This is a question I am asked frequently, most recently and excellently by Caroline P., a sixth-grader and aspiring writer who contacted me with such a sophisticated litany of questions about writing, I was blown away. Caroline’s inquiry into the craft of writing is beyond her years, and I look forward tremendously to reading her work in those years to come. Caroline was particularly interested in the writing process and how the incipient spark advances from conception through revision:
The Yonder Side of Sass and Texas is a novel that celebrates family, language (especially the illustrative and metaphoric language of our region), the wonder and wander of faraway lands, the gravitational tug of home, and the capital-m Mystery behind life’s howbeit. The novel’s chapters are narrated by different characters, each with their own voice; and the novel’s settings take place from Southern Illinois to the Scottish Highlands to the Moroccan Sahara and myriad places in between. Each of these has been influenced by the people I know and the places I’ve been—but no single person, incident, or place is a reproduction of those I have had the blessing of knowing or experiencing in life.
So while the people and places that make me who I am have a certain impression on my writing, it is ultimately the salvific grit of love that is responsible for The Yonder Side, one that has been derived from the following entities:
Faith: I had the extraordinary privilege of perceiving faith by example in that of my grandmother, Hazel Teresa White, whose faith demonstrated that truth encourages inquiry, and whose example taught me that inherent in Catholicity is letting loose your heart deep and wide to everything and everyone you encounter, experience, are, and aren’t—no matter what, come what may. And when what-may comes: offer it, examine it, and go on loving, utterly and flat-out. That anything less is downright selfish.
Family: My grandma and grandpa, Helen Elizabeth and Cecil Tweedy, gifted my family with a clear understanding of bounty and the unending love of kinship. They shaped our hearts with theirs and showed us how each fits into the space of the other, striking the peculiar and perfect imbalance that equates all we ever need to know about the exquisitely impossible ties that bind. And thank heaven for it, too, because my family is boundless in number, notion, and affection. While some live life out loud, stirring up love in spicy gumbos of emotion, others are of a mind to live life in the shadowed warmth of that cauldron, conjuring love in the underneath parts of word and action. Yet all of them love mighty and without measure, and because of that—whether clamorous or calm, eloquent or exigent, in communion or in confusion—I have tasted and felt love in every blessed interaction with my family.
Home: Indeed no place compares. The gravitational tug of my hilly home-soil in Southernmost Illinois lives deep in my heart and rests in my soul like a sigh of utter contentment. Its sundry wonders both merciless and steeped in grace conjure to mind that there is always a place along life’s hardroad that is buffered without end by winding byways swampful of devotion, support, and cicada-song. Its waters and winds will forever stir the marrow at my core and remind me that the bone center of everything is liquid.
Travel: An ardent foreign-adventurist with chronic and gravitational home-soil leanings, I have spent a considerable amount of time journeying overseas, and I am profoundly grateful for travel’s insistence on presenting us with a keener awareness of a wider world. A wanderluster at heart, travel has been a defining characteristic of my work and life, weaving its way through endeavors and explorations close to home and far away. A wonderluster in spirit, I find my way home through poetry.
The Celebration of Language: As a writer, I am especially grateful to have been born and raised in a linguistic region that is leapfrogged betwixt the Ozarks and Appalachia, a place whose geography belongs to the former and idiom to the latter. Although the region’s linguistic flavor is apparent to anyone with an ear for the illustrative, the fact that its linguistic landscape has been so meticulously mapped, examined, and celebrated by philologists and language scholars isn’t necessarily common knowledge outside of their studied circles. I didn’t become aware of the fact until I left the region and started receiving slight glances aslant upon the use of certain words and phrases that spiced my speech patterns. As I began to study language, I came to appreciate and understand the metaphoric and cultural significance of our region’s speech patterns, vocal constructs, semantic anomalies, and lush linguistic landscape—a landscape that is part of a larger dialect linguists have noted as among the most vivid, illustrative, and metaphoric American dialects extant and alive today. Southernmost Illinois’ linguistic landscape shares a connection with everything from the region’s culture to its settlement patterns and geographic distinctions, and I feel honored to give voice to this landscape of language in the novel’s pages.
Writers and Readers: Other writers are an inspiration. The quantity of quality work in this world is downright invigorating. How fortunate we are to be immersed in such abundance. I am also inspired by readers, with whom I have felt tremendous gratitude in sharing my work. As an avid reader, I am, at any given time, in the middle of a mess of books, swapping finished favorites with others, and I long ago stopped keeping track of what I’d passed along to another. When I cannot locate a book I have relished, it thrills me to think that another is sharing in it, and I am happily reminded of the number of books that have been passed along to me—and also the number I have yet to read.
And perchance it should please you to pass my work along, unending thanks for the fugitive embrace.