His first novel, THE BOOK OF THE DUN COW, won both the National Book Award (Am.B.A., 1980) and The New York Times Best Children's Book of the Year.
Currently, Wangerin holds the Jochum Chair at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana, where he teaches literature and creative writing, and is writer-in-residence.
April 2006 Interview with Walter Wangerin Jr. via telephone.
Gina Holmes: Thank you for giving this interview. It’s a real honor.
Walter Wangerin Jr.: Thank you.
Gina: I’ve been told that The Book of the Dun Cow is now a play?
Walter: That’s right.
Gina: Have you been to see it?
Walter: No, it’s playing in NY. I would have been there serving as the narrator but we’ve discovered a cancer in me and that has bound me to this place.
The play opened Feb. 4, 2006.
Gina: Will you get a chance to see it soon?
Walter: No, the therapy I’m getting is very aggressive and keeps me here. I’ve had students that have gone to see it and enjoyed it though.
Gina: Has anyone taped it for you?
Walter: Not that I know of. The play will go into March though.
Gina: The cancer you’re being treated for is a new diagnosis?
Walter: Yes, I actually discovered a mass in my neck December 26th.
Gina: Is this something you feel comfortable talking about?
Walter: It’s not bad to talk about. It’s what they call metastatic lung cancer. It’s metastasized to my neck and chest and so they’re dealing with it aggressively with chemo and radiation.
Gina: I imagine you’re feeling pretty weak.
Walter: Somewhat. I’m alert and doing my work.
Gina: I’m surprised you’re giving interviews with that going on.
Walter: Heavens it doesn’t matter. It does change a few things but not the significant things in my schedule and my writing. We just don’t know what’s going to come out of the end of this. Surprisingly my body is working well. I’m fine.
Gina: How can we be praying for you?
Walter: I’m most comfortable with prayers for peace. Peace whatever happens. I don’t like to think of cancer as any type of warfare going on in me. I have difficulty with that imagery. Peace and grace to handle it well with others.
Gina: We will pray for that. How did the Dun Cow play come about?
Walter: I’m going to shorten the story. I’ve been a part of a playwriting workshop for twenty years and I’ve met some wonderful playwrights there as well as directors and professional actors. Two men I met early—Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts who had already done some musicals together and had done well. We made friends, and they read my book. It was Mark’s idea to turn the book into a play and musical and Randy came onboard right away. We formed a three way partnership which allowed me to be an advisor for them, although not necessarily a writer.
At the playwriting workshop we developed a New Harmony project. We did a writing together one summer. We did the music and brought the workshop to a performance which went very well. Cara Reichel is an off-Broadway producer and she’d known the book from when she was younger. She wrote me and wondered if she might be able to develop it into a play. I set up a contact with her and Mark and she really liked the script and Randy’s music. That was about a year and a half ago. And from that point on, they worked together to bring it to off-Broadway.
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Gina: You probably get tired of speaking about this book twenty years later, but what do you attribute the phenomenal success of The Book of the Dun Cow to?
Walter: A number of things. I think number one that it is genuinely well written and that it tells a story that people would want to know the end to. Also, there’s a nice balance between that which is spiritual and humorous. The animals really are human. This goes all the way back to medieval writing. When you wanted to write about a person, you would take an animal that had human characteristics and allow that characteristic to exaggerate the man. That creates a kind of humor that is both ironic and at the same time affectionate and forgiving.
The whole use of animals allows for all kinds of imagination. I took the elemental story of good fighting evil where evil is not absolutely evil and good is not absolutely good either and within that of course, the love between husband and wife and of children who die and what that does to you. It was not a long book but it dealt with the elemental questions and elemental perceptions of our human existence in a very palatable way.
Gina: Speaking of winning the National Book Award, does it change your life in any way to win an award like that?
Walter: You know, it’s curious but no it didn’t. I wish it had.
Gina: In what way?
Walter: When I wrote that I was a pastor of an inner-city African American church. I published through Harper Jr. books and they did an auction. I only discovered later that when Simon & Schuster bought it from paperback that was the highest price ever paid for a children’s book to be purchased that way. It was also nominated for the National Book Award. I truly did not understand what was going on. I received a list from New York of books that they wanted me to respond to, whether I liked them and what I thought. So I thought I was simply being asked to be a judge. I didn’t know that my book was up for a prize.
Then I heard, and it was only weeks before the award was to be given, that it was nominated for the prize. I heard it from someone at Harper, not my editor, who offered me nothing about going to attend the ceremony. They talked about who was going to be the presenter—William Buckely Jr. was. It all sounded fine to me. I had no agent then or anyone to teach me about all this stuff. So I didn’t go and I didn’t think much about it until I heard I won and received a sculptor and some money, which made me happy. It wasn’t until Bill Buckley wrote me a note that it had been assumed that I would have been there.
The publishers are the ones who are supposed to send you, but they didn’t suggest that. When the book went to paperback, Simon & Schuster put a promoter on me--a very vigorous woman. She wanted me to do an author tour for four or five weeks. I brought this before my church counsel. They asked me what that was. I said it means I go around and talk on talk shows. They said tell them they can have you twice. Monday through Thursday for two weeks but you have to be back to preach from the pulpit.
So, I told the publisher and that surprised the knickers off of them. Who is your counsel they wanted to know. I told them and so they took what they could have.
You asked how that changed my life and you can see that it really didn’t. I didn’t know what all that was about.
Gina: You said that you wished it had changed your life.
Walter: I wished that I had someone to teach me because I came away with that with much more credit than I realized. I didn’t know there was any credit in it at all.
I didn’t for a long time. At that time, my wife did the negotiations and we realized we were being taken for rides by other publishers and we did our best to deal with that.
If I would have known what it meant to win the National Book Award, I might have been free to go other places.
The next book I sold to Harper Jr. without them talking to me, they kicked it to another department all together. If I would have had an agent back then, I think I would have argued that, but I was just obedient in those days.
Gina: Your latest release, Jesus, A Novel is coming out on the heels of Anne Rice’s, Christ the Lord are you getting a lot of comparisons?
Walter: I’m refusing those comparisons every chance I get. I know that the publisher’s marketing department loved the idea that we might be attached.
Gina: [laughs] I can’t imagine why.
Walter: To get the name out there. I didn’t like that idea at all.
Gina: Have you read her book?
Walter: I skimmed it. Our approaches are fundamentally different. Different in terms of what literature is. Different in how you speak of stories with faith. Completely different. There’s no comparison.
Let me talk about one or two differences. She chose to speak from the first person of Jesus. I would absolutely eschew that because it means whatever is Lord about him is going to have to been done in human terms. If the guy is speaking to us directly he’s bound to our life absolutely, and any effort to communicate his divinity is going to be terminated—all done in metaphors of human life. On the other hand and it’s third person, then he’s always within reach and outside of reach. I don’t know what she’s going to do if she does the next one playing that game.
The second thing is she presents the silliest stories from the nativity narrative of Thomas. They are apocalyptic books written and they really have what a normal child would do with extraordinary powers, rather than what a Christ would do or the Son of God would do. She takes a very charming story where Jesus is able to shape birds in mud. Which I liked because it’s parallel to the shaping of Adam and when he is blamed for making graven images, he claps his hands and they fly away. That’s charming.
Another story however has him kill a playmate for insulting and the next day he raises him up again. I guess that’s supposed to move him toward being more forgiving but that strikes me as troublesome. It does not sound like an obedient child.
Gina: What new perspective did you bring to retelling Jesus’ story?
Walter: I made a technical choice which allowed me an organic difference. The technical choice was to see the whole story through the eyes of two people. The one person, I see it written everywhere that this person is John, but I do my best to make clear it’s not John, but the ‘beloved disciple’ who says three times, “Know me only by that name.”
I know you know that scholarship recognizes that the gospel of John never names the beloved disciple.
It is the church that put the name John on the gospel, not the writer. And the strongest scholarship, people like Raymond Brown suggest there was definitely a disciple who was at the core of the Johanan community. There’s almost no reference to the fact that he could have been the John we know as the brother of James in the synoptics. The John that gets described is really bold and a bit blustery and thoughtless like his brother James. They tell Jesus they want him to bring thunder down on the cities that won’t receive him. Jesus calls him ‘Boanerges’ the son of thunder.
These are the two guys in Mark 10 who say we want you to give us whatever we ask. We want to sit one at your right hand and one at your left when you come into your kingdom. They have no idea what they’re asking for.
The beloved disciple we meet in the Gospel of John is nothing like that. He really is much more pliable. Rather than try to grind Jesus into certain things, he follows Jesus toward his death. He’s there at the foot of the cross.
I choose the perspective of the beloved disciple. I repeat three times, ‘know me only as the beloved disciple’ because I want the reader to be able to find her or himself there.
The other perspective is of course, Mary. Because I bound myself to those perspectives only, we’re only seeing events through their eyes and you know when you write that way that the eyes shape how you see it. They don’t shape the events, but they shape the interpretation and color of events. The impact of it. The tone of it. The power of it. The drama of it.
Forcing myself constantly to see the familiar story through the mother’s eyes for example, broke open new understandings for me. What it must be like when you’re a strong Jewish woman whose son ceases to listen to you. You feel cut out because of that. And how you handle that. If you want to return, what you must do to return and what kind of humility that lays upon you. How aggravated you must feel at your quasi husband, God who’s putting your son through such danger, terror and toil. Watching it through her eyes made it new to me.
Gina: Our reviewer who read this book mentions that Mary comes across as quite angry.
Walter: Yes, Mary becomes angry as time goes on and really sees the inevitability of what it means as they’re going to Jerusalem. Her anger is always directed at God though. Whether or not the reviewer recognized that, I don’t know. All the words of her anger are drawn from the Old Testament. Some of them are Psalms, which can be very angry. I use some of the strongest language that Jeremiah had for God when God seemed to Jeremiah to have ceased to listen. I think she’s much more complex than angry. You know, when Jesus is in the pretorium. Jesus Barabas’ mother has been Mary’s friend from Nazareth, in my book. For me that was a remarkable scene to write and understand some things. I can imagine that the two mothers would be furious with each other because one of their son’s is going to live and one is going to die.
On the other hand it seemed both remarkable and true to me that something would happen out of their deep friendship which made for each of them motherhood to both the boys, so that Mary could embrace both Barabas and her son, Jesus.
To me that was a remarkable insight into the love inspired particularly because I imagine that Jesus and Barabas had met earlier. I imagined Barabas honoring Jesus with the choice, kneeling before him. We see Mary all the way through to the end. Her husband, Joseph, called her ‘Mim’. Mary, as I’m sure you know, is a diminution of the name Miriam. The same name. So, Joseph always calls her ‘Mim’ as an affectionate term. Near the end she remembers that and she asks the beloved disciple to call her that.
She returns to the old days and there’s a peace in her at the end.
Gina: Looking back over your writing career, what advice would you give to an up and coming novelist—what worked for you or what would you have changed?
To be continued tomorrow...