Another Author of the Month at MyShelf.Com
Author of the Month
Carolyn Howard-Johnson [January 2003]
Chosen by Vickie Adkins, MyShelf.Com
Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered
Harkening, what a lovely word. Harken means to reminisce, take you back, or strike a chord, all of which Howard-Johnson’s Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered does. While reading, I thought often of my childhood, my aunts, my grandparents, and growing up in a “holler” in Kentucky.
We lived within shouting distance of every relative we had. How I wished I’d documented my younger days among all those loved ones, many now gone.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson has woven a masterpiece of memories. From family secrets, and the depression, to simple change, ~each chapter captivates the reader, drawing them into a dimly lit room of their own making. With the click of my mantle clock singing in the back of my mind, I found myself floating backwards almost forty years. I was a little girl again, in the living room of my grandparents’ country home.
I remembered hand-me-downs, and homemade clothing. I remembered cooked oatmeal, and buttered toast. I remembered a time when my only companion was my imagination. Reading Harkening caused me to think that Carolyn Howard-Johnson comes from a long line of storytellers. How brilliant to get the majority of those stories down on paper, -a keepsake for generations to come.
Listen, as Carolyn reflects back to a simpler time. Curl your feet up underneath you and imagine a cold rain blowing against the pane of the window. Aren’t you glad the house is warm, and there’s a robust fire?
Vickie: Reading Harkening, I imagined that it must have taken years from beginning to end. Did it?
Carolyn: I wasn’t conscious of the pattern when I wrote it but the prologue is pretty much set in the now. Then we drop back to family history—early 1900s--and move forward linearly until the family (author and characters) have returned to the approximate time of the prologue. I think, including the flashbacks in the first story, “Legacy” there are seven generations in the book, including one story near the end that includes my grandson, son and me.
Vickie: Growing up, were you aware of the special people in your life?
Carolyn: Yes. As I mention in the foreword of Harkening, my mother was a storyteller and was taken with revealing all the family secrets of my fathers’ side (the subject of my first book, This is the Place). One can hardly blame her. Utah history with its pioneers and polygamy are very vivid (the subject of This is the Place). I found it as enticing as she. She also--more inadvertently--revealed the stories of her own history but I don’t think she was as aware that she was telling stories when it was her own family she was snitching on. (-:
Vickie: What’s your favorite story in Harkening, and why?
Carolyn: Oh, Vickie. There must be a bit of masochist in you! But I’ll play the game. I think I like “Mama’s Depression” best. It makes it clear to the modern reader (especially the modern female reader) how many more choices, how much more control we have over our lives “Now” versus “Then.”
Vickie: I loved the book, but can’t imagine writing it. Did you ever fear that no one but your family would enjoy it?
Carolyn: Never. In fact, I fear just the opposite. As a writer, I’m very aware that the human condition is never singular. That goes for families, too. So the dysfunctional, the quirky, the loveable-- whatever it is we find in our own families, our own lives or even in a fictional character-- is always universal if it is authentic. It is that universality that makes great fiction. It is the willingness of an author to reveal whatever it is in themselves that they would rather keep hidden, that makes him great. No holds barred, you know? I tried to do that. Honesty and insight and universality.
On the other hand, when something is this intimate, one just worries!!
Vickie: Are you documenting stories from your own life?
Carolyn: Do you mean now? Or in Harkening? Some of the stories in Harkening are my own. But I rarely document in the sense of journaling because I don’t need to. I tend to take in scene, dialogue, metaphor, whole—as if I’m swallowing it. When I start to write it has formed in my head like an egg waiting to be cracked, waiting for the story to be revealed. When I do get an idea, though, I have to write it down as a reminder before another pushes the first into oblivion.
Vickie: If you could create a lasting memory, one that your children would someday write about, what would it entail?
Carolyn: I think most parents and grandparent try to do that but the person who is in charge of memories is whomever they dwell in. Here’s an example of what I mean:
I was discussing how life changes with my grandson who, at the time, was about fifteen. “Some older people tend to downsize,” I said as we rode through an exclusive area north of our neighborhood.
“You mean they sell their houses? Right from under their grandchildren?”
I was surprised at his vehemence. I knew how I felt about my grandparents’ home and its “hollow” (much like the “holler” of your memories, Vickie) but I never suspected that he would feel that way about my ranch house, really a tract house in a suburb of Los Angeles.
“Our house doesn’t have much history,” I said, keeping my eyes on the road as I drove, almost afraid to look at him and see the emotion in his eyes.
“I want your house to be in the family always. The tadpole pond up on the hills, the chaparral in the back yard….” He kept naming details about our house that seemed NEW and not at all memorable to me!
I guess that’s my point. Whatever we live with as a child is the yeast and dough of our own memories, our whole recipe for nostalgia. We make them out of the stuff we’re given. My grandson’s memory-list seemed almost sterile compared to mine. Maybe mine felt very foreign to him. In fact, one of the later stories in Harkening touches on this gap between generations.
Vickie: What advice would you give someone who wants to document memories of their family?
Carolyn: When I speak, I do not suggest doing as I do, that’s for sure. Most people won’t have any record (because most people aren’t writers) unless they journal or keep scrapbooks or use a camera often. And, if they want their records to be fascinating to those who come after them, they’ll take a couple of classes in writing. Learn to write natural—even sprightly—dialogue. Learn how to select detail and to set a scene. If they do that, they’ll go down through history as their family’s hero. If they don’t, the family will be grateful but only the truly motivated or most studious of their progeny will read it.
Vickie: In the introduction you say, “This book is made from my own memories and the harkenings of others. I liken the process of recording them to a child who listens to adult conversation with nuances that she doesn’t quite understand;…” Tell me about a conversation that you remember, but didn’t understand until you were older.
Carolyn: My first lesson on the ten commandments was a good example. I was the only child to raise her hand in Sunday School class when the teacher asked what “Thou shall not commit adultery” meant. Eager to show my knowledge and the tender age of about eight, I informed her that it means one should never—under any circumstances—sass adults!
When she gently suggested that was wrong and—probably in delicate terms—explained what it did mean, I still didn’t get it. I just didn’t have enough background information as my disposal to understand words like “infidelity” or “unfaithful” or probably (in those days), even “sex.”
Vickie: I kept in mind what you wrote about wondering
if you were writing fact or fiction. It really made a difference to me as I read, because I can recall
reminiscing events of my childhood where a sibling, or cousin has said,
“Hey, that’s not how I remember it.”
This bothered me in the past, but after reading Harkening,
I’ve realized that all of us remember something a little bit different
than the next. We all have the pleasure of writing our own
memories, but not many of us recall them as well as you. Thank you Carolyn Howard-Johnson for striking
a chord, with ~ Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered
2003's Honorary List