Saturday, January 12, 2013

Interview with Faith A. Colburn Nebraska Author

This month, I have the delight of introducing a Nebraska author with a refreshing style many of us, including myself, seldom feel comfortable with. Faith Colburn is a courageous woman whose book Threshold: A Memoir encompasses generations of her family history. A memoir about oneself is hard to write, but digging into the muddy water of generations past is not an easy undertaking.
Faith tackles this feat by wading through the memories and stories of her family's history, research of the times and by admitting when she must make an assumption. I, for one, would have difficulty writing, let alone facing some of that history. Faith is almost fearless as she doggedly pursues her subjects through the lean and  the mean times.
A journalist and fact checker, Faith brings to life what she sees, hears, smells, and feels through her words, words that count for much. Now she pursues another novel to give readers a closer glimpse into her own story. I feel almost an electric charge at the thought of making those revelations. Possibly by osmosis and researching her work, I may gain some of Faith's courage for searching the souls of myself and my characters.
1. Faith, I started with your Wordpress blog at  where I found myself entrenched in your ideas about writing. In the latest entry that I read, you spoke of the amount of truth in memoirs. I am intrigued by your second article about writing in present first person. Your musings on paper allowed me, another author, to glimpse your method.
I love to write in first person, present tense. It’s so immediate. There’s just nothing between me and my reader. It feels like I’m writing directly to her, or him. I just finished reading Megan Chance’s Bone River. Although Chance writes in past tense, the narrative is first person throughout. Wow! I felt I was right there on that river, freezing in the rain, scared to death I would die before I had a chance to live. I started this first­-person love affair when I went to a workshop once in Yellowbay, Montana, where I met Jim Crumley. He suggested that I try one of my stories in first person and I liked the result so much that I’ve written several short stories in first person, present tense.
2. You have a history in journalism with NEBRASKAland Magazine. Do you feel you are more connected with all things Nebraska from your work with NEBRASKAland Magazine? Give a couple of examples.
I suppose you could say I’ve had a couple of careers in journalism. My longest gig was with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission where I wrote for NEBRASKAland magazine and for local newspapers in my district. I took supporting photographs and video for television, as well as news spots for radio. I suppose my two largest projects those years was a centennial history of wildlife and wildlife management in Nebraska called Sportsmen’s Scrapbook.  No one has updated that publication since. My other project was a feature-length film on the trout rearing program that started at Lake McConaughy with the spawner trout, through the hatching and fry stages to the trout hatchery near Parks, Nebraska. My years with the G&PC built upon the conservation education I got from my family, generations of farmers who believed that they didn’t own the land; they were just “give [sic] it to take care of for the next generation.” I got to be in the Platte Valley when the cranes moved through, in the Rainwater Basins when the ducks clamored for space to roost on the tops of muskrat houses. I sat at the edge of the roadside ditch at the Four Corners and watched phalaropes in their twirling dance, stirring up and gobbling grubs from the bottoms of puddles.
My second journalism career was with Martin Luther Home Society, a Lutheran social ministry organization that provided services for people with developmental disabilities. I wrote almost all the copy and illustration for their quarterly, four-color news magazine and provided news releases for agencies located from coast to coast. Working with the clients turned out to be another education of an entirely different kind as I got up close and personal enough to see the humanity in their different ways of thinking and behaving. 
3. Tell us how you came into writing, was it an interest from childhood, or did you develop your devotion to the art form in some other way?
I don’t think I could say I “came into” writing. It’s just always been there, starting with lo-o-o-ong letters to friends, particularly boyfriends when I got old enough to have them. I remember my mother told me that Dad wrote the most romantic letters, so I thought I must have come by it honestly. Doc Hall was the director of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln School of Journalism when I started, and he taught the first introductory session of my first introductory journalism class. I’ll never forget how, in one hour, he made me believe that words matter and that I needed to do a better job of observing my environment. Everything else has been pretty much a reiteration of that.
4. As a magazine writer, you stated in one of your blog entries that it requires research based facts and that seems to have been a challenge for you when wrote Threshold. Would you mind giving the readers a short excerpt and how you justified that it's 'true enough'?
Oh my gosh, this memoir encompasses eight generations. One of the stories deals with race relations between Whites and Indians. One of the stories skirts around a lawsuit and a gag order. Another of the stories involves sexual abuse by a trusted professional. All of them are about members of my family. So I definitely wanted to get it right.  
A number of the people I’ve written about in Threshold are still living and I like most of them, so I never want to misrepresent them. Nor do I want to misrepresent my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc. All of these people have had an enormous positive influence in my life, despite the craziness that came out of some of the horrors they lived through. Sometimes, information simply wasn’t available, so I had to give my own interpretations. Whenever that happened, I was very careful to say so, to let my reader know that “this is what I think happened.”
I suppose the most difficult part of the memoir, was my father’s story. By the time I began writing, he’d been dead for more than thirty-five years. He couldn’t speak for himself, yet his story was central to everything that happened, not only in his own generation, but in my life as well. So here’s an example from one of the chapters when I was treading on eggs:
“I never heard even pieces of my Dad’s story from him, only from the two women who loved and abandoned him. I’m reduced to reconstructing Dad’s struggle from the stories of those women and my grandmother, who was there when the others were gone, and the letters, and pieces of letters, Margo shared with me almost forty years after Dad wrote them to her. But I have an idea of how it must have been for him. I grew up in his country with his people. And I grew up with him -- at least until I was sixteen years old.”
5. Threshold: A Memoir is about your family over generations of good and bad, as you said above. I can relate to how hard it is to find factual material from generations past. Research is a must. Do you enjoy the research that goes with finding history and facts? What do you like about it?
Threshold  includes stories about my parents, but also my grandparents and several generations before, as well as my sister and my nephew.  I’ve written it as a nonfiction memoir. It started with Grandma’s stories. She told them all my life, but it occurred to me when she was 98 that I ought to do something to save them. So we made an appointment every Wednesday so I could sit down with her and a tape recorder. I recorded 30 hours of interviews. That’s the core of Threshold.  After that I had the luck of the Irish (a good share of my genetic makeup) as I stumbled across the most interesting stories about the generations before Grandma’s time.
 6. You are working on a new novel currently named Gravy based on your parent's struggles and your own. You speak about some hardships and about your mother's experience with a doctor. In a sense I can understand you saying it is like gravy. I mean isn't gravy something that improves the flavor or texture of potatoes, meat or whatever you wish to put it on? What did, or do you find most fascinating about your families past that made you want to write your book?
My second book is a novel based on my mother’s and dad’s lives. The working title is Gravy.  I call it that because I wasn’t supposed to live -- and if I did, I was supposed to live in a vegetative state for a very short time. So my whole life has been gravy. My birth and my father’s combat fatigue were central to the hardships my parents endured. I suppose I’m writing it, at least partly, as a tribute to my parents and their courage. Maybe it’s my way of thanking both of them for being the best parents they had the means to be.
I’m writing it as a novel, as I said in the blog post you mentioned, because there’s just so much I don’t know. For example, in my novel I just broke my grandfather’s leg a few days ago because I had to have him completely incapacitated so modern audiences could believe that my mother had to quit school when she was fifteen in order to support her family by singing in nightclubs and bars. I suspect the real reason she had to support the family was because neither parent could get a job. It was 1937.
7. I'm leaving this kind of open. That's something I don't generally do. But, I feel that Faith Colburn has much more to say about herself as a person. You like speaking in the first person and connecting that way with your reader. Take the space below and tell us whatever it is you'd like to say.
About me as a person, wow! You’re right. I love to write in first person, present tense. It’s so immediate. And yet, I’m also aware of hiding behind my words. My oldest son asked me a couple of years ago why I hadn’t become a singer and I just froze. If I’d become a singer, I’d have had to stand in front of an audience and sing my words. That’s just a frightening thought. In fact, I’m pretty nervous about giving readings as I try to market my book. And when I do my mother’s story (Gravy) I’ll need to sing a few lines from some of her songs. Terrifying, but I couldn’t possibly represent her without music. Mom told me once that there was never a moment that some melody didn’t pour through her head. She sang when she did the dishes; she sang when she raked the hay; she sang when she diapered her babies. So, if I’m to tell her story, I’ll have to gather up just a bit of her courage.
A friend of mine said that you don’t know what you think until you write it down. That’s true for me. I write to bring clarity to the chaos in my head. I find hot summer afternoons in there, lying in the grass and listening to insects buzzing and chirping. There are prickly pear cacti with bugs crawling in their blossoms, there are elk whistling and prairie dogs barking, bees buzzing and the heavy, sweet scent of a plum thicket. I find quantum physics concepts like entangled particles all mixed up with matter awareness studies I read years ago. I find my father’s mother’s gentle stories all mixed up with my mother’s grandmother’s paranoid schizophrenia. It’s a maze in there.

I feel like almost anything I say after Faith's words will be less than gravy. I admire her tenacity for pursuing long and often dark family history and the ability to put it in words. Like the book Roots by Alex Haley nobody but a family member can dig as deeply into their own history as the author. However, doing so may often reveal things that are painful and would be unthinkable in today's world.
I can tell from the descriptive words that Faith learned to be so important, she has the ability to make words come alive for her reader.
"I think it's my father's DNA that makes me look at the land-forms and imagine the prairie without houses and trees, without fences and fields. In my mind's eye, I see it covered only with rippling grasses that run before the wind." Faith Colburn  Threshold: A Memoir