I’ve mentioned Darcie Friesen Hossack on this site before. We met a few years ago when we were both enrolled in the Humber School for Writers and have kept in touch since. Recently we’ve been talking more frequently. Her first book, Mennonites Don’t Dance, will be released by Thistledown Press on September 15 and Bats or Swallows will be out a month later. It’s been nice to compare stories and cheer each other on throughout the process.
I’d prefer to talk over a few glasses of wine, but because Darcie lives in Kelowna and I’m currently in Athens, our chats take place virtually. A few days ago we overcame our 10 hour time difference to talk a little more formally about our books and so that I could ask Darcie some questions I’ve had about her background and how they relate to her stories. The conversation eventually turned into a discussion of roll kuken, sugared tomatoes and other Mennonite foods. This isn’t surprising considering that when Darcie isn’t writing fiction, she’s a food columnist. In fact, she recently featured the halva recipe I posted a few weeks ago in one of her columns. We’re going to reconvene in a few months to debrief our books’ respective releases or at least talk about fried chicken feet again. Thanks, Darcie!
The Part About Books
Teri: I’m sure you’ve been asked by many people the big question, WHAT IS YOUR BOOK ABOUT? I find that question hard to answer when it comes to short stories. How have you been handling it?
Darcie: Well, they’re prairie stories, and the characters are Mennonite. Really, though, the stories are about family. The silences between them. It’s the small things people do to each other that leave the biggest holes. What are your stories “about”? Loaded question, I know.
Teri: I have a hard time describing my stories! Not that they’re so complex; I’m just not used to talking about them out loud. They’re about people, mainly young women, trying to make sense of their lives the best way they can, often looking for signs or symbols to help them process external events. GAH, that’s vague?
Darcie: It’s freaking hard, and I don’t know why!
Teri: It’s a kind of self-consciousness, I think? Like, someone’s going to pay attention to this.
Darcie: Yes, definitely that. Or not. At least if you’re vague and they look bored, then there’s no basis for doubt.
Teri: Ha! Self-preservation, then.
Darcie: I think so.
Teri: Your rejection/acceptance saga is epic. [Darcie documented her journey between submitting her manuscript to getting a publishing deal over here, and it’s worth the read. It involves multiple publishers, some rewriting and lots of waiting over the span of 10 years.]
Darcie: It’s certainly not an overnight-success story! No one will accuse me (rightly) of having beat an easy path to publication’s door.
Teri: You deserve an award for simply surviving that rollercoaster! Although, I suppose the best reward was getting a publishing contract. What has it been like navigating the waters of promotion, organizing book launches and such? It’s nerve-wracking, isn’t it? There’s much more pressure these days to be on the ball with everything.
Darcie: It seems to be up the the author, doesn’t it? I’m stockpiling valium. I have Susan helping. Susan is brilliant, and also somewhat like the person in the front of the boat who yells out “Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!” I think I may have a stroke.
Teri: You’ve mentioned how excited your husband is about your book, what about the rest of your family? I have to admit, I’m a little nervous of the thought of my family reading my stories. They’re very supportive, but they haven’t read much of my writing.
Darcie: They’re happy and excited for me. But where I’ve borrowed characteristics and dialogue from them, I’m nervous about what they’ll think, including that they’ll see themselves where they aren’t. Do you write thinly-vielded autobiography? Or is it more imaginative than that? I think maybe I write with a thick veil. There’s much more fiction there than anything else.
Teri: I don’t think my stories are specifically autobiographical. But in Bats or Swallows there are many coming-of-age stories about girls in their teens and twenties, which I relate to, but aren’t about me. Are you worried about people thinking your stories are about you?
Darcie: I am. In some ways they are, but none of them are entirely true. Most aren’t “true” at all. I don’t want people’s thinking the stories are about me to get in the way.
Teri: I took a writing course with Michael Winter once and he said that it was always a huge compliment when someone thought his stories were autobiographical. It meant that they believed that they actually happened. I find that thought really freeing!
Darcie: Ha! My stories are true, I hope, in a way that is more true than fact.
Teri: YES. (Imagine me giving Darcie a high five here.)
The Part About Food
Teri: Were you raised Mennonite?
Darcie: My mother’s side of my family is Mennonite, going way back. Not sure if they go all the way to the dawn of Mennonites, but I believe it was my grandparents great grandparents who first came to Canada, and they were Mennonite farmers, as was most of every generation since then, up until mine. Perhaps only one of my 25 or more cousins is farming. And because the next question is usually, “What is a Mennonite?” I’ll go there.
Teri: YES, tell me, please. I was actually just discussing that with Andrew: Is it a religion? Or a sect? Or…?
Darcie: It’s as much a cultural as a religious group. A people without a country but a very definite lineage. Many Mennonites are not practicing Christians, or attend other denominations. But they are still Mennonite in the way a German is a German, even if they leave Germany. To me, it’s as much about the food as everything else.
Teri: Food is such a wonderful entrance point into a new world. I know when I travel, the most research I do is for food. I’ve never had typical Mennonite food, I don’t think, but my mouth waters at the thought of roll kuchen and watermelon, which you’ve written about in the past. I probably spelled “kuchen” wrong.
Darcie: Spelling isn’t particularly important. Low German isn’t traditionally a written language, so there are a LOT of discrepancies in how people sound it out. As long as it’s good and greasy, all is well.
Teri: Ha, that’s my kind of language! So, food plays a major role in your stories?
Darcie: Food is almost like a character in the stories. There might not be a single one where it isn’t used as metaphor, setting, a way of moving the people around in the world. To a Mennonite farmer, food was life. It enabled them to work 20 hours a day, pull the plow, clear the fields, tend the animals, so, of course, a bad crop, or lost cow was a big deal. It meant they’d go without. And now, for those who’ve left the farm, it’s a connection.
Teri: What would be a typical Mennonite dinner?
Darcie: Ooooh! Shall I tell you that my sister and I used to fight over fried chicken feet?
Teri: Tell me! I’ve only had chicken feet once at a Chinese wedding, and… maybe I’d like them better fried.
Darcie: The toes against our cheeks as we gnawed on the soles felt like hot fingers. Our very favourite thing in the world, though, was, is still, verenyky with cream gravy. It’s like large perogies, stuffed with a mixture of dried cottage cheese, egg and salt; or Saskatoon berries and sugar. Boiled and served with gravy made from cream, a bit of salt, and enough flour to thicken.
Darcie: Did I mention vegetables? No? Because I don’t remember any. Except potatoes.
Teri: Really? For such a farming community?
Darcie: My grandparents grew a huge garden. Half of it was potatoes, but by the time they were fried in lard, I didn’t consider them vegetables so much as the Mennonite equivalent to French fries! But there were peas and beans and cucumbers. I remember shucking peas and eating those. Much of it was canned for winter. The biggest part of the food chain was wheat.
Teri: Ahhh, that makes sense. The prairies.
Darcie: My grandparents had a hundred pound barrel for flour, and filled it once a month. Flour from their own wheat, from their own fields.
Teri: So… desert! I’ve eaten my chicken feet and potatoes. What’s next?
Darcie: Mennonites are notorious for their sweet teeth. Couldn’t grow sugar, of course, but that was hardly a deterrent! The roll kuken (fried dough) and watermelon. Also platz, which is a crumb cake filled with fruit (thus all the preserves, although we prefer to freeze our fruit). My grandmother used to sugar her tomatoes.
Teri: I’ve never heard of that!
Darcie: When she lost much of her sight and taste, she’d put her finger on the surface of her tomato half and pour on the sugar until it was deep enough. Same with the lard for frying hamburgers. Up to the second knuckle.
Teri: Wow, all this food sounds delicious (well, I’m still skeptical about the chicken feet, admittedly).
Darcie: Someone else can have my share in the chicken feet, too.