This email interview took place during October, 2005.
P.B.: What was it about growing up in an Iowa Mennonite-Amish community and rearing a family in Appalachia that drew you to the subject matter of Eyes at the Window (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2003) and enabled you to portray it so effectively?
E.Y.M.: My aunt on my dad's side of the family showed me the account of the infanticide in Jacob Hochstetler's Descendants of Jacob Hochstetler (1912), saying, "Some of these people involved are our relatives." I was immediately interested. Over the fifteen years I worked on the manuscript, I asked myself, "How could this have happened? What might have led to the silence of the one who kept a secret for fifty years?" I tried to imagine what the father and mother of the smothered child might have been like, how neighbors and people in the Amish church might have reacted. It's my personal philosophy that, most of the time, things don't happen in isolation; rather, there are a host of factors in family, church, and community that contribute to the event and what follows.
I'm always pulled toward trying to see the larger picture. I like the "big baggy monster" novels of the nineteenth century, and George Eliot is my favorite author from that time period. This preference may put me out-of-touch with some in my own literary times. But in writing the novel I had to cover fifty years, somehow, since the original story took that long for its resolution.
As for what may have added to the effectiveness of the novel, I've always enjoyed watching people. I've lived in families, growing up as the youngest member of one and being married for 26 years. During all of this time I attended or was a member of a Mennonite church, one with a very stern bishop in Iowa and another a house church using shared leadership in Appalachia. Living in Iowa, I occasionally interacted with Amish people as neighbors and customers in the bank where I worked part-time. (My dad's parents were Amish until they joined the Mennonite Church when my dad was 6 or 7 years old.) In Appalachia I related primarily to a minority group of "outsiders," partially integrated with and yet set apart from the mainstream culture.
P.B.: I enjoyed Eyes at the Window for the same reasons I enjoy "big baggy" novels: I got to know and care about a variety of people who changed over time and collectively created a world I was sad to leave at the end. What research did you do to make your portrayal of these people, these places, these times as imaginatively realized and authentic as possible?
E.Y.M.: During the fifteen years I worked on the manuscript, I made a couple of trips to the Somerset County, Pennsylvania, area and to Holmes and Wayne counties in Ohio. I drove around to get a physical sense of the geography of the areas (not that it looked the same way in 1810 and 1860), and I also went to a library and a museum in Pennsylvania. It was important for me to visit the graves in Ohio of the people on whom the characters Reuben and Jonas are based.
Reading was probably my most useful form of research. I am greatly indebted to Amish and Amish Mennonite Genealogies (1986) by Rachel Kreider and Hugh Gingerich. From the Jacob Hochstetler genealogy book I took the names of the actual people involved in the 1810 incident and looked them up in the Kreider/Gingerich book. From that, I could see how many children each had, in what county (and state) each child was born and buried, if any of them or their offspring were ministers or bishops, etc. Sometimes I followed this information exactly; sometimes I deviated for purposes of, in my view, making the story better.
I developed charts on legal pads, identifying each year from 1810 to 1861. Whenever I read of a cultural or historical development, such as the use of the postage stamp in Ohio, I put that in the appropriate chart year. I did the same thing with family information from the Kreider/Gingerich book and with other changes in the Amish church that I read about. The charts became useful in helping me determine which character would narrate which year.
Other books I relied on heavily include Theron Schlabach's Peace, Faith, Nation (1988), Paton Yoder's Tradition and Transition (1991), and John A. Hostetler's Amish Society (1980). John Umble's articles in the Mennonite Quarterly Review over the course of several decades (ca. 1933-1962) about the leadership in Amish churches in the nineteenth century were extremely useful. In addition, I read whatever I could find about subjects such as brauching, cabin construction, and other aspects of nineteenth century pioneer life.
Historical fiction (as my novel has been marketed) seems like an oxymoronic construct. Some readers feel that nothing should be changed, including characters' names. Many people think that history is true and that fiction is made up. My response is that no one, in written or oral accounts, knows for sure what happened. Stories get changed as they're passed down, sometimes to protect people or institutions. I took a traditional story, grounded it in as much historical accuracy as I could muster for the time period of 1810-1861, and imagined what might have been involved in the motivations and consequences within a fictional world.
Along with changing all of the names of the characters (quite a task in itself, given the relatively limited number of names used among the Amish in that time period), I also deviated from the Hochstetler genealogy by making the accused person both married (historically, he already had two children) and a church member when the infanticide occurred. In my novel he's excommunicated rather than simply blamed. My choice fits with my research of Amish church practices and, in my mind, makes a better story.
P.B.: Why did you tell this story through multiple first-person narrators rather than an authorial voice outside of these characters? This strikes me as a very brave choice--trying not only to distinguish eight different narrators but also to get inside the minds of people living in a different century and having a very different life experience from your own.
E.Y.M.: I learned a lot about writing fiction from going to graduate school in my mid-life years; but one thing I understood from the beginning (before grad school) was that this story needed to be told by multiple voices. If I told the story from only one character's view, I would miss out on the richness of what a different character thought. Much of the conflict had to come from the ways that different characters with different values viewed the same issue (what's new, right?). That way I didn't have to explain the conflict; it was inherent in the ways I developed the various characters.
In the first draft I used the same eight narrators that I ended up with. And although I didn't work on the novel very much during grad school, my dissertation director read an early draft and thought the Amish narrators sounded too much the same. So, one summer after graduating, in a major revision, I added a twentieth century narrator who comments on the action in short chapters throughout the main narrative--remember that I like nineteenth-century novels which often directly address the reader. Later, at the urging of the publisher and in response to some dubious readers in Wisconsin, I removed this contemporary narrator. I don't consider the experiment wasted effort, however, because the presence of the "outside" voice pushed me to sharpen the conflict and make the Amish characters stronger versions of themselves.
Yes, it is brave (risky? foolhardy?) to try to get inside the heads of people very different from me and my own experience, but that's the imaginative leap that fiction invites both author and reader to make. What gave me courage to try is the belief that we as humans are more alike, across time and culture, than we are different. The basic human experiences of loss, contentment, fear, etc. remain the same. It's the particulars that have changed.
P.B.: Without an interpretive narrator, relying on the development of various characters to, as you say, "explain the conflict," means that you leave a lot of "explanation" or "interpretation" up to the reader. What issues or questions do you expect will be raised in readers' minds as they read your novel? What issues or questions were you yourself asking and possibly resolving in the writing of it?
E.Y.M.: Yes, as a writer of literary fiction, I have to trust the reader to "get it." I have to supply sufficient details through characterization and language so that the reader knows how to interpret actions, appearance, dialogue, and thoughts. I hope that the conflict in the story creates conflict in the reader. Most educated readers want to figure out characters' relationships and values for themselves, not be told what to think by an authorial voice. When I'm writing, however, I can't think too much about readers' reactions; doing so would paralyze me. My responsibility is to write the best story I can.
One issue that I was concerned about was how to present the female characters. In a story that seems dominated by male characters who hold significant power in Amish society, partly because they have the positions of bishop and minister in the church, I didn't want the women to be bland. I know that women may exert tremendous influence behind the scenes. I wanted to give a truthful depiction of male-female roles in Amish society, including some of the tensions with these traditional roles. I wanted to create female characters who were often wise, even when not powerful. That's a delicate balancing act. My depiction of Franey is less based on family genealogy than were some of the other characters; I needed to create a strong woman who was as independent-minded as possible in that setting.
In writing the fifty-year section of the novel between the known beginning and the ending of the infanticide story, I also became fascinated with changes that were happening in the Amish church, leading up to the split between the Amish and the Mennonites. One reader of my first draft pointed out that I had two stories: the family story and the church story. I became convinced that I had to intertwine them so that they were fuller and richer because of the blending. So while there's a clear resolution to the infanticide story, I hope that questions remain for the reader at the end and that the larger story can't be tied up quite so neatly.
P.B.: Public Libraries across the country often include you in their lists of writers of "Christian Fiction." In the Rochester, N.Y., Library list, for example, you appear along with Carrie Bender, Mary Borntrager, Jan Karon, Tim LaHaye, Beverly Lewis, Catherine Marshall, and Janette Oke. What comes to your mind when you hear the term "Christian fiction"? How do you react to having Eyes at the Window so described?
E.Y.M.: When I think of "Christian fiction," I think of a story that has a positive resolution to the conflict and tends to be formulaic. The resolution is probably dramatic and likely involves a change (which may be inexplicable) in the direction of traditional Christian belief or behavior. Long ago, I read Catherine Marshall's Christy, but I've not read any of the other authors on the list.
It's very interesting what happens when you send your book out into the world. My novel has been called a mystery; well, yes, it does have a mysterious element. My book has been called Christian fiction; well, yes, I hope there's something valuable in the book for people who claim Christ. I've certainly included scripture verses from the Bible. My book has been marketed as historical fiction; well, yes, it has lots of history in it. My book has been called Amish fiction; well, yes, all the main characters are Amish and it's based on a story that happened among the Amish. But I didn't know I was writing any of these kinds of books. All of these labels seem limiting to me.
As I said before, I was trying to write the best kind of story I could. I'm trained to write literary fiction, which to me means that I focus on complex characters and interesting use of language. It's not up to me to say where my book belongs. Readers will decide that. I'm happy that people are reading my book and I hope they'll want to keep talking about it.
P.B.: You said that you hope "there's something valuable in the book for people who claim Christ." I know that you have discussed your novel in a number of church contexts. What issues in or about the novel seem of most interest to these readers?
E.Y.M.: Members of one church group that I met with talked about the various levels of loss that are shown in the novel. Another church group asked numerous questions about the choices I made in presenting historical material. Many individual readers comment on the sadness they experience in reading the story. People sometimes ask questions about judgment. They wonder how a "jury" could have ascertained the character Reuben's guilt so quickly. I usually respond that it was a frontier situation in Pennsylvania in 1810, and it's not useful to apply to another setting the expectations of what might be a more careful and organized gathering of evidence almost two centuries later. Unfortunately, our human tendency to judge others on fairly slim, or surface, or hastily gathered evidence continues to lead to great loss and sadness for many people today.
Readers who are not of Amish-Mennonite background and who appreciate my novel are more likely to comment that Eyes at the Window helped them see the Amish as human beings with the same struggles that are common to most of us: pride, jealousy, excessive fear. I'm pleased when readers say that the novel helps them better understand a group of people who are often enigmatic, and that they feel the Amish are presented respectfully in the novel.
P.B.: Among your concerns as a writer of "literary fiction," you included use of language. It's often very vividly physical. I'm really impressed by how you absorbed your research enough to have the characters very naturally share the many physical details of their lives--within their homes, in their barns and fields, in church--details very particular to their time and place. In addition, it is typically through these physical details, rather than patches of abstract analysis, that your characters reveal their interior lives; as such, from time to time, they become poets. Could you comment further on what you were trying to do with language in this novel? What kind of changes in language occurred during the fifteen years when you were writing the book?
E.Y.M.: Sometimes I wonder too what I was trying to do with language in the novel. I tried to imitate some patterns of how I perceive that the Amish say things, because the way of saying something often becomes part of what is said. But I'm not a linguist, so I was relying more on my ear than on any careful study of sentence syntax. (While writing I often got hopelessly lost on how the German language builds sentences and how English sentences usually work, which created interesting dilemmas in my speaking/writing life outside of the novel.) I believe the Amish tend to be direct (sometimes blunt) in what they say, so I often used fairly simple sentences. I never used contractions, unless I was presenting the voice of an outsider.
Since the characters lived in a pioneer, agrarian world, which is fairly foreign to many of us, their comparisons often involve animals (a panther, lamb, ox), which were essential to their livelihood or represented a threat to their safety. This strangeness or quaintness can come across to us as fresh uses of figurative language. I may have overdone the metaphors and similes, but it was lots of fun to think them up.
Language use is part of entering another's world, so I had to think in terms of the physical reality around the characters. The smell of apples cooking brings comfort to many of us, but apples also get very hot and can spritz out of the pot. I like the simplicity and the complexity of this. I used some Pennsylvania Dutch words like strublich, but more often I preferred using diction that I loosely refer to as old-fashioned, such as, "I wager he has never transgressed."
I tried to characterize with language use; Yost often came across as harsh, but I let time soften him a little. Jonas expressed tentativeness and insecurity but also used a slightly more complex vocabulary since he liked to read. Polly's description of the place where she lived with her sister and brother-in-law, "this cabin sits in a little pouch that all the storms fly to," conveys something of the setting and mood, while also characterizing her fear.
Over the years that I worked on this novel the language use changed in two contradictory ways. My own inclination is toward understatement, but I learned that the language in each chapter needed to convey a sense of urgency and emotion; something needed to be at stake. On the other hand, I also learned the importance of what's not said in fiction. It carries a weight that's almost as important to the story as what's said or what's consciously thought.
P.B.: What writing project or projects are you working on now?
E.Y.M.: My current writing project is a contemporary novel, now set among a family of former Mennonites, living in Wisconsin. It's very different from Eyes at the Window. The main narrative takes place over five days on a dairy farm, and I'm using shifting third person point of view. Originally, this novel was my dissertation novel, but I've changed it significantly from a focus on three generations of female characters to a fuller look at family relationships.