Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Family, Faith, and Individuality: An interview with memoir writer Daniel Boerman

1) Please tell us about your book.

            Imagine living on a small family farm in a tiny, isolated community in southwest Michigan during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Imagine a world consisting almost exclusively of family life, work on the farm, attendance at a two room country school and participation in weekly services at the local church.  This was the world of my childhood, the world described in my memoir.  Our Dutch Reformed community was small and close-knit, and most of our social life was limited to visiting close relatives and other members of our church.  Occasional excursions beyond our local community were thus exciting adventures.  Riding with my dad to a livestock auction, a trip to a drive-in restaurant in a nearby town or a yearly visit to a county fair were special occasions to be anticipated and savored for weeks.
            In this setting I grew up with my parents and two sisters.  My dad was a full-time farmer until my teenage years, and my mom was a full-time homemaker who struggled with chronic and undiagnosed health problems throughout my childhood years.  I was a skinny, red-haired boy who was usually more comfortable at home with my family than in some new or unfamiliar social setting.
            My book contains many stories about life in our family and on the farm, in school and in church.  It records the terror of a runaway sled ride, the challenge of trying to devise projects to make money on the farm, the excitement of learning to drive a tractor for the first time, and many more interesting experiences.  
The book concludes with my graduation from high school in 1969.

2) What inspired you to write your memoir?

            The initial inspiration for writing my memoir was simply the thought about how much life had changed since I was a boy.  I remember shoveling coal into the furnace downstairs to keep our house warm and my mom using her wringer washing machine every Monday morning when she did the laundry.  I thought it would be a good idea to record what life was like at the unique time and place of my childhood.
            As I began to work on the memoir, however, it also became more of a personal journey for me.  How were the joys, challenges and disappointments of adult life prefigured in my childhood experiences?  Did my hopes and dreams as a child have an important influence in shaping how I approached and experienced life later on?  The deeper I got into my childhood, the more connections I could see with who I am today.

3) A good memoir isn't just a story of an interesting life, it also explores universal themes that can engage readers from a variety of backgrounds. How does your memoir speak to readers who don't share your background?

            My memoir describes many values affirmed by my family and community.  Experiencing, challenging and living out our inherited values is a theme many readers can appreciate.  Having a family that stayed loyal to each other and remained intact in spite of serious challenges is a value I celebrate, endorse and recommend to everyone.  Growing up on a farm also taught me that responsibility and hard work were necessary parts of life.  Picking pickles as a boy was a task so boring that at times I didn’t know if I could endure it any longer.  I thought the boredom would permanently warp my brain.  But my brain and I both survived in good shape, and I would like to think that enduring that experience equipped me to endure other difficult and boring tasks I have faced as an adult.  Although my Christian faith has developed and changed in significant ways since my childhood, it, too, has continued as an essential part of who I am as an adult.

4) What main themes does your memoir explore?

            When a small boy, I occasionally dreamed that I could begin flapping my arms like wings and fly above my astonished family, our house and our farmyard.  It was an exhilarating experience to rise above the normal, human perspective and see reality from a bird’s-eye view.  That experience inspired me to imagine the fantastic possibilities for my life, and it gave birth to the title of my book, The Flying Farm Boy.
            My dream was almost laughable.  I was part of a very ordinary family living in a tiny, obscure community far from any prominence or power.  And I was a skinny, red-haired boy deficient in athletic prowess and in social skills.  I was so shy that I had to advance to the mature age of twenty before I first dared to ask a girl out on a date.  But I kept dreaming, anyway.  Not all of my dreams have come true, but the power of my childhood dream has motivated me through much of my adult life.  Thus my dream of overcoming my isolation and insecurity is a primary theme in my book.
            A secondary theme is the difficulty of learning to affirm myself as an individual in distinction from what my family and society expected of me.  For example, the stern Calvinistic God of my childhood often scared me, and I didn’t understand how to make peace with him.  Sometimes I didn’t know if I could even believe in him anymore.  Was faith a real, living part of my own fabric or was it merely part of the air I breathed in my community?  When I reached maturity, would I discard my childhood faith as something I had outgrown or would I reclaim it as my own?
            It was also sometimes hard to know if I did certain things simply because it was expected of me or because I actually enjoyed them.  As a teenager I participated in the annual fall rite of pheasant hunting simply because it was expected of me.  I went so far as to skip school on the first day of pheasant hunting even though this meant all my grades were docked for doing so and even though my grades were much more important to me than was hunting.  I had not yet matured enough to know that I should follow my own heart rather than conform to social expectations.

5) Are there any memoirs you've read that have personally inspired you?

            There is an older, out-of-print memoir by Ronald Jager called Eighty Acres.  This book is a record of life on a Michigan farm for the generation before mine, and, as such, it encouraged me to think that such a project was feasible for me, too.   More recent memoirs I enjoyed include Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and James McBride’s The Color of Water.  Although both of them deal with family circumstances more challenging than were mine, they nonetheless encouraged me to consider the possibilities of the genre for my own situation.

6) Please tell us about your other projects.

            In the past I have published numerous essays in religious magazines, a few poems and one short story.  One of my current ongoing projects is a blog called “Rural Ramblings” at www.danielboerman.authorweblog.com.  I hope to do something in the future to tell the story of Christianity in a way that appeals to our postmodern culture, but I have not decided on the format for that at this point.

7) Do you have an excerpt you'd like to share?

            One morning when I was ten years old, Mom took me for a ride in the family car that I will never forget.  I watched the early spring scenes of muddy fields and patches of snow sail past the window of the car as if in a dream.  Would I ever enjoy these familiar sights again?  Would life ever be the same again?  Mom was driving me to Zeeland Hospital to get my tonsils removed.
            During the past years I had a lot of colds and sore throats, and Dr. Yff decided that getting my tonsils and adenoids removed was the cure.  Since Dad and Mom trusted Dr. Yff to do what was best for me, they agreed that I should have this surgery.  But no one asked my opinion.  I felt like a lamb led to the slaughter.  Being in an unconscious state while a doctor took a knife to my throat sounded terrifying.  Could I really trust Dr. Yff?  Did he know what he was doing?  What if he slipped and cut my vocal chords or my tongue instead of my tonsils?  What if the bleeding wouldn’t stop?  What if…I died?  Who knew what awful things could happen to me once I had lost consciousness?
            Mom gave me a hug and kiss, and a nurse led me by the hand into the operating room.  After lying down on a table in the middle of the room, they strapped me down like an animal being prepared for sacrifice.  But instead of plunging in a knife to achieve a quick kill, they devised a slow and torturous method of subduing me.  They put an apparatus over my mouth and nose that held cotton batting soaked with ether.  Every time I breathed, I inhaled a little more of the ether’s noxious fumes.  As I kept inhaling that awful smell, the fumes gradually sent me reeling into a nether world of darkness and panic.
            My head began to pound with an incessant noise that grew louder and louder.  I could feel myself drifting off into a dark world I dreaded to enter.  I was sure I was dying, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.  Never before had I so much wanted to escape and fly away.  But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t free myself from my restraints and the stifling ether smell.
            The next thing I knew, I woke up in a hospital bed with the worst sore throat I had ever experienced.  But I was alive!  Wonders of wonders, I had survived the ordeal!  I went home that same night to recover in more familiar surroundings.             


Thanks, Dan.

If you'd like to see more from Dan please visit him at www.flyingfarmboy.com and www.danielboerman.authorweblog.com.

The Flying Farm Boy can be purchased at www.winepresspublishing.com and Amazon.

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