Hugh Cook is a fiction writer and Professor Emeritus of English at Redeemer University College. His latest novel, Heron River (Mosaic Press), is excerpted in the August 2012 issue of The Banner. He graciously answered some questions for Tuned In Editor Kristy Quist.
Q. At what age did you begin writing fiction? What caught your interest?
A. I began writing fiction in my early thirties. Before then, I’d begun writing poetry, and at the age of 27 experienced a severe case of writers’ block that lasted five years. Perhaps the block came because until then I’d found neither my true medium nor subject matter. In any case, I ran into the stories of Flannery O’Connor in my early thirties and was bowled over by their power. I was amazed that a fiction writer could write such carefully crafted stories while also being so overt about her Christian faith. Even though her life was very different from mine, the way O’Connor wrote about the American South made me realize that I was sitting on a goldmine of subject matter I’d never contemplated writing about, namely my own Dutch Canadian immigrant community. So I began writing the stories that became my first book, Cracked Wheat and Other Stories.
Q. You write about communities you know very well. Does that ever come back to bite you? Is there difficulty in being honest about your own circles?
A. The response of the Reformed community to my fiction has been very gratifying. After four books, I can think of only one letter that I’ve received in which a reader told me he was less than pleased with a particular story I’d written, whereas I have file folders filled with letters, cards, and emails from readers expressing appreciation and thanks. I think this overwhelming positive response is because members of a community are more willing to accept critique when they know that the writer offering the critique is doing so from a standpoint of love and appreciation for the community, and continues to identify him- or herself deeply with the community. Fictional truth spoken in love, you might say.
Q. How did teaching at Dordt and Redeemer inform your writing?
A. First, teaching fiction and creative writing at Dordt and Redeemer enabled me to think about and kept me in touch with matters of fictional craft. Second, being part of a Christian academic community strengthened my Christian faith. The sincerity and youthful enthusiasm of my students’ faith was exemplary and contagious. Further, teaching at academic institutions that place great emphasis on integrating faith and learning forced me to think about the contours of a Reformed Christian worldview and how I might write fiction from such a worldview.
Q. How does your faith inform your fiction? Do you consciously include aspects of faith or does that flow naturally from your life experience?
A. How Christians approach the writing of fiction varies from writer to writer. It meant one thing for C.S. Lewis and means another for Marilynne Robinson; it means one thing for LaHaye and Jenkins, the authors of the Left Behind series, and meant another for Flannery O’Connor. How a writer’s faith informs his or her fiction is something the writer works out in the sanctity of his or her writing room. There’s no one answer that fits all, and the way I’ve worked out this question doesn’t necessarily mean other Christians who write fiction must do it in similar fashion or that I need to do it in the way other writers have.
There are Christian writers who feel that their primary responsibility is to write stories that are spiritually uplifting and inspire the reader. I don’t start with that premise. I think the single most important requirement for a writer, Christian or otherwise, is honesty. The writer must be honest in portraying what he or she sees, rather than creating an idealized reality intended to communicate a message that inspires or uplifts the reader.
I never begin a story or a novel with a theme or a message I want to convey. Fiction is not an essay or a sermon. The danger in starting with a message is that it can overpower the story, and the story becomes didactic. While I believe a sermon is always made better when it tells a story, a story is never made better when it sermonizes. Whatever meaning a story has must arise organically out of the materials of the story itself, rather than be imposed on the story from without.
As a result, it happens often that it’s not until I’m well into a story or a novel that I discover what it’s “about.” This is a discovery I make during the writing process, rather than a thesis I begin with. What I’m interested in when I begin a story or novel is character, narrative, image, metaphor—these sorts of things. I believe that if I have any kind of a fleshed-out Christian worldview at all, that will be the light by which I see. It determines what I choose to write about in the first place and will shine through inevitably in the story I write. So yes, my faith informs my fiction, but in such a way, I hope, that the principles of good fiction are not compromised.
Q. Does writing bring you into your immediate life more fully or does it pull you away from your daily life?
A. Both, really. When I’m working on a story or a novel and it’s going well, I feel as if I’m living on a heightened plane, similar to what athletes refer to as being “in game shape,” and I’m drawn into life more acutely. I observe more keenly, food tastes better, colors are more vibrant, music sounds better. But when I’m actually sitting at my writing desk and typing into the computer, there’s no doubt that at that moment I’m pulled away from daily life. I find that writing is an intense activity, and there are times when I look up and have no idea whether it’s morning or afternoon. I remember that when I was writing a scene in The Homecoming Man, when Gerrit is brutally being interrogated by Nazi soldiers, I was so focused on writing that scene and felt so intensely the pain he was going through that I had to get up from my desk a moment and look out my living room window as if to reassure myself that the world out there was still normal.
Q. Which of your characters is most like you? Of all the stories that you've written, is there one in particular that sticks with you?
A. I believe that every character you create has, to a lesser or greater degree, some similarities to yourself in that he or she is always your imagined perception of that character. I’ve discovered that many readers make the assumption that my fiction is autobiographical, whereas most of the fiction I’ve written is not. A reader approached me once about a particular story I’d written and asked whether it was right for me to write about my mother as I had. I asked the reader whether she’d noticed who the narrator of the story was, that it was a middle-aged woman and not a guy like me, and the reader said, no, she hadn’t really noticed that. Another time a reader approached me and said, “You’ve had an interesting life, eh?” I said, “How so?” and the reader said, “Well, you know, all the things you’ve written about in your stories. . . .” I had to tell him my life has actually been quite prosaic, and I hope he wasn’t disappointed.
Q. Where do your stories come from?
A. You need to be looking for them. I’m never not thinking stories; that is, I’m constantly open to their possibility. You might say, that’s rather obsessive, isn’t it? Yes it is, but that’s precisely how stories and novels get written. Same holds true for all other arts. It takes that kind of focused dedication.
I know a fellow who has an incredible collection of Indian arrowheads and other native artifacts he finds during his perambulations through this area, which is rich in such archaeological treasures. I realize that the reason I don’t find them when I’m out walking along rivers or through woods is because he knows precisely where to look, where native settlements are most likely to have been. It’s the same with writing stories. You need to know where to look.
The way I approach many a story is as follows: when I’m considering a given situation I think has possibilities for a story, I often ask the question “What if . . . ?” What if this were to happen? And I extrapolate from the givens. The given situation may be autobiographical to some degree, or it may have happened to someone else, but that might not be where the real story lies. The story often lies in the extrapolation.
Q. Which books or authors would you most like to emulate? Which inspire you even though the writing is very different from your own?
A. There are the classics, of course, but most of the fiction I read is contemporary Canadian and American fiction. Canadian writers I admire include Alistair MacLeod, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, David Adams Richards, and Joy Kogawa. American writers are Kent Haruf, Richard Ford, David Rhodes, Tim Gautreaux, Marilynne Robinson. And Flannery O’Connor, of course, since she got me writing fiction. If a Protestant is allowed a patron saint, she would be mine.
Q. You've been involved with the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College for many years now. Why do you keep coming back? What does it do for you?
A. It’s true. I’m one of a handful of writers who have been invited to read or speak at every Festival since the initial one in 1990, and I feel privileged and thankful. Don’t tell the folks running the Festival, but I would come whether they invited me or not, it’s such a wonderful event. I keep coming back because it’s an intense three days in which writers and readers are able to share their passion for good writing. Every writer wants to connect with avid readers, and here two thousand of them come from every corner of the U.S., Canada, and beyond. Further, think of the caliber of writers the Festival has managed to attract over the years, authors such as Elie Wiesel, Salman Rushdie, John Updike, Marilynne Robinson, Ernest Gaines, Joyce Carol Oates, Wally Lamb, Yann Martel, Michael Chabon—the list goes on. I can think of only one other festival with such a slate of renowned writers and that’s the annual Harbourfront International Festival of Authors in Toronto.