Leif Enger

On December 12, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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Faith, miracles and a profound story of love and tragedy

A talk with author Leif Enger

By Jody Ewing
February 20, 2003

Leif EngerCourtesy Photo

Author Leif Enger says that his book “Peace Like a River,” which was chosen as the All Iowa Reads 2003 book selection, began to crystalize when he took time off from writing mysteries with his brother. 


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Book Discussions

• The Sioux City library/Weekender book club will discuss Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River” on April 7 at the Morningside Branch Library from 7 to 8 p.m. The club is free and open to the public.
• The Sioux Center Library, Sioux Center, will discuss the book on Feb. 20 at noon and at 7 p.m. at the Sioux Center Public Library. The discussion is open to the public.

What You Can Do

• Read the book, then donate it to friends or your local library and encourage family, coworkers and others to do same to keep the book in circulation.
• Add your upcoming event – including club meetings – to All Iowa Reads website.
• Organize local study group at church, school, coffee shop, or at home.
• Discuss the book with your family and friends.
• Print out study guides and other free resources for use in discussion groups.
• Teachers can get classes involved in reading and discussing the book.

Web sites for assistance

• All Iowa Reads website offers study guides, bookmarks, posters, lists of discussion groups and calendar of events.
• Iowa Center for the Book provides info about goals, mission.
• Humanities Iowa Study Guide

Talking Points for Discussion Groups

1) Miracles – describe them and the role they play.
2) Breathing – how does Reuben’s asthma serve as a metaphor in the story?
3) The double homicide – does Reuben see Davy as a murderer? How does the novel explore the idea of loyalty?
4) Sunny Sundown – how does Swede’s epic poem parallel the story?
5) Jeremiah – What are his weaknesses, and what are his motives for healing a grotesque employer?
6) Public Viewpoints – what does Reuben learn about the court of public opinion?
7) Reuben muses “The infirm wait always, and know it.” What is he “waiting” for?
8) Roxanna – how might Roxanna herself be seen as a miracle?
9) Discuss the author’s portrayal of childhood; do the children seem realistic?
10) What do the characters of Jape and Valdez represent in this novel?

Leif Enger’s debut novel is of uncommon wisdom — equal parts tragedy, love story, faith and meditation — unfolding like a revelation in the midst of miracles and magic.

Set against the Minnesota countryside and North Dakota Badlands in the early 1960s, Peace Like a River is a story about a family whose lives are upended when Davy, the oldest son, kills two marauders who have come to harm his family. Hailed a hero by some, a murderer by others, Davy escapes from his cell the morning of his sentencing.

Narrated by 11-year-old Reuben Land — an asthmatic “born without air in his lungs” — the story recounts the journey he takes with his father, Jeremiah, and 9-year-old poet sister, Swede, to rescue one of their own. Reuben has little doubt that miracles abound and suspects his father, a school janitor, “is touched by God and can overturn the laws of nature.” Yet as their voyage intersects with the beauty and cruelty of the natural world, they are forced to face their own ideals of love, family loyalty, sacrifice and faith.

Enger, born in Sauk Centre, Minn., to Osakis High School bandleader Don and teacher Wilma Enger, fell in love with language at a very early age after his mother’s yearly reading of [Stevenson’s] “Treasure Island.” He went on to spend 16 years working as writer/producer for Minnesota Public Radio.

Selected for the statewide book study initiative “All Iowa Reads 2003,” Peace Like a River began with a basic, yet central desire: “As a parent you want to work a miracle.” At the time, Enger’s oldest son, then 7, was struggling with a distressing case of asthma.

In a telephone interview from his home in Minnesota — where he lives with wife Robin and sons Ty and John — Enger spoke about miracles and faith, and how they found their way into Peace Like a River.

Was there anything prior to your son fighting asthma that made you realize you had to write this particular story?

No, there was not. I had been writing mystery novels with my brother Lin. We wrote the most commercial mysteries we possibly could in the quest for audience, and still the audience stayed away. We published five mystery novels and finally we just gave up because we were too tired to keep going any longer. I took a month or two off, where I no longer got up at five in the morning and wrote until seven.

Ty was going through such terrible asthma at the time and Robin and I wanted more than anything to do some miraculous thing on his behalf so that he could take an easy breath from time to time. During that couple of months, this story just started to crystallize in my mind. You know that if you have a child with a condition like that, that you would do anything to make that child better. You would take their place in an instant if you could. That became the seed of this book.

How do you feel about the Iowa Center for the Book choosing your novel as the first for ‘All Iowa Reads 2003?’

It’s a huge honor, of course. It’s hard to know how to respond to something like that because you don’t expect anything like that when you’re working on your book in the dark hours of early morning. You expect to write something that your wife and kids will like, maybe. To have something like this happen is pretty remarkable. But there’s no way to expect or deserve anything like this.

What type of dialogue – with so many Iowans reading this book – do you hope this will create?

I think that when people come together to discuss something, whether it’s something they’ve read, or a movie they’ve all watched, what’s important is not really the story itself; it’s not really the thing they have in common. What’s important is that they are getting together and that they are talking about things.

The themes of this book are love, sacrifice, loyalty, belief, disbelief, and I suppose the extent to which we forgive people who do awful things. These have always been good, sturdy topics, and hard ones, I think, to talk about, especially when faith enters the conversation. I guess what I would hope is that when people talk it over, that they’re listening closely to what each other has to say.

Do you equate yourself with one character in particular?

Enger’s book heralded Iowa’s new “All Iowa Reads” statewide reading initiative

Probably Reuben more than the others. He’s the younger brother who doesn’t have an interesting life, while his older brother does. I’ve always felt kind of that way. I’m the youngest in my family, and as the youngest, I think you grow up feeling that you’re missing out, that you’re not getting to have the “real” adventures that the other kids had when they were your age. Partly that’s because they’re always telling you those stories: here’s what I did when I was your age. And they sound so magnificent and adventurous.

How would you describe Reuben’s ultimate journey and revelation?

I think Reuben is a kid who, like most kids that age, hasn’t asked himself very many hard questions at the time the story begins. He hasn’t asked questions about what he believes or why he believes it. He’s never thought to question his loyalty to his older brother or to his father. I think a big part of Reuben’s journey and a big part of his growing up is that he is prompted through these events to ask himself how far you go in being loyal to a brother who has done an awful deed, and how far you go in agreeing with your father.

I think the same thing happens to some extent with what he believes about God and about his father, and his father’s relationship with God. He has to come to some point where he takes responsibility for his own decisions and his own spiritual life. We all know people whom we love dearly and we would defend them for anything, but even people we love dearly sometimes do horrible things. Do we stop loving them? No, of course not. But there comes a point, I suppose, where you can’t defend them, either.

Given the teachers now reading and studying your book, was there one particular teacher at Moorhead State [where Enger majored in English], who influenced your writing?

Actually there were a couple of them. Mark Vinz is still there, and he was my creative writing teacher. He had such a wonderful way of encouraging writers who were trying hard, which is just what I was — a kid who didn’t know what he was doing but was trying hard. He was encouraging to me, and a very fine writer himself and a great poet.

The other, Melva Moline, was actually a professor of newswriting. Her class was a great experience. We’d walk in and she would hand out 12 sheets of paper with a fact on them. In 50 minutes we had to write 12 news stories based on the fact sheets we were given. What that did was it taught me, number one, to assimilate information quickly, but two, how to tell a story that moved along because you have no choice. That was good experience, even for something as long-winded as a novel.

The temptation when you’re writing a novel is to get captured in your own language, to sort of get caught in that web of prose. And it’s always a temptation, because you’re in love with the language. You write partly because you love words so much.

What do you want the title to convey, and were there other alternatives?

I was sitting in church one morning — a Sunday morning — and we were singing this hymn called “It Is Well With My Soul,” and the first stanza of the hymn goes:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It’s a beautiful old hymn that you find in lots of different hymnals, and that phrase just jumped out at me. I was just starting to think about this book at the time, and I thought, ‘what a marvelous book title that is,’ and it just seemed to personify something about the book: a peacefulness, the sadness, it’s all there. And so I wrote toward that title — that was the title I always wanted the book to bear.


Barbara Robinette Moss – fierce

On November 23, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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A ‘fierce’ inheritance

A talk with artist and writer Barbara Robinette Moss

By Jody Ewing

Barbara Robinette Moss

Barbara Robinette Moss

Barbara Robinette Moss’s first memoir, “Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter,” took readers by surprise as she chronicled her family’s impoverished survival in Alabama’s red-clay hills. At times uproariously funny, at others horrific and tender, she wrote of growing up – the fourth in a family of eight children – with a wild-eyed alcoholic father and a humble yet heroic mother.

Unlike the rest of the family, Barbara bore the scars of abuse and neglect on the outside as well as the inside; the bones in her face grew abnormally due to childhood malnutrition and a complete lack of health and dental care.

She prayed nightly to be changed into the goddess of beauty’s daughter, and when her prayers went unanswered, took it upon herself to change not just her face but achieve a life defined by artistic beauty. Critics hailed “Zeus’s Daughter” as the masterpiece she had waited for her life to paint.

Moss marks two more milestones this week with the official publication of “Fierce: A Memoir” — her follow-up memoir to “Zeus’s Daughter” — on Oct. 19, as well as her first one-person art exhibition opening Oct. 21 at the Kerrigan Campbell Gallery in New York City’s East Village.

Find on Amazon.com

With warmth, insight and candor, Moss paints in “fierce” a vivid, moving portrait of her persistent quest to reinvent her life and rebel against the indigence, addiction, and broken-down dreams she inherited from her parents.

Moss tells the poignant story of leaving everything she knew in Alabama to fulfill her ambition to become an artist – an odyssey filled with gritty improvisation (taking her son Jason to her night job to sleep on the floor), bittersweet pragmatism (on a date filling her purse with shrimp, rolls and a doily to take home to her waiting 8-year-old), and staunch conviction and pride (chasing a mail carrier down the street to defend her use of food stamps).

In a phone interview from New York City – where Moss currently is studying playwriting at the Actors Studio Drama School – she talked about her writing and art, her family and “wrestling with angels.”

In online reviews of your books, readers have stated they feel like “voyeurs” of your family’s life and they still want more. Why your family? Why your books?

I think it’s because I didn’t hold anything back. I really told the truth and told things that were terrifying for me to tell, and I think that those are the kinds of things that overlap every family. Every family looks at it and says ‘Oh God, I can’t believe she said that. That’s going on in this family.’ And so it’s a universal story, even though when I first started writing I did not realize I was writing universal stories.

Tell me what “fierce” is about, and if one first needs to have read “Zeus’s Daughter.”

“Fierce” is the story of a single mother determined to change what she has inherited from living in poverty and with an alcoholic parent, and to also change the life or destiny of her child.

I wanted to give the reader everything they needed if they had not read ‘Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter,’ so this book stands on its own without having read anything about me.

Coming from such a large family, how did your siblings react to your first memoir?

When “Zeus’s Daughter” came out they were just horrified; they thought I was telling family secrets that I shouldn’t tell. And it took about a year for them to really realize that all of the terrible things they thought were going to happen because I had written this book actually worked in reverse. People came up to talk to them and said, ‘You know, my dad was an alcoholic, too,’ and they would pour their hearts out to them. And then they calmed down and reevaluated the writing and the purpose of the writing.

What is the danger, or is there a danger in keeping “family secrets?”

I think it’s more dangerous to “keep” family secrets than to “tell” family secrets. Everybody’s family has something they would rather the world didn’t know about, whether it’s an alcoholic or any number of things that can happen in family dynamics. But if you hold those in your heart, how do you get past them and live the fullest life that you can possibly live?

What is your relationship with your siblings like today?

It’s good. Most of them are still in Alabama within a few miles of where we grew up and I try to get home at least a couple of times a year. My brother John is in Kansas City and my sister Janet is in Charlotte. She teaches English and drama and is working on her degree to become a high school principal. She writes some, and John has written a couple of stories that he sent to me.

The legacy of your father’s alcoholism caught up with you and your brother Stewart – yours with an addition to emotional pain and abusive relationships, and Stewart’s addition to alcohol. How were you both successful in overcoming those additions?

I found a good counselor on a sliding scale, and that’s what I’d recommend to anyone. Find a good counselor. I was paying $5 and getting some real help. People don’t know what to do, and they have to have guidance. Stewart wrestled with an angel. There’s a story where he wrestles with an angel in “fierce.” He called me up a dozen times before he died and told me that story, and told me to write it for him. That’s how he got sober; he wrestled with an angel. And he did win. He was sober for two years before he died.

As an artist and a writer, what do these two professions have in common or how are they different?

I tell stories. That’s what I do. It doesn’t matter if I’m making art or if I’m writing, it’s the same thing. I have found that with art, I have a personal iconography, and it’s a lot easier to hide, really, from what you’re telling. People bring their own meaning to it. But with writing, it’s very much up front what you’ve got to say. There’s no hiding with the written word. I really had never intended to be a writer. I was following my own goals to be a visual artist when the writing came ‘in search of me.’

Will “fierce” appeal more to women than men?

I had a man who called me a couple days ago, and said his wife had read it and kept pestering him to read it. He reluctantly picked it up, read straight through and said he thought every man in America should read it. He was a recovering alcoholic and very interested in Stewart’s story. It’s definitely a book for anyone and everyone.

We’ll end with Stewart and “magic.” Tell me about the book’s prologue and the Mexican jumping beans.

What I wanted in that prologue was to set up this idea of magic, of the possibilities in life that things that seem to be completely unattainable are really right there, right there at your fingertips. I wanted these beans to have magic and they didn’t have magic. And then Stewart says, “Of course they have magic. This little bean has got a worm in it that’s going to eat that bean and turn into a butterfly. Don’t you think that’s magic?”

This article first appeared in the Weekender on Oct. 21, 2004.

Jody Ewing and Barbara Moss

Jody Ewing and Barbara Moss, March 23, 2001

Read Jody’s first interview with Barbara on the publication of “Change Me Into Zeus’s Daughter.”

Author’s Note: Barbara Robinette Moss passed away from cancer on October 9, 2009. She was 54 years old.

A Cedar Rapids Gazette article dated Oct. 14, 2009, said the former Iowa City author and artist would be remembered for the many lives she touched through her books, artwork and teaching.

She touched a great many lives — including mine — and is deeply missed.


Barbara Robinette Moss

On November 22, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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Moss Pens Haunting Memoir of Resilience, Redemption

By Jody Ewing
March 22, 2001

Barbara Robinette Moss

Barbara Robinette Moss

As a small, frail girl from the South, Barbara Robinette Moss was determined to change her fate and achieve a life defined by beauty.

Born in 1956 in rural Alabama, her family was so poor her mother ate dirt and poison-covered seeds to save food for her eight (of nine) children. Often starving and chronically malnourished, Barbara’s facial bone structure, teeth and complexion failed to develop normally, leaving her with what she called a “twisted mummy face.”

She also suffered abuse at the hands of her father, a sadistic tyrant who inflicted pain recreationally, both physical and emotional. “You belong to me,” he told his children, “and I’ll do with you what I want.”

Young Barbara prayed nightly to become attractive, to be changed into Zeus’s daughter Aphrodite — the goddess of beauty — and after a lifetime of fiery resolution, so she has been transformed.

Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter” is a beautifully written, poignant and searing literary memoir of that journey and a testament to the power of undaunted purpose and faith.

Moss will read and sign copies at Book People in Sioux City on Friday, March 23, from 7 – 9 p.m.

Available at Amazon.com

“I never intended to write a book,” Moss says of her story, which chronicles her family’s chaotic impoverished survival in the red-clay hills of Alabama. “I was writing down the events that happened when I was a child in a way to get it out of my life, to just put it down on paper as a way of validation. Sort of like, ‘This happened, and now maybe I’ll be able to go on with my life.'”

What happened was a childhood marked with hunger, cruelty, suicides and violence, offset by a loving mother who plied her eight children with art and poetry in place of balanced meals.

Their father, S.K. Moss, was a wild-eyed, shiftless alcoholic who shot the family pets and routinely awakened his children at 3 a.m. to harass or engage them in all-night poker games. Irrationally proud, he refused to accept any government aid or private charity.

Their mother became their angel, absorbing most of their father’s blows for them — her only sin her inability to leave her husband for the sake of the children. She drew pictures to entertain them and enriched their lives with music, art and a lifesaving appreciation for literature and books.

Zeus’s Daughter took root when Moss gave one of her stories to friend Mary Swander, author of “Out of this World.”

“She read it, helped me reconstruct it and thought I should send it off to a competition,” Moss says. “I’d never given that any thought before, but I did.”

The story, titled “Near the Center of the Earth,” won first place and the Gold Medal for Personal Essay in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition in 1996. That essay, at the encouragement of competition judge Jack Davis (who was then with the Chicago Tribune) grew into the book “Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter,” and serves as its first chapter.

First published in 1999 by Loess Hills Press, the book was quickly bought out by Scribner, who published it in hardcover the next spring.

What makes the memoir succeed is the lingering image not of self-pity but of the incredible bond between the eight siblings. One other child, a newborn girl whom Moss calls a “sky blue baby,” died at birth. Moss’s drunk father buried the baby while her mother was still in the hospital and could not remember where he buried her.

Yet the book has no “woe is me” tone, just the raucous, childish fun the other children had together, the making-do and the total devotion to their desperate mother.

Moss’s siblings also were supportive when it came to publishing the book.

“I asked my brothers and sisters and they didn’t care,” says Moss, who now lives with her husband in Iowa City. “I gave them the manuscript and I thought if there’s an issue with them, I’ll change everybody’s names and I’ll change the place where it happened.” But that wasn’t necessary, and the result is a book being embraced by critics and drawing raves as an American “Angela’s Ashes.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter Marsha Norman is presently writing the screenplay “Zeus’s Daughter,” that Goldie Hawn will produce. A director has yet to be named. Moss says there are hopes of casting Holly Hunter in her role.

“She’s got that southern persona, and it’s real,” says Moss. “She doesn’t have to fake it and try to figure out what southern people think and feel. She’s got it.”

Barb Barnett, Manager of Book People, says this is her favorite book.

“We’re all so excited. This is a very big deal,” Barnett says. “It will be a highlight having her here in the store.”

Moss is almost finished with her second book “Singing to the Wild Cat,” which Scribner also will publish, and picks up where Zeus’s Daughter leaves off.

“I had no idea I was writing such a universal story,” says Moss in reaction to the calls and letters pouring in.

In addition to writing, Moss also is an accomplished artist. She received an MFA from Drake University in Des Moines and a BFA from Ringling School of Art & Design in Sarasota, Fla. She has participated in more than 100 juried exhibitions.

Most of all, she transcended the scars of childhood, changing not only her life, but her face. By herself, she raised money to endure years of experimental, radical facial surgery and painful dental procedures. The result: a keenly developed appreciation for beauty — physical, artistic and spiritual — which is evidenced in her writing.

As Moss puts it, “A metamorphosis, really, of coming into my own.”

This article first appeared in the Weekender on March 22, 2001.

Jody Ewing and Barbara Moss, March 23, 2001

Read Jody’s follow-up interview with Barbara after Moss’s publication of “Fierce.”

Author’s Note: Barbara Robinette Moss passed away from cancer on October 9, 2009. She was 54 years old.

A Cedar Rapids Gazette article dated Oct. 14, 2009, said the former Iowa City author and artist would be remembered for the many lives she touched through her books, artwork and teaching.

She touched a great many lives — including mine — and is deeply missed.

Author Interviews

On November 20, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

Jody’s Author Interviews


A Rare Interview with “Dear Abby’s” Jeanne Phillips

Amy Hillgren Peterson: The Swedish Lie

Barbara Robinette Moss

Barbara Robinette Moss

Moss Pens Haunting Memoir of Resilience, Redemption

As a small, frail girl from the South, Barbara Robinette Moss was determined to change her fate and achieve a life defined by beauty.

Born in 1956 in rural Alabama, her family was so poor her mother ate dirt and poison-covered seeds to save food for her eight (of nine) children. Often starving and chronically malnourished, Barbara’s facial bone structure, teeth and complexion failed to develop normally, leaving her with what she called a “twisted mummy face.”

Young Barbara prayed nightly to be changed into Zeus’s daughter Aphrodite — the goddess of beauty — and after a lifetime of fiery resolution, so she became transformed.

Barbara Robinette Moss: fierce – the follow-up memoir to Change Me Into Zeus’s Daughter

Barbara Watson: Wake Up Barbara! And Help me Find This Snake!

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Carter Elliott: Riding a Blue Horse – The Former CIA Officer Tackles Crime in Fiction

Charles Larimer: Love and Valor: Intimate Civil War Letters Between Captain Jacob and Emeline Ritner

Clive Warner: Appointment in Samara – Bio Weapons/CIA Thriller

Debbie Bernstein LaCroix: My Grandma Can Do Anything – Helping Children Understand Alzheimer’s Disease

Donald Harstad: Code Sixty-One – Carl Houseman Mystery Series

Dorothy Garlock: Hope’s Highway – The Second in the Route 66 Trilogy

Dorothy Garlock: Mother Road – Romance on Route 66

Edward Allen: Mustang Sally – Adapted for film – Featured at Sundance Film Festival

Eric Juhnke: Quacks and Crusaders: The Fabulous Careers of John Brinkley, Norman Baker and Harry Hoxsey

Estella Mae Slattery: Jeremiah’s God – Superstition, Local History Underscores Novel

G.M. Ford: Black River – River Runs Deep with Lies, Corruption, Justice

Gwyn Hyman Rubio: Icy Sparks – An Oprah Book Club Pic

Hugh Waddell: I Still Miss Someone – Friends & Family Remember Johnny Cash

J.A. Jance: Partner in Crime and Exit Wounds – Bestselling Mystery Writer

James Hassenger: Marriage Enhancement Guide – A Do-it-Yourself Marriage Counseling Manual

Jay Wagner: “H” is for Hawkeye – The Best of Iowa Comes to Life

Jeannette Angell: Callgirl – From College Lecturer to Callgirl and Back

Jennifer Chiaverini: The Runaway Quilt – Part of the Elm Creek Series

Jerry Buck: A Blood Red Rose – A Pete Castle Mystery

Jim Brickman: Simple Things – The Pianist’s First Book

Jimmy Santiago Baca: A Talk with the World Renowned Poet, Novelist, Memoirist

More on Jimmy Santiago Baca, his visit to Sioux City and his work with Illiterate Adults & At-risk Children

Leif Enger

Leif Enger

A talk with author Leif Enger

Leif Enger’s debut novel is of uncommon wisdom – equal parts tragedy, love story, faith and meditation – unfolding like a revelation in the midst of miracles and magic.

Set against the Minnesota countryside and North Dakota Badlands in the early 1960s, Peace Like a River is a story about a family whose lives are upended when Davy, the oldest son, kills two marauders who have come to harm his family.

Iowa’s First Lady Christie Vilsack: – Promoting Literacy with Peace Like a River

Matthew Clayton: A Navy Corpsman Speaks Out – On 40 Days and 40 Nights in Iraq

Max Barry: Jennifer Government – Soon to be a Major Motion Picture

Nancy Martin-Rouse: Do Angels Cry?

Natalie R. Collins: Wives and Sisters – A Sinister Look Inside the Mormon Church

Neil Miller: Sex-Crime Panic – A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s

Peggy Knight: Three Books Celebrate Three Decades in the House of Cash

Richard Lewis: The Flame Tree – A Fierce Novel about Faith, Friendship & Forgiveness

Robert Short: The Gospel According to Peanuts

Shane Osborn: Born to Fly – A Talk with the U.S. Navy Lt. on his downed EP-3 ARIES II and his capture by the Chinese

Steve Almond: Candyfreak – A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America

Terry Burns: To Keep a Promise

Timothy Schaffert: The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters


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