This is how the publisher, New Rivers, describes Up the Hill, a new book of short stories by yours truly, available as an e-book next week, August 5:
Set in a small prairie town, and narrated from the grave in a voice that is humorous, elucidatory, and enlightening, these interconnected folk tales capture how the dearly departed handle being spirits in a world that continues on without them, but also with them. In Up the Hill, death is intimate, and sometimes painful, but it is a threshold to understanding—not only for the deceased, but for the living. The result is forgiveness, redemption, and divine intervention and proof that “you get a whole lot smarter when you die.”I like that. They call the stories "folk tales," and so do I. There's nothing real about them because they're really all about dead people, Calvinist zombies mostly, about people from a small Iowa town, all of them dead, who are in a kind of suspended but sweet state of grace.
They're in the cemetery "up the hill."
Here's a little Q and A that New Rivers uses for a press release. Maybe this'll help. It's weird, but mostly it's fun.
Q: What a weird idea. How did you ever come up with the idea for Up the Hill?
A: The theologian N.T. Wright, who knows much more than I do about the afterlife, says quite unapologetically that he doesn’t have a clue what happens to us—to our souls, our essence—post-mortem. Is there a holding bay somewhere, full of the dead? And if we will, someday, exist in what the Bible calls “the new heavens and the new earth,” why couldn’t that holding bin be the local cemetery—where everyone’s a frequent flyer? And what about the New Testament’s assertion that we are surrounded by “a cloud of witnesses”? Really? These questions are a joy to entertain, and that’s what I’m up to in Up the Hill.
Q: What is unique and/or important about your book?
A: I am, for better or for worse, a regular inspector of cemeteries. I have always liked them because there are so many stories. As I stood in the Doon, Iowa, cemetery, early one morning, trying to take a photograph of the bronze look of dawn through the stones, I very much accidentally bumped into the grave of a woman who died at the age of twenty-one in 1920. In a moment, I knew her because of a novel by one of Minnesota’s finest old novelists, Frederick Manfred. That got me to thinking the place was alive. One of the stories in this collection, the first one I wrote, is titled “January Thaw,” the story I wrote after the incident.
I decided to try another, after all there were more souls alive-and-kickin’ in the Doon cemetery. Soon enough, I decided on a narrator, an old newspaper man with a penchant for stories, a man who wishes, in the afterlife, that when he’d been alive in the town of Highland he could have written better than he did.
Up the Hill is not unique. I found myself a copy of Edward Arlington Robinson’s Spoon River Anthology to read through, and went through some other fictional attempts at cemetery stalking, including Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, just to be sure that I wasn’t trespassing. Some think of Our Town.
What is unique about this book, or so it seems to me, is its simple acceptance of faith—that when we die we are glorified to some sweet state (I’m not a theologian), something higher or greater than we presently inhabit.
If I were a publicist, I’d tout the idea that the book is peopled by redeemed zombies. (That’s only partly in jest.)
Q: Do you think cemeteries are haunted?
A: Yeah. That’s why I visit them. I’ve never met Casper or some TV zombie, but I’ve stood beside people, like my great-grandparents (whom I never knew) in a place where I swear I could feel their very real presence.
My mother died a few months ago. Just a week or so before she did, she said my father stopped by to visit her—he’d been dead for ten years. She was 95, just seeing things, right? Maybe. Maybe not.
Q: These people are all, well, “saved.” Isn’t it difficult to write stories about people who are redeemed or glorified?
A: Yes, very much so. Try it sometime. Stories are born out of conflict, and these folks abide in a place where there isn’t any, where every last story has a happy ending. That paradigm can get old really fast for a writer who is very much a citizen of the here-and-now.
Q: You’re a Christian believer yourself, aren’t you? How do you dare to do this?
A: Yep, I’m a Christian believer. But I’m far more certain of what I don’t know than what I do, and I guess that puts me on the far side of the river from those who believe Jesus speaks in their ears.
Q: One thing that happens in these stories is that redeemed souls, after death and in some kind of glory, still learn things. That amazed me. If they’re in some kind of heavenly perfection, how can that be?
A: The answer is easy and forever tough—grace. Let me put it in upper case: Grace. I don’t get it, and I’m not sure when I die I’ll get it, either. Besides, I rather like the idea that, even in heaven, we can learn things. I don’t know that I’d want to live in a place where learning stops. I think learning is a blessing.
Q: To what extent are the stories “real”?
A: The fact that the folks “up the hill” are all glorified doesn’t rob them, or us (the ones down the hill), of our humanity. A kid commits suicide, a man plays a viola in the cemetery, an old redneck farmer dies and his sons fight over their inheritance, a woman who was the subject of a novel feels somehow degraded by how the writer used her—that’s all real stuff, real stories, many of which have prototypes in real life.
Q: Do you think there is such a thing as “Christian” writing?
A: Of course there is—tons of it, and it sells. And then there’s lots of “Christian” writers—people like Larry Woiwode and Flannery O’Connor and C. S. Lewis, and tons more I’d name, but I’d likely bore you to death. I’d just as soon not use the phrase “Christian writer” that way. How about “writing done by Christian believers”? I’m quite sure most Christian writers I know and respect wouldn’t say that the stories they write are meant to lead some poor soul to heaven or even baptism. We all try to tell the truth in one way or another. That’s what I’m doing, as a believer, in Up the Hill.
Q: Do you think this book will appeal at all to people who are Christians?
A: I don’t think I can answer that. We’ll see, I guess. I hope that its humor and intrigue will be a delight to tons of readers.
Q: I bet you had fun.
A: No kidding. Loads of it. Once I discovered the voice here—the old newspaper man trying to write the stories he couldn’t when he edited the Highland paper—it was a ball to bring him into all kinds of situations.
Q: There are tons and tons of Dutch-Americans in this collection. You are, too?
A: For better or for worse. My sense is that writers can use what they know to reach what all of us do. This is, in a way, My Big Fat Greek Wedding in wooden shoes. You didn’t have to be Greek to like that movie, and I don’t think you’ve got to gather tulips to enjoy Up the Hill. After forty years—and almost all of my life—in small Dutch Calvinist towns, these are the people whose lives I know best.