Literary Inheritances: An Interview With My Dad

Rattle & Pen is a biweekly column exploring the liminal space between raising children and creating art.

Some of my most pleasant early-reader memories are of bedtime stories with my dad. My sister and I would get into our pajamas, brush our teeth, and snuggle onto her bed for a story with Dad. We read The Hobbit this way and Roald Dahl’s The Witches. We read C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Farley Mowat’s The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be. My dad was an expert story reader. Read in his voice, the stories filled and flushed with his love of words and his ability to draw out the music of language. (He also always did all the funny voices with hilarious perfection—a feat I now try hard to match in my own bedtime reading to my kids.)

Years later, as a young adult, I grew to appreciate my dad as a writer as well as a reader. He is an ELCA (Lutheran) pastor—and one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard. He is an essayist and a poet. When I began to express interest in pursuing a career in writing myself, it was my dad who took me to my first poetry reading. He recommended books and read my drafts (with love, but also with an editor’s helpful attention to my errors).

Now, I look at my writing and see my inheritance there. Both of my parents revere literature, read voraciously, and have always supported my writing. (My mother is still often my first and best reader.) It is my father, though, whose cadences appear in my prose. It’s his way of seeing the world—of seeking beauty and spotting grace—that has shaped my own instincts as a storyteller.

With gratitude for this influence in mind (and, of course, Father’s Day), this week I’m turning Rattle & Pen over to him for answers to a few brief questions on reading, writing, and parenting kids who love literature. (Thanks, Dad!)

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The author and her father doing what they love most - reading.

When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer? Did you write as a kid, or was this a piece of your identity and work that developed only later?

I'm not sure that I've ever thought of myself as a "writer" – rather just as someone who can write well, if that makes sense. More a facet than a defining label. I started writing creatively in early high school—first a one-act play, then a short-short story, then poetry. I thought I was "good" because everything I wrote tweaked my teachers.

I think all writers come to the page first as readers. So, in light of that, what book did you first truly love?

Honestly, it was a collection of "nonsense" poetry titled "Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing." It included Ogden Nash, e.e. cummings, James Thurber and many, many others.

What books would you now name as the most central to you (however you understand that word—“central" here)? (Let's say three books.)

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Langston Hughes; Kerouac’s On the Road… That's four already, but it pains me to leave out Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

My earliest memories of myself as a reader are really memories of you and Mom reading to me. There are books that feel defining of my relationships with each of you at different points in my early readership. I'm curious, though, what books did you most like reading with us [my sister and me], and why?

The Dr. Seuss books—and anything else of whimsy and meaning (like Roald Dahl...).

Most of your writing has been in the shape of the sermon (which, I'd say—though maybe I'm missing something here—is somewhere between a lyric essay and an academic lecture), or poetry. What do you think calls to you about each form? What does one do that the other can't?

I've always thought of preaching/sermons as a form of performance art more than anything else. The goal is to invite people (more than persuade) to go to a place within themselves and within the world that has been uncomfortable, un-noticed, untouched.

The lyric part, if you will, is there to gently - most of the time - crack open the heart so listening can take place, the teaching/academic part is to open the mind so that questions can be asked, and the poetic is to provide the twists and empty places inhabited by surprise, sabbath, and the "Oh Shits!" of deep discovery.

This column focuses on parenthood and writing, so I'm curious about how you think being a parent influenced your writing—positively and maybe negatively too.

In many ways parenting taught me to not underestimate audiences while still being careful with words. You and your sister taught me much about trusting the wisdom of others and the price of my carelessness. Parenting is a classroom for humanness and humaneness and humility.

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