Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Stephanie Kallos Visits Charlotte

Stephanie Kallos, author of our book club favorite "Broken for You," visits Charlotte next week to discuss her latest book, "Sing Them Home." I am forever indebted to Kallos. Not only did is "Broken" one of the best books our book club has ever read, she was one of the very first authors who did a phone chat with us when we were just getting our sea legs. I can't believe that was four years ago!

Run, don't walk to buy her latest book. She is an exceptional writing talent who creates characters that live with you long after the end of the book. She will be appearing at Park Road Books on Thursday, Feb. 5 at 7 P.M. For more details, visit their bookstore at 4139 Park Road, in Charlotte's Park Road Shopping Center, or call them at 704-525-9139.

Want to get to know Kallos better? Here's an indepth interview with the author.


The idea for SING THEM HOME has clearly been with you for quite a while. Where did the story come from? How close is the final story to your original idea?

The initial idea for SING THEM HOME arose from a photo from the March 1974 National Geographic—and from my family’s personal connection to that photo. Until I was five, my parents and I lived in Wymore, Nebraska, and among my folks’ best friends at that time were Ed and Hope McClure. They lived a few miles outside of town in a nineteenth-century farmhouse that had great historical significance to the community and that Hope had lovingly restored and furnished with period antiques. I still remember a great deal about that house—even though the last time I saw it was in 1960, which is when we moved away.

In 1974, in one of those examples freakish tornadic behavior, a funnel cloud came through, passing by the farmhouse across the road, bouncing over the highway, and landing on the McClure house. Hope—who had MS, and was in a wheelchair at the time—was home alone with the youngest of her five children, who was at that time a toddler. The baby was found wandering the fields wearing her diaper, having suffered nothing but a few scratches and (one would assume) a terrible scare; Hope was badly hurt, but survived. The house—and everything in it—was gone.

The National Georgraphic photo was taken a few miles away, near Blue Springs Nebraska. It shows a vast, flattened, muddied milo field with a farmer leaning over the remains of Hope’s baby grand piano. It was the only thing that came down in any kind of recognizable form. My mom used to say, “How can a deep freezer just disappear? How can a washing machine disappear? All those things—where did they go?” These questions—and their implications—have haunted me ever since.

I always envisioned the book as the story of three siblings whose mother went up but never came down, and the grief surrounding such a loss—so in that sense the story didn’t change. But the book took on a new and deeper significance when I lost both of my folks during the writing process—my dad in January 2005 and my mom a year later, almost to the day. For that reason, SING THEM HOME evolved into a much more personal book. The gift of my own loss I suppose is that it allowed me to stand with more authenticity, humility, and empathy in my characters’ shoes. For years I believed that this book would be my first novel; I’m glad it wasn’t.

There are many strands to the novel including letters, diary entries, shifts in time and point of view. In what order did you actually write the various strands?

I’d like to say that I went about writing this novel in a methodical, ordered way, but that was not the case. I did work with a detailed outline (even though I ended up deviating from it quite a bit) and that provided a way for me to move around in the story without always moving chronologically. In other words, if I woke up one morning to find Bonnie clamoring for attention, the outline gave me a kind of mental “filing cabinet” so that I knew roughly where that scene would occur. The only part of the book that I wrote all at once and in order were the Hope diary entries—with all the skipping around in time and through memory that the other characters do, I wanted the reader to at least have one point-of-view character who told their story in a traditional, chronological manner!

Do you have a favorite Jones child?

Nope. That would be something like saying I favor one of my children over the other, wouldn’t it? I love all the Jones kids, deeply. The challenge of writing about siblings was new to me, however. I’m an only child, and although I daydreamed about having brothers and sisters for much of my childhood, that hardly qualified me to write about them in a credible way! I’ll be interested to hear from people who have brothers and sisters to see if I got it right. I love meeting people’s families. I’m always asking folks about their families and never tire hearing about what it’s like to have siblings.

Also—and I’m not sure if this was a conscious choice at the very beginning of the writing process, but it certainly became conscious over time—I gave each of the Jones children different parts of myself—the flawed parts, that is. This helped me feel a personal, empathetic connection with each of them—and perhaps allowed me to avoid the danger of favoritism. (Actors have to do this, too: find the common ground that you share with the character, so that you don’t stand outside of them and judge them. The worst thing an actor playing Lady Macbeth could do would be to think of her as a “bad” person. But that’s another discussion.)

So Larken got my body image problems and my desperate need to please; Gaelan got my innate fear of being undeserving of anything good and of being “found out” as someone who’s not terribly competent or bright; Bonnie got my obsession with looking for signs and my sometimes unhealthy preoccupation with the little picture. And my frustration with blenders.

There is a point in the novel where the reader knows all the big answers, but the details—Hope’s final actions, her location, the details in her diary, the letters she wrote—are never going to be known to Viney and the Jones children. It seems that denying them that information is a key element in keeping the ending from being too pat, too standard “happy ending.” Their challenge is to achieve redemption/resolution without benefit of this knowledge. Only then can they move on in their own lives. Still, did you worry about things working out too easily, too completely?

Interesting that you ask this, because in the first draft of the book, the siblings found Hope’s body. That initial resolution did indeed seem too easy, too pat. It also undermined the substantial growth the characters had found without that deus ex machina.

And in the end, I became interested in the kind of people— there are so many in this world and in these times—who have to learn to live with that very special kind of unresolved grief, the grief of never receiving what Hope calls “the gift of bones.” I was interested in trying to bring my characters to a place where—even if they couldn’t ever get over Hope’s death or that fact that her body’s whereabouts would always be a mystery—they could at least believe that she was somewhere, and that a relationship with her was possible.

Hope writes in one of the entries about how she wants her children to be able to find her after she is gone, not in the things she leaves behind (which would include a body) but in the air they breathe. In her suicide note, she encourages them to “turn the coin over” and find her on the other side of heartbreak. I wanted the characters to learn over the course of the story to do this, to find her elsewhere—in the gestures and expressions of strangers, in music, in coincidental encounters. Because after all, this is really the only way we can really find those we’ve lost. They’re not in their coffins, not really. They’re not lingering in the vicinity of their remains. They’re somewhere else. I’ve come to believe that if one is open for business, the dead make themselves known to us. They have ways of saying hello. That’s been my experience, anyway. Knowing where a loved one is buried is a comfort, to be sure. But in this story, I wanted to look at how people might come to find comfort and redemption and the ability to move on without that knowledge.

The Welsh elements in SING THEM HOME create such a strong and unique community. Do you have any personal connections that you drew on to create this community?

Wymore, Nebraska, has a strong Welsh heritage— I didn’t know this when I lived there, it was only after I visited in April of 2004 with my dad in the interest of research that I learned about this. There is a Welsh Heritage Museum in Wymore, and a great deal of pride surrounds that historical legacy. Part of my research involved understanding why the Welsh settled in Nebraska. Another part was understanding what it means to be Welsh, why there is pride surrounding that. It’s not a culture that most of us have an immediate, clear sense of—at least I didn’t. It’s not like Italy or France or Greece—most of us have ideas, even if they’re erroneous, about what it would mean to be from one of those countries. But Wales? What does it mean to be proud of being Welsh?

The Welsh component gives the people of Emlyn Springs something that is unique to them, something that wouldn’t necessarily get them on the front page of a newspaper (or even the back page of a travel brochure) but which endows them with a sense of pride. Thus the special funeral celebration evolved over the years, Fancy Egg Days, the speaking of Welsh. I very much wanted the town of Emlyn Springs to be a character in the book, and for the sense of place to contribute in a large way to the characters’ stories.

I think sometimes it’s easy for people from larger communities to write off small towns as bland, culturally deprived, and unenlightened, as places where nothing daring or outrageous ever happens. And yet, people make their lives and deaths in those small towns and are often very proud of their communities. When a natural disaster strikes such places (and we’ve had no limit on that kind of story lately, it seems) the fortitude and courage of those small town folks astounds me.

I heard an interview with Wendell Berry when I was working on this book—he was reflecting on something that was happening in a small town in West Virginia, I believe, talking about a certain kind of mining being done there that essentially removes a mountain, bit by bit, from the top down. He said something that made its way into the book—it was about the special kind of suffering these people were experiencing, a unique suffering that comes from loving a place that has been utterly destroyed. Small town people have that kind of love. It’s a unique courage and one I very much wanted to commemorate in this book.

In regard to your first novel, Broken for You, you once discussed how you wrote letters to some of the characters while or after you had finished writing the book. Did you need to write a letter to any of the characters in SING THEM HOME?

The only character I remember being slightly recalcitrant in the early stages was Larken, and I think we did have an epistolary exchange at one point early on. She’s just not a warm and fuzzy, trusting type, and I also think she needed to be reassured that I wasn’t judging her based on her looks. There was also a lot of shyness/resistance about writing the sex scenes—particularly the first time that Viney and Welly get together. But I think that came less from the characters and more from me. I’m very shy about writing sex scenes. My agent and my editor had to really nudge me hard to get those written. I’m glad they did. They really needed to be in there.

Now that you have finished the second novel, which can be so difficult for many authors, are you working on a third?

I’ve just started daydreaming about the third novel, taking notes in my journal, reading books related to the territory I expect to explore, mining my dreams. Again, I’ll be revisiting a subject and characters that have had a fascination for me for years. Ghosts, talking to the dead, the Spiritualism movement in America, the intersection of the creative impulse and religious faith—that’s some of what I’ll be obsessing about for the next few years.

I really do feel as though it was a huge milestone getting through that second book— which, if you listen to the majority opinion, is doomed. Amy Tan’s essay “Angst and the Second Novel” was a tremendous comfort, and it’s something every writer struggling with that second book should read. I passed it on to my editor, who didn’t know of it. She immediately photocopied it for all her colleagues at Grove and now I understand it’s required reading!