Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Interconnected Rooms: A Conversation with Alison Gresik

Lori Huth
Edited by Reba Larson

Huth: Alison, I’d like to start with a few questions about your book Brick and Mortar. Brick and Mortar is a collection of connected short stories, a form we’ve been talking about throughout the Writing Festival. Can you describe the process of writing short stories that are discrete units but still connected in ways that unite the whole work?

Gresik: Yes. I was interested in finding a structure that would allow a number of different voices from a community to come together. I wanted to make the setting a church, because the only thing bringing these particular people together is their desire to worship. I wanted to see what sort of new entity would arise from their interactions. I chose to use the short story format so that I would have room for those voices. Even though I originally thought that I would go from beginning to end, and write and finish one story before moving on to the next one, it didn’t work out that way at all. I wrote first drafts of all the stories, and then found that something which happened in a later story affected and had implications for some of the other stories. I ended up working on the whole book at the same time, which I hadn’t expected to do.
One of the things that my thesis advisor worked with me on was having a similar narrative voice for each of the individual stories, so not only were they connected by the fact that all of the characters know each other and they are worshipping in the same church, but the tone and the narrator’s voice in telling the stories is similar, so that the reader will feel like it is a unified experience. I hope that the reader will be able to get into each character’s mind, and see what they are thinking and how they are reacting to things, but in one of the other stories, the reader will be able to see a different perspective and see another view on that particular character. I think this gives the book a kind of layering feeling.

Huth: Did making those connections feel restrictive at all, or did it feel freeing? Did connections naturally emerge from the writing?

Gresik: Actually, it was like a process of discovery. I was talking last night about how I had an idea about a girl shaving her head, and then I had this other idea of a man baking bread. Later, I realized that the characters are related, that they’re father and daughter. There was another situation like that where I had an idea about a woman helping out a single mother and giving her support, and I later realized that she is the mother of the girl who shaved her head. It was almost like the connections were already there, and I just had to find them. . I would have discoveries about the way that things are related, and it just made the book fit closer together.

Huth: You mentioned the church being largely united by this group of characters. I’m curious about how you saw the role of the church and its function in the narrative. Was the church a character itself? Did it help to influence the action? Or was the church only a setting?

Gresik: One of the underlying ideas I had was that the church was telling its story through the stories of the individual parishioners. The church has a life of its own, and it is expressed through the stories of these people. I grew up in a church, and it was a defining experience in young life, as well as in my ongoing life. I was interested in the need to find a community of faith where you could relate to others who were trying to live the same way and follow Christ, and the way that there are sometimes complementary relationships and there are sometimes conflicts.
Some people are not in the same place in their lives, and many of them struggle with different things. For example, one of the characters, an older man who has been a caretaker in the church and the janitor for many years, realizes that it’s time for him to move on from this particular church. He wants to be closer to his family, and it is just time for him to move on. The final story is about a new minister who is coming to the church, and her anxiety about how she will fit into this new community and the way that she is welcomed in, so the church is always shifting. It is a place that is defined by the people who make it their home at any particular time.

Huth: You mentioned earlier this week that you see a kernel of yourself in each of your characters and their stories. Is this true of each of the stories in this book? Would you be able to say that each story reflects you and your own personality?

Gresik: There is probably more of me in some characters and less in others. I often go first to my own experiences and feelings, and try to find what there is about a character that I can identify with. I need to be able to see through their eyes and understand the world in the way that they would. In some cases, the actual things that happened are things that I’ve been through. For example, I used to go with my dad to his office and work with him. This is something that I had in common with the character Molly who goes and bakes with her dad, but there are other parts of her experience that are less like what I have been through.
Also, the first story is about an older woman who has been in the church for years, and she has actually helped establish it. She has a really alienating experience one Sunday where she comes to church late, and she doesn’t get a bulletin, so she doesn’t know what the hymns are and she can’t follow along with the readings. Even though she has been in this church forever, she feels really isolated and separated from it. I had an experience like that one Sunday where I didn’t get a bulletin, and I was amazed at what a difference it made for me as to how much I felt a part of what was going on during the service. So even though this particular character is very old and there are a lot of differences between us, I felt like I could identify with this feeling of not belonging in a place where you are used to belonging.

Huth: Can you think of a character that you’ve written about who was very unlike you? How did you manage to really get into this character’s head and write a believable narrative about him or her?

Gresik: The one that comes to mind is the caretaker character, Knox. He’s a widower, and a gruff, no-nonsense type of person. He is a bit oblivious to what is going on around him. He just does his thing, and is not always connected to the things that are going on around him. He has also become estranged from his adopted daughter, and I think that was probably the story that I had to most imagine what he would be going through, because I couldn’t really draw much on my own experiences.

Huth: I’m going to shift directions a little. We can still bring up the book if it is relevant, but I’d like to know a little more about you as a person, as an author, and as a woman. It seems that you balance your life really well. You are a married woman with a career, and you’ve talked about having children. How will this affect your professional life? By the same token, how will your professional life affect your family life? Have you thought of ways to combine and balance these things?

Gresik: I feel like this is probably going to be a life long challenge. Since university, I have made some deliberate choices about wanting to make sure I have room in my life for a vocation. When Shawn and I finished our undergraduate programs, I went to graduate school first before I did anything else, because I wanted to make sure that I did that. It was a way to honor my interests, and make sure I got the work done that I needed to do.

Huth: Was that particularly related to you being the woman, or was it more since your vocation is writing? What factor suggested that you should go first?

Gresik: At the time, I wanted to make sure that I finished school so that it didn’t get put off indefinitely if we were to have a family. Finding time for my own writing can be a real challenge. Several years ago, I wasn’t being very careful about having the physical time and mental space to shut out other things and focus on my own expression and my own stories. This built up over a number of months, and my family was also going through a couple of crises. I got very caught up in that, and I realized one day that I was experiencing clinical depression. There is a history of that in my family, so I knew what the signs were, and I had had some episodes of it before, but it still had a big impact on my life for the next several years. I got on some medication to try to pull myself out of the deep valley that depression is, and I also made some changes in my life so that I could have a healthier way of living and a healthier balance in general. Part of that involved getting into therapy, and figuring out what the circumstances were that led to this breakdown.
What was missing in the way that I was thinking, and spending my time, and relating to other people in my life? What was missing that had led to that sort of loss of meaning and pleasure in life? For the next year, I just really focused on taking care of myself. Extravagant care, I called it. I made sure that I had time to rest, and that I was not putting up with so many expectations about meeting the needs of others and looking after everyone else before myself. I was very gentle with myself, and learned what I needed to be healthy. Part of that was realizing if I wasn’t writing, everyone else was out of whack. I really believe that writing is one of my core purposes for being on this earth. I had to learn to say no to others so that I could spend the time that I needed to writing. I’m still learning that balance. I still get into trouble sometimes by over committing myself, so it’s always a struggle to find that balance. And in the middle of all this, Shawn and I were having a discussion about having children and how they would fit into our lives. One of my biggest fears was that I wouldn’t be able to meet the demands of raising children with my writing and my depression. I knew that I might be able to say no to my pastor if he asked me to do some extra work at church, but I wasn’t sure how I would be able to say no to my kids if I needed to shut the door and work.
I’m thankful that Shawn had the patience to give me time to work through some of these questions, and I asked a lot of other women how they were working through these same questions. Last year, Shawn and I decided that we were going to go ahead, and we’ve chosen adoption as the means of expanding our family. We are going to be bringing home a little girl from China sometime next year. It has been really important for me to not just assume that I would automatically have children since I was married. We have really had to do what is best for each other in light of what God wants for us and the other work that He has for us to do through our lives. This year, I’ve made writing my top priority because it’s been a few years since Brick and Mortar came out, and I feel that I need to hit another milestone in my writing work before I turn my attention towards raising children.

Huth: I’m curious, partly because it’s Women’s History Month, and partly because we have a lot of women students at Houghton, and I imagine that they may be wondering this, too. To what degree do you think the struggles you’ve been talking about have to do with gender? Do you think it is just incidental that you are experiencing these problems, such as depression, as a woman?

Gresik: I do think that there is a correlation. There are certain things about my personality that factor in. One of the ways that I can feel good about myself or feel that I am accepted and loved is if I am making other people happy, and I do think that this is a pretty common experience for women. There’s more of an impact in women’s lives because they deal with childbearing and being primary caregivers. I think that some women feel that in order to be a good woman or a good wife, they must do certain things because they are expected of them. I’m not as quick to question whether or not my husband wants to be the primary caregiver, or that maybe there is another way to bring children into our lives that doesn’t place such a burden on me, or maybe there are creative ways that we want to share the family responsibilities.
I think you can certainly tell from some of the books that are coming out lately that women are putting off childbearing until they are in their thirties because they want to establish themselves in a career. Sometimes this brings infertility problems, but there just isn’t enough societal support with child care, insurance, and job flexibility to balance out these things. Every woman is going to be different in the way that she resolves these questions. We should be cutting each other some slack and not making judgments about the ways others choose to do things. It helps to look at different ways that people resolve these questions for themselves, and then you can see where God is leading you.

Huth: I’d also like to ask whether or not you have had role models in your life as a woman and a writer? If so, how have you found these people, and what kind of relationships do you have with them?

Gresik: Probably one of my first role models was my thesis advisor at the University of Calgary. Her name is Aritha Van Herk. She is a professor, as well as a writer, and she doesn’t have any children. She is very passionate about her work, especially her students. She was very generous in the time and attention that she gave to my work, and I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to work with her. Also, when I moved to Ottawa, I needed to establish myself in a new writing community because I’d left all my old writing friends behind in Calgary. I did a writing workshop and met lots of other women poets and fiction writers. We started to get together once a month to share our work and critique each other’s writing. We talked about our frustrations and the challenges of writing. That was a great support for me. I also look to other women writers that I don’t necessarily know personally, but that I admire. Some examples are Ann Patchett, Jane Smiley, and Joyce Carol Oates.

Huth: Do you find much time to read? And if you do, to what extent does your reading influence your own writing? Are there ways that you integrate what you learn from other writers into your writing? Also, is it possible for you to just enjoy reading without worrying about these things?

Gresik: I find that my reading goes in phases. For a while, I might be reading a lot of fiction because it is my favorite thing to read, but other times, I’m just not really attracted to any particular books that are coming my way, or sometimes I’m just finding other things that I need to work on, so I will consciously try to read less.

Huth: Why is that?

Gresik: Well, there can be some pitfalls in terms of comparing or thinking that you should do something a certain way based on another novel when this particular novel that you are working on needs to come to fruition. I need to stop listening to everything else going on and try to just listen to my own subject and the way it needs to come out. Reading does help me, but if I’m reading other books while I’m working on something, it doesn’t always help. I do read a lot of books about writing or the challenges of writing. The War of Art is one book that I’ve found recently that has really helped me a lot in terms of understanding my processes. The novel that I am working on now has some subject matter dealing with bullying and the way that children interact at a certain age, and so I’m doing research for that and reading some books about the social lives of children and how they relate to that sort of thing.

Huth: One reason writing fiction is fun is that you get to research things you’re interested in. Now, you are a Christian, but you aren’t writing explicitly Christian literature. The church is a setting in your first book, but the book is relevant and interesting to a broader audience, not only Christians. Is that what you have in mind? How does your Christian faith affect your writing life and the things you write about?

Gresik: I’ve always known that because my faith is such an integral part of who I am that it is automatically going to affect the kinds of stories that I want to tell. In Brick and Mortar, it did explicitly come out in the form of a church, but I knew that I didn’t just want it to appeal to a Christian audience. I think that the experiences the characters have are pretty universal, and a lot of people could relate to them. I found that when I tried to write stories explicitly about the church or about faith, it often did not work. It sounded preachy or boring, so I found myself working more with some of the rituals and symbols around the Christian faith that were elements of worship, but that also had other connotations. I found that tactile, sensory things were more communicative about faith and community.

Huth: You do include many familiar Christian rituals, like the character of Molly going to the teen Christian retreat, and the story with a foot washing ceremony.

Gresik: Yes, and then I intentionally went to a non-religious press to try to get the book published because I wanted it to reach a wider audience. I don’t read exclusively religious or non-religious writers. If it is an interesting story and has something to say to me, I don’t want to restrict myself. For the novel I am working on now, there’s already enough going on with the main character and the story that I’m worried if I were to force this family to be Christian, it might be too distracting or too much for the reader to be able to absorb. I think that the underlying theme, however, will certainly reflect my world view and my belief in trying to understand each other and care for one another. I think that my faith will still be there, even if it isn’t explicit in the subject matter.

Huth: I have one last question. You are in the early stages of your process as a writer, which is exciting, and I’m wondering if you have an ideal vision of what things will be like in fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years. Would you still be working at Adobe? Would you be doing something different there or completely leaving it behind? Do you have a dream of what your future might be like?

Gresik: I would love to be able to just write full time at some point. I would love to be able to make some kind of living writing and publishing. I would love to work as a writer-in-residence or something like that. I tend not to look too far forward into the future, though. Sometimes it can be discouraging. I just work on trying to appreciate where I am right now and just focusing on doing one more book, and then maybe one more after that. I mean, I would love to be able to look back on a shelf full of things that I wrote at the end of my life, to reach my readers, and to know that I did the work that God wanted me to do.