Stony Kill opens with a tragic shooting in one generation of the Van Vliet/Ryckman family and is bookended with another shooting in the next generation. Do these mirrored events tell another story below the surface? If so, what might that be?
When Joss first enters her mother’s home in Canaan, she begins to search for her childhood quilt. In that process, she makes a mess of her mother’s lovely room. Why do you think she does this?
Joss Ellen’s relationship with her father Paul is central to the story. How does this relationship propel the plot forward, and do either, or both of these people grow and change in their view and interactions with one another?
Paul rejects his grandson Nahaliel, called Haley and first meets his seven-year-old when he and his mother Naomi move back to Red Mills Farm in Canaan, New York during the summer of 1990. Soon enough, Paul is entranced with this charming boy. What enables this change, and why does Paul accept the boy when his original reasons for rejection still remain?
Haley seems so perfect. Why do you think this is?
Paul favors Joss and is harsh and unloving toward his older daughter Naomi. Why is this? How does this experience affect Joss? Given that Lydia, Joss’s mother is more aligned with Naomi, why would she then paradoxically leave the farm to Joss? What is the power of this gift to each of her daughters?
Do you think your perceptions would have been different if the book were organized in a chronological manner such as: Book I, about Joss’s childhood, and Book II, that relates Joss’s adult life?
Stony Kill is told both in past tense and present tense. In light of the story, do you think this has any other meaning, other than a simple verb tense choice?
The story primarily takes place in Canaan, New York. Why do you think the author chose this location? Does place have meaning, or could this story be told anywhere? If so, how?
Throughout the story, Miss Euphrates recounts vignettes about the farm. Many of these stories involve violence. What do these stories mean and what changes do they indicate? Are they a blueprint or map, and is there a larger message Miss Euphrates communicates?
Most everyone in this story suffers in one way or another; they all deal with their trauma in different ways:
- How do Paul and Lydia connect in their early years, and how does this change and why?
- Given that Paul is closest to Joss, why when Lydia leaves him and moves back to her family’s farm in Canaan, why does she take Joss with her?
- Clearly Joss and Wyatt also suffer losses and devastation; are their stories and suffering similar? In what way?
- Do Joss and Wyatt struggle in similar ways that Lydia and Paul struggled? And what do these struggles illuminate about romantic love?
- If Wyatt had not gone to Iraq, and had met Joss serendipitously, do you think he would have been enamored with her?
- Miss Euphrates seems to have suffered in her life as well, yet she appears to have risen above her childhood traumas. Why do you think this is?
- Wyatt seems almost too perfect, why do you this is?
The Stony Kill, which is a creek in upstate New York, is featured in this story, as well as other names that are associated with rivers or water. What do these water names signify as you read the story? Do you think there is a deeper meaning, and if so, what might that be?
When the police come to the farm in Canaan to question Joss, why do you think she lies about the hook in the barn?
Joss wavers between confusion and courage, yet never seems to choose one over the other. The ending suggests there is a choice. What is Joss’s?
What does Stony Kill relate about difficult families and love?
There are numerous themes in Stony Kill. What themes were the most meaningful to you?
- In 2015, as reported by the Washington Post, toddlers have killed more people in the United States during the last year than terrorists have. They accidently kill either themselves or others with loaded guns they find in their homes. What do you think, if anything should be done about this tragedy?
- What does Stony Kill say about guns in America?
- Comment on parent/child love and how its various forms are illustrated in Stony Kill.
- How does Stony Kill illuminate mental illnesses, and what purposes do you think the author has in mind in representing these issues?
- Can people change? The story suggests this is possible. Do you believe this?
- Child abuse in overt and hidden ways is illuminated in this story. Do you think this is as common as this story indicates? How can this be alleviated in our culture.
Questions and Answers about Stony Kill
What was your inspiration for Stony Kill? How did you come up with the idea?
I was inspired to write the story that became Stony Kill after a family tragedy. As with all significant losses, families are often upended, and in truth, families that neglect their children through simple carelessness or due to their own selfishness, incur more tragic results. So I created a believable but flawed family around a tragic event that made sense and took the emotional roller coaster ride through the fallout that would naturally ensue, always aiming at a redemptive ending.
In the story, I offer the delight and whimsy of childhood play against the backdrop of events, family history, and world events. As in real life, no one walks through their time on earth unscathed, but the choices the character make, and in translation, the choices all
of us make become how we are each defined. It is this hopeful journey that Stony Kill explores.
Who is your favorite character?
Wow! This is a difficult question. I have to say Miss Euphrates, who is a housekeeper and nanny for the protagonist Joss when Joss is twelve-years-old. Miss Euphrates is the wise woman of this tale, the family historian, the storyteller, and moral compass who is an outsider, and is able to see all the characters clearly and compassionately. She is calm and understated, and because she is powerful and understands this, she does not need to flex her skills or all that she knows. When she does, it is with cleverness and only when needed. She was fun and inspiring to create from pen and paper into a seemingly full-blooded being.
Did you base your characters on real people?
I was inspired to create a few characters based on individual attributes and demons of real people I know, but no character in Stony Kill is strictly based on one person in particular. For instance Wyatt is a combination of the love of my life and a dear old friend, with abilities that neither of my inspirations possesses. Like most authors, I am an observer of humankind and what motivated people and their ensuing behaviors. I relied on that ability more than simply transferring family and friends from flesh and bones to the page. Many of the characters are created from the whole cloth of my imagination.
Describe your writing process
My writing process is unorthodox. I begin with a paragraph, and I often do not know what the paragraph is about or where it will go, so I stay with it and a character begins to unfold which leads me to a story. Once I get through a first draft, I let it mellow before I look at it again. I think about the problems with the manuscript and when I come to a solution, I begin again, but this time in a far different manner.
In the rewrite, I complete the first five or six chapters, and then I write the last chapter, followed by the five or six chapter up from the end to a climatic point in the story. From there I go back to where I left off from chapter five or six and pipeline the two pieces together. In this manner, I know where I am headed and hopefully I will pick up all the stray strands of plot and weave them in where they belong.
I do not outline, though near the end I have been known to scribble notes and lists on the back of envelopes.
Who are some authors who have influenced you?
Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Colum McCann, Justin Torres, and really every good or less than grand author whose world I have enter through their books. I have learned as much from what not to do, as what to emulate.
What made you want to become an author?
Of course reading is key. Out of all the kids who read from an early age and keep at it, some will become authors. It is a natural progression. The other component for me is that I have something to say and I want to be heard—fairly simple, really, but so complex to pull off.
I have worn many other hats in life, while always fooling around with stories and words, though more in a dreamy way. I didn’t have the time or courage in enough measure to put it all together when I was younger. For me it was a matter of understanding what I needed and wanted to say, and to have to ability to speak to that with some merit. That has taken some years and wisdom in the end.
What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
Join a writer’s critique group. Go to every meeting. Read at every meeting, if possible, and learn to offer excellent and compassionate critiques.
Why did you set the novel in New York State?
The novel is set in New York State because I wanted the story to be set Canaan, referencing the biblical meanings of Canaan, and it also needed to be a place where the Stony Kill flows.
What are the biblical meanings of Canaan? Can you expand on this thought a little?
Canaan was the fourth son of Ham, and Ham was the youngest of Noah’s sons. Canaan’s uncles cursed him. They believed him to be responsible for an incident in which he had no part. Canaan’s sons and their offspring settled in the lowlands, the area which eventually became Israel and Palestine. These decedents became known as Canaanites, and the land itself was called Canaan, the Promised Land.
The early Canaanites were trade merchants and people of more base appetites. Sodom and Gomorrah were part of the Canaanite nation. They were people to whom enlightenment and transformation ultimately came in the form of destruction.
The Hebrew word, כנע (kana’) is a verb that describes transformation from something that is wild, or in a feral state to a place of common order and mutual benefit. It is apparent that this process still continues into the twenty-first century. So Canaan was and continues to be a place of both promise and turmoil, of wildness and transformation.
I used this place name in Stony Kill to inform readers in a subtle way that Red Mills Farm on Sweet Milk Road is part of the land of milk and honey, part of the family of early Canaanites. It is a place of destruction and transformation—a land promised to successive generations. My hope is that readers will believe that Joss and Wyatt will be the trustees of transformation, that they will bring order and mutual benefit to each other and to this land.
Additionally, I wanted to comment on the importance of place. In our more transient culture, I think this is often lost or viewed as transferable. This is seldom the case.
In the novel, the farm evokes vivid memories for Joss. Is there a farm in your life that does the same for you?
I did not grow up on a farm, though we had a large garden in our backyard. My siblings and I were expected to contribute to garden chores, including canning and putting up relishes, chutneys, etc. Additionally, there were hundreds of acres of woodlands around my family home. As post World War II kids in cookie-box houses that sprung up all over America, there were scads of kids playing in the backyards of the street on which I grew up. We bicycled up and down the street, played hopscotch, red rover and caught fireflies. My favorite was to be off in the woods exploring, fishing, and generally mucking around outside at every possible opportunity. We played the way Joss, Fletcher, and Haley play in the novel.
How does it feel to have your first novel published?
Astonishing, overwhelming, wonderful! I am honored, humbled, and blessed to have my work out into the ether of the world. Given that I am a tad older, it’s my great third act in life!
How long did it take you to write Stony Kill?
I began the first draft of Stony Kill in 1996. I was quite ill at the time couldn’t work. The proposition of being unproductive weighed on me, so I decided to fulfill a lifelong dream and write a novel. I spent three years writing a first draft, and being a novice, I didn’t know what I was doing, or how to repair the problems I created. I set it aside, only occasionally working on it until 2014.
In the meanwhile, I concentrated on short fiction and wrote a story in which I borrowed elements from that original manuscript. I felt that piece of short fiction was the best work I had written to date. It was months later when I realized that short story held the answer to what the original draft was sorely lacking. I spent the next year rewriting and completing Stony Kill.
How, specifically, did the short story you wrote help you recraft the novel? What kinds of changes did you make?
When I first wrote Stony Kill, that original 1996 draft, it was from Joss’ point of view as a child. I struggled with how to tell the story also from an adult perspective. I tried several devices—giving the crows human voices and soliloquies, expanding the novel into Joss’ early adult years, writing a forward and afterward. None were satisfying. So it sat in the drawer for years.
The short story I created was Joss as an adult dealing with her father and I played with time—flipping back and forth from present to past. My impetus was to tell the reader how the past informs the present, and present changes the view of the past. When I wrote this short story, I had all but abandoned the novel. It didn’t occur to me until months later that this was the answer to the construction of that original draft. It would allow me to tell Joss’ story as an adult without disrupting the arc of the overall narrative.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel titled, There were Wolves in Poland. It’s the story Asa Gray Feith and his journey to discover his family roots and his unusual mission in life. Given the manner in which I write, the story comes to me in pieces. It takes place in Maine, Kansas City, and western Nebraska.
What’s one of your favorite books and what did you like about it? Has it influenced your style?
I have loved many books and authors: former Vermonter E. Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Annie Dillard, and Alice Greenway, but by far my favorite book in recent years is We the Animals by Justin Torres.
Mr. Torres has an uncanny ability to capture energy in words, and tell backstory in the present—something I admire. don’t know if I will be able to achieve his grace in telling the past in clear present form, but I am trying in my current project.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers in our community?
First of all, read excellent books and superior writing. We all write on the backs of every writer we have read.
Secondly, Join a writing group! There are many on-line groups, though I believe the face-to-face process is better. I began a group in my hometown in 2005 and we’re still going strong.