J: In those intervening
years, he has grown much deeper, I feel. As I have grown, so grows
the character. I do believe there are many readers who want me to
write the same book again and again. Many want At Home in Mitford
served, baked, broiled, fried, and sautéed. But he grows, I grow,
and we leave Mitford. Why did he leave Mitford? Why didn’t I just
write about Mitford until the end of my days? The simple answer is
this. I had nothing more to say. I had delved everything of
interest to me. I must write about what interests and attracts and
draws me. I write for my readers. There would be no sense in doing
it all if there weren’t someone there to complete the picture and
join the author in fully bringing the book alive. But Mitford is
gone…The reader who wants more Mitford must now do what the author
has done these many years, use her or his imagination. Their
imagination is as qualified, as certified and important as my
R: It’s like a folk tale!
J: It is, and they can pass it down and add their own voice and their own permutations, and Dooley can in their story get married and have children and grandchildren. It’s amazing how many people have begged me to write that component of Mitford…[But] one of the things that makes us grow is the valley…We must come down to the valley where things grow. [Father Tim] had a type of valley in Home to Holly Springs in the first Father Tim novel, and now he is dealing with the valleys of many others. He goes to Ireland with Cynthia at last after many years of planning to do this, and many delays and interruptions to look up his family ancestral line. He came out of County Sligo, his people did. He encounters a whole other family, and there he is, stuck with them for the entirety of this book! A whole family with guilt and pain and secrets and concerns of all kinds and nothing much spoken in the beginning—everybody holding something back. I have found that confession is a cleansing, much-needed ritual. We need it frequently. That, too, has been abused, but the whole notion of it is purifying and freeing. It gives liberty to the confessor. That’s what’s we’re dealing with in this book. I wondered whatever happened to confession…So, let’s say confession each to the other, you to me, I to you. It’s equally liberating and ennobling. I think what we all want—and it’s interesting I would be chattering my brains out as I say this—all we all really want is someone to hear us, someone to acknowledge that we actually exist. So, that’s what this book is about.
R: Well, I love that because it has seemed to me throughout your books that in some way the number one plot line was the achievement of the idyll that Father Tim believes in, and that idyll involves just being in a room and being able to talk with people. There’s that scene in Chapter 21 when everyone is telling jokes and Cynthia is doing the portrait. That’s another kind of thing about which we could say, “What ever happened to…,” isn’t it?
J: Yes, absolutely we can say that. The other night, I had a very small dinner party here. There were six of us. During dessert I felt compelled—I did not know one of the couples at all, I knew very little about the other couple. I was doing it for a friend who’s going through [radiation therapy]—terrible. I just said, “Let’s talk about our childhoods.” I thought, you know, if we talk about our childhoods, even for five minutes—three minutes!—I will know something about these people that will resonate with today. And so we went around the table, and I could tell that is was hard for a couple of people, and even for me because when it came around to me, I really didn’t know what I was going to tell, to confess. We all stood around that conversation as if around a fire, warming our hands. Instead of jumping up and going into another room, as we sort of socially were asked to do, we just sat at the table and did that. I found that people really were hesitant to leave. They stayed a long time because it broke some preciousness that we hold around ourselves. I just think we’re hungry, starving to death, Rob, just for some of the things we used to do—sitting on the porch. What do you do when you sit on the porch? Well, you listen to the crickets, you look out at the stars, you might talk about the stars. You look at the moon setting or rising, depending on the time of day and year, and you talk. You just talk. And just share, and open yourselves, possibly to some new wound.
R: Hmm. Wow, that’s great. If there’s a name for that movement, I’ll sign up.
R: Actually, that’s leads to a good question. Your world view could be called a kind of religious belief, but can you go to a church and find an exact match?
J: No, there is no exact match. The only exact match is with God, whose known through Jesus Christ. There’s the match. And then you just try as best you can to find what is a pretty decent reproduction, what brings you closer into his presence. But the thing is, as a believer, we are always in his presence, and He is always in ours, which is really hard to remember, and even sometimes to believe. God Almighty is always present with me—how can that possibly be? But it’s true.
R: I have some other big questions, but let me back up just a little bit. (Both laugh.) It’s fascinating. You decided to take Tim and Cynthia to Ireland and create all these new characters. What was the first inspiration?
J: The first inspiration came into two pieces. First, it came in recognizing that he had Irish blood in the first novel; then, very late in the series, when I realized I wanted to take him further. When I closed down Mitford, why didn’t I close him down, too? The reason is, I thought, I’ve become very close to him. In the beginning, I found him boring. I really did. Throughout most of the first book, I really did not enjoy his company that much. I was just looking at him like a beetle on a pin.
R: He was a vessel.
J: He was a vessel. I just wanted to see what he would do and where he would go and how he would conduct himself. I just followed obediently and let him go do it. And I watched Barnabas come into his life, and Cynthia, and of course Dooley. I took a lonely, single bachelor with many unresolved issues, chiefly that with his father. I watched him blossom and grow into a more full and vibrant personality simply because those other people came into his life with great force. In the first novel, I had written along for some chapters before I knew what his last name was. Are we always going to call him Father Tim? Is that going to suffice? Well, no. It’s just that in the real world, you have to have a last name. You have to be classified in some way, so I went, “Tim, Tim, Timothy. It sounds Irish. It’s Biblical.” I thought that’s what a Catholic mother would name him. Let’s just check out Ireland and Catholics and all of that. Well, it turns out, as we know, he wasn’t Catholic, though we learn in this book that he had some Catholic ancestors, a couple of priests. Then…I thought, let’s take him to Holly Springs to try to settle that issue with his dad. I knew at that time that we would find out that he had a half-brother. Then, okay, I knew that he had to go to Ireland. This was before Holly Springs was finished because why? Well, I didn’t exactly know why. I just thought, I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland. Let’s go. And I never even touched my family history while I was there. I didn’t even want to go to County Tyrone. I was there for him. I was there for my work. And I worked very hard. I had much pleasure in my work, meeting the people, loving the people, really resonating with the people. That paternal half of me that comes out of that landscape, I loved getting in touch with it. And he never found out any more about the Kavanaghs. He just found out about the Conors.
R: It’s fascinating how your very earliest inspiration during that time between careers had been following this man, and now you’ve been continuing to follow him.
J: Well, you take any one life, Rob—if I took your life—it could satisfy me til the end of my days. If I pick a life at random on the street, it could satisfy me til the end of my days because every life, no matter how seemingly obscure or boring or uneventful is utterly, deeply fascinating and consuming. Agatha Christie wrote what—sixty-four books about Poirot. I mean, he was doddering out there on a stick by the time she got through with him. And so you just take that beetle on a pin and study it.
R : But Agatha Christie did not have to delve into the psychology of Poirot as much as you have with Tim.
J: Right. I’m interested how someone ordained as a man of God, how does he operate? A lot of priests can be scornful of Father Tim. They laugh at him because he seems namby-pamby and unreal. And yet over the years I have received many, many letters from clergy and often from priests, who love this man, and love his example because they see he’s doing what nobody else seems to want to do anymore, and that is simply being a pastor…Father Tim just wants to get in there and dig around, and do the best he can, and live a good life, and go to Heaven.
R: One definitely gets that in your books, that Tim has a special ability, an aptitude. He draws people who tell him their stories.
J: Yes, he’s really a bartender with a collar.
R: (laughs) You are the funniest person. Well, let’s talk about being the funniest person. People miss Uncle Billy, but he’s in the new book. We hear his jokes through Father Tim.
J: That’s right. You see, Mitford will resonate through Father Tim’s life wherever we take him…We hear from Dooley in this book, we hear from Emma. We’re always touching base with Mitford.
R: When you create the new characters, we still get the kind of characters we love, including the storytellers and the joke-tellers. One of the hallmarks of your work, I think, is the way you work in the anecdotes. And this is another thing, you collect such good ones.
J: Thank you—that’s hard to do!
R: It is. How do you do that?
J: I just go on line and go til I drop. First of all, it’s very hard to find a good, clean joke. And there’s Uncle Billy who has a certainly personality make-up, and not just any clean joke will do. It has to be one that suits the kind of man he is, the sort of joke he would tell. And I had to know these characters in Ireland. What’s the sort of joke that Seamus would tell? What’s the sort of joke dear Maureen would tell? I loved writing that chapter. I thought, we’ve got a lot of stuff going on here, and we’ve been confined to this place for days on end, and it’s rained, and we just need some jokes in here. I just did it for myself as much as anything. (laughs) I love to make people laugh, and I want to laugh, too.
R: The challenge with writing the village novel is to determine how much you’re going to deal with thriller elements and unrelieved tragedy. In your world view, as represented by your fiction, things are not as bad as people make them seem, and there are certain kinds of resolutions.
J: Well, I believe that everything is redeemable. I believe that God uses great, hard things for good. I believe, like a proper Yankee, he doesn’t waste anything. Everything is useful to God and will be made beautiful in the end by God. I think it’s important for us to believe that. He works these miracles all the time, whether we believe or not, simply because he loves us, he created us. And why did he create us? The most extraordinary thing is He created us because He wanted to be with us. He actually—this is really hard to believe, but it’s scriptural—enjoys our company. It’s like if you had a hobby of keeping bees, and you really loved your bees, watched how they performed, and their behavior, and enjoyed the honey. That’s God. He created us for Himself.
R: Well, I wasn’t planning on going in this direction, but let’s just see where it goes. (Both laugh) The opposing world view is that humans are screwed up—they have some graces—but we are destroying ourselves because evil trumps good. That’s a view that a lot of people have now, don’t you think?
J: It is. But evil cannot trump good. Evil can be widespread and destructive and insidious, but it does not trump good. God cannot be trumped. The Enemy, as [C.S.] Lewis liked to call him, is ever going to and fro across the earth, seeking whom he may devour, it tells us in scripture. He is at work all the time, and especially at work on believers. But God cannot be trumped.
R: And we need a positive point of view anyway.
J: We’ve got to get one. And there’s nothing to lose in believing, and everything to gain.
R: Let’s make a jump to the kind of positive that we like so much, which is small pleasures.
R: Isn’t that a Jan Karon kind of jump? You’re having some problems? Here, have a piece of apple pie.
R: I think your new cookbook is remarkable, by the way. But let’s talk about the pleasure of writing. When you write, do you take pleasure in allowing yourself to go off and do research in all kinds of crazy areas.
J: I do a lot of research, and did especially with this book. Annie Dillard said when she finished her very slender volume called The Maytrees, which took her ten years—she had to write like two hundred and something pages. She said, “It nearly killed me.” I had two years and several months to write four hundred pages, and it nearly killed me. I had to get—I tried to get the dialogue right. I had to get that sound in my ear so I could bring it out there to the reader, and they would feel like this is right, so they wouldn’t stumble over stuff and say, “Oof, I can’t read this,” that it would go to their ear the same way it fell upon mine, and be real, and living. That was hard, let me tell you; it was really hard. I read all the Irish authors I could possibly get my hands on, both living and dead.
R: I would love to convey to people the excitement of research. Can you tell a story about one of your research discoveries or experiences?
J: Yes. I went to Ireland for several weeks with my assistant. She did the driving. She took along the tape recorder and the camera, while I had my hands full with taking notes. We went into a bookstore in Sligo Town, the premiere bookstore in that town, and I met the owner. I said, “You know, I want to go where I hear the dialect, the music of the old Irish speech.” I was working in County Sligo, which is one of the least developed counties, and a county in which much Irish is still spoken. “Ah,” he said, “we don’t have much of that anymore.” I was very disappointed to hear this early in my travels, because that’s one of the things I was most interested in. Look at the Mitford series. I go for the fragments that are still left from the old Irish and Scottish speech that was brought here in the 1700s, including that of my own ancestors. The remnant speech pattern that is so beautiful and can still be heard in the mountains of North Carolina, and along the coast. So I was sort of long-faced about all that…After seeing this bookseller, we, on that very day, drove back out to the country, and we were driving by Lord Palmerston’s castle, and there we saw a man walking along the road. Just an ordinary man, probably in his fifties. I said, “Stop the car. I want to speak with him.”…I jumped out of the car, and Diane jumped out with the tape recorder, and here’s a man who spoke with such a heavy dialect that I could not understand him. I came back home, I put that CD in, and I understood less than a third of what he had to say.”