Author Interview with Courtney Miller Santo

Elders often go unnoticed.  In your book, the elders of Kidron (and around the world if the clippings and news items within the novel come to mind) are central.  How did you come to write a story underlining people who are generally so unrecognized?  I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by elders for most of my life. One of the reasons I wrote this particular book is that none of the fiction families I read about had many of their grandparents, or great grandparents around and yet my experience growing up was one of being surrounded by people who not only had a few years on them, but were delightfully funny and interesting. Not that I’ve got anything against grandmothers who bake cookies or knit, but that wasn’t my experience.

 

Tell us about your research process, particularly how you developed multiple characters of varying ages.  Again, your characters weren’t exactly typical for contemporary fiction.  I was fortunate to have my own great-grandmother in my life until a few months after the book was published. She was 104 when she passed away and although in the book, Anna is a few years older, she is modeled very much on my own great-grandmother. The other women, who are older are also based on people in my family. If I needed to know what particular phrase an almost ninety year old woman would use, I just started a conversation with one of my relatives, or read their journals.

Courtney's Five Generations

The more difficult characters where those who were closer in age to my own mother. There’s always a barrier between mothers and daughters and the frankness that my grandmother’s talked to me isn’t the same. I also have an extraordinary group of women who I’ve come to know through my church community who were very valuable in that respect.  Are there elders, living or dead, who you believe we should remember?  Any notables for you?  I am fascinated by Jean Calment, who makes a brief appearance in the book and was in fact the oldest woman to have ever lived. But mostly when I visit with bookclubs and talk about this book, what I encourage people to do is to ask the elders in their lives to share their stories. Some people are lucky enough to still have grandparents and great grandparents living, but if that isn’t the case, look to your neighbors or your work community and start asking questions about their lives. I am particularly interested in stories beyond the typical where were you during a war, or a historical event. One question I find that always gets great (and sad stories) is who do you know who drowned. I believe that people live on through their stories. It is the way we echo through generations. Storytelling is vital to our identities.

 

You dealt with many things in your work, one of which was the way stories of our forebears are kept hidden, shared, remembered, rehearsed, or, in some cases, lost.  Choose one of the Keller women and give us a sense of something she’d want us to know.  What an amazing question! I always wanted Bets and her daughter Callie to have a conversation where they allowed themselves to be honest with each other. Bets in particular kept so much from her children—especially about their father and the type of relationship she had with him and that damaged Callie in ways I don’t think she understands. I always thought that those two in particular would have benefitted from an airing of grievances and secrets. I think that if Callie understood her parents and the secrets they had to keep that she’d have found love much sooner in her life and that might have changed what happened with Deb.

 

Courtney Miller SantoYou acknowledge the community of writers around you.  How did that community support you as you worked on your novel?  My writer’s group has to be some of the most insightful and encouraging people in the entire world. Throughout finishing this novel, we met monthly and each time I read a bit of the work, they found ways to push me to make it better. I also was lucky enough to have a fantastic mentor in Cary Holladay, whose own work I deeply admire. I always wanted to write so-called Southern fiction, which Cary does so well, but the rub of it is that because of my Western pedigree, all I could do was write bad imitations of southern stories. Cary helped me to find my own authentic voice. I also want to say that I have so many poets in my life who have helped me to learn the value of a single word among 100,000—in particular Heather Dobbins has been an incredible support to me.

 

What did you learn while writing?  What did you find out about families, aging, death, and life as you developed the book?  One of the biggest revelations that happened while I was writing this book is that I began to see my own mother as an individual. The more I spoke to my grandmother and great grandmother about their lives, the more I was able to see my mother as somebody other than my mother. I also have learned buckets about olive trees. They are incredible trees. I only wish I could figure out how to keep one alive. I’ve killed at least three. The other startling connection I made while researching this book is how many of mankind’s myths deal explicitly with aging and the idea of immortality. Every community has an idea of how to get past mortality—and yet scientifically we’ve sort of reached an end road of sorts.

 

Did you come across any notable remedies for aging?  There are more wives tales than remedies. Everybody ages, what you hope for is those genes that make you physically less old than your actual age. My great-grandmother could touch her toes until the day she died and yet for the last twenty years of her life, she had M&Ms and Mountain Dew for breakfast. That tells me it was mostly genetics that kept her flexible and the science backs that up. However there’s common sense nobody wants to hear it, but it’s true stuff that helps you if you don’t have extra long telomeres—basically keeping active and eating well.

 

What are you reading these days?  I’ve just started Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred Year House, which I adore and since I just wrapped up vacation, I recently finished Wolf Hall, a fabulous nonfiction book that tells the history of Paris through biographical vignettes, called The Parisians, and I devoured my daughter’s copy of Divergent on the plane ride home. I’ll be going to my twentieth high school reunion in a few weeks and have bought the Hurricane Sisters for the plane ride there.

 

How can readers support you and are you working on words you can tell us about briefly?  My second novel, THREE STORY HOUSE, comes out on August 19 and I’d love for anyone who enjoyed THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE to check it out (Anna makes a special cameo in the book). Set in Memphis, the book delves into the relationship between cousins who find their lives coming apart as they work to renovate a spite house. There’s going to be a fun contest starting August 28 where readers are invited to post their own versions of my cover on my facebook page at www.facebook.com/courtneymsanto There will be prizes! I’d love to hear reader’s stories of their local spite houses.Olive Tree for CM Interview

Creating a Rule of Life, pt 3

Prayer is much broader than saying something to God.  That’s a good partial summary of prayer.  But there are, at least, two things that would enrich that summary.  The first is small, the second a lot larger.

First, as much as prayer is about talking to God, it is also about God talking back.  Some people have trouble with that.  After all, God talking back can be problematic.

It’s hard to know when God’s talking.  It’s hard not to blame things on God after you’ve gotten adjusted to this God-back-talking.  People have said that God has said a lot of suspicious things.  Plus, there’s the problem of that creative utterance.  In the scriptures, when God speaks, things move, people live, people die, worlds that weren’t become.  God’s speech is full and capable and hardly tentative.

Back to the second part about prayer: it is communicating with God whether or not there are words.  There is a passage in the New Testament that encourages what Eugene Peterson calls “prayerfulness.”  The passage says that we should pray without stopping, pray all the time, pray constantly (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Commentators split about what this means in the pastoral letter, and the way Peterson comes to such language is by talking about prayerfulness.

Prayer is at the center of the Rule of Life.  Communicating with God, you talking to God and God talking to you, is the assumption of the Rule.  Of course, if God communicates with us, then we can hear what God says.  We can keep in the direction of God.  We can continue listening to the various ways God will speak.  Even when there aren’t words, we can train ourselves and our gestures in God’s direction.  We can add things which help us attend to God.  We can remove things that take such full-awareness-of-God away.

The act of preparing a Rule, then, can be prayerful.  Breathing and whispering for God to guide you as you think about what to do and what not to do is as much prayer as anything.  Waiting for that guidance is prayer too.  Waiting all day long, opening yourself up, is prayer too.  Do you get the picture?

So, whisper that in your own way: what should I do, God?  What should I focus on?

You’re already surrounding the creation of your Rule in prayer.  And now, start listening.

Creating a Rule of Life, pt 2

The center of your life never needs much explanation because life centers always have all of us communicating for them.  We communicate with our full selves who or what is at the center of us.

In other words, I know the bottom of a person’s spirit by good observation, listening, and patience.  Those three behaviors help me pay attention both to who that person is and to who or what sits at the center of that individual.

You can see my presupposition: everybody has something sitting at the center of his or her being.  There may be exceptions that I’d make to that comment, but most people have something or someone that is primary and of ultimate significance.  Something at the center.

Most people who practice a religion would accept their religious rituals and behaviors and teachings as outflows of that language about Someone at the center.  That would be God.

Religious or not (if a person can not be religious), living well cannot be done without knowing who’s there.  Further, living well cannot be done without conscious choosing who’s at the center and who gets to stay there.

To create a Rule, it’s helpful consider who or what is at the center of one’s life.  In that consideration, we question our behaviors and choices in an effort to inspect the bottom of those behaviors and choices.  We look at our selves through the lens of our experiences in order to wonder around into the deeper floors of our selves.

We ask, what am I doing?  It’s a plain question.  What do I spend myself on?  A calendar starts the answer.  I’ve spent my days, my thoughts, my time doing thus and so.  The surface level answers lead us to a less-seen, less-trafficked place: the center.

We ask more questions.  What does this calendar of thoughts and behaviors say about my values?  What do these things say about who is of importance to me?

Creating a Rule of Life is an activity of putting God continually at that center.  But the survey of who or what is there first may open us to the kinds of activities we need to employ in order to unseat someone else.

A Prayer About Cancer For Three People Particularly

You know that we care for our mothers, whatever their ages, and I bring these three mothers to you in prayer.  You know their diagnoses, the particulars of their medical histories, their prognoses, and their feelings about it all.

Give them your closest ear as they whisper their questions, their prayers, their dreams, and their pains through the courses before them.  May you collect their every word, gesture, and ache, translate them into beautiful, powerful speech, and may you be moved by them to act gloriously.

Grant them your company through what may feel like both a crowded and lonely time.  May they sense you in glances, in whispers, in surprises, in meals, in quiet.

Heal their bodies through any means necessary, using doctors with their medicines, nurses with their many touches, technicians and their tests, and friends and family and children and strangers, making every single interaction a strong movement of divine healing.

Rebuke death all the way through, like you did in Jesus and reset their bodies to be increasingly vessels of health and glory.  Fill them with reminders that you have conquered death and all its effects, and keep them in that peace when all seems opposite.

Endure with them the broadness of unanswered questions, occasional doubts, hard-uttered gratitude, resentment, wondering, knowing and not knowing, and waiting.  Bless their efforts and their attempts to restore themselves while giving love to others.

Make them laugh.  Make them sit and stir and run in joy.  Make their evenings filled with splendid memories and their days cracked with blessing upon blessing.

Open before them and us your future, and make us to find our destinies in you.  Our collective future is in and with and for you, and may you grant us daily a proximity to that tomorrow.

Give them and us such generous spirits that we pray for the best, seek the good, and persist in the suffering along this way.

Empower every person in their path to be loving, gracious, good, faithful, and persistent even when we don’t know how such things come through us.

Grant us silence when words falter.  Grant us strength to submit to a redeemed life that ends and doesn’t end in you.  Equip us to be a supportive, fiercely loving, vulnerable and weak and bold and steady community of witnesses to what you’re doing.

In every way, remember Grace, Rob’s mother, and my mother.

In the name of the One who Heals all our diseases.

Amen.