By David Nilsen
I recently had the privilege of interviewing author Emily Wierenga about her new book Atlas Girl: Finding Home In the Last Place I Thought to Look (270.092 Wierenga). Emily is the author of two previous nonfiction books as well as a novel. She writes about faith, eating disorders, marriage, parenting, art, and a host of other topics on her site www.emilywierenga.com.
Fourth & Sycamore: Thanks a lot for being willing to talk with us today, Emily.
Your writing in Atlas Girl is, as always, quite lovely. Your style is very impressionistic, using fragments of sentences and brief word images more often than conventionally formatted paragraphs. The result is a prose that emotionally carries more than the sum of its words. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing a book-length, linear narrative of your life with this style of expression?
Emily Wierenga: It took me years to discover my writing “voice”, and one day, after having written a couple of non-fictions, I “fell” into it. My voice. And I’ve written in it since. It’s not something you can force. You can only practice, practice, practice and wait for it to find you. Being a poet and an artist, I do naturally lean towards a creative and visual style, as that is how I see the world. I see it in hues of bright colors and poetic phrases. It comes very naturally to me and while I know it breaks the mold and some of the rules of English literature, I never was one to submit very well to living within the box.
It’s not something you can force. You can only practice, practice, practice and wait for it to find you. Being a poet and an artist, I do naturally lean towards a creative and visual style, as that is how I see the world.
F&S: In addition to being a writer you’re also a painter and a musician. Do you find these different forms of expression meet different needs for you at different times? What leads you to one of these art forms over another in a given moment?
Emily: Yes, I absolutely gravitate towards different forms of art at different stages of the day or week. I tend towards art when I’m feeling emotionally or creatively dry; the thick rich colors of acrylic always pick up my spirit. I tend towards the guitar after church on Sundays when I’m longing to spend time sitting in the presence of Jesus. I write when I have a particular thought I want to convey to the world.
F&S: In Atlas Girl you talk about your parents, your husband, your siblings, and other people you’ve known over the years. You treat them all with dignity and fairness, but given how emotionally charged some of the situations are that you write about I can imagine there being at least the potential for hurt or tension. How do you approach writing about other people in your life, and how do you decide to include or exclude stories that could cause a negative reaction in those relationships?
Emily: Honestly, it’s been incredibly hard to write my memoirs (including the sequel to Atlas Girl, called Making It Home), because of the intricate layers of personal stories. It’s involved two years of writing about my life. And when you write about your own life, you write about all of the characters in that life, and it’s hard to continually bring up more and more pain. It’s uncomfortable, and sorrowful circumstances which are no one’s fault, things you’d rather forget, it all gets dredged up. Memoir doesn’t let you forget. It is the rear-view mirror that is focused on your past, and the best you can do is smile into the glass even as you try not to run anyone over.
I personally refuse to write about the past for public viewing before I’ve sought, and found, private healing with the people I’m writing about. I believe in forgiveness. I don’t believe in proselytizing the past for personal gain, because that, in the end, helps no one. So I wrote all of Atlas Girl from a place of healing, and this allowed me to revisit myself as a little girl, in the past, and view her as an older sister who was able to empathize, yes, but to also separate herself and offer wisdom and perspective to her as well.
F&S: The central narrative theme of Atlas Girl, even stated in the book’s subtitle, is the fact that you have traveled the world and yet have chosen to settle down to live something of a simple life in rural, small town Canada. Can you talk a bit about the contrast between the globetrotting, city-loving perspective you had as a young adult and the perspective you now have as you raise kids and grow a garden on the Canadian prairie?
Emily: Oh, how I long for the open road. It’s in my blood. But all of this traveling and wandering has also led me to a desire for peace, and it’s in the quiet rural setting that I find it. In the great expanse of Canadian sky, in the long stretch of country road. I find now that my soul travels while my body stays still, my soul travels to heavenly places and finds God in the nature around me. This isn’t to say that I don’t ache for travel. Every day I ache for it. And thankfully I have a job that allows me to go on trips to speak and share about my books, and also, to travel to Uganda to visit my non-profit, The Lulu Tree (all proceeds from Atlas Girl benefit The Lulu Tree). But generally I am grateful for the way I am finally putting down roots, and watching my kids do the same.
From Atlas Girl: “I was terrified of the term ‘settle-down’, so I just kept moving. Kept traveling. For fear I’d lose myself if I stopped.”
F&S: Over the last decade much of the younger evangelical community has started to publicly rethink its position on gender roles, moving to a more egalitarian perspective both at home and at church. You’ve caught some flack online at times for espousing a more complementarian view of marriage roles. Given that your marriage is such a major part of Atlas Girl, can you talk a bit about your view on how gender roles play into your marriage as a Christian?
Emily: You know, it’s honestly something I’m still figuring out, but one thing I know—we are all called to be like Christ. And Jesus Christ washed His disciples’ feet and told us to do likewise. Philippians 2 says he “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant.” And this is not a very popular teaching in today’s day and age. But I’m striving to do this in my marriage. To serve, versus expecting to be served.
F&S: Your theology (though not discussed in great detail in the book) seems to be pretty classically evangelical (correct me if I’m wrong). In the midst of that, your faith practice and spirituality seem to incorporate aspects of Christian mysticism, emphasizing beauty and emotion and listening to the spirit, which is not the norm for conservative Christianity. Can you talk about how these two usually disparate aspects of your faith work together for you?
Emily: I think my bent towards mysticism has a lot to do with my artistic, sensitive personality. I am quite traditional, theologically. I fear the Lord. I believe Scripture is God-breathed and holy, and as applicable to today as it was 2,000 years ago. I also believe God is Spirit, and Scripture tells us to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth. I am learning what it means to do both—to invite His Spirit to speak to mine throughout the day, to lean into prophecy and scriptural promises and to invite them to LIVE in me, and to surrender myself to the Truth as much as it asks me to die to myself.
From Atlas Girl: “He smelled like beer, like the late August summer when I was entering puberty, cleaning up the Corn Fest fairgrounds in my Sunday dress with my family. The beer cans all clanging like empty songs against each other in their black garbage bags. It was what good Christians did, cleaning up after sinners’ parties and marching in pro-life rallies, and it was always us versus them. And all I ever wanted was to be them.”
F&S: Finally, if you could have your readers take one question or thought with them when they close your book, something to reflect on in the days after they finish, what would that be?
Emily: My prayer for all Atlas Girl readers is that they will find the courage to revisit the past, and find healing, so they can enter TODAY fully. I think as Christians we’re often (wrongfully) taught that we can’t revisit the past, that God has already cleaned the slate so we have no need to. But while God forgets, we don’t. And God, while he has made us perfect, is in the process of making us holy. It is a journey, as well as a destination, and I think we forget that. When we don’t invite God into our past, to bring healing to the child that is still within us, we aren’t able to fully be born again. Being born again means returning to our roots. It means being born all over again into God’s family, but we can’t do this without God taking us back there and ministering to those wounded places.
F&S: Thank you so much, Emily, for being will to share with us about your new book.
Atlas Girl: Finding Home In the Last Place I Thought to Look (270.092 Wierenga) can currently be found in the New Books Room on the second floor of the Greenville Public Library. If it is checked out you can always reserve the book at the reference desk and be notified when it’s returned. When checking out be sure to let your librarian know you heard about Atlas Girl on Fourth & Sycamore!