Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Conversation with Janet Grace Riehl

I'm honored to have Janet Grace Riehl as my guest today and to be included in her blog tour as she discusses her audio book, Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry & Music. You can find a complete list of Janet’s tour on her blog. The previous post on the audio book tour was at Molly Lundquist’s Lit Lover book club site. There Janet posted a regional recipe of scrapple, a guest blog useful for both individuals and book groups, tips on how to appreciate both book and audio book together, and a review of “Sightlines” audio book.

Following a family tragedy, the death of her beloved older sister, Janet Grace Riehl returned to her childhood home in the Midwest. Her book, Sightlines, a Poet's Diary, came into existence as she confronted and processed the pain of this great loss and reconnected with her family, her ancestral home and family, and herself through story poems. Her father joined her in the collaboration of the audio book, reading his own poems and adding his music. Janet, it’s a pleasure to discuss your book, and audio book, and what lie behind their creation with you.

JMH: One of the main themes running through your 90 poems, Janet, is the gap between the memories you carry from your childhood of your family's home place, and what you find before you upon your return so many decades later. I can intimately relate to this theme, as I left my family home in my early twenties, returning many years later to nurse, first my father, and later my mother, in the final months of their lives. I'm sure many of our readers have experienced this gap between memory and a new reality of place and relationship. Tell us how this felt and how it crept into your poems.

JGR: One of the over-arching themes of Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary was how ephemeral, changing, and transient our lives are. Buddhist call this “Impermanence,” and include this principle as one of the four noble truths.

During this period of time impermanence showed up in several ways: Julia’s sudden death; my parents aging; my mother’s vulnerability in her illness that required constant care; the fragile and fractured family system; my displacement from the place I’d called home in Northern California back to the place of my childhood.

I’d visited the homeplace often in the gap after I left for part West in 1979. But, that’s not the same thing as living there. Life and circumstances and the physical identifiers on the Homeplace had moved on.

All of these changes and signs of impermanence were unnerving, but useful in illustrating this powerful principle.

JMH: As a writer of children’s fiction, I often borrow from my own and my children's childhood experiences in order to express the natural emotions and responses to life-like situations through my characters. Thus I am especially interested in how your childhood influenced the woman you have become. What part did your childhood experiences play in the way you chose to confront the grief of the tragic death of your sister?

JGR: In childhood my parents emphasized self-sufficiency. I often roamed the woods. They also emphasized hard work, being stoic, moving ahead, achievement, a life of service, and the deep importance of family and heritage. My Buddhist training and intuition led me to go into the small retreat around my birthday at the end of 2004 which gave me the leading to write the book.

The hard work, moving ahead, achievement, and life of service came together in making the book. My motivation for writing the book was a prayer that it be useful to others. This wish shaped the form of the story poems as the narrative vehicle. Moving ahead, achieving, and working hard were all needed in completing the project.

Me, stoic? Not so much. Rather the opposite. But, my father is, and that influenced the understated, simple way I revealed emotion. If I was overcome with emotion, I cried upstairs into my pillows or went out into the woods to wail and keen.

Self-sufficiency was essential because the situation I found myself in was rather isolated, with minimal support.

Emphasis on family and heritage is clearly one of the major themes in Sightlines.

JMH: Your father's music is an integral part of your audio book. Was music a big part of your childhood?

JGR: Music was part of our lives, big time. My father’s music is part of his heart’s blood. Other than his family, music is no doubt the thing in life Pop is most passionate about. We sang in the car together. We went to square dances where I learned to waltz standing on my father’s steel-toed work boots. Each of us children played several instruments and joined music groups at school.

My father’s greatest grief is that he had to give up playing music while we were kids and well into his middle-age because of family demands. It’s a joy to see him doing that again now.

It’s only because singing and playing were a natural part of life that I felt I could sing by myself at my talks and on the audio book. I have at least as good a voice as Garrison Keeler, I reckon! That gave me courage.

JMH: I have a few more questions for you, but since this is getting a bit long, I’ll limit myself to one more today and continue with a few more important questions tomorrow.

You have described your childhood as "anachronistic." I think I can see this in your poetry in Sightlines. Could you tell us more about what you mean by "anachronistic childhood?" How did such a childhood affect you as the person and writer you are now?

JGR: My parents came from families that were wedded to their land. We lived on land in the family for generations. We carried a sense of legacy and stewardship.

Our main goal as a family was to save up enough money that each of us children could go to college, with everything paid for. Mother made Pop promise this as they walked away from the altar. This meant that we worked like serfs raising and putting up food on our land and my grandparents on my mother’s side.

Living in the country we were socially isolated. While my friends lived in suburbs just stirring in the 1950s and ‘60s, we lived outside time within our own family culture. They had Barbie Dolls, training bras, make-up, the newest fads, new clothes, and TVs when they first came out. We did finally get a TV so we wouldn’t be next door watching it there.

I read books from the late 1800s and early 1900s, scouring our bookshelves for what I’d missed. I wore clothes mother cut down from Julia’s. Mother knitted me this beautiful outfit, but it was so incomprehensible within the context of current fashion, that everyone laughed at me when I wore it. That happened a lot—being laughed out and excluded—because I was out of touch with the times—not modern—and a thoroughly odd duck.

This gives you a sense of my childhood. There were losses in this way of life, but gains as well. I’m sure I wouldn’t have shaped such an idiosyncratic life if I’d grown up more conventionally bounded by conformity. As a result of my upbringing I’m stronger and make my own choices, with less outside influence.

JMH: Thanks for your time and in-depth answers, Janet. I look forward to continuing our discussion tomorrow with more questions about childhood influences on your poetry as well as some about your grand nieces. 

Janet Riehl’s internet tour continues July 10th on Susan Gallacher Turner’s  and Mary Cunningham’s WOOF! (Women Only Over Fifty) on July 15th. Her guest post will discuss how to use collaboration to reach your dreams as an over-50 woman.

Want to win a free copy of  Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music?Watch the featured video of the week.  Leave a comment underneath the post. Janet will run a drawing among the comments.


Janet Grace Riehl said...

Indeed,'those of us in the "Janet sisterhood" have no trouble coming together to discuss the important and meaningful issues in our lives' as you said in your message.

You are a woman of depth and insight. It was a pleasure to answer your questions. I look forward to meeting you at the Women Writing the West Conference in the fall...yes?


Janet Muirhead Hill said...

I hope so, Janet. I would certainly like to meet you in person and to be at the conference. I will work toward that goal.

Susan Gallacher-Turner and Michael Turner said...

Janet and Janet,
Great interview. I do so understand what it means to be the 'odd duck' even though my upbringing was much more conventional. I think back and realize as you do, that it has helped me be a more focused and determined person. And why I am so interested in interviewing and learning about people who dare to live their lives in a more creative way.

Susan GT

Heidiwriter said...

Wow! Powerful stuff! I enjoyed the "Janet Sisterhood" conversation.

I was struck by the similarities in our upbringing--socially isolated, self-sufficient, stoic. And my father loved reading and music. He played the old-time fiddle and that was still one of his joys in his later years before he died.

Thanks for the insights!

Janet Grace Riehl said...

Thanks, Susan and Heidi for your comments. I found this conversation useful and am glad others did too.

Heidi, let's look each other up at the Women Writing the West Conference in September.