Stephanie Kallos Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Stephanie Kallos

Stephanie Kallos

An interview with Stephanie Kallos

Stephanie Kallos discusses the story behind her second novel, Sing Them Home, a sweeping tale set in the American heartland.

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 National 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 ever since.

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.

A 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, you 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 next novel:

"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!

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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