1) Welcome, Anene! I absolutely loved reading your debut novel, Dancing with Gravity. It's freshness, originality, and intelligence are extraordinary. Please tell us about your background and the inspiration behind your book. Why did you choose a priest, Father Samuel Whiting, as the protagonist?
AT: Oh Susan, thank you! I’ m thrilled that you enjoyed my book. And what’ s more, your questions show a really thorough and sensitive reading of the text...for which I am very grateful. Thank you for the attention and effort you’ve put into my review. As for my own background: It certainly informs the book. My family moved around a good deal as I was growing up. And while my own childhood was nothing like the one that Whiting experienced, the idea of frequent relocation found its way into his story. I am also an RN by background, and worked some ten years in a hospital setting (so that was also very familiar to me). As for making Whiting a priest: While I was studying for my MA in creative writing, I wrote a short story with Whiting as the central character. He really needed to be a priest in that story (he was called to officiate at a memorial service). But I fell so in love with him as a character that I wanted to place him in a novel. Although he is an individual and certainly not a stand-in for all priests, I wanted/needed him to be literally unavailable for certain life choices because of his calling. His identity as a priest made that automatic. As an aside, I’ve just received a review on Amazon from a Methodist minister who writes that she also identified with Whiting because, as a minister, she must function as “ an outsider” (her term) and cannot enter relationships in the same way that many of us take for granted.
2) Along similar lines, what gave you the idea for the Little Flower Circus in the book, and in having Father Whiting bless the circus and have increasing interaction with the circus and its performers?
AT: I've always been intrigued by the circus. It requires so much athletic ability and showmanship. The costumes are often very beautiful and exotic. And the lifestyle of the performers is so unlike what most of us ever experience. Circus people are “ set apart” as Whiting himself is. And since his mother was also an entertainer, he would have had a visceral reaction to the circus. It would have been both appealing and may also have evoked a certain longing. We have a St. Louis circus, called Circus Flora. Some years ago, my husband and I both spent a few summer months volunteering as ushers and general hangers-on. I took notes. I listened. I watched. I found a life that seemed at once inside and outside the community. They (circuses) have their own communities, much like portable small towns.
As for the blessing: Catholic parishes (at least here in St. Louis) often offer a blessing of the animals on Oct. 4th each year (the day of St. Francis). And it’ s not uncommon for a priest to bless a new home. So the idea of a blessing seemed the perfect way for Fr. Whiting to get involved. Then too, Whiting is a Pastoral Care provider...so it would be an easy fit for him to stay involved with the circus after the blessing, in order to minister to the spiritual needs of the circus troupe.
3) Although Father Whiting is devoted to his mother--he calls and visits her regularly--their relationship is strained. He has other relationships that are also not quite right, with his secretary, Carla, and his friendship with his longtime friend, Jerry, who has cancer. Whiting acknowledges that he struggles in his relationships and even considers the possibility that he may be autistic (to an extent). But I have felt that way myself at times, that my relationships are draining and/or puzzling. Aren't many human relationships inherently difficult, especially to a sensitive person?
AT: Exactly! Relationships are difficult. And they are a challenge to Whiting just as they are trying to all of us. But on top of that, he’ s a shy man. He’ s painfully aware of his loneliness...and he lacks the life experience that many people his age would naturally have had. That is a common burden for most priests (Catholic) to accommodate as they try to serve their communities. Another note: I ended up taking that reference to autism out of the book just before it went to press. I revised some dates in my novel to better capture the period of upheaval in Central America, and so the reference didn’t work. (I was actually citing the memoir of a real-life person, Temple Grandin, who wrote a book about her autism. With the new dates, I couldn’t use the reference, because Grandin hadn’t yet written her book.)
4) Father Whiting develops a fierce crush on Sarah James, who is working alongside him on the circus project. The experience brings him to life and he feels alive rather than "asleep in his own life". How did you go about developing this aspect of the story?
AT: Whiting is lonely. He lacks life experience and is therefore vulnerable to Sarah’s attention. He is heading towards a perfect tempest. Again, this is his very particular reaction to the situation. (For example, I’ m sure that if Jerry Stemple had been in Whiting’ s position, he would have had a very different reaction to Sarah.) Whiting’ s relationship with Sarah serves as his motivation for much of his interaction with the circus, but it also helps reveal the complexity of his personality. Whiting progresses from a cordial work relationship to a raging crush...then a deep hurt...and, ultimately, wisdom.
5) Although your book is written in the third person, it is about the innermost thoughts of Father Whiting. He is a very sensitive man. I think I may call him a highly sensitive person (HSP), a term I read about many years ago. As I remember, an HSP may fall in love more easily than a "regular" person. What do you think about this idea?
AT: I hadn’t heard that idea about highly sensitive people falling in love more easily. It’ s intriguing. But that reminds me of an anecdote I heard years ago (although I can’t recall the source). Supposedly, if a person is deeply, madly in love, their brain waves look very much like those of someone suffering a mental illness such as schizophrenia. Again, I have no idea whether that’ s true, but love—in all its forms—is one of the most powerful forces in the universe.
***********Thank you for answering my questions about your book, Anene. Next are a few questions about writing, a photo, and because I cannot resist, a single question about music.
6) After you had the basic idea for your book, how long did it take you to write Dancing with Gravity, from start to finish? Are you a disciplined writer?
AT: I feel as though I’m living that refrain in the Beatles’ Paperback Writer: “ Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?/ It took me years to write, will you take a look?” I’ve been working on this book for years. Literally. But there were VERY LONG periods of time—many months at a stretch—when I didn’t touch it. So no, I have not been a disciplined writer of my own work. In part, that may be because I make my living as a freelance writer. And I am very disciplined about that. In part, that was pragmatic: I needed to earn a living. And client work resulted in a check, while fiction might not. But I think part of my behavior was also due to fear. I’ m exposing myself and what matters to me in my own creative work. That kind of risk and resulting vulnerability can be tough....and painful. The photographer Ansel Adams used to take portraits of school children to support his own work and he spoke about the difference between work that comes from the outside (client work) and work that comes from the inside (your own). You approach the client work with integrity. You want to do it well. But it’s not the same. Work I do for clients belongs to them...and I take their direction in making it just right. This book is mine. It’s a completely different universe.
7) Usually I ask authors to share some writing advice, but today I ask you this question with a twist. What was the worst writing-related advice that anyone gave you?
AT: The VERY WORST advice I ever received (and as you may note by my capitalized words— it makes me angry still) is the kind of precious and self-satisfied advice that a writer once gave me when I asked for encouragement: “ It’ s not a question of whether you “ can” write (read: have the talent to write) but whether you MUST write.” I mean really, what does that mean? It’s an absurd comment. Breathing. Food and water. Shelter. Those are essential. But writing is not in that category. Worse, that type of comment is designed to exclude. To keep an aspiring writer out of “the club". Well…ignore them. Ignore anyone and everyone who wants to get in the way. If writing matters to you, then write. It’ s hard work. There are no guarantees. And in that, it seems very much like life.
8) Your book is funny, sincere, and offbeat. If Dancing with Gravity were made into a movie, what would you include on the soundtrack?
AT: Oh Susan...what a surprising question....I love it! Well...let me first direct you to the book trailer, which has a combination of more traditional circus music as well as a bed of music—in several different styles—that supports the text.
I can't take credit for those selections, but I like them. I'm also delighted that the range of emotions I tried to convey in the book came through to you as a reader. In a perfect world, the music in a film would underscore the action and support the overall tone of the film the director envisioned. And because of the range of events and settings in the novel, I think the opportunities for visual and musical interpretations could be stunning and wide-ranging—with or without lyrics. Imagine the fanfare and drama of musical possibilities with the circus performance, or something a little unsettling and lonely under Whiting's drive to the Motherhouse in the fog to say Mass. Think what music might underscore the night of the fireflies or the scene after the storm when the circus men are trying to calm the horses. When I think of music I might associate with Fr. Whiting, my mind turns to the bittersweet. There was a little film called Once a few years back. It had the loveliest songs. There's one called "Falling Slowly" that feels right for Whiting. But actually, now that I think of it, there are several songs from that film that have the tone and lyrics that would be wonderful. And we haven't even talked Bob Dylan. He has a song, "What Was It You Wanted?" that always makes me think of Nikolai. But before I float away on fantasies of the red carpet, I suggest we make a pact: if anyone ever makes a film from Dancing With Gravity, let's both go to the world premier! (See...I REALLY am getting carried away with this dream!)
(Me, too, Anene! I'd love to attend the premier. And may I suggest a great-sounding song from the 1970s, Tight Rope by Leon Russell, which I think would fit the film perfectly?)
9) Please tell us about your next writing project.
AT: If you had asked me this question the day after I turned in my manuscript to my publisher, I’d have told you that my fantasy is to be Harper Lee: Write one book that becomes a classic and never write again. But my memory about the demands of writing a novel is short. So I am planning another work. I have several things I’m considering...and I’ve been keeping ideas in a notebook. I’ve given myself the artificial date of June 1st as a starting date for the new work (which makes this sound very much like my annual New Year’s Resolutions). But one thing I’ve promised myself: I WILL write every day. Because the best advice I can give myself, having lived through the way I did things in Dancing With Gravity is this: a novel is big. It’ s more complicated than I thought. And it takes a lot of organization and energy. Writing it, putting it away for months, and then trying to go back to it, is a very tough route to take. I don’t advise it. And I promised myself I wouldn’t put myself through that sort of unnecessary torture again.
Thank you very much, Anene. It was a pleasure to read your first novel and to get to know you through this interview.
***********Please visit the Anene Tressler's blog for additional information, or my review. Your comments are welcomed. Thanks for reading!