Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Interview with Jane Kirkpatrick, part 2

For Part 1 of this interview, see yesterday's post.

I wonder if you can talk about the dialogue and speech patterns you created for Emma and the other Bethelites, because they feel very natural for people of their history and background.

Thank you for that! I didn't want to use dialect as I think it can detract from the flow of the story. I decided I'd use a few German words and phrases and focus on sentence structure. Many of those phrases I heard often from my own grandmother and great aunts and uncles. (Gee, you might even be able to see it my structure here!)

I love listening to people and trying to figure out where they came from regionally, and seem to have a good ear for small nuances in speech patterns. There is often a sentence construction unique to a region such as "Throw the horses over the fence some hay." That's a phrase I heard often in my German community. Most of us would say, "Throw the hay over the fence to the horses" or "Go feed the horses," but you can see the difference in word placement. I did use one phrase for the character named Jack where he'd say "I might could do that," something tentative. It was his marker. But when I asked my German linguist friend to read the text, he said I couldn't use that phrase because a German speaker learning English in Missouri wouldn't say that. My stomach dropped! He said only people from Texas, Mississippi, or maybe Arkansas would say "might could." But he told me I could say "Maybe could" so that's what I did.

Oh, and the books are being recorded unabridged, and I was asked if I wanted the reader to use a German accent throughout. I said no, that German is a difficult accent to hear over a long period of time. Unlike French, it tends to make the character harder over time instead of soft and flowing. I didn't want Emma seen that way. What I asked for in a reader was a woman whose voice could convey many emotional states and to use the sentence structure and the few German words in the text to convey that these were German-Americans. The production company hired an actress, and we spoke for an hour or more talking about certain words, phrasing, etc. She's going to be terrific!

In the Q&A at the back of A Clearing in the Wild, you mention that Emma's parents left their own religious tradition to follow Keil, yet their family had a tradition of questioning religious authority, and one of Emma's uncles served as ambassador to France. I admit I was used to thinking (maybe wrongly!) about utopian societies as isolationist and conformist, with minimal connections to the outside world. Could you speak some more about Emma's family background, and the appeal that the Bethel colony may have had for them and others?

I'm with you in thinking these utopian societies wanted to be isolationists. But what I learned in reading the historical context is that the 1700s in Europe were times of great tumult, often related to the suppression of religious freedom and the freedom of expression in general. Religious authorities became entrenched in rules and regulation over the spirit of belief. In the 1800s, many of these people made their way to North America, where they saw the hope of being able to worship without the rigidness of religious rule and without state interference, but they didn't see themselves as being isolated from their neighbors. In fact, Emma's family embraced the communal aspect of giving to the common fund, and everyone drawing from it as needed, as being a foundation of living a Christian life. “Love your neighbor as yourself” being one of the great commands of the New Testament.

We see the Mennonites settling western Canada then, for example. And this is when the Hueterittes, Shakers, Inspirationalists and others formed in the US, the early 1830s. But these groups discovered that there is a delicate balance between isolation and engagement. Faith communities today have similar struggles, really. Most of the communities needed economic interaction with their neighbors to survive. Some of the religious groups sought new recruits from the larger society but others simply wanted to be left to live in peace and support their families.

There is some evidence that Emma's grandfather, father and uncles might have been part of a group in Bavaria who petitioned the emperor about reforms and were banished as a result of this perceived disloyalty and challenge. They didn't see themselves as disloyal people. When they came under attack by their government, they fled. But they were accustomed to being followers, so it seems likely they'd seek another strong leader to follow who kept the faith, so to speak, but who didn't get caught up in rules and regulations. They found this person in George Rapp in Pennsylvania.
But leaders sometimes get taken with themselves! When this happened, Wilhelm Keil was one of the first to resist. When he broke away from George Rapp, Emma’s grandparents followed suit. Her father remained with Keil until the 1870s, but an uncle, the ambassador, did not. Correspondence suggests that the brothers remained close despite having chosen different paths, a sign of religious tolerance and engagement in the larger world through political means. Until Keil seemed to lose some of this egalitarian focus, Emma’s family faithfully followed him.

Do you have a preference for writing about historical as opposed to fictional characters, or do you go with whatever stories inspire you?

Joyce Carol Oates in a lecture I heard said one of the things a good story should do is to be a witness to voices that would otherwise not be heard. I'm drawn to actual historical people, often those whose stories have been overlooked in my mind. Women in particular. Native women, for example. Or in this instance a woman involved in a male-dominated religious community. But certain events also capture me. I'm always wanting to answer, "How did that happen?" or "What was she trying to do that got her there?" and then finally "What does her story have to say to a woman/man/community of today?"

I always loved biographies as a young reader. But while they answered what and when, they never answered why very well for me. Probably the mental health person in me seeking information. Fiction - story - allows that speculation. And from what my readers tell me, they find inspiration and encouragement in the lives of people who actually lived or in authentic fictional characters dealing with a particular historical challenge. It's become my "brand" as they say: Real stories, real people, real hope.

What do you hope readers will take away with them after finishing your novels?

That living in communities of all kinds requires the ability to change, to know when to stand firm and when to be flexible. That life is filled with challenge and uncertainty, and it's a mark of our character how we allow others to help us find new direction in a time of trial. That all of us need to have our voices heard. That grief has many siblings, and loss must be honored and witnessed to or it will hold us hostage. That engagement with community enriches the soul and contributes to the larger world even if all desires of one's heart are never fully met. That doing the best we can for our families without losing ourselves in the process is worthy work that has been going on especially for women for generations.

I once spoke to a group of second graders asking how they'd describe the word "powerful." To me it means being able to set a goal and then gather resources in order to achieve it. I think most of my stories are about how people did that back then, how ordinary people did that and what they have to teach us about doing that today. But the kids said things like "rich" or "strong" was what powerful meant. Then this one boy sitting quietly in the front said "Oh no. Powerful is when you want to quit but you keep going." I hope my readers find within themselves that kind of power through my stories.

Thank you, Jane - this has been fascinating!

To recap, A Clearing in the Wild was published by WaterBrook Press ($13.99, 370pp, 1578567343) in 2006, and A Tendering in the Storm ($13.99, 383pp, 9781578567355) in April 2007. Visit Jane's website at http://www.jkbooks.com/ and her blog, http://www.janekirkpatrick.blogspot.com/, for more information.

1 comment:

  1. Throw the horses over the fence some hay.

    That's strange even for German syntax. We'd say, 'wirf den Pferden etwas Heu über den Zaun' (throw the horses some hay over the fence) but not put the fence before the hay. :) Maybe it's dialectal, but no dialect I know (I don't know all of them, though).