|A Mending at the Edge, Change and Cherish Series #3|
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So begins this story of one womanís restoration from personal grief to the meaning of community. Based on the life of German-American Emma Wagner Giesy, the only woman sent to the Oregon Territory in the 1850s to help found a communal society, award-winning author Jane Kirkpatrick shows how landscape, relationships, spirituality and artistry poignantly reflect a womanís desire to weave a unique and meaningful legacy from the threads of an ordinary life. While set in the historical past, itís a story for our own time answering the question: Can threads of an isolated life weave a legacy of purpose in community?
Jane Kirkpatrick is a best-selling author whose novels include the BookSense 76 Selection, A Name of Her Own, Every Fixed Star, and the acclaimed Kinship and Courage series: All Together in One Place, No Eye Can See, and What Once We Loved. Jane is a winner of the Wrangler Award from the Western Heritage Center and National Cowboy Hall of Fame. She is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, inspirational retreat leader, and speaker.
How did you come up with the concept for A Mending at the Edge?
This title is the third book of a Change and Cherish series based on an actual woman and her life within a Christian communal society of the mid 19th Century. I’d first learned of this woman by reading a quilting book and seeing her quilt, preserved since the 1850s, and being intrigued that a woman’s artifact had been saved, along with her name and a brief story of her being the only woman to travel with nine male scouts west from Missouri to find a new site for their religious community. The woman’s life had challenge and tragedy and in this third book I hoped readers would come to value the life of an ordinary woman, living within a community and being able to have her own voice. I’d also read a book recently about the early house churches of the first century and liked the idea that such gatherings occurred with babies around, meals being prepared, men and women alike laughing and talking, praying and studying together and I hoped to create that image of an ordinary household being a place of service and worship within a community.
How much of A Mending at the Edge is factual?
Quite a bit! This colony existed from the mid 1850s until 1883 when the leader died. But even today, many descendants remain in the area and the stories have been handed down orally as well as through letters and colony documents. Emma Wagner Geisy’s presence first in Pennsylvania, then Missouri, then Washington Territory and finally Oregon, is all documented as well as her desire to have a home of her own and what happened after she acquired it. I had many descendant stories I listened to but only one letter written by this woman in 1862 to her parents. It provided me a glimpse into her longings and what she hoped would eventually happen in her life. Otherwise the dialogue and some of the scenes helping to convey her character are of my imagination.
How closely do the characters and setting for A Mending at the Edge correlate to your own life?
Ah, now there’s a question! I have traveled West from the Midwest as Emma did. I’ve been on a spiritual journey for a long time, trying to find my way. I’ve sometimes been stubborn and “kindled my own fires” as did Emma and had the same disastrous consequences, too. It’s often difficult for independent people to accept help from others. I also think I have a tendency to fill up grief and loss with “work and doing” which Emma did as well. It sometimes takes the voice of a child to bring me back to what truly matters and I had Emma experiencing that kind of insight as well. Still, as I looked at the historical record, she endured much more than I ever had to; she was widowed at a young age with two small children and another on the way; and she felt misunderstood. None of those things have happened to me but I think as I explored what she did with her life, she brought nurture to my own.
|How long did A Mending at the Edge take you to complete? |
I usually write a book a year; this book has been in the making for the past three years because I was immersed in the culture, landscape, relationships, faith and work of this colony. So while I wrote it within six months the rewriting, editing and all the other things related to getting a book published – all the team effort things – took a year. And then I’d done some of the research before I began writing the first book in the series, A Clearing in the Wild.
How much research did A Mending at the Edge take?
If you could see my office you’d wonder if you’d stepped into the stacks at a library somewhere! Musty old books, maps, files of interviews, copies of genealogy records, CDs of artifacts, pictures, quilt pieces, an 1858 Bible, commentaries, books of music in the early church, books on German food…German language questions and the answers I’ve gotten from my German friends. My office is on the second story of the house we built at the end of Starvation Lane and there’s a porch beneath it. My husband said if he’d realized how many books I was going to load up in this room, he’d have reinforced the porch pillars more! I create a timeline before I begin writing, using actual historical documents, trying to determine the defining moments in the character’s lives and then I begin the story with the idea of where it will end in mind; but in between the characters surprise me as much as I hope they surprise future readers. And I’m always stopping here and there to research some event in history or to get an understanding of how they did things back then. The German-American community of this colony had almanacs in both German and English that they read so it was fascinating find some old issues to look at. The Civil War occurred during this time period so exploring how that would have affected those in the west was another excursion. And then I love exploring the meanings of words so that usually takes me into studies of root words etc. But I can’t get too side-tracked because I have a deadline and I’ll disappoint people if I don’t meet it.
What was the most interesting fact that you discovered while researching the book?
This will seem strange maybe, but it was discovering how the early settlers made drinking glasses from the necks of old molasses bottles. They wrapped a cord around the area where they wanted the glass to break and then somewhat like a yo-yo two people pulled back and forth to heat up the rope. Then a third person would pour cold water over the glass at the spot where it was hot and voila! It would break there. They’d have to grind the tops down a bit but I thought that ingenious. The other “fact” I cherished discovering was how much these colonists enjoyed color in their lives! They may have dressed in blacks and browns beneath their snowy white aprons, but their quilted petticoats were stitched in bright colors including red trim; and the furniture they made themselves they painted yellow and blue and various shades of red. They loved color and the quilts left behind by the women have purples and greens and orange and are really distinctive. So it pleased me that even within a community that demanded conformity they found a way to express their individuality.
Do you prefer to write historical fiction? Why?
I do like writing historical fiction even though I’ve written two (and soon a third) nonfiction titles. Fiction, to me, comes along beside someone, it doesn’t get into our face. I understand that the Hebrew word for Parable comes from a word meaning “pebble” something you “toss along beside.” And the Greek word for comfort is translated as “to come along beside.” Both, to me, speak of story or fiction. Sometimes self-help books make us put up barriers so we resist hearing what good things might be in there for us. Contemporary fiction can also do that to us. But in historical fiction, readers tend to come there to be informed, to perhaps learn about an era or a person or maybe just to escape for a time. And it’s in those moments, when our guard is down, that we sometimes have the greatest insights; we sometimes discover that we do have things in common with people who lived years before us and that God speaks to us within the truths of story. Theologian Frederick Buechner wrote once that fiction wasn’t true the way a photograph was true, the capturing of a single moment in time. But that fiction is true the way a portrait is true, where we see the subject over time and we see something of the artist as well. I have also been surprised and gratified that when I finish writing a book I have always learned something about myself I didn’t know I needed to learn. I’d have missed it if I hadn’t written the story and while I have loved writing the nonfiction books, its coming back to historical fiction I most enjoy.
What are some of the challenges you face as an author?
The biggest challenge I think all authors face is putting the Harpies behind us, those negative voices that tell us not to bother, or that we’re not going to become wealthy doing this so it’s a waste of time, etc. Most of us have those voices yapping at us. It’s being able to silence them and to remember why we write, for whom we really write, and to trust that our stories and careers are in God’s hands and to let us leave them there and not try to take them back because we think God isn’t up to the task!
Are there any other new projects on the horizon?
Always! Because I discovered Emma’s story through her quilts, I began exploring other quilters in the colony and then discovered many men who were fine craftsman as well. It was the way in which they expressed themselves while still caring for each other in this communal society. So I proposed a quilt and craft book based on this only successful colony in the West. They began at the same time as the Shakers and Amana and other Utopian Societies, but were the only ones to endure in the West in a place just south of Portland, OR. The book I’m finishing is really about the American experience of seeking simplicity and being able to live out their Christian beliefs to give to others and to advance their “Diamond Rule” which was to make another’s life better than one’s own. The working title is “Stitching Stories: The Quilts and Crafts of the Aurora Colony. The book will be out next September and has been a labor of love in photographing the more than 80 unique quilts as part of the colony collection as well as the fascinating furniture and other artifacts they left behind to tell their stories. I’m hoping it will encourage men and women to look at the artifacts they’re leaving behind to be sure they tell the story they want remembered. And then I have another novel coming out in April of 2009 based on my grandmother, an early photographer. It’ll be a very personal story, one I’ve been researching my entire life. So I’m working on that one now.
What advice would you give to a person trying to become a fiction writer?
Read, read, read. Read good fiction, read the kinds of books you’d like to write. Then write, write, write. Listen to the story you’re being given and even if the market information or your friends all think you’re crazy, listen to that inner voice and trust that as writers our jobs are to show up, to assume the position of a writer, to tell the stories we’ve been given the best way we know how and to trust that we’re not alone in the telling.
What message would you like your readers to take away from A Mending at the Edge?
My wish is that a reader would see that engagement with a faith community enriches the soul and contributes to others even if all the desires of one’s heart are never met. Communities have rhythms of their own; my hope is that a reader might see their own experiences with a community as having that ebb and flow and that there is a time to take a break (from committees, etc) and a time to re-connect. My wish is that a reader would see through Emma’s story that ordinary people are worthy of remembering, make significant contributions to the world by being present for their families. Ultimately I hope readers will write or record their own stories so their children, nieces and nephews and others will have them to cherish, to see how God worked in their lives and to help the rest of us treasure the importance of every human being.
What is your goal or mission as a writer?
To glorify God through the talents given me; to nurture the lives of readers; to encourage the healing of broken spirits through the power of story.