Let Them Kiss the Dog: An Interview with Margie Haack

Margie Haack lives in Rochester, Minnesota, and I live in Nashville, Tennessee. We met through dear mutual friends doing mutual good work. Through visits, e-mails, packages, phone calls, and face-to-face conversations over the years, Margie's words and actions have supported and comforted me, helping me to grow up. When she let me read a draft of her book years ago, I was overjoyed to have chapters and chapters of Margie and her thoughts. When Art House America approached me to interview Margie about many things — especially the publication of her new memoir, The Exact Place — I jumped at the chance. I can think of few things I would rather do than talk to Margie. The conversation below is not unlike dozens that we've had over tea, wine, and Gmail, but perhaps a bit polished up.

Katy Bowser: So Margie, you know the saying "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture"? It feels like the same holds true for interviewing about memoir. Here you are, telling us your story, and it feels altogether strange, in one sense, to have you tell us more about it. I'm pretty sure that I get to interview you for this because I hold you as a dear friend and mentor. I'm a bit nervous that things will go like this.

That said, I've been so delighted and comforted by your thoughts in Notes from Toad Hall and so many other publications. With your book The Exact Place, I literally laughed till I couldn't breathe and then wept hard, alternately and often. So thank you, thank you for this gift. Did something in particular occur to make you say, "I think it's time to write my memoir"?

Margie Haack: Thank you so much. Such positive responses give me little panic attacks — I worry that it will be only a matter of time before I’m exposed as some kind of fraud. I’m trying to learn to receive compliments without false modesty and still keep an honest perspective. As a friend reminds me, it’s not like you’ve given birth to the Messiah or anything.

The book had a slow, organic beginning. (Squeaking in the voice of an old lady holding a handkerchief and leaning back in a rocking chair) I remember back to 1999 . . . when my daughter Marsena and I were driving to the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, MI. We were prepared to hear a lot about the discipline and habits of writing, and we eagerly anticipated hearing authors talk about the process. She was writing her first novel, and I had been recording a few stories from my childhood. Most of them were funny. As we drove north from Chicago, I read some of them aloud. When I was done, she said, “Mom, you need to write a book.” And I thought, Nah. And then, Hmm. It slowly grew from there. Along the way, I found it inconceivable and a little annoying that some writers could take a month’s vacation in an idyllic spot and boom! they had written an entire book. That’s how William F. Buckley wrote Saving the Queen. My progress was barely measurable and had to fit into a busy life, but I kept slogging away. As I wrote, I discovered they were more than just amusing little vignettes.

KB: Had you told these stories before? Were there ones that your husband, Denis, hadn't heard yet? They sound as though they've been treasured up inside of you, but ring as though it's the first time you've told them.

MH: I had told a few before. They were entertaining to our family. No, I take that back. They were entertaining to me. So Denis had heard some, but there were many parts and stories that came back as I wrote. I think memory is like that. You think you don’t remember a thing about when your grandmother died, but then you begin recalling the scent of ginger molasses cookies baking in her kitchen and suddenly you get a flood of details that fill the page.

The ring of freshness is probably due to lots of hidden labor and a bit of undeserved giftedness. It’s a very kind compliment you give and I savor it. I love the way a powerful story appears to flow without effort, as if it poured from a cold, pure spring and all you have to do is hold your cup under the stream of water to catch the words. You don’t want the act of writing to show — the many drafts, the deleting, the staring out of the window for hours and chewing erasers off of pencils. It is anything but effortless for me.

KB: You describe memories from your childhood with a startling clarity. It makes me think you are one of those people who didn’t stuff down the child they were. It's a reminder to me that children are dealing with realities, if that makes sense.

MH: Yes, I agree! Children are often more honest about realities than adults. I find their questions and thoughts remarkably sophisticated; as adults we really shouldn’t be surprised. Children don’t find it strange to consider other dimensions or the existence of God. They are natural philosophers and theologians and are constantly processing big issues. Occasionally, we are privileged to catch a glimpse of them in operation. I remember when our daughter Sember was about seven years old, she was trying to understand why — if God is good and all-powerful — people suffer from sickness. And why He let Sasha, our cat, kill Jumper, her gerbil, and also, Mom, why can a robber break into a house and hurt someone if God is with them? What seemed revelatory as I thought back on my own childhood was that from an early age, although I didn’t have the exact words to express this then, I knew that God loved children and me in particular; and that Jesus treated us with dignity and tenderness. Our fears, questions, and prayers were not irrelevant.

I don’t know why I remember childhood so vividly; not everyone has such recall, I know. For me, there are a few cameos that date back to a very young age. They aren’t completely filled out to the edges with detail, but enough of them remained to make a lasting impact on my life. I was four years old when I experienced my first encounter with God and it was our little rat terrier, Bing, who perpetrated it. I became so angry with him for stealing my mitten that I wanted to kill him, and for some reason, though I don’t remember us being a swearing family, I cursed so hard and so eloquently that he dropped it, and he wasn’t one to drop anything once he got hold of it. We both understood I had offended something or someone critical. It’s odd that my mother who wasn’t a Christian at the time offered me some spiritual advice and I took it. I won’t tell you the whole story because it’s in the book.  

KB: You are older and wiser and I'm a new mom. Death, and near scrapes with it, happened all around you (and to you) as a child on a farm. I feel like I'm raising a little girl in a culture that assumes I should put a helmet on her, wrap all of the parts of her that don't breathe in bubble wrap, and keep anything sad or scary away from her eyes and ears. I'm sure there's a middle ground, but your book makes me more aware that you, my beloved Margie, are a product of a lot of hardship. Any thoughts on, say, suffering, death, spirituality, and childrearing?

MH: True, I am older (Margie laughs and rolls her eyes). Those are huge topics! Is there anything more frightening or heartbreaking than the thought of accidentally causing our child injury or death? It’s no wonder we bind and wrap them. We naturally want to protect them from all suffering. In the risk-averse air we breathe, we are taught that accidents can be prevented. When it comes to our children, it is easy to forget what we know from experience — that our spirits are more likely to quicken and grow in the wilderness and storms of life than in the safe, easy spaces. Those are the places where we reach out to find God and where He finds us, and our character deepens and we learn compassion for others. Those dark times are not wasted for children either. So I say, hopefully not in a foolhardy way, let them climb and fall. Let them kiss the dog and eat carrots pulled straight from the ground. I’m so thankful for the physical freedom I had growing up. The difficult lesson we learn over and over again as parents is that in spite of our efforts to control the environment, life escapes our boundaries. And yet, God is right there beyond the fence just as much as He is over here on our side of perceived safety.

KB: I nearly dry-heaved (okay, I dry-heaved) when I read your story about saving the life of an ailing cow by using a machete even as you were so young. You're a tough one, Margie, and I think you have as much mischief and sparkle now as you did when you were a kid. Nature or nurture?

MH: Good. That was my goal, you know. To make you vomit. Although it was big, it was a butcher knife, not a machete. My mom has told me stories about my father. As a young man, he was often up to some pretty questionable shenanigans. I like to think he would have approved of me. Perhaps it is genetic.

KB: Anne Lamott wrote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” That advice might sound like you should make sure to expose wrongdoings, but I feel that you have told your story kindly. I guess I feel like you've been merciful to everyone in your story, including yourself. Your childhood, your growing up, was far from easy. Was it hard to walk a line between cynicism and sentiment — to really tell the truth?

MH: That quote by Lamott has always made me laugh. Her writing helps me be more brave, more honest. However, I did want to tell my story kindly. I love my family. It delights me that that is how it has come across. I see no benefit for myself or others if I tell a story filled with anger and bitterness. Frankly, I think if I am unable to extend mercy to the people in my story, and receive the gifts they have given, even ones that have caused suffering, then I should wait until I am able to process, to heal more deeply. It pains me to say this, as if I am applying it heartlessly to the many people who have taken a far worse beating than I have, but what I respect most about authors like Mary Karr (read her trilogy beginning with The Liars’ Club all the way through to the last book, Lit, to understand the trajectory of her life into adulthood), is that they tell their stories with a very keen sense of forgiveness and, in retrospect, believing God was with them and at work in them even in the midst of terrible darkness. I have friends — I don’t know how they survived — and I long for justice for them. I would like to fight for them, punish their tormentors, get revenge for the evil done to them, but it is not my right to carry it out. Only God is entitled to avenge evil, and it is a mystery to us that He represents both mercy and justice. So I cry out to God for them, even as I question Him and complain about His timing for “Making all things well” in the way Julian of Norwich describes it. And yet that is the hope I live by. In the end, it is one of the reasons I remain a Christian and why I love the Christian story.

KB: It was very kind of you to include so many of your recipes in the book. I'll admit that I didn't put my skillet fudge in the snow as per your instructions, but it was pretty darn good. Andi Ashworth mentioned a sadness at the end of reading your book — sad that the journey was over — but part of how I made the journey continue was that I kept making the recipes. Although I've yet to find "one pig's head, washed" for scrapple.

MH: I was shocked and delighted that you followed the recipes. Except for that one. This fall I may have a hog’s head available — would you like it? It is a gift given back to me that you liked the recipes. When I visited my family in northern Minnesota about a month ago, my mom and brother Dallas and I were talking about our childhood. The topic of fudge came up and how we all knew how to make it when we were kids. When Mom and Dad left for the evening, Dallas and I actually made fudge together, and at some point, he asked me if I remembered what our older brother Randy and I had done to him with boiling fudge when he was about five years old. Well, of course I did not. My memory is selective. He said we convinced him that when the fudge was at a full boil it was really, really good to taste and that he should stick his finger in to try it, and when he did, of course, we fell on the floor. He still remembers how painful that burn was. I am appalled. Fortunately, Dallas has a big, kind heart and forgave me.

Margie Haack making scrapple.

KB: The book itself is beautiful. I'm so glad you've found a literary home with artistic folks like Kalos Press who "get" you. What kind of plans and happenings are going along with the book release? I suggest a reading/cooking demonstration with "one pig's head, washed."

MH: I am very proud to be with Kalos, an indie press which publishes works that gives “voice to literary fiction, biography, memoir, essays, devotional writing, and Christian reflection, of excellent quality, outside of the mainstream Christian publishing industry.” Phew. Well, I guess I was outside of the industry after being rejected by more than thirty publishers. I can only say I am profoundly grateful that Ed Eubanks, my editor, and Kalos Press were willing to take a chance with me, and that they did such a beautiful job with the whole project, especially designing a cover I love — a photo of the house I grew up in.

I’m new at this. I’m not an expert at marketing or selling myself. That thought is kind of revolting to me. I’m tempted to tell people, “Oh! Don’t buy the book. Here, let me give it to you.” This probably indicates a problem with self-worth or an insane lack of business acumen. (My husband blanches and agrees.) However, I like to do readings; I will follow you into the bathroom and down the sidewalk if I can read aloud to you. The book naturally raises some universal issues and people usually have interesting comments and questions to contribute.

Combination reading/cooking demo? Great idea. I could do that. In fact, at our first reading and signing event here at Toad Hall, we’ll actually be lifting a glass of champagne and serving Lemon Angel Pie, the recipe from chapter 8, to celebrate with those who come.

KB: Any chance of an audio book? I've been so thankful for the chances that I've had to hear you tell your stories out loud — there's nothing quite like it. I could pop it in and sit in front of a fireplace and drink cocoa while listening to it this winter.  

MH: It’s hard to imagine anyone listening to my voice that long, but I would love to try an audio book.

KB: Thanks so much for writing about writing, Margie. It's an honor to know you, and an honor to grill you with questions.

MH: You’ve been a very dear friend. I had finally consigned the book to oblivion. After all, I had been working to get it published for ten years. Then you became determined to do something and ultimately got me connected to Kalos Press. So I must say thank you, and that seems pretty paltry, but I mean it.

Margie Haack and her husband, Denis, live in Rochester, Minnesota, where they co-direct Ransom Fellowship, a ministry helping Christians love and engage the world in winsome, thoughtful ways. The Exact Place, Margie’s childhood memoir of coming to faith, was recently released by Kalos Press. She hopes you buy it and maybe even read it, but so that your expectations are appropriate, she wants you to know that during just one recent week she fell through the porch screen while kneeling to feed the rabbit a dandelion, shattered two glasses and a platter, sucked her socks into the vacuum, and backed into a parked car, which is proof that safety lies in writing more and leaving the desk less. So says her husband. You can find her blogging at toadsdrinkcoffee.blogspot.com.

Katy Bowser (Hutson) is a wife, mother, writer, songwriter, and friend. She is currently involved in two children's music projects — Rain for Roots and Coal Train Railroad. She is also a member of the Indelible Grace community who lives in East Nashville. She hopes to grow up to be more like Margie.

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