. Seriously. People ask me how I get everything done, so there you go.

Next day…Here we are in 2018! I look at my calendar for the year, already largely planned, and it’s frankly overwhelming. I’ll finish Daughtry House Book Two at the same time I’m launching The Rebel Heart. I’ll assist in producing a high school musical. I’ll take students to All State Chorus, County Honor Choir, Show Choir, State Choral Performance Assessment, and Solo and Ensemble. I’ll keep up with a variety of family and church events and activities and hopefully read a few good books.

Some of that will go smoothly, perhaps even brilliantly, but I always brace myself for the unexpected. The weird. The disastrous. The joyous.

Bring it on!

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When I got married thirty-*&%$# years ago, I had a beautiful bridal shower, given by my high school best buds. I’m pretty sure that’s where I received a wonderful Sunbeam stand mixer. It was sturdy enough to last through most of the rearing of two children and all their Christmas cookie decorating, a three-year binge of homemade sourdough bread baking (during which every member of our family gained 30 pounds), and a plethora of Funfetti birthday cakes.

One day I stuck a metal spoon into the beaters and the Sunbeam was never the same. By that time I couldn’t find replacement beaters (this was before The Internet, people), so this beloved family member was retired to the back of the corner cabinet (where it lies in state to this very day—one day I’m going to find those beaters in an antique store, I’m quite confident).

Anyway, I went to Walmart and bought a simple portable electric mixer that cost about $20 and lasted, to my great surprise, another ten years. No, it would never mix bread dough, but by that time I had recovered my senses and learned to buy bread at Fresh Market. It did just fine, however, with the occasional pone of cornbread or batch of cupcake batter.

Then a couple of months ago, my kids’ Bible study lesson plan called for a portable mixer in a game called “Celebrity Chef Mix-Off” or something ridiculous like that. I searched my kitchen high and low for that Walmart mixer. I found the little flimsy beaters in a drawer, but could not locate the mixer itself. Mystified, I stopped by Walmart on the way to church and purchased a really cool little mixer which came with its own storage box. The lesson and game proceeded without a hitch, the kids had a ball, and Bible principles were learned. Boom.

This afternoon, I was pulling down kitchen stuff to be packed for our impending move to the great metropolis of Saraland—downsizing, you know, have to get rid of unnecessary items. I get up on a stepladder to reach Christmas tins and empty jelly jars and plastic bottles that say things like “Circle K Grab-N-Go” and “Cottage Hill Baptist Church Cheerleaders” and “Providence Hospital—It’s a Girl!” and guess what I find! Yes! It’s my #2 Walmart mixer!

Who put it up there? Scott White, are you trying to drive me crazy? I know I’m absent-minded, but why would I put the mixer way up there? Those questions may haunt me for the rest of my life. And now I have THREE mixers!

And that is all. I’m sorry, but this is the kind of story you get when:

A. You don’t care.

B. The author is on a 3-week deadline and has another 30K words to write.

C. The author is avoiding 1814 American history because she doesn’t know what happens next.

Back to your regularly scheduled programs.

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Cook Sisters, circa 1969

John Mayer occasionally writes a good song. I mean, even a broken clock is right twice a day, huh? I love his song “Daughters” because there’s a lot of truth in it.

On behalf of every man

Looking out for every girl,

You are the god and the weight of her world,

So fathers, be good to your daughters,

Daughters will love like you do.

That’s a pretty serious claim and, if it’s true, a serious responsibility for any man who chooses to participate in the act of creating life.

Cook Sisters, 2009

As the eldest of four sisters, I’ve watched the impact of one man on four young women literally change a good chunk of the world. Wayne Cook was a plain country boy from rural South Mississippi, a high school graduate with no college education, Army veteran of the Korean conflict, civil servant by trade, married for nearly fifty years to one woman. Lord knows he wasn’t perfect. He never could break the addiction to cigarettes. He loved a cold beer on a hot day (if you consider that a flaw), and his attendance at church was sporadic at best. Also, if you hurt his feelings, he could sulk for days.

Wayne Edward Cook, age 9

But the values he instilled in my sisters and me form the bedrock of everything I do, and at least once a day I find myself repeating his words—funny, wise, and/or just plain quirky. Of course, some of the values I’m about to discuss come almost as much from my mother as my father…but then, the two of them were flip sides of a coin, grown together as they were.

This is how my daddy loved…

God comes first. I think one reason my dad didn’t hang out at church regularly is because he was shy, uncomfortable with crowds, and wary of false intimacy. The Depression generation considered spiritual matters private. But his faith was part of who he was, and often, when the rest of us were at church on Sunday, he would turn the TV on to Pastor Adrian Rodgers and worship with Bellevue Baptist in Memphis. One time I asked him about his relationship with Christ, and he shared clearly that he trusted Jesus as his Savior and Lord. Anyway, we girls dressed up on Sunday morning and went to church with or without him. Always.

Me, Mom, and Robin, 1960

Family is your highest investment. Daddy loved my mother with an unrelenting devotion that, as far as I know, never included the possibility of divorce. I was aware of hurt feelings between them, arguments, and occasional silences, but even when my friends experienced the hell of broken families, it never occurred to me that divorce could happen to my parents. That security has been a priceless ticket in my pocket, assuring me that it is possible to work through any interpersonal difficulty.

Family Quilting Bee

The Cook family never took expensive vacations. For one thing, we just didn’t have the money for it. But more importantly, my parents chose to spend their precious vacation time making long drives, on pre-interstate highways, from one corner of the state of Mississippi to the other. I was about five when we moved away from my parents’ home grounds in Lucedale, because Daddy’s job at Brookley Airfield shut down and he was transferred to the Defense Depot in Memphis. But I grew up in a close bond with my grandparents and extended family as a result of that commitment to family. That commitment continues to shape every element of my life, providing an anchor of stability when things might otherwise end in shipwreck. My mother, aunts, sisters and first cousins to this day form a daily circle of fellowship, laughter, and prayer support. The theme of family nurture runs like a golden thread through my fiction—because I cannot imagine it any other way. Readers frequently ask if my characters are based on family. The answer is, yes and no. You’d find echoes of my family in Gilly and Laurel’s tight-knit Kincade clan in Off the Record and Tour de Force, and Meg’s protective father in Under Cover of Darkness is an awful lot like mine.

Wayne, front left, stationed in Germany as an army medic

Freedom isnt free. Daddy’s patriotism was implicit in his military service, not to mention his voting record. He would have been so proud to know that his eldest grandson, my son Ryan, has served for six years with distinction in the U. S. Navy. My throat still closes when I think of the servicemen who came to play “Taps” with such solemnity at my father’s gravesite. A tribute well-deserved.

Story is power. Daddy read the newspaper cover-to-cover, every single morning of his life. He invested in a set of encyclopedias for us girls, he subscribed to Readers Digest periodical and to their condensed best seller series. He always had a dog-eared John D. McDonald mystery or Louis L’Amour western on the arm of his easy chair. And he made sure our bicycles had baskets on the handlebars, mainly so we could drag home piles of books from the public library.

Wayne and Gizmo

My dad was a story-teller himself, too. I loved to hear his accounts of running the back roads of rural Mississippi with his brother and sisters and cousins, of his faithful dog Gizmo and the ornery mule Charley. Of tung oil pod wars, playing mumbledy-peg with pocketknives, and hitching a ride to town on Saturday afternoon, where you’d watch movie double-features for a dime and get sick on too much popcorn. Of working in Grandpa Cook’s corner grocery store, where if you asked just right, you might get a free candy bar or a soda pop. And how he never understood why he clashed so violently with his own father—until he butted heads with my sister Robin!

No wonder I’m a writer. I couldn’t help it.

The Roy Cook Family, early 50’s

Music is the food of the soul.My father had an eclectic taste in music. Country-Western was his favorite. We grew up with the Grand Ole Opry, Hee-Haw, and the Porter Wagner Show, among others. Daddy played a mean harmonica, whistled like a bird, and even pounded out “Down Yonder” or “Heart and Soul” on the piano occasionally. He grew up in a family of gospel singers and pianists (specializing in shape-note transcription), so we were indoctrinated at an early age with the likes of the Cathedrals, the Happy Goodmans, and the Florida Boys.

Hannah and I rock the house with “O Holy Night” on toilet-paper-tube kazoos.

I’ll never forget the day he came home with a new stereo system, complete with turntable, tuner/amplifier and giant speakers. He’d also bought a dozen or so LP’s—Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Floyd Cramer, Burl Ives, Flatt and Scruggs, Chet Atkins, and several Elvis Presley albums (Graceland is less than two miles from our house, so we felt a bit of proprietary pride in the King). My sisters and I played those albums so many times we can all sing them from memory. When it became popular to buy 45 records of songs we heard on the radio, I would listen to Bobby Sherman and The Osmonds and the Jackson Five and the Partridge Family on that stereo until surely my parents wanted to take the needle out of it. But they never complained, because music after all is life, right?

Cook Sisters on Christmas Morning

My sisters and I all sing and play musical instruments. I don’t know how my parents paid for all those instruments and lessons—piano, flute, guitar, trumpet, recorder, French horn. But our house was filled with music from sunrise to bedtime, and Daddy’s chief delight in life was to get a cup of coffee and sit on the front porch with the door open, listening to his girls harmonizing on hymns and Broadway tunes and folk songs from the living room. Whenever one of us had a performance at church or school—or anywhere else within driving distance—he would be in the audience, surreptitiously wiping away tears. For a gruff old cuss, he had deep emotions.

Robin and me, both in the band. I’m the drum major, front left.

When I was in high school, he let my mother talk him into driving my neighborhood piano teacher to work every day for about five years—Mrs. Ann could talk the horns off a grown billygoat—in return for free piano lessons. Now that’s love!

Hannah and Larry, just married

Hard work, thriftiness and generosity build financial balance. If there was a job that Daddy could do himself, he did it. More than once my sisters and I wound up on top of the house with him, nailing shingles onto the roof. We washed our own cars, mowed the lawn, weeded the little garden in our suburban back yard. He once tried to teach me to change the oil in my Mustang II, but some forms of stupidity cannot be cured, apparently. Dad taught me to balance my checkbook and to always hold onto a little cash in my wallet for emergencies. Often he’d hand me a ten or a twenty “just in case you get low on gas.” After nearly a year of marriage, my husband discovered that I had a fifty-dollar bill tucked behind my drivers license, given to me by my father on the afternoon after our wedding day, just before we pulled out of the driveway to move to Texas. I made the mistake of telling Scott that daddy said it was “bus money if you ever need to come home.” I’m pretty sure he was joking, though.

Scott, undoubtedly tucking a $50 bill into Hannah’s bridal bouquet

You control your reputation. When I first began to date, my father reminded me (among other things), “You dress and behave like a lady, and you’ll always be treated like a lady.” The implication was that my standard of conduct in every area of my life had better remain at the highest level, whether anybody was looking or not. I get teased for being a first-born overachiever, but I couldn’t stand the idea of disappointing either of my parents, who firmly believed that my sisters and I could achieve anything in the world if we functioned on all-out endeavor, creativity, integrity, and humility.

Hannah, age 6, with her daddy

Hannah, age 6, and her daddy, resting up from a church bike rodeo

Do I, as Mayer put it, love like my father? I sure hope so.

As I bring this little essay to a close, I smile, thinking of what my daughter may write about her father one of these days. She’s “daddy’s girl,” too. It has been fun to watch her absorb and practice some of her grandfather’s qualities passed on through my husband (yes, I chose a man in many ways like my father, though he vehemently denies it). And her young husband seems to be cast from the same mold.

So. Hannah, may you look back on a life rhythmic with music and books and family, may you tell stories that are poignant and funny and true. Most of all, may you impact your world with the love of Jesus. This is the fine legacy of a daddy’s girl.

Hannah, Beth and Wayne—We Love Denim

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In High Places by Tom Morrisey

I hardly ever write book reviews anymore, particularly for books I haven’t yet read. For one thing, this blog is not about sales and promotion, except incidentally as the subject arises. But today I received notice that a good friend of mine, Tom Morrisey, has a book being offered FREE in electronic form for the next few days, in time for Fathers Day. I have already downloaded In High Places and plan to gift it to my son, who is an avid reader. (Aside: I have read and enjoyed other books by Tom.)

My first connection with Tom was through one of our mutual publishers. We met at an author retreat in Grand Rapids a few years ago, where we had a chance to encourage one another in writing and family and ministry. I discovered Tom to be funny, warm, adventurous and a knock-your-socks-off writer. In fact, he’s so good that the Disney corporation hired him to be their on-site “writing guru.” He currently suffers for Jesus in Micky World, Florida!

In High Places is a Christy Award finalist about the journey a father and son each take to deal with their loss in their own way. I hope you’ll take advantage of this great offer as an introduction to a wonderful author.

Here are the URLs:

Kindle

Nook

Kobo

iBook: Available through the app or the iTunes Store

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I wish my teaching experience could be all beaming smiles like those of my beautiful Advanced Chorus ladies in the photo above….

Unfortunately, the knuckleheads have to come to school, too. And they have to have a Fine Arts credit. And they get stuck in my beginning chorus class. And it’s fourth block, the wrap-up to the day. Erg.

So here’s the ridiculous thing that happened yesterday.

There’s this boy and girl in the beginner class, neither of whom possess one iota of interest in singing. Nothing unusual. But not too long after the semester started they decided they couldn’t live without each other, and it became progressively more difficult to keep them from breeding more morons right in the chorus room. And before you start throwing rocks at the teacher, remember I’ve got 12 practice room/studios off the main room, and at least half the locks are broken on the doors. I do what I can, but the CIA I am not.

Three days ago I noticed the two of them actually sitting on opposite sides of the room without being ordered to do so. Hmm. Strange. And then yesterday all heck broke loose. I’d disbanded rehearsal and asked the students to put away their books and folders (normal procedure) while I shut down the electric piano and stowed equipment. I heard a little bit of a ruckus in the back of the room behind the risers, which didn’t disturb me much—it’s a loud, rowdy class.

But the rumble grew to a roar, so I rounded the risers to see what was going on. There were my two lovebirds, Darryl and Shanquita, in a double headlock, with the two biggest boys in choir trying unsuccessfully to pull them apart. Hair pulling, dreadlocks flying, profanity that would singe your scalp. How could a love so right go so wrong?

Needless to say, we called for administrators, the two combatants were suspended, and classtime today was eerily peaceful. Hoo-boy.

Well, I press on.

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White Picket Fences

White Picket Fences

Readers of emotional dramas who are willing to explore the lies that families tell each other for protection and comfort will enjoy White Picket Fences. The novel is ideal for those who appreciate exploring questions like: what type of honesty do children need from their parents, or how can one move beyond a past that isn’t acknowledged or understood? Is there hope and forgiveness for the tragedies of our past and a way to abundant grace?

The story in a nutshell:

When her black sheep brother disappears, Amanda Janvier eagerly takes in her sixteen year-old niece. Tally is practically an orphan: motherless, and living with a father who raises Tally wherever he lands– in a Buick, a pizza joint, a horse farm–and regularly takes off on wild schemes. Amanda envisions that she and her family can offer the girl stability and a shot at a “normal” life, even though their own storybook lives are about to crumble.

Here’s my interview with Susan!

What led you to write White Picket Fences?

Several years ago I was a court-appointed advocate for children involved in protective services. There were times when I saw that despite the outward appearance of a less-than-perfect home, a child could be loved there. Just because a parent is unconventional or unsuccessful career-wise or makes choices that buck societal norms, it doesn’t mean that he or she is by default a “bad” parent. Likewise, parents who we would traditionally call “good” -meaning they provide, they protect, they don’t hit, they don’t ridicule – can nevertheless make decisions regarding their children that have hugely negative effects and yet their outward appearance would never lead anyone to suspect it. Even if you live behind a white picket fence, you still have to deal with the fallout of a living in a broken world. You can’t hide from it. The perfect, idyllic life is an illusion. Life is a weave of both delight and disappointment and it’s precisely these things that give it definition and depth. To ignore what is ugly is to cheapen what is beautiful.

You dovetailed a current day family drama with the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto. Why the connection?

I think it’s fair to say that the depth of the atrocities inflicted during the Holocaust wasn’t fully appreciated until after the war. There was ugliness happening, if you will, and much of the West failed to see it — for whatever reason. Within the horror, though, people made brave choices, selfless choices. And there were survivors who had to choose what they would take with them from the ashes of their suffering. I wanted to explore how a person makes that decision. Even the decision to pretend it never happened is a decision regarding those ashes.

What do you think interests you about the intersection of personal relationships and perceptions – a theme you wove into both The Shape of Mercy and White Picket Fences?

I see every great work of fiction being about human relationships. Gone With the Wind is so much more than just an epic story with the Civil War as a backdrop. It’s a story of human relationships. Scarlett and Ashley, Scarlett and Rhett, Scarlett and Melanie, Scarlett and her father.  It’s within our closest relationships that our brightest virtues and worst flaws are exposed.  That’s why there is such tremendous story value within intimate human relationships. We are at our best and our worst when we are responding and reacting to the people who shape who we are. Human history is the story of relationships and what they teach us about what we value. And what we don’t.

White Picket Fences is a different kind of novel than your acclaimed book, The Shape of Mercy, but there are some similarities too. Can you explain those?

As with The Shape of Mercy, there is a historical thread in White Picket Fences, though it is not as dominant. The invasion of Poland by the Nazis is woven into the story, and provides the backdrop for Chase’s and Tally’s discoveries about hope, dreams, and redemption. This thread is enhanced by visits to a nursing home where Chase and Tally meet a man blind from birth who survived the occupation of Poland. It is also a story that draws its pathos from family dynamics and the near-universal desire we have to make straight what is crooked. There are two young protagonists in White Picket Fences, like there was in The Shape of Mercy, as well as a third character, who, along with the two men in the nursing home, provide a similar multi-generational story thread.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading White Picket Fences?

The pivotal moment in the story for me is when Josef says to Chase:  “[This] is what all survivors must decide. We have to decide how much we will choose to remember, how much courage we are willing to expend to do so.” It takes courage to acknowledge and remember what drove you to your knees or nearly killed you. If you choose to forget – and that’s assuming you actually can – then it seems to me you suffered for nothing. You are different but you don’t spend any time contemplating – or celebrating – how.  I’d be happy if there was a takeaway for someone out there who needs to consider that.

Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner

Meet Susan….

Susan Meissner is the multi-published author of The Shape of Mercy, named one of the Best Books in 2008 by Publishers Weekly the ECPA’s Fiction Book of the Year. She is also a speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. A devotee of purposeful pre-writing, Susan encourages workshop audiences to maximize writing time by mapping the writing journey and beginning from a place of intimate knowledge. She is the leader/moderator of a local writer’s group, a pastor’s wife and the mother of four young adults.  A native San Diegan, Susan attended Point Loma Nazarene University. When she’s not writing, Susan directs the Small Groups and Connection Ministries program at The Church at Rancho Bernardo.

You can purchase White Picket Fences here.

And read an excerpt here.

Susan Meissner

http://susanmeissner.blogspot.com

http://theshapeofmercy.blogspot.com

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