So often, when I get the chance to read a really good book, I also have the chance to pester the author with questions. When I cornered interviewed Judith Valente about her book Atchison Blue for both CatholicMom.com and Integrated Catholic Life recently, I couldn’t help but pester her ask her a few more questions for my little sandbox here.
Q: I was so struck by your book, Judith, and it is one that I put my name in, much to my shock. I’m not usually a fan of memoirs, but your writing is so honest and candid and somehow refreshing. Tell us about the path that led you to write Atchison Blue.
My first experience of Mount St. Scholastica was as a presenter. I had just co-edited an anthology called “Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul,” which contain poems and reflections on finding the sacred in the ordinary. I was invited by Sister Thomasita Homan, who taught English literature at the time, at Benedictine College, to speak about poetry and soul in her classes. The sisters also asked me to give a poetry writing workshop at their retreat center.
These presentations at for the Mount sisters came at the end of a long stretch of speaking engagements I had done. I arrived at the monastery exhausted, physically, mentally and spiritually. My first morning there, I sat alone in the chapel. Sunlight streamed through the beautiful blue stained glass windows. Silence seemed to saturate the room. I looked up at an image of St. Benedict in the window in front of me. Surrounding him were some words in Latin: Omni tempore silentio debent studere. I reached back into my high school Latin and did a rough translation: “at all times, cultivate silence.”
There, staring me in the face was the paradox I had been living. I had been traveling the country trying to help others live a more contemplative life, when what was missing in my own life were moments of silence and solitude when I could simply listen and be. Without them, I was losing drop by drop the inner resources I needed to do my the work I love, and cultivate an interior life. I did something right there in the chapel that is so totally out of character for me. I wept.
I knew in that moment something had shifted inside me. I felt that this place, and the Benedictine women who inhabited it, had something to teach me I couldn’t find in all the self-help books lining the shelves of Barnes & Noble, telling married, professional women like me that we could have it all.
I did not know how it would all take shape, but I just knew I had to come back to that place and spend an extended period of time. The end result was that I asked if I could return and do some extended “interviews” with the sisters. I guess that is the “format” I felt most comfortable with as a journalist. Little did I know that I was taking the first halting steps toward a journey of discovery that would change my life forever.
SARAH: Your background is as a super-successful journalist. How is writing a book different and better (or worse)? Will you be doing more of it? (Yeah, I’ll admit it: I’m realllllly hopeful.)
Writing a book really takes a lot out of you. It is the difference between running around your neighborhood park and running a marathon. You really have to have what the Mickey Mouse Club people used to call “stick-to-it-ness.” Even the magazine articles I’ve written can’t compare to the mental and emotional stamina it takes to write a book. There were even days, when the writing wasn’t flowing as well as I wanted, when I would break down in tears and tell my husband, “I can’t take much more of this stress.”
There were days when I would spend the entire day working on two paragraphs. But there is also nothing more satisfying for a writer than reaching that point that you know is your ending sentence. You’ve said what you have to say. It is both sad and satisfying. I remember when I presented my finished manuscript to the sisters, so they could read it, I burst into tears handing it over. I think it really is like giving birth, and then having to give up your child to the world.
And yes, just like women who have two and three and four or more children, I’d love to have more literary babies. I would like to work on a book (or possibly a documentary) about the peace activist Eileen Egan. She is the older sister of Sister Kathleen Egan of the Mount. Eileen Egan was both Dorothy Day’s and Mother Teresa’s traveling companion. She worked also for Catholic Relief Services. Wherever there was suffering in the 20th century, Eileen Egan was there.
I also have thought about writing a book about my friend, Brother Paul Quenon, a Trappist at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Brother Paul was a novice under Thomas Merton and has written four books of poems. He is the type of monk that probably is becoming extinct, someone who joined the monastery at the age of 17 and has spent more than 50 years in a life of contemplation. People don’t enter that young and stay that long any more. Brother Paul and I collaborated on another book that came out in 2013 as well: “The Art of Pausing: Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed.”
That book arose out of a need I saw among people like myself, very busy, very hectic lives, to have a book of very brief meditations they can turn to in the course of a work day and find a few moments of contemplation. Brother Paul and I exchanged a haiku, a three-line poem, everyday for about two years as part of our meditation practice. So each page of the book contains a haiku, and then a brief reflection to go with it. there are also wonderful photographs in the book that Brother Paul took.
SARAH: I have a long history with stepfamilies, and I was particularly touched by how you wrote about your experience as a stepmother and your struggles with your family. What kind of difficulty did you face sharing that information? Have any of those relationships healed in the time since you’ve written about them?
I think the passages about my stepdaughters were among the most difficult to write. I wanted to portray our struggles honestly, the hurt feelings, the miscues, misunderstandings, unfulfilled expectations. At the same time, I did not want it to sound as if they were the “evil stepdaughters” and I the fairy stepmother. I needed to show my own foibles, my own complicity in the wounds of those relationships. And I think I did do that successfully.
Because I had the benefit of the great mentoring of the Mount sisters, I now have much greater compassion for my stepdaughters. I can step into their shoes more easily than I could before when my own woundedness made me focus on only my needs, my desires for these relationships.
I wouldn’t say these relationships are healed. But I find I know have the anger and hurt I used to have. I can even laugh at some of the things I still perceive as slights, as their being insensitive. I am much more inclined now to examine my own behavior and see how that’s contributing to the problem than to always consider the problem as coming from outside me.
My younger stepdaughter recently had her first baby. I wrote a note to her when the baby was born and set a gift handmade by one of the Mount sisters. I was fully prepared to not receive a response, or if I did, merely a cursory thank you. I also feared she might dislike the gift or misinterpret it in some way, and on and on.
What happened was she wrote a lovely, very sweet thank you note. She and her husband live out of town. My husband went down as soon as the baby was born. But I feared I wouldn’t be welcome and stayed home. But then when they came to town to visit her mother, they made time also to come to our house so I could meet the baby. And we had a very pleasant visit. What do they say about a little child leading the way.That is surely progress in our blended family!
Q: I couldn’t help but long for time in a monastery the way you spent it there. How did you carve that time into your schedule? Was it part of this writing assignment or an ongoing gift you give yourself? Do you continue to visit the Benedictine Sisters?
I was able to go so often because I am a contract employee for PBS. So I can make my own hours. I was spending an average of a week a month, sometimes two weeks at a time, at the monastery for the first two years I was writing. It was just something I knew I had to do. It was an opportunity I knew I had been handed, and there was no way I was going to let other things divert me.
While I still work for PBS on a contract basis, I have since taken a fulltime job as a senior correspondent and producer at the NPR affiliate here where I live in central Illinois, so I am not as free during the week as I once was to pick up and go. But I am still there quite a bit. I’ve been to the monastery several times in the last four months. I will never stop going there, and if it comes down to a choice between being at the Mount for something and my job at the radio station, I’d find a way to be at the Mount every time.
Q: And, because I’m dying to know: what’s your guilty pleasure reward when you’re writing?
I don’t think there is anything very interesting or earth-shattering. If the writing is going poorly, I sometimes will take a nap. Sleeping allows my unconscious to work out whatever the blockage is in my brain. I can’t tell you how many times I wake form a nap and have that sentence or that transition figured out that I had been struggling with.
I sometimes stop and read poetry. I think being a poet as well as a journalist really influences and informs my writing. I do look at my prose writing frequently as another form of poetry. Because in poetry, you are always seeking for the exact word, for a fresh way to use language.
Other guilty pleasures: maybe a Jimmy Johns sandwich here and there or a tasty Italian sub!
Here’s my review of Atchison Blue, and if you want more of my interviews with Judith, they are here and here.