Stephanie Kallos, author of Sing Them Home and Broken For You,
chats with BookBrowse reviewer Vy Armour
How did you come up with the idea for Sing Them Home? Not that
tornados are so unusual in Nebraska, but the circumstances of this particular
one are so peculiar and interesting.
The initial idea for Sing Them Home arose from a photo in the March 1974
Geographic and from my family's personal connection to that photo.
Until I was five, my parents and I lived in Wymore, Nebraska, and among my
folks' best friends at that time were Ed and Hope McClure. They lived a few
miles outside of town in a 19th century farmhouse that had great historical
significance to the community and that Hope had lovingly restored and furnished
with period antiques. I still remember a great deal about that house even
though the last time I saw it was in 1960, which is when we moved away.
In 1974, in one of those examples of freakish tornadic behavior, a funnel cloud
came through, passing by the farmhouse across the road, bouncing over the
highway, and landing on the McClure house. Hope, who had MS and was in a
wheelchair at the time, was home alone with the youngest of her five children,
who was at that time a toddler. The baby was found wandering the fields wearing
her diaper, having suffered nothing but a few scratches and (one would assume) a
terrible scare; Hope was badly hurt, but survived. The house and everything in
it was gone.
The National Geographic photo was taken a few miles away, near Blue Springs
Nebraska. It shows a vast, flattened, muddied milo field with a farmer leaning
over the remains of Hope's baby grand piano. It was the only thing that came
down in any kind of recognizable form. My mom used to say, "How can a deep
freezer just disappear? How can a washing machine disappear? All those things
where did they go?" These questions and their implications have haunted me
I always envisioned the book as the story of three siblings whose mother went up
but never came down, and the grief surrounding such a loss so in that sense
the story didn't change. But the book took on a new and deeper significance when
I lost both of my folks during the writing process my dad in January 2005 and
my mom a year later, almost to the day. For that reason, Sing The Home evolved into a
much more personal book. The gift of my own loss I suppose is that it allowed me
to stand with more authenticity, humility, and empathy in my characters' shoes.
For years I believed that this book would be my first novel; I'm glad it wasn't.
Other than the connections you mentioned above, are any of the characters based on your personal experience?
As far as the ways my personal experience intersects with the book...There are
many similarities between the way writers and actors inhabit/imagine
characters. (My twenty years in the theatre taught me almost everything I know
about writing, and that's my frame of reference.) As an actor, one has
to excavate the places of connection, the shared experiences and emotions that
provide a common ground with the character; from thence. However, once that
connection is established, it's essential that a creative elaboration occur.
lot of what actors do when moving beyond their personal connection to
a character is to ask the question "What if?" Because personal experience will
only get you so far if one hopes to inhabit the big, transcendent characters.
For example, when you're playing a role like, let's say, Lady Macbeth or Juliet,
have to expand beyond your limited connection and fill up the demands of roles
like that with something much larger than yourself. "What if?" is a powerful
question for writers to ask as well - and a crucial one, if one hopes to write
fiction that isn't thinly disguised autobiography.
I do have a long history as a musician. As a young person, I
trained as a classical pianist. I also sang and played in bars for many years
before I started acting.
But, even though we share some common ground, none of the characters are me.
What are you working on now?
You can probably tell that I'm
fascinated with relationships between the dead and the living. My third
novel will explore that territory more directly, through an examination of the
American Spiritualist movement and some of its key historical figures. Being a
writer feels very much at times like being a medium. I've also described writing
as a benign form of schizophrenia. There's definitely something magical
about all these people who show up in my head. Where do they come from? Perhaps
they're spirits, yearning to tell their stories.
Here's a quote I've loved for years, one that will serve as an epigraph for the
"There are just thousands of people inside my head, and if they're ghosts, they
sure shriek real loud. All waiting to tell me their stories. I just transcribe.
At my best I'm a transcriber of those eerie voices." - Bharati Mukherjee.
I couldn't say it better!