Pamela Binnings Ewen is one of those people who are just very interesting and it runs in the family, as you will read below. A multi published author of both fiction and non-fiction titles, her latest novel, The Moon and the Mango Tree, is based on the true story of her grandmother’s life in the 1920’s.
My dear friend, Tracy from Beyond My Picket Fence reviewed this wonderful book for me and contributed all the questions in the interview regarding the book.
I am sure you will enjoy what Pamela shares below on:~
Please share some of your writing/publishing journey with us.
My family in Louisiana sprouts writers like beans on a vine so I think writing may be in the genes. Our family name is Burke and there were five of us with new books out this summer, including James Lee Burke and his daughter Alafair, Andre Dubus, Delalune Michele and me. I’ve written all my life, but until Faith On Trial I wrote only for myself. Faith On Trial was a non-fiction book and I wrote it because I was an agnostic at the time; I wanted to believe, to have faith, but just couldn’t get there. Looking for a grounding for faith, I began research to see whether the Gospel stories could be proved with evidence existing today, like archeology, writings of people who lived in the first and second century, science, forensics, medicine, etc. (I was a lawyer at the time, so research was one of the tools of my profession.) The evidence I found created such a powerful case that it created the soil for faith to grow. I became a Christian believer. Faith On Trial was a book that I knew I HAD to write so that people who had difficult questions about faith could have access to the information that I’d found and judge for themselves. But I have to say that Faith On Trial also seemed to free me from inhibitions that keep many people from writing. Writing exposes your inner thoughts, your belief system and values and ideas to everyone who picks up your book. But writing about ideas that I believe in somehow seems to help me overcome that hurdle, and I’m sure that’s why most of my fiction also revolves around ideas that are central to the character and the plot. Also, I love to read and that passion started in childhood too. I think that writers must first be avid readers. My own opinion is that in order to write, you must read the classics and contemporary work, not only for pleasure but also to learn technique.
Why Christian fiction?
I’m not sure how I would define Christian fiction. I think of my books as stories with a Christian world view, but we can’t use that as the definition because there are many, many books that are not classified as Christian fiction that have strong Christian world views. Take the classics for example – Tolstoy, Doestoyevsky, Victor Hugo —the essence of their work are ideas about life, and man’s relationship with God, good and evil (well defined) but I don’t think anyone would say they were Christian fiction.
So we come down to the fact that Christian fiction, as a genre, is fairly new in the history of writing and it’s constantly changing, moving into new territory. I find it difficult to define. I guess my answer to your question is this: I believe that good fiction conveys ideas and values along with the story and I like that—that is one of the reasons that I write. The story must be engrossing on its own. The characters must engender love or hate or some sort of passion in the reader. But the writing must also reflect ideas and values that resonate in some way with the reader and cause him or her to reflect on them, adding depth and something lasting that will in some small way add to the reader’s life. That’s my hope.
Tell us a little of your legal career – i.e. what kept you busy before the writing bug bit?
I was a lawyer for twenty-five years in Houston, Texas. My choice to become a lawyer in the first place was driven by the fact that I had a child, an ex-husband, and no visible means of support. My son was very young at that point and he was the center of my life, so I made a plan—put myself through college, then law school, and that’s what I did. There were some hard times, but it was worth it in the end and I was able to accomplish my goals. My son is now grown and happy with a wonderful family. My clients were large corporations and my area of practice was corporate finance. While trial work is adversarial, corporate work is generally not. Corporate lawyers work together to negotiate and complete business goals and that is what makes it so much fun. For example if a client wants to raise capital to build a refinery or a building or to push forward on new research, lawyers for the client and for the various lenders work together to achieve that goal. Generally there are tight deadlines so long hours, high pressure, and travel is usually involved. But I have found that camaraderie often develops among the teams of lawyers and when the transaction is done, you feel a sense of accomplishment. Women have choices to make, but if you can make it work with your family life, law is a fascinating career and it’s wide open for women now. In my most recent manuscript, now in the submission process, the heroine is a woman lawyer.
As I mentioned above, I have just completed a new book, tentatively titled Dancing On Glass. This is the story of a strong young woman who is caught in a predatory relationship, and how she handles the problem. It’s fast paced, set in New Orleans—a story of unearned grace. I would characterize this new book as psychological suspense. My first novel, Walk Back The Cat, was also psychological suspense and I find that kind of character and story-development fascinating.
What does a regular writing day look like for you?
I wish that I were so organized that I could give you an easy answer on this one, but the truth is that this depends on circumstances. Generally once I get into a character and story it is very hard for me to put myself on a schedule. At that point, I usually go into my office upstairs around eight in the morning, and write until something or someone stops me. That can be into the night, unless events interfere. It is so hard to create a fictional world and really get into it, then pull yourself back out. Often I listen to music when I’m writing and at these times I usually choose soft classical sonatas and nocturnes, nothing too emotional that will pull me out of the story. Also I find myself thinking about the book even when I’m not working—I’ll come across a word somewhere that strikes me as the perfect word for a sentence I’ve been struggling with, or I’ll find myself running through a scene in my mind as I’m lying in bed trying to go to sleep!
Here is a problem that writers often run into—working on more than one book at a time. This happens to me when a book is in the publication stage and I’m working with my editor or someone else at the publishing house on getting the book made, or promoting it as it is ready to be released and after. Periods of time lapse between making editorial changes on the finished book, working with the publisher on choosing a cover, etc., and generally by that time I have also started on a new book. I find myself lost in the passion of writing the new story, at the same time that things are really rolling on the finished book still to be released.
The Moon in the Mango Tree
What was it about Barbara & Harvey’s story that compelled you to write a novel based on their lives.
I was close to my grandparents and had heard the stories of their adventures in Siam, and hers in Europe, all through my childhood. One day after they’d both passed away, my mother found stashed away somewhere some journals and the letters that my grandmother had written to her family during the period of the story, and letters from home back to her. In those days people wrote long beautiful letters, as that was the only means of communication from long distances. They told a story about my grandparents that I’d never suspected. They showed me a young, beautiful and intellectually curious young woman who initially gave up her own desire for a career in singing, for love. And the letters illuminated the consequences of that first, early decision and the evolution of her longing for something of her own, for something that would give meaning and purpose to her life, until finally she faces the choice once again. This choice between family and career is one that women still face today, and to some extent, Barbara’s struggles in Mango Tree reflect our own today. Can we have it all? Or do we have to choose? It was fascinating and I knew that I had to write it, but because the story was true, I felt a great weight of responsibility to get it right.
How were your mother and aunt’s memories able to help with the writing of The Moon in the Mango Tree?
That was very interesting. I first wrote the book as non-fiction, and essentially I thought of this as a gift to them. They were so young at the time the story takes place that their memories of that period were incomplete. I say that in the sense that each of them remembered flashes of time, and many details, but in many cases without understanding why certain things had happened. For example, both of them remember the boarding school in Switzerland, and both have good memories of the school, but they remember being confused about why they were there, and where their father was. Their memories were crucial though, because it allowed me to put the pieces of the puzzle together. My grandmother also brought many photographs back with her from Siam. They were sepia and torn and I had them restored and enlarged, and my mother and aunt and I had many happy times looking at those photos. But the pictures also added pieces to the puzzle. Moving to non-fiction allowed me to write the story on a deeper level of truth, and that’s because by fictionalizing I could not only add conversation, but also my grandmother’s own emotional battle with events, her reflections, and her passion for life. The greatest gift of all came from my mother and her sister to me. When they read the finished version they told me that I’d gotten it right.
Barbara and Harvey’s lifestyle in Bangkok was quite a contradiction to the stereotypical image most of us hold of missionaries. Do you think this was related to the culture of the time, or their way of putting behind them, the rigid teachings of the other missionaries in Nan?
I do think that my grandmother was in a sense reacting against her experience in the earlier years at Nan. When she first got to Bangkok she thought that this was the life she wanted, this was the life she’d missed while at Nan. It took her a while to figure out the truth. My grandparents certainly led a Great Gatsby life in Bangkok! That was fun to write. But recall that here they are no longer missionaries. In Part II of the book, my grandfather was sent back to Bangkok by the Rockefeller Institute to help establish the first medical school in Siam, which he did. He became great friends with the Crown Prince, who was also instrumental in establishing the medical school, and later became a royal physician. I do think the ex-patriot lifestyle that prevailed in Bangkok in the 1920’s was very similar to the way ex-pats in other cities in the Far East lived at that time. In fact I think that’s why my editor inserted a quote from Somerset Maugham’s book The Painted Veil at the beginning of the book. But my grandmother realized at last that this life was an empty one. Still searching and longing for something more, this is what finally drove her on to Paris and Rome.
I loved the vivid description of Barbara and Harvey’s first impression of their own garden at their house in Nan. It was so easy to imagine myself standing right there! Was the detail from photos or memories passed down, or more from your own imagination?
Thanks so much. As you would guess, Thailand today, particularly in the North, is much different than the Siam that my grandparent’s knew. My grandmother’s descriptions in her letters were very detailed and vivid, and both my grandfather and grandmother told the stories of their time in Siam with great description. They both loved the country and the people very much, and my grandfather particularly loved the beauty of the jungle. He once told me that the way a vine in the jungle can work it’s way to the top of the trees to glean sunlight is absolute proof that the universe is perfectly designed by God. The photographs were great to have and more than providing a description, they evoked for me an image and a mood. I also did quite a bit of research on the area and found several travel books and journals in the library written during the period from about 1910 through 1930 that described the area and, surprisingly, the actual missionaries in the story. Evidently the Siam mission was well established and well known.
What was your favourite part of the story to write?
The last chapter! The ending is a surprise so I don’t want to give that away, but that particular corner of the world is one of my favorite places, and it was fulfilling to be able to tie all the ribbons on the package into a beautiful bow. I have to say, however, that writing this story was very emotional for me and I really lived each scene as I wrote it. It was as if my grandmother was with me through the whole thing…No no, you silly child. Not like that. Tell it like this!
I hope each reader will find himself or herself pulled into the dazzling, exotic world of the story, that each person will love the story and my grandmother and grandfather. It was a great surprise to me to find that my grandmother’s search for faith and meaning and purpose was so much like my own when I was writing my first book, Faith On Trial. So I hope that readers with the same faith questions, and women who are faced with difficult life choices will find my grandmother’s journey helpful in their own lives.
Do you read Christian fiction yourself? If so, some favourite authors or books both Christian and/or secular.
I read all the time and everything and carry books with me everywhere in case I have to wait for something. I even read when I exercise on the treadmill! But I’d rather not name my favorite contemporary writers or books because sure as anything I’d leave someone out whose writing I love. I don’t distinguish between Christian fiction and secular fiction at all, although I prefer books that present clear moral values, distinguish between good and evil, and in general present a Christian worldview. But dealing with the classics, I can say that I think my favorite book is To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. In my list, this book is at the very top—it has everything, perfect voice, a wonderful story, characters who become part of you. If any of you readers are writers, or want to write, you’ll know how important it is to learn technique from the masters. Learn how to set a scene from Virginia Woolf, how to write fluid dialogue from Tennessee Williams, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Learn how to weave universal ideas that into personal stories from Tolstoy.
What are you reading at the moment?
At the moment I am rereading Bev Marshall’s book Hot Fudge Sundae Blues. Her writing reminds me of Harper Lee, by the way. I am also reading Karen Ball’s The Breaking Point, which I’m loving. (I often find myself reading two books at one time!)
Who inspires you?
Jesus Christ. I try to hold onto his moral compass in everything I write and do.
Please share some of your faith journey.
At the time I left home as a young woman I began reading philosophers who wrote that this life is all there is, so we’d better make the most of it. I’d been raised in a church-centered family in a small town in Louisiana, so this was a shock. Finally I asked my pastor the question: How do we know that the Gospel stories are true? And his answer shook my world. There’s no way to prove it, he said. You just have to have faith.
I found that I did not have that gift of faith, and the lack of an answer to this question was fatal for me. I became an agnostic, got on the treadmill and started to run. After practicing law for many years, growing older, becoming more aware of our mortality, the old question started to haunt me. I wanted so much to believe that there is more than we can see and feel and touch, but just couldn’t get there.
But lawyers research events that occurred in the past all the time…the red car hits the green car. You bring witnesses into the courtroom to check their stories, look at the evidence, prove the case. Or disprove it. Either way, you’ll have an answer to your question. So, as I mentioned earlier, I decided to research my own question to see what evidence exists today to support the case for the four Gospels of the New Testament, the cornerstone of Christianity. I treated Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as witnesses to the cornerstone event of faith—the resurrection. It took many years to complete the job, but the results are set forth in Faith On Trial. The evidence preserved for us through thousands of years makes a very powerful case. It was the soil in which my faith could take seed and grow, and that is why I wrote the book. I wrote this book so that others with dark questions in the night can come to realize that there is a solid foundation for Christianity, that our belief is based upon “knowable” facts: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Thank you, Pamela for such a fascinating interview! It is amazing how God has worked in you and your family’s lives
Relz Reviewz Extras
Read Tracy’s review of The Moon and the Mango Tree
Visit Pamela’s website
Buy Pamela’s books at Amazon or Koorong
Thanks again to the lovely people at B&H Fiction, I have two copies to give away to my Aussie readers and two to my North American readers. To enter:~
1. Post a comment by midnight Sunday 12th October, 2008 telling me your favourite historical era
2. Add a AUS or USA to your post so I know which draw to put you in.