What Really Matters – One Mother’s Story by Ned Hayes
Yesterday, I was at my daughter’s school. One of her teachers nicely asked about my new novel. Here’s how I described the book: “SINFUL FOLK is set in the 14th century – the Middle Ages – it’s about a former nun who has lived in secret for 10 years. Then her son is killed, and she goes on a terrible journey to find out the truth about her life, and prove that her son’s life mattered.”
The teacher looked at me and cocked her head to the side. “That’s so different,” she said. “I thought since you work for your day job in high tech and in business, you’d write a techno-thriller or something like that. Why this story?”
It’s a great question.
For several years, I commuted from my home in Olympia to Seattle. I rode the commuter train an hour each way. I worked a demanding job in high-tech with some very smart people. Lots of email, many hours on spreadsheets and business plans. If you work, outside the home, your busy job in today’s world is probably pretty similar!
But for an hour a day on the train each way, each day, I had time to think.
And I started thinking about what really matters.
Mothers. Children. Friends. Love. Our connection to each other. Our legacy in our children. Mother’s Love.
I wanted to write a story about these things. Not about software, or iPads, or spreadsheets. I didn’t want to write about the ephemera of modern life — even though I love books like The Future of Us.
I wanted to focus the lens tighter. What happens when you strip life down to its essentials?
And I remembered a bit of history from the 14th century. Children died in a tragic house fire in a distant village. The families were in such agony that they took their dead children across England to the King’s throne to demand justice!
I could imagine their pain. The torture of losing your child. Their angry search for answers.
Children. Families. Loyalties divided in a village.
In the Middle Ages, there was no Facebook to distract, no email, no websites. Just the realities of what really matters.
So I started writing, in the early hours, as my train wended its way through the misty countryside.
The story became about one woman’s story. One mother loving her child. One tragedy. One relentless urge to find answers.
I wrote my book Sinful Folk because I wanted to think deeply about children, mothers, families, and loyalty. How far would a mother go to protect her child’s memory?
The character of Mear showed me what strength is hidden in the most unlikely heroines. She showed me how strong a mother can be. What power can be concealed in silence. She showed me what really matters.
And as I began writing from Mear’s perspective, I found myself going in new directions, directed by Mear. I found myself entranced by her powerful voice and enthralled by her perseverance and intense courage.
|Novelist Alice Walker|
At first, when I began writing this novel, I thought that I was in control of my characters and I was making this all up. Years ago, I had heard that the wonderful feminist novelist Alice Walker believes that all of her novels are narrated by “ghosts” from her family’s past – and that she is actually transcribing real experiences from the past, creating a living legacy for stories that have been lost. I always used to kind of laugh at that, thinking that it was silly to think of a story as being “transcribed” from ancient spirits. But my opinion of Alice Walker’s idea changed as I wrote the novel SINFUL FOLK.
Now although I never heard ghostly voices, I did find that my main character, Mear, became increasingly real to me – so real that I couldn’t help but find myself impelled to write down her story as her own story, not a construction I had created. Mear was insistent, in wanting her story told her way, and from her proper perspective. She ended up correcting my voice, my assumptions, and my prejudice about what she was capable of, as a woman.
One of my published poems came out of the same experience of being a channel for her voice, and I’m republishing the poem here for all of you to read (the poem originally appeared in the national literary magazine The Mid-American Review).
White men’s bodies turn green under the billows of the sea
I have been told so; when the young are dragged from the tide
their lips have melted into a delicate slash of emerald.
Black bodies turn blue in the brine
none of the longshoremen here notice, for there are too many dead;
in Jamaica or Barbados it is rarer. There, the heavy pictish tinge
is obvious — their friends, dark and strangely indigo, found
among the flood of tourist caucasian suicides.
There is a color women’s bodies turn
the change is as oblique as the departure of the soul
when our flesh takes on the scent of waves, our skin tone melds away.
But no one has ever noticed the change of shade; these corpses often float for years.
then, sometimes, they return to shore, marry, take up jobs or clean
house, have children, laugh and talk. I am walking
around still, tasting of ocean, undetected.
Happy Reading! – Ned Hayes