On the Amish commitment to “simplicity of being”: A Conversation with Granville Wyche Burgess

Granville Wyche Burgess’s latest novel, Fork in the Crick, will be published September 15, 2018 by Chickadee Prince Books. It is available for pre-order right now, along with the first book, in paperback and Kindle  from Amazon, and in paperback from Barnes and Noble, and your local bookstore.

Interviewed by CPB  author Donna Levin

Donna: Fork in the Crick is your second in a series of novels set in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County. Tell us how you came to write Amish fiction.

Granville: My wife, Reba Beeson, was raised on an Amish farm in Lancaster County, a farm we still visit at least once a month. In marrying outside her faith, Reba had to confront certain “challenges” from her family, and a few years ago her cousin Howard suggested we write up these challenges as a series of humorous family anecdotes. The stories just naturally morphed into an Amish romance, and, as we worked, we added a subplot of mystery and danger. The root of the series, however, is definitely autobiographical: a young man from South Carolina, like me, meets and falls in love with an Amish woman and together they struggle to follow their heart’s desire.

Does Reba read your drafts and give you input?

Yes! Reba tells me anecdotes about her life on her Amish farm, the meanings behind the coverings that Amish wear, the church services, recipes. She answers who drives a buggy and why some buggies are covered and others not and what it was like to harvest tobacco and how hay was put in the barns. She is my fountain of knowledge about Amish culture and faith, one from which I drink greedily and often.

One of Rebecca’s chief conflicts is over whether she can express herself as an artist through her talented quilt-making, but in the process risk committing the sin of pride. As an artist yourself, I doubt you consider pride in one’s artistic endeavors a sin, or even a mistake.

As an artist myself, it never occurred to me not to be proud of my art. The artistic ego is the engine that drives the artistic process. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw the beauty in the idea of not drawing attention to oneself, and to focus more on my thanks to God for having been given the gift of artistic expression. I think the Amish cautions about the sin of pride are very valuable because they help to keep the focus on the work, and not on the person who created the work.

 There are hints that Rebecca’s love interest, Gregory, might have Amish roots. Can we predict that this couple will have to choose between the Amish life and the “English” world?

In my third book, they will definitely have to choose between the two worlds. I’m leaving open the possibility that the choice I think they will make now, before I begin writing, may not be the choice the characters actually make once I start writing and they take on a life of their own. Characters can really surprise the writers creating them.

Do you personally find the simplicity of Amish life attractive?

I admire very much the Amish commitment to simplicity of being. I have lived most of my adult life in the fast-paced Northeast, but I try as often as possible to get back into nature by taking a quiet walk in the woods, to go to church and find peace in prayer, to appreciate the pure taste of a vegetable grown in my own garden.

How do you envision the future of the Amish community in the age of globalization, when technology is a bigger part of our lives than ever?

When I go back to Reba’s farm, I see the Amish in the fields, I hear them speaking their Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, I watch the school children march happily by our window, and I tend not to worry so much. The Amish will always have their deep faith in God, and that will sustain in these globalized and tech-driven times.

You’re known for teleplays and stage plays. Why write a novel, and an Amish one at that, at this stage of your career? How has it been to shift from the play to the prose model?

It was a challenge and I love challenges, especially artistic ones. An Amish romance was a good fit for me because I am extremely romantic and I have an abiding faith in God. And it surprised me how easy is was to shift from dramatic to narrative writing. The words just flowed, I am happy to say. Of course, saying less is oh-so-much-harder than saying more.

You’ve had at least 10 plays and musicals produced, and they represent an extremely wide range of subjects. Why these far-reaching interests?

My writing simply reflects who I am. My mother loved Winnie-The-Pooh, so I adapted it to a musical. I was born and raised in South Carolina in the days of segregation, and I felt keenly the injustice of how African-Americans were denied the basic rights that I enjoyed, so I have written about this injustice. My next project is a play about Maine, because a friend of mine wants me to adapt her favorite book, and so I am going to challenge myself again by writing about something I know nothing about.

Tell us about one of your most acclaimed works, the musical Conrack.

It’s based on Pat Conroy’s memoir The Water Is Wide, about a white teacher who goes to teach on an island off the coast of South Carolina in 1969 only to discover that the children there have been terribly neglected. In fighting “the system” to get his kids the education they deserve, Conroy—called “Conrack” by the children—discovers his own path through life.

The original composer, Lee Pockriss, wrote 18 gold records, among them Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini. I wrote a musical with the composer of that classic? Wow! And when we presented it at Ford’s Theatre, then President George H.W. Bush came to see it with his wife and the Prime Minister of England and his wife. Another wow!

I have just finished directing it in Pat’s hometown of Beaufort, SC, and the people there loved it, including Pat’s immediate family. Pat’s widow gave me a closing-night gift that brought tears to my eyes: a ballpoint pen. Her card said: “This is one of the pens Pat wrote with. I only give them to very special people.” So you see, Conrack has brought me so many wonderful memories, as well as the incredible pleasure of seeing audiences respond so enthusiastically to my work.

When can we expect to see Book 3?

When the characters start writing it! I shall just have to trust that, when I sit down to write, God will speak and the words will flow.

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