The Language of Sycamores
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Karen Sommerfield has been hiding from life-immersing herself in a high-powered job-until the day the company downsizes her out of a job and the doctor tells her that she may have cancer. It's a double blow that sends Karen on a search for herself in the last place she ever thought to look: Grandma Rose's old farm.
As Karen's hectic schedule falls away, she opens up to the unexpected. In the quiet of the Missouri Ozarks, she hears the soft, secret language of the sycamore trees, and discovers answers and a joy to make her life complete.
Lisa Wingate is a popular writer and inspirational speaker in central Texas, where she lives with her husband and two sons. She was raised in Oklahoma and studied writing at Oklahoma State University. Tending Roses, her first mainstream novel, is a particularly special debut, as the grandmother stories in the book are based on the recollections of her own grandmother.
What is your "typical" day? How do you fit writing in with being a wife and mother?
My typical day begins with getting the boys off to school, which is a change for me in the last few years. My typical day used to be entertaining a toddler while hurrying to write during naptimes. Now that everyone is in school, I usually sit down to write while drinking my tea first thing in the morning. I hear the cadence of the words like music, and when I'm really into a story, everything else fades away. It's sometimes hard for me to remember that the people and events in the stories aren't realwhich, actually, may mean I need some kind of therapy. It has occurred to me that I spend a great deal of time listening to the voices in my head and talking to imaginary people!
On a good writing day, I may find myself still in my pajamas with my keyboard in my lap at eleven a.m., all of which is fine, unless neighbors stop by, and I end up answering the door with a bad case of bed head, sheepishly saying "No, really, I didn't just get up. I've been working for hours."
How do you develop your characters? Is there some of you in each of them?
My characters tend to be based on people I have known and sometimes people I have crossed paths with for only a moment or two in life. There are also aspects of the characters that come from my imagination, from the process of discovering a story and the people in it.
I meet my characters the way you would meet any new person in life. I do not invent them all at once; rather, they invent themselves as the story develops. In the beginning, I know only the obvious things about them. I know how they look, how they talk, how they react to other people and situations around them. I discover the deeper aspects of each character as the story goes along, and many of those things surprise me. Characters will say, do, or think things that cause me to deeply ponder their motivations, their desires, and the events in their pasts that have shaped them into who they are. Eventually, they become real to me, with quirks, and feelings, and histories all their own.
How do you choose titles for your books? Does this title have a special meaning?
Usually, sometime during the process of writing a book, the "perfect" title will come to me. Sometimes, this happens at the beginning, along with the book idea, as in Texas Cooking, which I knew was to have that title from the very start. In other cases it takes longer. Tending Roses, Good Hope Road, and Lone Star Café were cases in which I searched and agonized over titles all the way through writing the book (it's a little like having a baby with no name), until finally the right title came along.
In the case of The Language of Sycamores, I'd written about one-fourth of the book before the right title became apparent. I went out walking on a breezy evening, and the sound of sycamore leaves fluttering in the wind transported my mind, just for an instant, to the old family farm, twenty years ago. I realized that memories can be tied to anything, even such an everyday sound as leaves combing the wind. Each type of tree has its own particular language. For me, the whisper of sycamores takes me back to the old farm, to the popping sound of cottonwood leaves to the house I grew up in, to the swish of wind in the aspens to my first married year in the mountains of New Mexico, and to the hush of palms to my early childhood on the Florida coast.
I knew that Karen was having much the same experience on her return visit to Grandma Rose's farm. The familiar sights and sounds carried her back to the past and back to herself. Among these, of course, were those lofty sycamores, which whispered the secrets of mermaids and fairies and sisterhood and finally shared their wisdom with new generations.
How do the humor and the deep, dark emotions coexist in your books?
As they do in life. Laughter and tears are often close cousins. There is an old saying that there are times when you can either laugh or cry, and it's better to laugh. I think a book needs a balance of humor and serious emotion to make it work. There is nothing more endearing than a character (or a person) who can laugh at him or herself, who is determined to smile in the face of adversity, who has an imperfect, silly side. If you know that a person loves to laugh, it is only that much more powerful when you see that person cry.
As a writer, I try to write the kind of stories I like to read. I like writing that celebrates the good in the world and in people, that leaves me feeling uplifted and hopeful. I like stories and characters that cause me to think about the world in a new way, to look beyond the surface of things and people. I love a story that makes me laugh, cry, then laugh again. When I turn the final page of a book, I want to feel as if I've just eaten the last bite of Thanksgiving dinner and I'm ready to sit back in my chair, let out a long, slow sigh, and tell everyone else how good the food was.
What kind of writer do you consider yourself? What literary label are you comfortable with?
I think I would consider myself a mainstream fiction novelist, an inspirational writer, and in some ways, just an old-fashioned storyteller, though I don't think the labels really matter. I write the stories that are in my head and heart, which is all that I can do. For me, writing is much like being a child again, playing in the backyard, where we built pretend houses from sticks, pine needles, rocks, or piles of grass clippings. We created imaginary characters and began living out the lives of those characters, getting to know them as we went along. The stories developed from there. They were God-given treasures from our imaginations. We didn't chart our plotlines ahead of time. We just discovered them as we went along, and I still do. The only difference now is that my mom no longer makes me come in at dark.
In terms of historical writers, I very much admire Mark Twain, who wrote about everyday things, spoke in language you didn't need a dictionary to read, and often made use of humor. His stories sought to answer timeless human questions by considering the events of everyday life and the wisdom of ordinary people.
How would you describe yourself?
Mother, wife, author, true believer, imperfect person, hopefully a good friend. I try to show up for my friends and family when they need me. One of my greatest Mother's Day gifts was a card from my son, which contained all the normal things kids say in Mother's Day cards. The final sentence said: "You always keep your promises". I know that isn't true one hundred percent of the time, but I think my little fellow has figured out one of the timeless axioms of life: If you tell people they are what you want them to be, they will try that much harder to live up to your expectations.
The character of Grandma Rose is based on your own grandmother. What kind of grandmother do you think you'll be?
I think I will be a good grandmother. I hope I'll be the type who is more interested in going on picnics than in worrying about mud on the floor or dishes in the sink. I hope I'll bake cookies and trundle off to school and baseball games with my basket full and force them on people who are on a diet. I hope I'll be one of those grandmothers who goes around adopting every kid in townwho knows that my grandchildren are just slightly superior to any other children ever born, but is too polite to say so. I hope I'll dump bubble bath in the wading pool, rather than making the kids go inside for a bath. I hope I'll wake up sleeping babies so that I can sit and cuddle them, show them shooting stars and sunrises, sneak chocolates to them behind their parents' backs, and tiptoe into their rooms after bedtime to tell them stories. I hope, when my children tell me they'll be arriving for a visit on Wednesday afternoon, I'll start cooking on Monday morning, and by noon Monday, I'll call asking why they're late.
If someone wanted to find more information about your books or write you a note, how could they do that?
Through my Web site, www.lisawingate.com. One of the most wonderful things about the publication of the books has been the chance, through e-mail and speaking engagements, to talk with so many people from so many different walks of life. Writing as a career is an odd paradox, in that it is a solitary profession in which you spend your time trying to communicate thoughts, feelings, emotions, or experiences to other people. What you find, after talking to enough people (real and imaginary), is that the human condition changes very little from life to life, from generation to generation. We all want happiness, contentment, a sense of belonging, to love and be loved. We all struggle with common choices, challenges, and sacrifices, and there is comfort in knowing just that. On any given road, you're never the only traveler. There are always people ahead, there are always people behind. The trick is to learn what you can from those you pass along the way and to remember that the builder of the road knew what He was doing.
Where did you grow up? Was your childhood like and unlike those of the characters in the book?
I was actually born in Germany, and my family moved several times after that when I was very young, due to my father's job advancements. He was in the computer industry very early on, and his opportunities were always changing. I was a naturally shy kid, so moving and switching schools and friends was hard for me. We finally settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when I was still in elementary school, so I am more or less a native Tulsan.
I grew up in a typical busy suburban household, with two parents into careers and no extended family nearby. We kids spent our time roaming the neighborhood, scaring up games of tag and touch football. As long as we were home by the time the streetlights came on, no one worried about us. We had a kind of freedom kids don't have today. Even though we lived in a neighborhood, we had space to be and pretend, to create and wander. We had no concept of private property rights. Any tree was ours to climb, and every field was crisscrossed with bike trails. We had grand names for every patch of treesnames like Sherwood Forest and Peaceful Forestand every kid in the neighborhood knew which forest was which. It was a long, lazy kind of childhood, not filled with all the carefully scheduled activities kids have today. I wish every kid could have that time to wander and create imaginary worlds. These days, kids don't like to be bored. They don't expect to be, and that is a shame. Some of our greatest childhood moments grew out of lack of stuff to do. We learned to invent our own imaginary adventures because there were no videos and video games to invent them for us. Necessity may be the mother of invention for adults, but boredom is the mother of childhood invention.
- In what ways do the characters in the book measure success? How are their values reflective of, or a reaction to, today's society? How have expectations changed in the last fifty years in terms of the typical American family?
- Do you agree with Brother Baker's assessment that it is our scarsour little nicks, dents, and imperfections that make us able to relate to other people? Have you seen evidence of this in your own life?
- Karen defends her career change by saying that, after years of pursuing the outward symbols of success, she now desires a job that will give her satisfaction of the soul. In what ways do you seek satisfaction of the soul?
- Karen's journey home causes her to rediscover lost parts of herself. Do you think it is possible to rediscover lost interests and passions? What lost passions would you like to rediscover?
- Karen describes the moment of childhood's end, in Mrs. Klopfleish's class, when she suddenly became conscious of her own imperfections. After that, everything was different for her. Do you think everyone has such a moment of moving from the innocent self-acceptance of childhood to the self-criticism and self-consciousness of adulthood?
- Karen asks, at one point, why God would give Dell such an amazing talent, yet put her in such an oppressive, destructive environment. What are some possible answers to that question, or is there an answer?
- In what ways has the decision to have or not to have children become an invisible barrier between Kate and Karen? Have you seen instances in which this issue has divided friends and family members?
- Which sister, Kate or Karen, did you relate to more easily?
- On the plane, Keiler notes that it is the tragedies in our life that bring us back to the foundations of family and faith, the things that do not change when everything else does. What have been the foundations in your own life? What events have taken you away from them, and brought you back again?
- The sound of sycamore leaves is a touch point that takes Karen's mind back to her childhood visits to the farm. Are there similar touch points in your own life?
- Karen jokingly says that, if there were anyone, anywhere stubborn enough to manipulate other peoples' lives from beyond the grave, it would be Grandma Rose. In what ways is Grandma Rose still a presence in the family, even though she is gone?
- James finally confesses to Karen that one of his reasons for not wanting children was his own fear of being left alone to raise a family, as his father was after his mother's death. In what ways do we let fear rule our lives? In what ways does fear keep us from really living?
- What does the river symbolize in the story? In what ways are Karen's plunge into the mermaid pool and the eventual return of the new generation to the riverside symbolic?