Interview with CATHRYN CLINTON author of THE CALLING
Gigi Amateau: I love Esta Lea in The Calling so much! First of all, I’m sort of partial to the two-named girls. I always wanted to be a two-named girl, myself. And, of course, Esta Lea’s sister is named Sarah Louise. I feel like the two-named girl syndrome is distinctly southern, don’t you?
Cathryn Clinton: Yes! My dad, who grew up in Mississippi, called my all my aunts by two names, Margaret Ann, Linda Ruth, and Sarah Beth. It’s hard for me not to hear that southern two-name voice in my mind whenever I write about the south.
GA: One of the many qualities that I admire in your characterization of Esta Lea is the truth with which you write of a child being called to share her gifts with her community. In The Calling, Esta Lea is called as a healer and the entire community really embraces her in this role. Could you share about your creative process and discovery of Esta Lea?
CC: In my own experience there really are three parts of “a calling,” and each has a question and a struggle or suffering as a part of it. There is some type of calling by and releasing to one’s higher power (for me that is God) that is unique, personal, and something you know in your knower. For me that calling is to the creative process of writing. Then there is the calling by “the community at large” that identifies an authenticity in what you are doing. This has happened for me through teachers, people in churches, writing mentors, and most often by children who read my books and say, “that’s so true.” The third calling comes from those who know you best and remind you during your darkest failures and rejections, of who they know you are, what they know you’ve done, and what they believe you will do. The’ inspiration’ comes from so many places; I couldn’t even begin to name them. My “observer/rememberer” is always on. Esta Lea was a voice in my mind that I could always hear. She comes from the stories told at family get-togethers. I come from a long line of very good southern story tellers, and they are all much better than I am.
GA: I also enjoyed the deep and meaningful friendship between Esta Lea and her BF, Sky. It’s funny and sweet and pure to read how Sky was driven to pursue the road of sainthood ala Joan of Arc. The tenderness with which Esta Lea reveals her gift of healing and visions to Sky, saying that it should have been Sky who was called to this ministry, for example, was really touching. Sky then serves almost as a Mother Superior or Confessor for Esta Lea. To you, what role did Sky play in Esta Lea’s growth through the novel?
CC: Sky plays the part of the “third calling I mentioned above,” best friend. She’s the kind who accepts you no matter what, you can and must tell anything to, will listen, be silent and at times tell you the truth in a way that will ultimately create, not destroy you, and then be there to pick up pieces for however long it takes. You can see that type of friendship evolving throughout the book. I have two of those myself that have kept me going.
GA: You hint that Sky is, indeed, living a life of suffering in her home life, but has found a way to transcend that suffering through her own faith. This is another example of how I feel like you treated the spiritual journey of children with respect. It would have been easy to draw a more competitive relationship between Sky and Esta Lea and I appreciate that you chose to write their friendship as a supportive one. Think about the early drafts and revision process of The Calling. How, if at all, did you as the author change or experience the friendship between Esta Lea and Sky over the course of first draft to publication?
CC: In the original book, Sky had much more of a role; in fact, I wanted to show how her calling sustained her and gave her hope. I have a file on her, because it killed me to cut out some of her story. I hope she has her own book some day. I respect that our spiritual, inner journeys start as children and continue throughout life. It is how so many children endure unendurable situations (like Sky’s and children I write about in other books) and childhood remembrances can also confirm many things when one grows in spirituality as an adult. It saddens me to see so much dismissed as “child-like,” or even “childish,” when it is precisely that lack of belief in deep values and truth in oneself and beyond oneself that is so needed in our world.
GA: For me, this book evokes home – like catfish and fried okra do! When I need grounding in what’s familiar to me, I pick up The Calling. As a child, I spent more than a few summer nights sweating it out in little country churches in Mississippi during revival weeks. As with Esta Lea and Sarah Louise, very often the gifts children – most often through music ministry – were central to the August-redemption of many good folks. Your writing really does evoke the electricity and urgency and intimacy of revival. In fact, a strong sense of place is evident in your other books, too: Simeon’s Fire, A Stone in My Hand, and Eyes of Van Gogh. What steps do you take in your pre-writing or early creative stages to understand or immerse your imagination in the book’s setting?
CC: It’s different for each book, because they each started differently. One I heard, another started from a picture in the Middle East, one from newspaper articles and plot, and one from a suicide picture of a girl that I saw in my mind. I am an immersion writer. I used to drive my family crazy because when I was “in” a book, I wasn’t anywhere else. I research in every way possible, (for A Stone, I read something like 20 books on economics in the Middle East to middle eastern poetry, to memoirs to ten books on Islam) as well as interview people. I had three friends who were large animal vets and they took me with them on their visits to barns and farms, for the Amish book. I also took pictures of places and even used the phone book to come up with all the southern names. In addition, I’d watch documentaries and movies from the era. I had to watch lots of 60s movies for The Calling. I have to be in my character’s mind.
GA: Where will you take your readers next?
CC: I am working on a book called The Scapegoat, the Saint, and the Sacrifice. It’s about two brothers, the scapegoat and saint, and a sister, the sacrifice, who is pulled between them and has to live with the consequences of their choices. This book is unusual for me, because I haven’t been able to write for four years, but it won’t leave me alone, it haunts the edges of my mind. So, hopefully it won’t take that long to get on paper. I’m excited about this book, but I’m really enjoying writing country music lyrics!
GA: Finish this sentence: A strong girl …
CC: is one who knows she has to live ‘who’ she is uniquely created to be and goes for it, even when she is fearful about finding her truths, overcoming obstacles, or even disagreeing at times with important people in her life.