Hospital stays are one of the few times in adulthood when we have an excuse to drop all the busywork that normally preoccupies us and go to be with the people we love. You simply spend time with them, without any social occasion for it–a wedding or anniversary, dinner or the theater. You just sit there in the same room, making small talk or reading, offering the dumb comfort of your presence. You are literally There for them. When you’re a kid, this is one of dullest, most dehumanizing things you’re forced to do–being dressed up in a navy blazer or a sweater vest and dragged to family reunions to be fawned over like a photo in an album, your physical presence all that’s required of you. But if you manage to make it to some semblance of adulthood, just showing up turns out to be one of the kindest, most selfless things you can do for someone. And it isn’t only selfless. At the beginning of my stay, my friend Lauren told me over the phone, “I know this seems like a drag, but someday, I promise you, you will look back and be grateful that you had this time…”
Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing, pgs. 179-180
Such a contemplative thing to say:
Perhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that any deliberate campaign to achieve it is so misguided, is that it isn’t an obtainable goal in itself but only an after-effect. It’s the consequence of having lived in the way that we’re supposed to—by which I don’t mean ethically correctly but fully, consciously engaged in the business of living. In this respect it resembles averted vision, a phenomenon familiar to backyard astronomers whereby, in order to pick out a very faint star, you have to let your gaze drift casually to the space just next to it; if you look directly at it, it vanishes. And it’s also true, come to think of it, that the only stars we ever see are not the real stars, those blinding cataclysms in the present, but always only the light of the untouchable past.
From Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing, pg. 218
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.
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.
You 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.
Before getting into things with your book, tell us who else you are. A bit about you. I used to be a journalist…now I make things up. I was a longtime staff writer at TIME magazine, where I wrote an article about pastors’ wives that led to this book (more on that below). I left TIME in 2009 to write fiction. “Pastors’ Wives” is my second book and first novel; my first book was called “Remember Me,” about the year I spent crashing weird and wonderful funerals (HarperCollins). To put food on my family’s table, I write TV pilots.
Your novel has an interesting origin. How did Pastors’ Wives begin? I was assigned to write a feature about pastors’ wives. Growing up Catholic, I knew nothing about the pastor’s wife, except that our pastor wasn’t allowed to have one. But whatever preconceptions I had about them were blown out of the water when I began meeting and interviewing these women. They were smart, funny, and not at all okay with being just the woman behind the man behind the pulpit. The article published in 2007, and the women somehow stayed in my mind. I first pitched it as a TV series, but when that ended in disaster my agent told me to just write it as a novel already.
You say that you prevailed upon many pastors’ wives in researching for this book. What did you learn in your prevailing? So much from each and every one. I learned what it’s like to be married to a man who’s already married to God. I learned about their faith and about my own. Something I learned from the lovely Becky Hunter of Northland Church in Florida became a mantra in my marriage: “Be nice to your husband on purpose.”
There is marriage and friendship and fear and a host of other relationship realities in your novel. In what ways are the lives of pastors’ wives different from the wives of non-clergy? The scrutiny they endure from the congregation, for one. Imagine your every choice picked apart by people who barely know you: your style of hair; your musical skills; your husband’s make of car. For another, these women have to accept—not always happily, mind you—that the church and God often come first for their husbands.
You wrote about women married to clergy, women who had ministries of their own. What does that mean for how you tell others about the book? Do people assume it is Christian Fiction, which it isn’t? Do they assume things about the story itself? What should readers know going into their reading of Pastors’ Wives? “Pastors’ Wives” is women’s commercial fiction—a page-turning story about marriage, faith, and what we do for love. Though it is set in a church and revolves around Christian characters, it is not strictly Christian fiction. Its publisher, Penguin/Plume, is secular, as am I. But I hope I told this story with the respect I felt so deeply for these women. I’m delighted to report that the vast majority of the many Christian reviews I received embraced the book. I’ve noticed that some Christian reviewers point out the use of some language, a bedroom scene (between a husband and wife), and the sordid history of one repentant character—so reader, beware!
Can you talk about the uniqueness of your novel’s development from an article to a book? What did the “revisioning” and “reviewing” of your earliest conceptions do to you as a writer? This is my first novel, but I spent almost 20 years as a journalist, interviewing people both ordinary and famous. So I found I relied a lot on my reporting skills to come up with dialogue and story lines. It’s really hard to make stuff up!
The stories of characters in the novel were interrelated. Talk about why or how you chose to write the book that way. It added a richness and a social engagement that could have been absent had it been written differently. Thank you so much. I started out with two voices in my head, that of Ruthie, the reluctant and doubting pastor’s wife, and Candace, the ruthless, brilliant senior pastor’s wife. Then I started to hear Ginger, a more typical PW…except, of course, for her secret past. I wanted to give them equal weight, but this turned out to be difficult. I hope I did them each justice, as I loved them equally.
If your characters gathered at your home for dinner, who would bring what and why? Ha! That’s a great question. I’m sure Candace would bring something elegant and absolutely perfect, like a beautiful cake and gifts for my children. Ruthie would bring wine. Ginger would bring homemade cookies that are burned but still delicious.
What are you reading these days or what good books would you recommend to new friends? I read a lot for my other work as a writer of TV pilots. I’m always on the hunt for books to adapt into a drama. So I’ll ask your readers instead: if you’ve read any books you think would make for a great TV drama, please post it on my Facebook page!
How can readers support your work? Please “like” my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/LisaTakeuchiCullen)! My website is www.lisacullen.com, where I blog about the daily indignities of writing TV pilots and novels. You can read there about my crazy experience filming my CBS pilot “The Ordained” with Sam Neill, Hope Davis and Audra McDonald, right down to its rejection for series in fall 2013. I am also working on a second novel, a legal thriller set in Okinawa, Japan. Thank you so much for your interest!