Interview by John Newlin
Fire is Your Water, Jim Minick’s first novel, is a compelling story of love, faith, forgiveness, and compassion, related from several points of view. Set in the farmland of central Pennsylvania near the end of the Korean War, the author explores, among many things, family, man and nature, the Biblical gift of healing, and what it means to love unconditionally.
Jim Minick is the author of five books, including The Blueberry Years, winner of the best Nonfiction Book of the Year from the Southern Independent Booksellers Association. He teaches at Augusta University and in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College.
JN: Jim, this novel reflects many aspects of your childhood. Was it always going to be a novel, or did you originally envision it as a memoir of your childhood?
JM: It started out as nonfiction. In 1983, I was burned in an explosion similar to the one that happens later in Fire Is Your Water. I wrote a creative nonfiction piece about that, published in Now and Then Magazine (Summer 2002) titled “Flash Burn.” Though I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to make a larger book about that time and place, when I worked pumping gas on the PA Turnpike. And I also had these other family stories about this place and another fire, stories from before I was born, and so it took me at least four or five years of wandering in the wilderness of words to figure out that, hey, fiction would allow me to combine these stories IF I could figure out how.
Part of that “how” was connecting these stories by collapsing four generations of people into two generations, and thirty years of stories condensed to three months. The larger part of the “how,” though, was figuring out the connecting thread, which eventually I found to be what happens to a faith healer when she loses her faith and her ability to heal. That became the driving question.
JN: Have you ever met or known a person who possessed the gift of healing?
JM: Ada Franklin, the main character in Fire Is Your Water, is based on my great-grandmother, Ida Franklin Minick, who was a powwow doctor in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. She could remove warts, stop blood, and take out fire, like Ada in the novel. And she did enter a burning barn with her daughter-in-law, who was severely burned in the process. And after, Ida was not the one who healed my grandmother’s hands—another relative did. So that got me thinking about why and what happens if faith is lost. I’m pretty sure that did not happen with Ida, but it opened a door for me.
Some other family stories about Ida—like of healing a bleeding cow by saying the chant through the phone—I was able to use in the novel as well. Ida died when I was four. My first memory is of sitting on her lap. So, to answer your question, I wish I had known her better, and in a way, this novel helped me imagine a little of her life.
JN: You spent fifteen years working on this novel. Did you at any time “give up” on the project? If so, what do you see as having impelled you to finish it?
JM: “Set aside” is a better phrase than “give up.” Attention got pulled to other projects, so in that fifteen years, I wrote my other four books, plus taught full-time. At some deeper level, I think I knew I wasn’t ready yet to write this book, so I had to learn my way in, through other genres first, and then through extensive reading and studying of novels I admired, like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
JN: I love the way you weave the character of Cicero, the raven, into this love story. It adds a wonderful dimension to the novel. When you first conceived the idea for the book, was this perspective something you had in mind, or did that idea come along later on? Oh, and can ravens be taught to talk???
JM: Cicero and the idea of a talking bird came much later, maybe two-thirds of the way into writing this. I was taking a fiction writing workshop with Darnell Arnoult (an excellent teacher and writer), and I knew the other main character, Will, loved birds, so I kept playing with that idea, trying to figure out how to develop that passion of his. Then I remembered reading an essay, also in Now and Then, about a person growing up with a talking crow as a pet, and that, along with Darnell’s encouragement to just experiment, let me walk through that door of magic realism to find Cicero there waiting to chew my ear off, literally.
And yes, many birds, especially “smarter” species like ravens and crows, can learn words. I collected several funny stories from fellow birders about such. One ornithology professor told of a raven a friend of his tamed in grad school. The bird loved to say, “Nevermore,” AND he loved to drink. When he got too tipsy, he’d just repeat, “Never, never, never….”
When Cicero heard this, he wanted to file an animal abuse report until he realized that this happened decades ago.
JN: One of the themes that struck me about the novel was the hint of loneliness, that of Ada and Will, two characters whose lives appear for much of the novel to be heading away from lifetime relationships. It’s a topic that you addressed at length in The Blueberry Years. As writer, farmer, and homesteader, your life clearly involved working in isolation for great periods. How do you deal with that aspect of your life?
JM: The older I get, the more curmudgeonly I get. And in this society of hyper-social-media-over-connectedness, it’s not easy to find real, meaningful friendships. But it’s necessary to remember the difference between loneliness and solitude.
Writing itself is a solitary endeavor, and so, it’s important to enjoy and embrace that solitude, and to understand how it differs from loneliness. Almost always, I’m lonelier in crowds or cities than in the woods. Thankfully, I’m married to my best friend and I’ve found some great community through writing and teaching. And doubly thankfully we have access to the great antidotes to loneliness in just getting out in the company of trees and birds. I cannot imagine a world without trees and birds (and bass and beavers and bats and beetles). That might be the ultimate and saddest form of loneliness.
JN: Having written your first novel, do you see yourself as gravitating to writing more fiction?
JM: My current project is nonfiction. After that, yes, I have at least two ideas I want to pursue/have started, both fiction.
JN: I know you’ve been researching how a community was ravaged by a tornado in the 1950s. Have you ever considered using that research as the basis of another novel instead of a nonfiction account of that devastating event? Or maybe both?
JM: Yes, early on, I considered making this current project about a devastating tornado into a novel—it’d be a whole lot easier, that’s for sure. But I’ve collected many hours of conversations/interviews with survivors of this tornado, and the more I listened and worked with their stories, the more I realize that the best way to honor them and their stories is through nonfiction. That genre, for me, at least, somehow best captures their story.
JN: Any final lessons or surprises from writing Fire Is Your Water?
JM: Faith comes in many shapes. Doubt too. Respect—even embrace—that. And listen to the birds.
Or as Eubie Blake said: “Be grateful for luck. Pay the thunder no mind - listen to the birds. And don't hate nobody.”
More information about Jim Minick: http://www.jim-minick.com/wpdev/
Listen to Jim read a chapter of Fire Is Your Water: http://www.jim-minick.com/wpdev/writing/fire-is-your-water/
Buy the book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Fire-Your-Water-Jim-Minick/dp/0804011842
Buy the book through IndieBound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780804011846
ABOUT JOHN NEWLIN
John Newlin’s work has been published in Short Story America, Independent School Magazine, South85 Journal, and Night Owl Journal. He is the Review Editor for South85.