Friday, April 4, 2008

Cold Tangerines: Q & A with Shauna Niequist

I am delighted to host a Q & A with Shauna Niequist, author of Cold Tangerines, on my blog here today! The moment I asked her if she'd be willing to answer questions from all of you on her very first book, she immediately and happily agreed.

Thank you, Shauna for sharing more of yourself in your responses to these questions. And, thank you for writing Cold Tangerines and for sharing your stories. It is truly an honor.

Have you ever considered writing longer pieces, like a novel? I love your kicky verbose style of describing things; it's really rich and would be fun to read in a story.

Thanks! I would love to write a novel, although I’m a little intimidated by the process. Novels are my favorite thing to read, and I think it would be so fun to develop characters and get to know them. My friend Alison Strobel is a fiction writer—her first two books are Worlds Collide and Violette Between, and she’s in the midst of like seven more in the next two years, along with being a mother to Abby and Penelope—and I’m always pestering her about it—"But how, Alison? How?" It’s definitely on my list of things to try...along with speaking Italian, driving a boat, growing herbs, and making pesto. (The last two, clearly, are related.)

If I remember correctly, your book is classified as a "devotional". [It is listed under this category on] I'm amazed at how much my gaze was turned to God in your book and yet there is very little Scriptural references. Did you feel lead to write a devotional or -in your mind- is this book classified as something else? (Shauna, as part of your answer, would you include why you chose not to quote Scripture in the book?)

I’m surprised that the book is categorized as a devotional on Amazon. Add that to my ever-growing list of frustrations with Amazon. Don’t get me started. :) It wasn’t written to be a devotional at all, but rather a collection of essays threaded loosely together with a theme. One of the tricky parts of Christian publishing is that most Christian authors are pastors, and most of their books have an instructive purpose, so it’s easy to think that all books published by Christian authors are instructive, pastoral, or devotional. The same is not true in the wider publishing industry—essentially, writers are just that: writers. I’m a writer, not a scholar or a pastor.

On the topic of scripture, I would say that the writing of the book was deeply undergirded by scripture, meaning that I used it as a guide and anchor as I wrote, in the same way that I use it as a guide and anchor in my daily and devotional life. I made the decision, though, to write in a more story-oriented way as opposed to a more teaching or devotional style for several reasons.

First, and most centrally, I made the choice because there are many people who are drawn to stories about spiritual things who are not open to a more conventional devotional, and it’s very important to me that this book is a bridge, or a hand reaching out to those people. My prayer is that as they grow and become more comfortable with spiritual language and themes, they will read more and more “weighty” devotional or instructive books. This was never meant to be that kind of book. In the same way, I believe, that God makes each of us different, He gives each of us a song to sing. This is my song to sing, and if I pretended to be a theologian, or a pastor, or a prophet, or an exegetical expert, I’d be faking it, and the song I was made to sing would go unsung.

Certainly, when I do teach in a church setting, which is fairly rare, I do use scripture the same way most pastors do, but my primary role is as a storyteller. There may be a time when I write more specifically about scripture. I’ve been very interested lately in Esther and Joshua and their lives. I’m always drawn to the beauty of the Psalms and Ecclesiastes. I love Hebrews. Who knows? Fiction? Devotionals? I’ve got a lot to do, it seems.

After quite a vivid description of your struggles with weight and physical self-image, you seemed to sort of gloss over how it changed. As someone who has had similar struggles, I'm curious as to how it changed. Of course, some of it may be more than you're willing to share on a personal level, but as much as you're comfortable with, how did you finally become comfortable with yourself beyond suddenly being thinner?

Hmm. I think the most direct answer is that is hasn’t changed as much as I’ve yearned for it to, so I don’t think I glossed over as much as I left it unfinished, because it is unfinished. Essentially, when I initially wrote the first “Carrying” chapter, I tied it up with a bow—”Hurrah! Now I’m skinny and it’s all fixed.” And then as I edited, in the very last stages of the process, that chapter rang more and more hollow to me, because it didn’t really happen that way. I lost some weight, and some things changed, but the core of confidence I thought I would find wasn’t there, and I had to admit that losing weight didn’t do in me what I thought it would. I knew there was still some work to do in me. There still is.

And then the second “Carrying” chapter was about the extraordinary experience of birth, and how it gave me a new respect for my body....but as long as we’re being very honest, I wrote it when Henry was still very tiny, and I was very certain that all the baby weight would vanish within moments, and I’d be back in a flash to my recently thinner pre-baby self. So, unfortunately, there will be at some point a “Carrying” 3, to my great dismay, and I’ll have to unravel the fact that I really did feel thankful and really did apologize to my body, but that now I have all these friends who have healthy babies, too, but who lost all the baby weight in like 6 minutes. And here I am with an 18 month a certain point, it’s not baby weight anymore, right? It’s just my own weight, and mine to carry. Ah. Sensing a theme.

It’s easier now than it used to be. I don’t get hit with freight trains of self-loathing as often as I used to. But I did have a closet full of pre-baby clothes that taunted me, until a dear friend told me it was masochistic to see them every day, and made me pack them up, out of sight. I don’t have any great answers, except that it isn’t as much about the number on the scale as I thought it was, and that self-loathing and self-abuse are worth fighting against, and that talking about it helps a little bit. I wish I had more answers. I hope to. And I hope one day to wear a two piece again. But it isn’t happening anytime soon.

What is your favorite part about being a mother?

Maybe the kisses. Maybe the way Henry says “beeeoooowww!” instead of “meow.” Maybe the smell of his neck right after he gets out of the bath, or watching my husband play with him, or learning how to be a mother by watching my mother, or watching both our extended families swivel and shift because of this new little life. My dad can’t get enough of him, and it’s so moving to watch them together. By his own admission, when we were small, he was so entirely occupied that he missed a lot of the tiny tender moments of baby life, and it’s an amazing thing to watch him connect so deeply with Henry. My favorite moments might be the moments just Henry and I have, when we read books or put together puzzles, both laying on our stomachs on the living room rug.

Were you writing to a specific audience? Were you writing to/for yourself? Or for both?

I was writing for people who love language and image and story. I love those things, so it was really a goal for me (whether or not I accomplished it) to write satisfying, high quality prose. And I was writing as a friend. There have been books that have affected me and when I was finished, I felt like I had met a friend. That’s what I wanted. I wanted people to feel less alone, to feel like they’re not crazy for having questions or for being jealous, and that they’re not crazy for wanting to believe that life, and particularly life with God, is extraordinary and rich and worth loving and devoting yourself to.

You chose a very unique writing format; 40 short essays. Was there a particular reason why you chose this style versus a more traditional style?

It wasn’t super calculated. It was the most natural format for me. I like variety, and I like being able to resolve a set of questions or tell a story in a relatively short period of time, so it’s a genre that works really well for me. The publishers were a little hesitant, because it’s not a genre commonly used in Christian books, but it is one that’s very familiar in wider literary culture. I wanted it to feel like glimpses or snapshots as opposed to a chronological memoir or a more conventional format.

What do you most enjoy about writing? What do you least enjoy? Are you currently working on another book?

What I love about writing is that it forces me to see what’s happening around me, and what’s happening in me, and it forces me to think and feel and notice the world on a slightly deeper level. I’m a multi-tasker— I want to read a magazine while something’s on the stove and something else is in the oven and I’m watching the news and returning a call and folding a little bit of laundry and buying a gift online. That’s my nature. But I miss a lot that way, and writing ushers me into a much slower, much simpler way of living, and it’s better for me. It’s one of the only spaces in my life that’s very quiet, and very focused, and requires every single speck of attention that I can give it. It feels like very hard work, and is very rewarding to me. I also just love playing with words. There are moments when it feels like play, and I love that. I’ve always always loved playing around with words.

The hardest part is that it requires me to be alone more than I would like, so I have to work intentionally not to get too isolated, and to make sure that I’m getting good time with friends and family, as a balance for all the aloneness. I think good writing comes out of a full life, not from an isolated mind.

I’m just starting to think about the next book, and I’m thinking about a collection of essays about faith, family, friendship, and food—the spiritual and relational significance of sharing meals together, of gathering at the table together.

My last thought: Thank you. Thank you for reading. I know you’re all busy and have a zillion other things you could have been doing, so thank you for taking the time to read my book. And thank you for your responses. May you be genuinely surprised at the richness of life and the goodness of God today.

To contact or learn more about Shauna Niequist, you can visit her website at