She walked up to me at the end of church last Sunday, one wrinkled hand stretched out in search of my own. Her woolen coat was already cinched and her hat pulled down tight, leaving only a wisp of white curls jutting out the sides. She smiled, and I noticed her teeth were too straight and too white to be her own.
“I’ve just read your latest novel,” she said, and then she patted my hand.
I grinned. “Really? Well, thank you, ma’am.”
“Don’t thank me.” Still smiling. “I didn’t like it at all.”
She kept her hand in mine and squeezed, wanting to reassure me that all was still right in the world.
“I see.” It was all I could think to say. “I’ll have to try better next time.”
“I read your first book. Snow Day. That was wonderful.”
“Such a nice story. Almost like a Hallmark movie. Have you ever thought of doing a Hallmark movie?”
“I don’t think that’s up to me,” I said.
“But this last one…” She made a face. It was all sadness and misery. But it hid her teeth, and for that I was grateful. “I just don’t know what’s happened. This last book? Awful. Too much heartache. And the characters? The bad ones were good and the good ones bad, and I never knew who was right and who was wrong. And the deaths. Awful, awful stuff. How could you write something like that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Just kind of came to me, I guess.”
“You were always such a good boy. I’ll pray for you.”
“Can always use that, ma’am.”
“Good. Now you go write something like Snow Day. What a lovely book. There was no blood.”
She walked on, tackling the last button on her coat as she did, then tucking her Bible under her arm as she shook the preacher’s hand and then walked into the cold outside. I stood there alone and grabbed my own Bible, trying to find my family and my thoughts.
She was right, you know. There was no blood in my first novel. There was some in my second. A bit more in my third. I suppose I could have told her my next book will be out in March and is called The Devil Walks in Mattingly, but I think that would have only decreased her respect and increased her prayers. I wondered if that kind old lady would read that book. I hoped so and kind of didn’t.
When my first novel came out in 2010, I felt as though I had reached a distinct midpoint in my life. The same world that so often had played out in front of me full of disappointment and despair brightened in the sharp light of hope. I had crawled through the valley. Climbed the mountain.
I felt born again, again.
That feeling hasn’t lessened. Every novel I write is to me a miracle, evidence that God isn’t quite done with me yet. It still sometimes feels like I’m crawling through a valley and climbing a mountain. The only difference is that at the top of that mountain there is always another, higher one, and another, deeper valley. But that’s life for all of us. Those joys we feel, the days of contentment and peace? Those things are merely the peaks upon which we stand and rest before continuing on our long journey to a land we cannot see but can only feel.
After standing on so many of those peaks, I suppose a part of me changed. My writing certainly did. I am a product of my environment, of a small town and blue mountains and dark hollers and folktales of ghosts and angels, brimstone and grace. Between you and me? I sort of ran from that at first. I wanted books that were easy and inspiring. No pain. No hurt. No loss.
Not anymore, though. And ironically enough, it was church that convinced me otherwise. It was my faith. It was that kind old woman’s faith. It was faith in a book we believe is the very Word of God, a book of stories about a serpent bringing ruin; a baby left to float down the Nile in a basket; a lowly shepherd boy facing a giant. A book about a righteous man suffering much for no reason and a prophet being swallowed alive by a whale. Of cities destroyed and countries enslaved. A savior hung to die on a cross. Heartache and blood.
Not easy stuff to read. But real stuff. Stuff that matters a great deal.
Next time, I’ll tell her that.