A Drink With a Friend
A Drink With a Friend
Slaying Dragons

Slaying Dragons

Ep. 81

Good stories matter — we all know this. But how do these good stories shape us, form our imaginations, make us better parents, and remind us what really matters? Why do the best stories sacramentally peel back the surface to reveal what’s really there? Seth and Tsh talk to their friend, novelist Shawn Smucker, about what it means to immerse your life in good stories — and why it’s not optional.

To borrow a quip from G.K. Chesterton about children and fairy tales (because it’s just as true for adults) — good stories don’t tell us dragons exist. We already know this. Good stories tell us dragons can be killed.

Tsh: This is A Drink With a Friend, I’m Tsh Oxenreider.

Seth: And I’m Seth Haines.

Tsh: Seth, what are you drinking today?

Seth: As you know, Tsh, I feel like death warmed over. I do not have COVID but I have it’s cousin of some sort. I don’t know what that even means. I have all the symptoms without any of the positivity and I’ve been vaccinated so I clearly don’t have it. That said, as a result, I have been drinking nothing but water. I have lost my taste for everything. I don’t care about food or drink.

Tsh: Wait. You really lost your taste?

Seth: Not my actual taste. 

Tsh: Okay.

Seth: Again, not to be confused with me actually having COVID. 

Tsh: I was just going to say, um…

Seth: I don’t have an appetite. 

Tsh: I’m sorry. Water is where it is then. 

Seth: Water is where it is, I don’t have an appetite, I don’t have a taste for anything so I’m just draining that water because that’s what I’m supposed to do so says the doctor.

Tsh: I’m sorry you feel bad. That’s no fun. That’s the worst.

Seth: I haven’t been sick in an entire year since we’ve been wearing masks and the month I take my mask off I come down with a wicked cold. I don’t think that’s probably that uncommon. 

Tsh: It’s a real thing. We had it go through our family a few weeks ago because we had a kid go to camp and they did not wear a masks for some of the time. I think he came home with a fun cold that went everywhere. 

Seth: It happens. Tsh, what are you drinking today?

Tsh: It is full on summer in Texas now so I switched to iced coffee. I don’t know if we’ve talked about our feelings about iced coffee. I have mixed feelings. I don’t like it first thing in the morning but I like it later. I’m drinking iced coffee. Have you ever had nut pods?

Seth: Yes. Nut pods are kind of amazing.

Tsh: I put some hazelnut nut pod in it. I don’t know if that’s a noun in that way that I used it correctly. It makes iced coffee much better to me. I don’t like straight up iced coffee. I like hot coffee black but iced coffee with something in it.

Seth: I think that’s great. Is it nut pod or nut pods because then how do you singularize it? That’s really weird.

Tsh: That’s what I’m saying. I think it’s nut pods but if you say a splash of nut pods. It sounds gross all around, the word. It sounds like I’m insulting, it sounds like something you would call someone on the playground, a nut pod.

Seth: I think this goes back to you anglophilia, doesn’t this actually sound like an English insult? You nut pods!

Tsh: It does. It 100% does. It just sounded hoity-toity when you said it there. 

Seth: That’s what I bring to the show, hoity-toity.

Tsh: Now I feel fancy. Speaking of fancy, we’ve got a third friend around the table today. We are joined by the lovely Shawn Smucker who is a writer but first and foremost a friend. Shawn, by way of saying hello to you, what are you drinking this afternoon?

Shawn: Guys, this is amazing. This is like the highlight of my month to be here with you. I am drinking vegetable juice. And I’m not going to say I love it. I have this juicer and every once in a while I go through spells where I will throw all the vegetables into the juicer and that is my drink because it makes me feel great. Honestly, when I’m juicing, I’m drinking vegetable juice regularly, I feel so good. It gives me energy and my skin clears up. I just feel really good. I’m in a spell right now where I’m doing that on a daily basis. 

Tsh: You do any vegetables? Can you handle any of them or are there some that you’re like, that’s wrong?

Shawn: I usually do carrots, celery, cucumber, and apple to add a little sweetness to it. Some sort of greens, we have beets right now, so beet greens, which are actually sweet, too. 

Tsh: Okay, because I’ve done beets before but it tastes like dirt to me. Maybe I’m doing it wrong?

Shawn: I’ve never done beets, so I don’t know about that but the greens are actually fairly sweet. 

Seth: We’ve done beets before and they do taste a little bit like dirt, Tsh, but I think that’s the idea? Like you’re an anglophile, if you’re a dirtophile, just throw some of those beets in there and then you get all the dirt you want. 

Tsh: Can I just say to both of you—Shawn, Seth and I are both forty-three. Are you in your forties? You are, right?

Shawn: Yes, I’m forty-three as well. Wait, what am I? I’m forty-four and I turn forty-five in December. Wow, I thought I was forty-three. Shoot.

Tsh: I’m so sorry. That just ruined your day, huh? I bring that up because I listen to another podcast where they talk about what they’re drinking and they’re in their late twenties and it just makes me laugh because they’re always like, here’s the cocktail I decided to invent. It’s some well-sourced bourbon and then most of the time on this show we’re drinking stuff like vegetable juice and water. It’s just funny to me. Welcome to middle age. Seth, I know you’re not feeling great, chime in when you can. We’re talking with Shawn about one of our favorite topics, really, and that’s stories. Stories of all sorts. We are blessed to have a listenership that loves stories and books and really sees that as our go-to favorite, I guess you could call it hobby, but almost like a thing we do to add more beauty and umph to our life. I would love to just hear from you, Shawn, what it is about stories that just gets you up in the morning, as a person more than a writer, really.

Shawn: What a question. Maile and I have been talking a lot about stories recently more than usual. I think because we’ve realized that we’ve in a way sort of dedicated our lives to stories and at some point, you do wonder in your mid-life, am I doing the right stuff? Am I on the right path? I don’t think you can go wrong with stories. For me, stories are this way that we all communicate to each other. First of all, a really basic level, we have this dinner club that we go to about once a month. We’ve been doing it with the same group for eleven years now. What do we do? We sit around and tell stories. As humans, that’s how we want to interact. That’s how we want to relate with one another. At a real basic level, it starts there but then I think when you get into the creation of stories at a larger communal level, you become part of this big conversation and you contribute, this is what I have to bring. This story is what I have to bring. Then you listen, you hear what other people have to bring. I love how stories are the way that we interact with each other at every level of community.

Tsh: I want to know more about this dinner club. I don’t want to rabbit trail, because stories, how did that start? Yeah, you’re exactly right, that’s how we communicate with each other is through stories. That’s how we catch up with our friends. 

Shawn: We moved back to Pennsylvania from Virginia. I grew up here and Maile and I had four kids at the time, we moved back here at the end of 2009. We were not in a great place. My business in Virginia had failed, we were living with my parents. My sister had heard that we had done a dinner club in Virginia for the four years that we lived there and she was like, let’s start one here. We got together with her and my brother-in-law and then sets of other friends. One of those sets of friends went back since I was a little kid. I had known her for thirty-five years. The other two sets of friends were relatively new to me. There were five couples and we just decided we wanted to get together once a month. It was really funny because at the time we all homeschooling, we were all self-employed and we didn’t even realize it. It just happened that way. We were excellent supports for each other. Now we all have teenagers, it’s one of those things where we get together, we just start talking, telling stories about our week, our month, what’s going on in our lives and before you know it, it’s 12, it’s 1 in the morning. We’re pulling ourselves away, I’ve really got to get home, I have to get home. It’s amazing what you can build with not a lot of time. You’re talking two to three hours a month. When you do this over an extended period of time, it’s like anything, right? It’s like exercise, it’s like writing. It doesn’t take a lot of time and if you do it consistently over a long period of time, the roots grow really, really deep. 

Seth: I’ve got a good friend, and I think this ties into the idea of stories. A client, actually, that I’ve worked with for the last five or six years. He’s an older guy in his seventies now. He tells me stories about their first dinner group. They were all really, really poor, dirt poor. Lived on the river, ate out of the river, in his young adulthood, anyway. He said that they would all get together and just bring what they had. If you were a hunter you would bring meat. He lived on the river so he would bring fish. Somebody would bring rice. He said you would always come together with whatever little meager offering you had and then we would all eat. He said it was amazing how much you can sustain each other when you’re sharing even the cheapest food but then he said what’s even more amazing is how much you can be sustained by the stories that you tell around those tables and the history that you share and the ways you get to know each other. I think as a born storyteller and maybe correct me if I’m wrong, but as a storyteller, there is something about a table, being drawn to the table. Because at the table it feels like that’s just the perfect place for storytellers to sit down and ply their trade together, ply their craft. There’s something to me that goes hand in hand with the table, with food, and with stories. 

Shawn: Oh, yeah. I love what you said about everyone just bringing what they have. When we first started this dinner club we were super organized. Okay, you’re bringing the main, you’re bringing the appetizer, you’ve got the dessert, drinks, all this. At some point during the years, we just didn’t have time for that and didn’t have the space to be that organized and now we just say, hey, this is where we’re meeting, this is the time, bring what you can. Everyone brings what they have and what they want to bring. Some people like to bring fancy food and fancy drinks and other people just bring a salad. It’s always enough. What you bring to that table is always enough. It’s the perfect metaphor because whatever we come to the table with that night, storytelling-wise, emotionally speaking, whatever we bring, that’s enough for that night. There are very few nights that go by where we don’t at some point, someone’s crying. At some point, we’re laughing so hard you feel like your guts going to split. It’s such a great group. It’s not because of the greatness of the people, it’s the consistency and the willingness to be there for each other I think is what makes it great. 

Tsh: Shawn, I like what you said about that that's the basis of friendship because, storytelling, I mean. Because it reminds me of a few weeks ago, I went to a new-to-us friends’ dinner party. She was having a birthday party and it was just her excuse to get together with people. We knew almost no one, Kyle and I. It was just a few blocks from us so we thought, sure, why not? And it was so delightful. We literally had sandwiches. It was sandwiches and chips and that was it. It was not for the food it was for the company. I can’t remember most of these people’s names, these new people, but I can think of that’s the guy who told that funny story about how he got his tattoo. This is the person who used to live over here and now has this kid. That’s how we get to know each other. To this day, several weeks out, I’m thinking about those people and what lovely personalities and conversations we had just because of the stories they told. 

Shawn: Being available for people in that way of sharing stories and accepting stories is such a crucial part of being human and I think it’s a big reason that we lose something when we don’t have that face-to-face contact. I’m not necessarily anti-social media all the time, most of the time, not all the time. I think when we trade in this face-to-face contact for digital contact we just lose so much. Sometimes the face to face isn’t possible because of distance or whatever so you get what you can. But I think when we’re not having that face to face then we also decide without realizing it that we’re not going to engage just with people that we have in passing. The mailman pulls up and instead of going out and saying hi and taking the mail, I just wait because I don’t know if I want to have that engagement right now. I feel like we are withdrawing more and more into our selves and we’re less and less willing to stop for five minutes and share a story with a stranger.

Tsh: Stories take time. If you were to listen to your mail carrier for five minutes that’s five minutes of your day. I’m not throwing you under the bus, I’m the same way. We think of people almost as commodities or interactions as commodities. Do I have the time to invest and be pulled away from that? It’s ridiculous when we’re here debriefing about it, wait, these are human beings with stories that are worth listening to. We tend to do that to our own detriment. 

Shawn: Yeah.

Tsh: So, both of ya’ll, you Seth and Shawn, are parents. I’m a parent, too. I would love to park at what it means to share stories with our kids and what your experience has been. Shawn, I know you’ve written some books for kids. I don’t know if they’re YA or middle grade, or maybe you don’t even know. 

Shawn: I don’t know, either.

Tsh: Okay. We’ve got those classic stories but we also are lovers of stories on our own. What has been ya’lls experience as fathers and embedding stories into your parenting? 

Seth: Before Shawn answers that, I want to answer with a quick example. My third born is a massive reader, literary mind out the wazoo. He is twelve, thirteen now, I guess. Thirteen going on college reading level. Last year he read Frankenstein, Dracula, Dune. He’s reading all these great, old stories. It’s just amazing, when he was twelve. His name is Ian. Ian’s love of stories was sparked young but his love of reading was actually sparked when he was six and it was by a story that I read to them out loud that I shared with them which was called, The Day the Angels Fell

Tsh: [laugh]

Seth: He loved it. It blew him away, the fact that you could do so much with a story. He was like, dad, I didn’t know you could do this much with stories. Then I got to tell him and share with him that I actually knew the author and that author was none other than Shawn Smucker. I think what’s been incredible to watch in his life is how the power of stories has actually shaped his imagination going forward, the things that he’s interested in now are all story-driven. The ways he read. The ways he interacts with the world are all through great narratives. All of that was really sparked by my sharing a very particular story with him, which was written by Shawn.

Shawn: That will keep me writing for at least another ten years, Seth. Thanks for that.

Seth: That’s the goal. Ten years and ten more novels. 

Shawn: Wow, yeah. That’s awesome and really encouraging. I think with my kids, I just remembered when I was young and first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and it blew my mind. With our kids from a really early age, if they ever found a story that they loved and they wanted to keep reading, we were like, go, just do it. Our oldest son, his was Hank the Cowdog. I don’t know if you guys have even heard of Hank the Cowdog

Tsh: Oh yeah.

Shawn: Our oldest was not a huge fan of reading and he found Hank the Cowdog, boom, there he went. For some of our kids, it was Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, obviously. For us, the goal was always to help them to find the stories that would really engage them. I remember one time, my oldest son was probably eleven or twelve, he was always reading above, a little bit more mature than he was. I thought I’m going to pull four books off the shelf and see if any of these resonate. I got The Outsiders, Flowers for Algernon, which I completely forgot some of the scenes in that book…

Tsh: I was going to ask, yeah.

Shawn: My kids always remind me of that now! They’re like, dad, remember when we were just little kids and you gave us Flowers for Algernon? Oh, yeah, okay. Maile and I have been deliberate about trying to put stories in front of them that they will really enjoy and then we also try to be deliberate about talking about those stories. If we watch a movie together as a family, we’ll sit around for half an hour afterward and talk about what do you think the themes are? What does this movie say about violence? What does it say about women? Masculinity? If you can somehow engage your kids in pulling back the curtain when it comes to stories and seeing wow, this is what this story is doing to me, for me, in me. I think it starts to awaken a fascination with stories but also an awareness, which I think is really important, of what stories can do. The power of stories and what is this story trying to tell me? What message is this story trying to convince me is true?

Tsh: I like the point of that as parents we act as curators of stories because we have been around the block a few times longer. It’s not that we know what we’re doing and we make mistakes like Flowers for Algernon when they’re too young, but I think there’s something to be said about the wisdom we have amassed in our middle-age, being able to use that to shape our kids’ imagination or at least guide them in how they are invited to shape their imagination through stories. I bring that up simply because there’s so much out there now, right? We can’t possibly watch everything we have for streaming. We can’t possibly read all the books at the library or play all the video games available to us. We never before in history have we had so many options. Most of it is really stupid. It’s easy for us to forget that it’s hard, well, maybe it’s not easy to forget because we deal with this ourselves, having to wade through to find the needle in the haystack but that is a service we can do for our kids is helping them find the stories that do form them they way we want to be formed. Something Kyle and I have been talking about this year is this idea of how all of us, but especially our kids, are always being catechized by something. That’s just how the world works. We’re always being catechized by something. What is it we’re being catechized by? If it’s just a dearth of stupid books or endless memes or gifs that are fine in small doses but they don’t sustain us, they’re the cotton candy of entertainment then we do our kids a disservice as parents. That’s not to shame us or anything it’s just to remind us of the sobering holy work we have to do as parents when it comes to stories. 

Shawn: Totally. There is so much good stuff out there. 

Tsh: Yes.

Shawn: I think the challenge is to not always be swept up in the new stuff. It’s easy for kids like what their friends are reading or what their friends are watching. It’s just really easy for that to become the default. Same for us. What’s the newest TV show? What’s the newest book? Not that new things are inherently less than but there’s just so much good stuff out there already. I like that idea too, of curating. What can I point my kids towards that I know is good? That I know will challenge the way they think about things and I know will introduce them to a wide range of people, places, topics, ideas. I like that. 

Tsh: As a high school teacher, part of my job every summer is to basically decide our reading list for the next year and I’ve taught everyone from fourteen-year-olds all the way to eighteen-year-olds. This next year I’m doing juniors and seniors but part of what I’ve learned makes for a good teacher is not so much thinking about stories do they want to read now but what stories will they be glad they read twenty years from now? They’re all going to whine about The Scarlett Letter being on the list. I am inwardly whining about The Scarlett Letter. Why did I do this to myself? But I will be glad they will have read that. They will be glad to have read that. I emphasize that a lot with these classic stories. Guys, you just read Dante’s Inferno, that is a really hard, old book to read and you did it. You’ll be glad you did it. I think that’s true, too. Not that reading and stories need to be hard all the time. I don’t think old equals hard or has to equal hard. That’s just something to remember, that the stories that have stood the test of time are worth wrestling with even if they are challenging. Seth, what do you have on your mind?

Seth: Shawn, my question is, you love good stories, you espouse the virtue of the old stories, and yet you’re actively creating new stories. I guess my question is why do you do this? 

Shawn: Whoo…because I am totally unhappy when I’m not doing it [laugh]. I think part of it is that I realized maybe fifteen years ago that I’m a writer just at heart, a storyteller. I feel like I have to do it. Still, the question could be why do you then publish them or put them out there if new stuff is not always as good? I think one thing that I’ve always tried to do is to have my work rooted in something else or at least to be aware of the soil that has brought my stories to life. For example, the book that I have that’s coming out soon, The Weight of Memory, that book came out of, I just became obsessed with George MacDonald’s, The Light Princess. For probably an entire summer I was going to the Y regularly and listening to books on tape and I listened to that book, it’s only like four or five hours long and I listened to it probably ten times, at least. I just had it on repeat for the whole summer because it caught my fancy, I was so interested in it. Then I started to see how what he had done was actually really similar to Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro, the movie. It’s really a fairy tale for adults. A lot of George MacDonald’s books, they weren’t written for kids necessarily back then. I think when you see what del Toro does in a lot of his films it’s similar. They are fairy tales for adults. Coming into the writing of The Weight of Memory, I had that at the forefront of my mind was this idea of a fairy tale for adults. To answer your question, Seth, I think what does bring value I think to current day work is if it somehow links us to the old stuff, the good stuff. If it’s a reflection not necessarily a commentary but maybe. I always love to see the roots of a work. If I read somebody’s work and I can see, wow, that’s really rooted in Dicken’s social justice stuff or if I read a novel and I think, wow, that’s really rooted in what Steinbeck was trying to do in Grapes of Wrath. I feel like if as writers we can somehow join into this movement of creativity and storytelling that’s been taking place for thousands of years. If we can put ourselves in that space where, I think it was Anne Lamott in one of her books who said, or maybe she was quoting someone else, but that the gulf stream will flow through a straw if the straw is not at cross purposes with the gulf stream. I think that’s us. We’re the straws. If we can align ourselves correctly then all of the goodness of literary and storytelling history can float through us and then you have something new but it’s still part of something old, too.

Tsh: Amen. It reminds me of my work as a teacher, whenever we read classics, it is called The Great Conversation. That is the term used when you are choosing to read the books that speak to a greater story, that speak that truth, beauty, and goodness that we all innately look for in everything we do. To call it The Great Conversation I think, is not only hauntingly beautiful but then to participate in it as writers, feels almost too much to bear. Who am I to join in the works of Dickens and Aristotle and C.S. Lewis and yet we have to keep the conversation going. Both by pointing to the old guys like keep reading them but also keeping the conversation going. 

Shawn: Yes. And another metaphor, Tsh, that has meant a lot to me over the last few years is the idea, and I can never remember where I read this to give credit to, maybe you guys will know because I think it’s pretty common. This idea that all stories flow into this great lake, right? All stories flow into this body of water and some of the stories are like huge rivers, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Dickens and some of the writers and the stories are just tiny little springs like Smucker and Haines and Oxenreider. We’re all feeding into that and that’s good and important work. 

Tsh: That is good. Shawn, I have to say, you are really gifted at encouraging those small stories in my experience. First of all, you literally encourage people by writing notes. I still have my two Shawn Smucker notes that you put in the mail. You do that, you encourage writers but I like that you are a really great example of just sitting down and doing the work of storytelling. You’ve written a lot of stories. We’ve got a Shawn Smucker section on our shelves because you’re doing the work. I just think of how many stories need to be birthed by those of us who need to remember it’s okay to be a small stream instead of a Dostoevsky just because those are the stories that we’ve been given to tell. You are good at that.

Shawn: There are so many reasons to write. One of those reasons might be to make money and for your story to impact millions of people but there are a ton of other reasons to write besides that and a lot of them have to do with doing our personal work, our own inner work. There’s a lot of joy that comes when we commit ourselves to creativity. There are many reasons to write. 

Seth: Shawn, when you were talking about the rivers and the lakes, it reminded me of the very, very end of Norman Maclean’s work, A River Runs Through It. Have you guys read this novella? Most have. A least most of the people who love flyfishing literature have. That closing line is, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.” It’s that idea that every contribution is in that great river. Some of those contributions are yours. Some of those contributions are mine. Some of those contributions flow over the rocks like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Steinbeck or whomever. The bigger more rapid words maybe flow over the rocks. Some of ours are under the rocks and that’s okay but there is a greater river, I think, to your point. I love the Gulf Stream analogy. I love this idea of the river, the greater river and channeling that greater river. I think what I hear you saying is that behind your own work and behind your own words, that there is a supreme force, a bigger force, a current, meta-current of larger stories that you are trying to channel to today’s reader. That feels like innately spiritual work to me. Is that fair?

Shawn: It is fair. I wish I could remember that every day that I sit down to write. The days that I do remember that I don’t care so much about book sales and royalty statements and things like that. I see the work in front of me that needs to be done that day and I do it and I enjoy it and I love it when I remember that. It is spiritual work and I think it connects us with so many things. It connects us with ourselves, it connects us with our neighbor, it connects us with God. Like I said before, there’s so many good reasons to write. I think that so many times we get discouraged because we’re not experiencing the popular reasons or the cool reasons to write: fame, fortune, or whatever. But there are so many other really good reasons. 

Tsh: I just pictured the illustration of us, the three of us, not being at the cool kids table, over here off to the side at the D-n-D table, probably. The stories are maybe a lot more interesting and a lot nerdier and maybe less well-known but all the stories belong in the cafeteria for people to choose from. Shawn, your new book that’s coming out, for some reason I thought it was another YA book, but you were saying it’s a fairy tale for adults. Tell us a little bit more about it, who you wrote it for, and why we should be eager to read it this summer which I already am.

Shawn: It’s called The Weight of Memory and as I said earlier, it sprung up out of this feeling or idea that I got from George Macdonald’s, The Light Princess, and one of my favorite movies of all time, Pan’s Labyrinth. I’m kind of obsessed with death, if you’ve read any of my books, you know that’s the case. I wanted to write a story where a man is grappling with his pending death. The story opens with a man named Paul Elias, he’s in his sixties and he’s just received a terminal diagnosis, he has any time to three months to live. He’s raising his granddaughter and he realizes that he really has no one to take charge of her if he would die. He decides he’s going to head back to the town where he grew up which is like an eight to ten-hour drive away and it’s a little island. It’s mostly actually a piece of land that jets out into a lake but there’s also a river on the other side of it. It’s always been really isolated and he takes his granddaughter back there because he hopes that maybe he’ll run into someone, anyone from his past who can take her. But he gets there and realizes that things have changed a lot. The island is called Nysa and he realizes it’s not the way it was when he grew up. It’s very abandoned. His granddaughter is a very peculiar little girl and she starts to see things. She’s always had a very intense imagination growing up but she starts to tell him that at night a woman is coming to her room and she’s going out with this woman and following her around the island. This woman has a task for her to complete. He’s torn between, he mostly feels like she just needs to chill out, that her imagination is getting away with itself but as the story goes on, his granddaughter starts to know things about the passing of Paul’s wife, which happened forty years before. You start to learn the truth about his wife’s death and also his wrestling with his own final days. I guess I’m always wrestling with my own death, to be honest. About seven or eight years ago, I wrote a book for a man who was dying of cancer and he did eventually die a few months after we finished the project. Ever since then, I’ve just been very aware of my own mortality and I have a lot of questions, unanswered questions. I think that’s why so many of my stories dig into death because it’s just my way of working through the questions. 

Tsh: And that’s a universal question. I think any reader that picks that up can say, oh yeah, I’m going to die, too. It sounds phenomenal. It sounds up my alley. I love speculative fiction. I don’t know how both of ya’ll feel but I think that’s my favorite genre of literature. Work that’s grounded in the here and now but is just a little bit of you’ve got to suspend belief. You’ve got the paranormal, you’ve got the weird bumps, you’ve got the whatever, and that sounds exactly that. Is that what you would call it?

Shawn: Yeah, definitely. I’m the same, especially Neil Gaiman’s, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, when I first read that, that cemented for me how much I love those stories that happen on the margins of what we would call reality. I think when we’re a kid we’re much more in touch with that margin. We’re much more open to things that don’t make sense or things that might not be or might be. Then, as we get older, we lose touch with that. I think for me, reading Neil Gaiman, I realized, wow, I really love that. I love being in touch with what could be, with what might happen…we don’t know everything. I think in this age of science and the internet, we think we know everything but I like how those sorts of stories remind me that I don’t know everything. 

Seth: I love that. Tsh and I’ve talked about this a lot, it’s why I love the work of David Mitchell because his work is literary. It’s great literary quality but it also operates on that edge of belief and pulls together this entire world of characters that exist on the edge of reality which is really amazing. I think Mitchell does it in a real fantastic way in which some of the players in the novel know it and most do not. There’s that really interesting little twist to all of his books which I really love. I think we have lost sight of that as modern American writers. I feel like writers that are not from America, particularly South American writers do this and have always done this extremely well with ideas like magical realism and maybe this is why you like Pan’s Labyrinth so much. Just that idea that just because we’re adults doesn’t mean that we don’t need fantasy. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need the magical or the fantastical because the truth is some of the most powerful metaphors come through suspending belief. To me, the work that you’re doing is super important. It is in that stream of great literature that asks for suspension of belief and I really love that. Tell me, as you think about your career as a writer, I know most people listening to this are not going to be writers. They’re just everyday people. People who love to read, who love literature, that’s probably why they’re here to some degree, they’ve read I’ve written or something that Tsh has written and it’s resonated. We are a reader podcast here. People love to read. For those who aren’t writers, what are some of the things that you’ve learned in your storytelling career that just the average everyday person who’s not a writer could apply to their life?

Shawn: The number one advice that I always give to writers is to write a little bit every day and that that adds up to a lot eventually. I think that’s so applicable to life whether you are a writer or not. Exercising twenty minutes a day, wow, in three months you’re going to feel completely different. Spending a couple of hours a month with a group of friends, five years down the road, ten years down the road, you suddenly have this group of friends who are family. Doing just a little bit. I think we get overwhelmed from good work or from doing things that we really want to do because we just see the end result and it seems so huge. For a lot of writers, it’s writing the novel. Ugh, how can I ever write a novel? One hundred thousand words, are you kidding me? But in working with writers and helping them to realize that it’s two hundred words a day. Kate DiCamillo, at the back of one her books, multi-Newbery award-winning author, in one of her bios writes, where Kate lives in Minnesota where she faithfully writes two hundred words a day. Are you kidding me? I could write two hundred words in thirty minutes. Anybody can do that. I think so many of the things that we see as these lofty far-off goals that we could never do actually just require twenty minutes a day, thirty minutes a day of consistency. That’s the first way that I feel writing is really applicable, is just that small step. I think the other one is Ann Lamott’s idea of sh*tty first drafts. How many of us have been thwarted in the things we want to do because of our perfectionist tendencies? I can’t start a business. I don’t have a perfect business plan or I don’t have the perfect location or I don’t have the perfect product. There are just so many things that we just end up not doing because we can’t do it perfectly and this whole idea of giving ourselves the space to revise. To actually create something because I think the initial creation is the hardest part. Once you have something to work with, I love revision. I used to hate revision. I love revision now because the hard work is done now I get to go have fun. I get to play with the story. I get to try and add in fun little things or find the themes and emphasize them or work in some motifs, that is the fun part. I think a lot of times in life, whether it’s writing or whatever it is, we don’t get to the fun part because we don’t give ourselves the space to create imperfectly for enough time. It’s hard because you hear the saying, we only see the outsides, we don’t see the struggles that people have gone through. We don’t get to see the rough draft of that #1 New York Times Bestseller, we just see the bestseller. It is hard sometimes to give ourselves that space but it’s so important. 

Tsh: Both of those things you said remind me of Steinbeck and speaking of the greats who have the currents in the lake we’re looking at while we’re just a stream, I think of him both as one of our greatest storytellers but someone who surprises me with how unsure he was of his own work the entire time. Even when he had great success, he lived in a horrible run-down house for decades until his wife finally made them move because he just felt like such a hack. The first quote that comes to mind, I’ve got it here, about the idea of showing up and doing just a little bit of the work, he says, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished you are always surprised.” I love that idea. Then he also says about the editing process, he says, “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on…” Meaning, don’t stop and edit yourself, just get it all down. Then, “It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material…” I think that’s true too about whatever it is that we’re working on. If we stop and freeze from perfectionism about anything in life. If I can’t run a mile so why bother running around the block then we lose out on the joy of just being in the flow of it, the flow and the rhythm that comes from just enjoying the thing just for the sake of it and not for writing the four hundred pages, whatever that looks like.

Shawn: Have you guys read, Journal of a Novel

Tsh: No.

Shawn: This is Steinbeck’s journal that he kept while he wrote the book, East of Eden. What he did was he wrote one journal page on the left side. He had this huge notebook, a huge unlined notebook. On the left-hand page, he would write one day’s journal and he was basically writing it to his agent who at the time was one of his closest confidants in writing. On the left-hand page, he would write that day’s words for East of Eden. You go through this and it is…He writes, “And I must forget even that I want it to be good. Such things belong only in the planning stage, once it starts it should not have any intention save only to be written. All is peace now. All is quiet. What little things there are, are here and good. Posture and attitude are so very important. Odd how reluctant I am to start. I suppose that everyone hates discipline and fights it off at all costs.” Some of the stuff that he writes in here, it’s just unbelievable to think that someone who wrote East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath, these were the things that he was struggling with as he was writing. I highly recommend it, Journal of a Novel. Then was another one called Working Days, which is the same thing he did while writing Grapes of Wrath. I like Journal of a Novel a lot better but both are really good. 

Tsh: I had no idea he did that. To wrap up this idea of stories and you having written a fantasy story for adults, it reminds me of another great writer who I love, G.K. Chesterton. Seth, we might have actually talked about this quote on a recent podcast, it sounds familiar. He says two things. One, he says, “Literature is a luxury. Fiction is a necessity.” With that he says, and you’ve probably heard this one, “Fairy tales don’t tell children that dragons exist, children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” To me, that is ultimately why we need stories and why fiction is a necessity. We need reminding in our day to day that dragons can be killed. I think adults need to remember that just as much as children.

Shawn: Tsh, I’ve never actually processed this before but you saying that makes me think that a lot of the reason that I write so much about death is that I really want to believe that death can be overcome. I think that’s why I write about it. I think that’s why I write the kinds of stories that I write. Not that we can live forever but that death can be overcome in the same way that dragons can be slain. Maybe that’s why I wrestle so much with that particular theme in so many of my books. 

Tsh: I think you’re right. Seth, let’s talk a little bit about what beauty or good thing or true thing, whatever, what are you reading, watching, or listening to these days that’s adding more beauty to your life?

Seth: I feel like I’ve become the show’s Instagram curator. It’s really funny because as much as we all bag on social media, I want people to go use it for the right reasons, which is beauty. There is a photographer that I follow named Eveline Killermann, it’s @eveline.killermann. She’s from Germany evidently. Her photographs are like a study in color and light. In fact, if she had a one-hour editing video that was $100. I would pay for it. If it were $500, I’d probably pay for it. Her colors and her light and her shadow are just so good. She doesn’t have a ton of followers. It’s not like she’s out there trying to burn down the internet with her photography or anything, she’s just doing really solid, quiet work. I don’t know how I ran across her. It was probably through some hashtag but the minute I saw it, I was like, I love this. It’s mostly landscape stuff, a lot of flowers, a lot of trees, some animals. It is really astounding work.

Tsh: Very cool. I’m looking at it right now and you’re right. It’s fun. Shawn, what in your life is adding more beauty to your days?

Shawn: Two things. One, I am listening to Elizabeth Strout’s book, Anything is Possible. She wrote, oh my gosh, I’m drawing a blank…Olive Kitteridge!

Tsh: I was just going to say Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again

Shawn: I love those books so much. I’ve read some of her other stuff and I wasn’t quite as taken with it as I was with Olive, but I feel like with this one, Anything is Possible, she’s back into that…she has this sweet spot of writing short stories that are loosely connected that I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone else who can do it the way that she does it with just giving you these flashes of a character in someone else’s story and then you read a short story about that character and then you read another short story where that character crosses paths with the earlier characters and you suddenly understand all this stuff. I’m really enjoying that. I’m also reading this book called, The Surrender Experiment, which is a very popular book I’ve never heard of by Michael Singer. It’s nonfiction. My journey into life’s perfection. He’s Buddhist and it’s all about life and aligning yourself with the direction that life is going. I found some of the things to be so peace bringing when it comes to that idea of I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that, this is what I’m shooting for, and then when those goals don’t happen, we just keep hammering our heads against the wall. No, I’m going to make this happen, I’m going to make this happen. I found a lot of peace in the last few weeks since I started reading this and sort of stepping back and reevaluating and saying, what’s working? What’s really working? What areas of my life have I just been trying to make happen for years and they’re just not going to happen? It’s been a fun exercise in thinking through the direction that my life is going and being open to new possibilities. 

Tsh: Very good. Nice. I’ll add both of those to the show notes. 

Seth: Tsh, now it’s your turn. Tell us what is one thing you’re listening to, reading, watching, maybe consuming, that is bringing a little bit of truth, beauty, or goodness to your life?

Tsh: Have either of you ever listened to the band Radical Face? Do you know who I’m talking about?

Seth: No.

Tsh: Oh, good. Okay. Radical Face is this band that about a decade ago, it’s not new, came out with this album trilogy. I say a decade ago, it started a decade ago and I think they finished about five years ago. It’s called The Family Tree. I’m bringing this up to both of you because first of all, it’s fantastic music. I love the music. You both would really like it, the style. It is such a stellar example of what you can do through all different sorts of mediums for telling stories. The three albums are called, The Roots, The Branches, and The Leaves. This is the family tree. The only way I can describe it is by reading a description so I’m just going to read it to you, “It’s an ambitious, complex trilogy of albums telling the story of the Northcotes, a fictitious 19th-century family graced with paranormal abilities such as seeing spirits, reanimating dead animals, and other such things, in accompaniment as if to show how far their vision will stretch. Cooper, the band’s lead singer, has created an interactive map of the songs which goes some way to revealing the interconnectedness of the albums, helping the adventurous listening follow specific characters through time as their genes tumble downwards.” 

Seth: What the heck?

Shawn: [laugh]

Tsh: I know. I’m going to put the .pdf of the guidebook that goes with this album trilogy in the show notes. You look through it and it’s old letters and creepy photos and maps and flip through this as you listen to this music. It’s so good. It’s so, so good. 

Shawn: That is awesome.

Tsh: You both would really love it and I think listeners of this show would love it in particular. That’s Radical Face’s Family Tree album trilogy. It’s just great music even if you have no interest in the Northcotes, the 19th-century fictitious family with paranormal abilities, you’d just like the music. It’s really good.

Seth: That is so cool.

Shawn: I need that in my ears now.

Tsh: Yeah, you do. I’ll send ya’ll the link so you can listen to it right away.

Guys, it is time to wrap this up. You can find this episode, as well as all episodes at adrinkwithafriend.com and if you like what we’re bringing to your week, you can actually help us keep doing this podcast by picking up our next round of drinks. The show is free for you to listen but it’s not free for us to make so at the cost of a cup of coffee or a pint, you can help us keep the lights on. To find a link for how to do this, look in the show notes of this episode or at adrinkwithafriend.com and thank you in advance. You can find me and all my work, especially my newsletter and books at tshoxenreider.com. Shawn, where can people find you, especially your new book?

Shawn: shawnsmucker.com\books

Tsh: We’ll put it in the show notes as well. Seth, where can people find you?

Seth: All the usual places where you can google Seth Haines, like sethhaines.com or @sethhaines on any of the platforms. There is another Seth Haines, you have to be super careful, who is a telemarking seismologist and I am not him.

Tsh: Really, I didn’t know that. Just go to sethhaines.com you’lll find all of that. Music for the show is by Kevin MacLeod, editing is by Kyle Oxenreider, and Caroline TeSelle is our transcriber and assistant extraordinaire. I’m Tsh Oxenreider with Seth Haines and Shawn Smucker. Shawn, thanks so much for joining us.

Shawn: This was the highlight of my week, thank you guys. 

Tsh: Oh, good. I’m so glad. Me, too already. Thanks for listening and we’ll be back here with you soon.

A Drink With a Friend
A Drink With a Friend
Conversations between writer friends Seth Haines and Tsh Oxenreider about living sacramentally, usually over drinks. Pull up a chair and let's chat about faith, books, music, films, family, nature, and other signs of the divine.
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