Rel: What appeals to you most about writing fiction?
Dale: I absolutely love reading back over something I’ve done and discovering that I’ve somehow, even accidentally, hit the mark. It still surprises me. I started writing in my mid-forties and was astonished at how easily it came to me. It was as if it had been there all along, and yet it was a complete change of identity. I also like the commute— get dressed, put on a pot of coffee and sit down at my desk. Beats driving into the city every day.
Why Christian fiction?
It seems to be a natural fit. If you look at it with a wide-angle lens the Bible is full of wonderful, profound themes, so it’s not hard to find a cornerstone for a story. I see metaphor and moral in everyday things fairly easily, and it must be a God thing because whatever I’ve tried to do in the Christian publishing world, the doors have just flung themselves wide. In the general market, not so much.
I can’t even name one “thing” I can’t live without. I’m pretty adaptable, able to get by in just about any circumstance. I love my Mini Cooper, but I could live without it.
Favourite book ~ Favourite movie ~ Favourite TV show
Cannery Row, by Steinbeck, is my favourite book. Movie? I don’t know. I’m a sucker for underdog movies, so off the top of my head I’d say Cinderella Man is my favourite movie. (Love the Brit spelling of favourite, btw.) The only TV show I watch with any regularity, other than baseball games, is American Idol (they’re ALL underdogs). TV, on the whole, has gotten pretty pathetic.
Where is the most interesting place you have been?
That’s a wide category. I grew up as an army brat, visiting almost all of Europe at one time or another— Rome, Paris, the Rhine valley, Madrid, the Riviera, Monaco, Bavaria, and since then I’ve visited most of the States. But the most memorable thing to me right now was the day I drove down out of the cloud forests of Panama a few years ago, then dodged thunderstorms in a small plane from David to Panama City and spent the remains of the day touring the city with a driver named Omar whose English was as bad as my Spanish. It was a blast. Crossing the causeway from the new city to the old, I asked Omar in broken Spanish if he liked to fish and he thought I meant “like to EAT fish”. He bought fried fish in a paper sack from some street vender and we washed it down with a Coke, sitting on a sea wall watching the sun sink into the Pacific. Best fish I’ve ever tasted.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Believe it or not, I wanted to be a writer. I put it off for thirty years, but the dream never died. My first book was published within a few weeks of my fiftieth birthday.
I’m completely self-taught; never went to college, never took any kind of writing course or belonged to any writer’s group other than a Compuserve forum. I’ve also been a construction worker all my life; never worked in any job that demanded language skills (most of the words in construction-speak are only four letters long). What I’ve learned about writing has come almost entirely from reading books.
How does Paradise Valley differ from your previous fiction titles?
First of all, I’ve never attempted a series before. I only did it because the Mexico saga was too big to fit in one book. Second, Paradise Valley features female points of view, something I’ve never really done before. All my previous novels were written from a male point of view. My wife helped a lot, but I still find the inside of a woman’s head a terrifying landscape.
Which character did you connect to the most?
I guess that would have to be Caleb, the patriarch of the Bender clan and the only strong male point of view in the book. I can’t help it, I’m a guy. Caleb is a principle-driven old Amishman, but he’s occasionally willing to bend the rules in the name of love. I never had any trouble knowing what he would say or do in a given situation.
Which character was the most difficult to write?
Rachel. At the start of the book she’s fifteen. Who knows what goes through the mind of a fifteen year old Amish girl? Fortunately, my wife was there to read each chapter as soon as I wrote it. She’d just shake her head, mumbling, “No, no, no, no…” Then I’d rewrite it.
Your main characters are women (unlike your previous novels) ~ did that make it a different writing experience for you?
Well, yes, I guess I already answered that. This was the first time my wife actually took an active part in the creation of a novel. She didn’t do the writing, but she helped me see the female perspective— subtle differences, usually, but all the difference in the world. When I started the project I went to her and said, “I’m in trouble. I have to write a book from a female perspective, and I don’t know the first thing about women.” I’ll never forget, she looked at me with great compassion and said three words I’ve been waiting thirty-five years to hear: “You’re absolutely right.”
What was your favourite scene to write in Paradise Valley or share your favourite paragraph?
My favourite scenes to write were all near the end of the book, and therefore spoilers, so I can’t share them. But there are a couple scenes early on that I like. Here’s one where Caleb discovers the pamphlet advertising land in Mexico, and it’s like an answered prayer:
Caleb found nothing he wanted at the auction– it was always a little slow this time of year– but when the sale ended he was deep in discussion with his good friend the blacksmith, so he walked with him over to the hardware store. The blacksmith needed to buy a new knife for trimming hooves. He weighed various knives while they talked, hefting each in his hand to gauge the strength and balance of it, and when he had made his choice he went to the counter to pay for it. Caleb waited for him by the door, staring absently through the glass. As he stood there an Amish girl passed by on her way home with a lunch pail in her hand, and from the back she looked so much like his Rachel that he instinctively pulled the hat from his head, right there in the store, and sent up a silent, fervent plea for his Gott to show him another way.
Then he put his hat back on his head and turned to his right where he saw his reflection in the glass case covering a bulletin board. It was just a cork board with pieces of paper pinned to it announcing horses and mules for sale, offering the services of cobblers and tinkers and well diggers. But there in the middle of his face, as his eyes refocused to see the board behind the glass, was a folded piece of paper bearing a bold one-word headline that caught his eye and would, he knew instantly, alter the course of his life.
Underneath that, in smaller letters, were the words, ‘Land for Sale.’
It was an answer, a sign– he recognized that still small voice, the incendiary subtlety. A little shiver ran through him.
Then there’s this early dialog between Rachel and Jake about choosing a mate. It’s a delicate thing, creating romance between a young Amish couple— hard to make it real:
(Jake) “So why do so many get it wrong? I’ve watched lots of boys choose, including my two older brothers, and sometimes it don’t work out so good.”
“What do you mean? Your brother Noah married Linda Traeger, the prettiest girl in the district.”
“That’s exactly what I mean. Just between me and you, she’s sometimes not so easy to get along with.”
Rachel had heard the rumors. But Jake didn’t stop there.
“I seen it before,” he continued. “It’s like if Gott puts too much pretty in a girl He has to make up for it, so she has a shortcoming somewhere else.”
Her face darkened. She let go his hand and crossed her arms on her chest. “I see. So you ‘choose’ me because I’m not pretty. You don’t want a pretty girl, you want plain little red-headed Rachel Bender.”
Most of the boys she knew would have gotten defensive at that point and started blustering, trying to squirm off the hook. But not Jake. Out in the open, in the moonlight, she could see that he was laughing quietly. He shook his head as if this was such nonsense he would not dignify it with an answer. Then the grin faded and he became very serious.
Stopping and turning to face her in the path he said, “Do you remember one day raking leaves last fall with Miriam? It was a fine crisp day with a deep blue sky and a little wind, the leaves all bright red and gold, a good crop harvested and another year of good health behind us. Miriam threw some leaves at you and pretty soon the two of you were chasing and laughing–“
“Wait,” Rachel said, “I remember that, and you weren’t there. We were in our own back yard, away from the road and prying eyes. Were you spying on us, Jake?”
“Well, no, but we were hunting pheasant that day and I saw you from down in the pasture on the other side of the creek. Your kapp came off, you remember?”
He made motions with his fingers on either side of his head, like rain. “Your hair got loose and came down all around you. I could hear you laugh when Miriam tackled you into the leaf pile, and it was a sound like silver. Then you got up and chased her, all that red hair dancing and the sunlight flashing off of it like… like spun copper.”
He paused then, and she peeked at his face. He was searching for something– the right words, or maybe the courage to say them. She’d never known an Amish poet before, and she wasn’t about to interrupt him. She waited.
“In all my life,” he said softly, shaking his head, “I have never seen a sunset more beautiful than that.”
She averted her eyes. Suddenly short of breath, she unconsciously pawed and tucked at her hair. What kind of boy was this who could so easily stir such feelings within her, frightening and embarrassing and wildly exciting all at once?
Dale asked me to choose between the two passages but I love them both so they both stayed!
What’s next in your writing pipeline?
The Captive Heart is in the editing pipeline right now, Book 2 in The Daughters of Caleb Bender series. I’ve been through the major substantive edit already and I’m waiting for the ‘fine tuning’ comments from the editors. It’ll be out in December 2011. Things really get rolling in the second book; I like it a lot. I’m also currently in the thick of writing Book 3, as yet untitled. Assuming I can finish the Bender story with Book 3, that’ll be all for The Daughters of Caleb Bender, and then I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I’m not really inclined to write another Amish book at this point because I don’t want to get typecast and there are other ideas I’d like to pursue, but right now I’m so preoccupied with the Benders there’s nothing else on the horizon.
Thanks so much for sharing, Dale It is always a pleasure to have you visit.
Relz Reviewz Extras
Interview with Dale ~ 2007