Write Around the Corner

S3 E4 | FULL EPISODE

Write Around the Corner-Jim Minick

We visit the Settlers Museum in Atkins to talk with Jim Minick about his book, Fire is Your Water, Winner of the 2017 Appalachian Book of the Year for fiction. This novel explores what it means to heal and what it means to have faith in God and in each other.

AIRED: November 26, 2019 | 0:27:34
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: With offices in Radford and Blacksburg,

Patrick K. Moore is a client-focused,

community-involved law firm committed to you.

If a legal issue touches your family,

finances, or future, we can help.

Whether it's real estate, business law,

or estate planning,

Patrick Moore welcomes the opportunity

to speak with you about your legal issues.

[♪♪♪]

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day

♪ Every day I write the book

- Hi, everyone. I'm Rose Martin,

and we are Write Around The Corner

at the beautiful Settlers Museum

in this barn with none other than Jim Minick.

Now, Jim Minick is the author of five books,

including The Blueberry Years,

award-winning book for non-fiction,

and it's gonna be the one we're talking about today,

the Fire is Your Water.

This book is a love story, a little compassion,

a little heartache,

when Ada Franklin, who's a young pow-wow doctor;

she can heal wounds,

she can heal warts, she can take the fire out,

but that all changes one day in June of 1953.

We'll talk about that, in a minute.

Hi, Jim. Welcome to Write Around The Corner .

- It's good to be here, Rose. Thank you.

- Thank you so much,

and congratulations on the success of all five books,

fromThe Blueberry Years to your debut novel.

- Oh, thank you very much. It's been great....

- And what transitioned you to a debut novel?

- I was--

the novel's built on a bunch of family stories,

and I was trying for several years

to make it a nonfiction book.

And then-- and that wasn't working,

'cause the stories cover 30 years and four generations.

And so, I realized that if I...

changed the focus and sharpened the focus,

that's one of the problems

I was having with the nonfiction.

I couldn't figure out how to bring them all together.

But when I started to think about fiction,

I started to think about faith and the struggles of faith,

and how fire plays into all of that.

Then I'd realized I had a story. So, it took a long time,

but it was finally good to have it out.

- How long of a time?

- Over 10 years.

ROSE: To get all the pieces together?

- Yeah. Yeah.

And I was workin' full-time

and writin' other books in that time period.

But yeah, it was... but it was, I mean--

I had to learn a lot about fiction, you know.

I had to study up on how to write fiction.

- And this isn't the first time you've used

the family stories or that personal story

to write, is it?

Because inBlueberry Years , that's your story.

- Right. Yeah.

The Blueberry Years is a memoir. Yeah.

About a young couple chasin' the crazy blueberry dream.

So.... - And as a child

that they-- you were with your grandparents,

growing up on a blueberry farm?

- I grew up beside my grandparents.

And yeah, they had a blueberry farm.

My grandfather planted it in the 1950s.

It was very small, but it supplemented the dairy.

They-- so I remember picking too many berries,

you know, making myself sick on berries, and--

[Rose laughs]

- and mowin' around the bushes.

But that was about all I knew about blueberries

until we started our own.

- And what was that like, to start from scratch

and decide it was-- - It was, it was crazy.

ROSE: Yeah? JIM: And my wife at the time,

you know, we were both pretty young,

and she didn't know how little I knew.

So, it was kind of funny

to have her realize along the way

that I didn't know what I was doin'.

So, we learned a lot.

Plus, we were doin' it organically, which--

one of our neighbors, who's a great friend,

and he grew strawberry-- pick-your-own strawberries.

But he used any chemical that was there.

So, he called our organic fertilizers "holy powders."

[Rose laughs]

- And he had a lot of fun teasing us.

But he finally came around when he realized we were--

we had a good crop.

But yeah, it was a lot of fun to--

compare notes with him.

- So, growing up near your grandparents

from the outdoors is always really special to you.

So, this setting of being here in a barn, well,

it's kind of like home,

but it'll have-- be even more precise

when we get started talking aboutFire is Your Water .

- Right.

ROSE: Because that scene with the barn.

- Right. - So, take me back a few years

to Jim Minick growing up and learning to be a writer,

and wanting to kind of explore the outdoors

and finding that niche.

- So, I grew up in this very small town of 300 people

in south-central Pennsylvania.

And my parents both were school teachers.

And their family farm, where my dad was raised,

was just a quarter mile away.

So, every day after school, I would go help milk the cows.

But I also got great teaching and nurturing

from so many teachers and, you know,

I learned to play with words early on,

and I learned the value of gettin' outside early on.

So, I'm thrilled to be able to nurture both of those.

- And-- - And be nurtured by them.

- And I think I read somewhere

that you still walk every morning in the woods,

and the woods is a very special,

almost a spiritual place for you to connect.

- Yes. Yeah. ROSE: And still today you--

- Try to. Yeah. Yeah. - still make sure to do that.

- It's a little different nowadays.

We have a lot of bears.

So, it's--

and I'm not afraid of the bears,

but I'm afraid of one of our dogs

having an encounter with a bear.

So, we make a lot of noise when we go on walks

this time of year.

So, but it's, yeah,

it's still very much peaceful and enjoyable.

I enjoy the quiet when I'm not making noise.

ROSE: Uh-huh.

- And the bears aren't around.

But, yeah, it's a great place. It's a sanctuary. Yeah.

- Well, and nature's just-- you know,

I think it refuels us in a way.

JIM: Yeah. Sure. - Doesn't it?

It reenergizes us, and kind of fills that vessel.

JIM: Yeah. Yeah.

- When you think about your early school years,

I read that your--

one of your first public presentations of a poem

was about your sixth grade teacher.

- Yeah. I was wondering

if you were gonna bring that up. [Rose laughs]

- So yeah. So, I wrote a lot,

but I don't remember really any public presentation

or any publications until sixth grade.

And our teacher was named Mrs. Haller,

and she was very pretty.

And we all were in love with her,

and so I wrote a poem called "Hot Lips Haller."

[Rose giggles]

- And I don't remember how she found it,

but she made me read it aloud in class,

and I don't know who was more embarrassed.

[Rose giggles]

- I think she was embarrassed as much as I was.

I mean, it wasn't scandalous or anything,

but it was fun. It rhymed.

It was probably horrible. And, but-- we're still friends.

- Oh, are you? That's great.

- She's come to some of my readings back at home.

So, yeah. ROSE: Oh! That's fun.

- Yeah.

- Were your parents avid readers or writers?

Where did that-- where did that--

- They were avid readers. - internal spark come from?

- Yeah, they read a lot.

My dad taught math and my mom taught kindergarten.

So, they didn't write a lot.

But they were avid readers, and my sister was too.

My older sister kind of taught me how to read.

ROSE: Uh-huh.

- And so, that was always there.

Yeah. Same with my grandparents.

They were-- they liked to read. So....

- And I read that in Fire is Your Water ,

based on your grandma, who actually was a pow-wow healer.

For-- I had no idea,

and neither did Carol what that ever meant.

And I thought I had been familiar

with some of the Pennsylvania Dutch,

and familiar with some of the southwest Virginia,

you know, Native American-- other Native American medicine,

but I had never heard the term before.

- And I don't know if the term's transpired

or come down the mountains,

but much of the folk healing has.

So, it was my great-grandmother.

Her name was Ida Franklin Minick,

and she, like you said in the intro,

she could take warts off,

but she also could stop blood, if you had a cut,

and she could take the fire out of a burn.

And so-- and I remember her, she lived until I was four.

So, I remember her a little bit.

But I collected all these family stories about her.

And I-- the word "pow-wowing"--

and I-- we should maybe talk about some of the stories

in a moment-- but the word "pow-wowing"

has nothing to do with Native Americans.

I think the Pennsylvania Dutch just stole that word.

But it is all about faith healing,

and so all these chants are very much based on

belief and religion, knowledge of the Bible.

They're often pulling in the Holy Spirit

as well as scripture.

And I would imagine,

or I know, much of those traditions

traveled down the Appalachian chain in our-- in this area.

So, when I give readings, especially in this area,

I ask, you know, people if they have stories of healing,

and I usually get one or two.

So, it's been fun to hear that. Yeah.

- Well, Carol had her own personal story,

our co-producer Carol.

So, she's reading the book.

She's remembering having a neighbor

and having the healing done for her. So--

- Wow! - it really brought it home.

I'd love to hear some of those stories

about your great-grandma.

- Umm....

The-- one of the most fascinating is...

And I make this fit, but I use it in the book.

Clyde McGee was a close family friend.

And he lived about four miles away

on the other side of Newburgh.

And he was a dairy farmer as well.

And he called up Ida,

this is probably in the 1940s or '50s.

And Ida never drove. She never had a license.

So, he called up Ida one day and said that his favorite cow

had stepped on her teat and it wouldn't--

he couldn't get it to stop bleeding.

And he needed her to come tell-- to chant over this cow.

And Ida said she couldn't

because nobody was there to drive her.

And Clyde said, "Well, I don't care, just say it now."

And so she did. And it worked.

- Over the phone.

- Over the phone, distance of four miles,

on a cow.

ROSE: Wow!

- So, you know, that's a family tradition--

family story been-- you know, in the oral tradition.

But I believe it, you know,

but it's-- who knows how and why it worked.

- Well, she wrote something for you, didn't she?

When you were a baby, or before you were born?

A chant and a prayer for you, that your dad carried around?

- Right. So, I had severe earaches

when I was a kid,

and she wrote a chant to take the pain away from that,

and my dad carried it around in his wallet.

And I don't know if it worked or not.

I don't, you know-- I have great ears now.

So, but yeah, there is several chants.

Usually, the chants were, in the tradition,

were usually handed down.

They were always handed down, man to woman, woman to man.

And usually they were kept secret,

and given orally.

But for some reason, Ida wrote several of them down.

So, we have maybe three,

which has been kind of fascinating to read and share.

- What were some of the others for?

- One was for taking out fire. ROSE: Uh-huh.

- And it's this long, really, really long chant

that draws on the power of Jesus,

the power of Mary,

and the power of the Holy Spirit.

And, you know, it's-- my great-grandmother,

I think only had a limited education.

Probably eighth grade, at most.

And she always misspelled "holy."

She gave it two l's. So, it was "holly."

So, it's always very distinctive to see her handwriting

as well as her misspellings.

- Well, and even to have those, in her own hand.

- Yeah. - That's pretty special.

- Yeah.

- So, has it carried on through your family?

- Not really. She-- I think she taught my--

one of my uncles a little bit, but he never really practiced.

He practiced it on himself, he said some, but no, it's not.

But I did go to German Folklife Festival

last summer in Kutztown, Pennsylvania,

and I met a couple people.

I had kinda thought it was fading out,

but I met a folklorist there who said it's very much alive,

in that-- especially in that area.

- Hmmm. - So, yeah.

- So, people are still seeking those who have that gift

to take the fire out or to remove the warts.

- Yes. - And is there any limit

to what it would be able to, perhaps, heal for the warts,

or taking the fire out, or healing the cow?

- Limit of-- ROSE: Don't know?

- Limit of faith. ROSE: Yeah.

- And, you know, it doesn't always work,

and it's very much based on belief.

ROSE: Uh-huh.

- But, so another family story that I do use in the book

is that a rich family came to visit my great-grandmother

with their daughter.

And they-- it's never really clear in the oral tradition

what her sickness was, but they asked--

but it sounded like epilepsy.

And so, they asked her to heal this daughter,

and my great-grandmother said she had never done that.

But she studied her books and did a chant, and it worked.

So, I was able to use that in the book.

- And what I remember reading about that

was that she wouldn't take money.

So, for some reason-- - Correct.

- she felt that that was a gift from God

that she wasn't going to charge for.

- Right.

- That she was almost that conduit--

- Right. - to the healing.

- Yes. And that's pretty common.

There's some pow-wow doctors who do take money,

but most don't.

And it's very much a... yeah.

My great-grandmother believed that if she took the money,

it would cancel the healing.

- Or prevent her from maybe healing anymore, right?

- Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

- Which is interesting,

because when I was reading about the faith healing

and reading about the pow-wows,

and trying to look at the pow-wow healing doctors,

in your book, you know, Ada, she's 20 years old.

- Yeah. Yeah.

ROSE: And she's just a really young girl.

- Yeah.

- To be able to do something like this or know,

and the townsfolk all happen to know too,

and I'm sure that might be similar to your grandmother.

People in town all knew

and would come to her for help and want that.

Do you have any stories

that your parents would share with you about that?

People just showing up at your house?

- No. Not specifically about my great-grandmother.

But I mean, I've read that in other pow-wow healers,

and it was very much a gift economy, you know.

The gift was given to the healer,

so they felt obligated to keep that gift going.

ROSE: Uh-huh. - Yeah.

- Well, and I love the way

you wove the truth of your family story

into a fictional setting in the book.

And taking all of those stories

and all of those notes from decades

and trying to, you know, put them into one novel,

seems like that really had to be challenging.

When you begin to write,

is it true you write standing up?

- Yes. ROSE: It is true!

- Yeah. ROSE: Okay, how come?

- It's healthier. [Jim laughs]

ROSE: Okay. So, at a podium?

- It's a-- ROSE: Or a standing table or...?

- it-it--

I do have a podium for, like, a different place.

But usually, it's at a-- it's called a Thoreau desk

because it's based on what Thoreau used.

But it's a big, kind of like a drafting table.

So, you know, good size,

and you put your laptop there and.... Yeah.

- And Thoreau is one of your early influences, right?

- Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

- Do you have a certain format you--

I read you were, you love to write in the mornings.

JIM: Right.

- Morning seems to be quiet and inspirational for you.

- Right. - And a word count per day?

Do you let it flow? Do you edit along the way?

How does that work? JIM: Ah.

It depends on the project.

For the novel, I was wanting--

a good day when I wasn't teaching

was 1,000 words a day.

But that's changed significantly with the current project,

which is much more difficult.

And it's not my own story so much as somebody else's.

So, it's-- I'm trying for 500 words a day.

- Uh-hmm. And how do you handle the editing process?

Along the way, at the end? What works for you?

- Along the way, pretty much, which is not probably good.

But I love-- I love revising.

That's probably my favorite part of the whole process.

So once-- the hard part's getting it out.

And once I plow through,

then it's fun to go back and figure it out. So....

- Well, I'm excited to chat aboutFire is Your Water .

- Okay.

- With these three main characters.

- Okay. - We've got Ada,

we've got Will, and Cicero,

which caught me totally off guard.

So, let's start with Ada. - Okay.

- Based on your great-grandma.

- Right.

- And her name was Ida, that's Ada.

- Right. - She's 20 years old.

- Right.

- And, let's meet her.

- So, her identity is this healer and she--

in the community that's, you know, who she's known,

but she also struggles with love,

she's still unmarried and living at home.

And the novel opens with the family barn burning.

- Which is why we're here.

- Right. Right. - What a perfect setting, right?

- Yes. Just don't, you know....

- Right. [laughs] - Don't ignite.

But, and that-- that also happens. That--

- Oh, it did. - Yeah.

The family barn burned in the 1950s,

and there were two women at home,

and it was my great-grandmother and my grandmother,

and they went in and saved the cows and other animals.

So, I had that story.

And then, in the fire-- this did not happen,

I don't think, to my great-grandmother--

but in that fire,

the fictional character suddenly faces death.

And doesn't-- or is faced with death and fire and the unknown,

and she suddenly is afraid.

And that fear is what changes her in the fire,

and she loses her ability to heal.

And so that-- once I realized the question

of how does a healer heal, find healing or heal herself,

or how does the community heal the healer.

Once I had that question, I realized I had a novel.

And that is her journey. She, you know--

- That's a big question. - Yeah.

- How does a healer heal themselves, or a community--

JIM: Yeah. - heal,

when we probably all in some way, right,

we help others, then how do we-- how do you help your,

how do you help yourself? JIM: Right.

- So, you've got a larger question--

JIM: Right.

- for all of us to really think about in there.

- Right. Yeah.

And when I realized that was kind of the gist of her journey,

that was-- I was like, ah, I have something.

ROSE: Uh-huh. - So yeah.

I realized then it was a novel. So....

- And introduce us to Will. JIM: Okay.

So, the two characters live

on the opposite side of the mountain,

and they never meet until they're in their 20s,

and they both work at

the Pennsylvania Turnpike Service Plaza,

Blue Mountain Service Plaza.

And Ada works, waits tables in the Howard Johnson's, HoJo's,

and Will pumps gas out on the Esso station.

- And you know what made me think about that.

Carol and I were talking about this.

How many young readers would even know

that HoJo's stood for Howard Johnson's?

- Right.

- Or that gas stations used to be full service?

- Right. - That you just drove up

and sat in your car?

- Right. ROSE: Yeah.

So. And so they-- that love--

well, so Will sees her,

and finally builds up the courage to go in,

and she's dipping ice cream and she hands him a scoop,

or hands him a cone, and winks.

And that is kind of the opening to, you know, for both of them.

And she's ashamed and kind of surprised

that she winked, and he's floored and, you know.

So, they fall in love,

and that love story is my parents' love story.

So, it was kind of fun to be able to incorporate that.

So, he is very much-- he's an orphan,

his mother died at his birth,

and so where Ada has all kinds of faith and belief,

he has all kinds of not-faith.

He's very much an agnostic,

and doesn't believe in a lot of things.

But he does believe in birds, and he--

- Intro Cicero. - Yeah.

So, he loves birds. They're kind of his escape,

and he-- during some of his first days

working on the turnpike,

he notices a raven nest, or what he thinks

where a nest is, way up high on the mountain.

And he goes and finds it one day,

and then the next day-- the next night,

there's a big storm,

and he worries about 'em, and so he races back.

You know, he lives on the other side of the mountain,

so he has to go through the double tunnels.

And when he finally climbs up the mountain,

he can't find the nest.

And-- but he does find one of the adult birds,

very much wounded and with a broken wing,

and he-- the bird's trapped.

So, to release the bird, he has to cut the foot off.

And so, the healing is--

so I have a triangle of characters.

They're all wounded in different ways.

And I didn't realize this until going in,

maybe halfway through.

I didn't realize Cicero was going to be a character

until halfway through,

but I have the perfect lover's triangle.

- You do. And you also,

the way you aligned all the chapters,

having Cicero have separate chapters,

giving that separate voice and perspective

throughout the story, we found really interesting too.

Would you be willing to read for us?

- Sure.

- And set it up. What did you choose?

- So, I should say that most of the book

is written in the third person point of view,

limited third persons,

alternating between Ada and Will.

But occasionally, there are chapters

in Cicero's perspective, with his voice.

As one reviewer called it,

they're firstbird point of view.

And so, they're his perspective on life.

And so, this is his meditation on a feather,

and he is-- like I said, he was injured,

and he couldn't fly, and Will has worked with him

to build back his strength,

and he's about ready to fly again.

But this-- he still hasn't flown in a couple of weeks.

So, this is Cicero on feathers with-- and he has a broken wing.

"Think about it.

"A feather is such a simple thing.

"All lightness and what looks like frill,

"all of it attached to a hollow bone.

"If you hold it to the light,

"you can almost see through that bone.

"Hard to believe what a feather can do.

"And don't you forget what a feather used to do.

"It wrote your words, lots of them.

"Letters spilling over pages,

"all of it for you, you thankless crooks.

"Your forefathers plucked it from some hapless goose,

"and called it a quill.

"Then they used it

"to write your Declaration of Independence.

"Yet, there they were, dependent on a lowly feather

"to sign all their names.

"Poor goose. Where is her name?

"But enough of that.

"When I preen, I run my bill over each dibble and nub,

"each separate flange.

"I can feel the pockets of possibility.

"The way they all knit together to form one dark strand.

"And I realize that a feather is a flame with spine and ribs.

"Or maybe a feather, a black one anyway,

"is a ghost of a flame.

"Like you're sitting around a campfire at night,

"staring at that space between each flicker.

"There a flicker disappears, and that space of emptiness

"becomes a black feather full of stars.

"So, a feather is just a spark to ignite the air.

"My God of all wrinkled mountains,

I can't wait to fly again."

- Hmm.

So nice, and there's so much more to the story.

And, you know, you've--

your book is also-- has a separate little clue

if people happen to get the hardback cover--

- Right. - and take it off,

and see something really interesting

that I didn't even understand until the end of the book.

And I'm most glad I didn't know about it

until after I read it.

And the same thing,

that Carol and I were saying the same thing.

And it's a revelation of, "Oh my gosh, that is clever!

And how creative is that!"

- So, a word...

I learned in researching this is the verb "to raven."

And so, it's-- I want to pass that on to your audience.

To raven means to take or to hunger.

And we think of it often with the word "ravenous."

So, to raven is what Cicero does a lot,

and on the cover, he is taking the "O" out of the "your."

And then, if you open the cover...

the "O" disappears.

And then on the back,

you see that Cicero is flying away with it.

So, yeah, I had nothing to do with that.

The book publisher and designer did,

and I was thrilled when they finally told me to look.

So, yeah.

- Oh, this has been wonderful, Jim.

- Sure. - It's gone by way too quickly.

And there's so many more things I'd like to chat with you about.

But I'd like to thank you,

obviously, thank Jim Minick for sharing

Fire is Your Water , The Blueberry Years ,

the stories that really are the fabric of his life,

with all of us.

Special thanks to our friends

at the Settlers Museum of Southwest Virginia

located in beautiful Smyth County.

What a great setting for this interview.

[water bubbling gently]

You know,Fire is Your Water is a little bit magical realism,

a story of love and faith and community,

with lots of twists and turns.

To find out more about the book,

and more of our conversation with Jim,

check it out online.

Thanks so much for joining us,

and tell your friends all about us.

I'm Rose Martin, and I'll see you next time,

Write Around The Corner .

[♪♪♪]

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day

♪ Every day I write the book

[♪♪♪]

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day

♪ Every day I write the book

♪ Every day every day

♪ Every day

♪ Every day I write the book

STREAM WRITE AROUND THE CORNER ON

  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv

FEATURED PROGRAMS

Under a Minute
To Walk Invisible The Brontë Sisters
TED Talks
Stories from the Stage
State of the Arts
Speak Out
Secrets of the Dead
Rick Steves’ Europe
Paradise and Purgatory: Hemingway of The L Bar T And St. V’s
Open Studio with Jared Bowen
Ol’ Max Evans: The First Thousand Years
MUSE
Little Women
KPBS/Arts
Kid Stew