Songs from the Silent Passage is a new collection of essays by various members of the Chrysostom Society (Eugene Peterson, Matthew Dickerson, Luci Shaw, and more) which explores the breadth and depth of Walt Wangerin Jr, a writer who has wandered through a passage and returned with news of a far country. In celebration of the book’s release, Matthew Dickerson sat down with David McFadzean to talk about Wangerin and his influence.
Matthew: Tell me about when you first met Walt.
David: The first time I met Walt he was a professor at my college. The local PBS station invited a student (me) and a professor (Walt) to read our poetry on air. I fancied myself a poet (I’m not) and Walt was very gracious to share the stage with me. Later our paths crossed again when we were both founding board members of an arts organization, The New Harmony Project, which is a two-week conference for playwrights to test their works with a cast of professional actors. It was during this time that our relationship began to grow. Among the board members Walt immediately became the spokesperson for the mission of the conference and an inspiring critic for the playwrights. He showed them the same grace he’d shown me on our first meeting.
Matthew: How did your impression of him change over the years as you got to know him better?
David: When I first met Walt, he was a successful writer, and I was a struggling playwright. So of course I was delighted. I never expected we would form a friendship lasting these many years. But I soon found out that Walt was an enthusiastic mentor. In later years I was doing a lot of speaking at colleges and screenwriting workshops, mostly on the structure of story. Each time I was slated to talk, I’d call Walt, pick his brain and furiously take down notes. I stole from the best. He was, to say the least, very generous with his insights.
Matthew: What stories of interactions with Walt stand out as particularly memorable? Or funny? Or insightful?
David: This example comes from the many hours of conversation we’ve had over the years: One time when Walt and I were talking, he asked me if I knew what it meant to understand an idea. Of course I knew. It meant you “get it.” You “get” what the idea means. Who doesn’t know that? Apparently me. Walt said, far from understanding meaning you “get it,” it means you stand under the idea, as you would stand under a tree. You spend time with it. Perhaps you meditate, perhaps you never really “get it.” But it is a beautiful thing to live under the idea as it grows and bears fruit.
Matthew: Moving from Walt as a person to his books, tell me about his writings. What have his works meant to you personally? Which have been the most meaningful?
David: St. Julian had a powerful effect on me. The sharp prose immersed me in the world of Julian and the orphic poetry compelled me to experience his pain. And as dark and degrading as the story is, I felt relief and hope in its picture of redemption. And I was reminded that the brutality of Julian’s world can be found in our world, as can the blessed humiliation of his redemption.
Matthew: Have you thought, as I have, that Walt’s books have a lot to say of great importance to our modern church?
David: Many of his books are aimed at the church. And they inform, but not in a text book way. Anyone who has read him knows that story and imagination are the foundations of his message. Story puts flesh on dogma and imagination brings it to life. I think for Walt, story is a living thing, as is the Church. When either becomes simply an offering of pleasant, unimaginative information, it dies.
Matthew: What about the broader cultural response to his writings? I went to a secular New England college in the early 1980s. It wasn’t the sort of institution where I would have expected to find any of Wangerin’s pastoral (non-fiction) titles to be sitting on a faculty member’s desk or even buried on some bookshelf. And yet one day I was in a conversation with one of the better-known literature professors about speculative fiction (fantasy and sci-fi) and he recommended to me The Book of the Dun Cow (not knowing I had already read the book.) That title seemed to have spoken powerfully to a lot of readers.
David: Good writing is good writing. You may not want to live in France, but you still drink their wine.
Matthew: Did knowing Walt personally give you any insights into any of his writings?
David: Once you know a writer it’s difficult to separate the person from the work. So, yes, knowing him did give me insights. But the insights were incidental compared to the depth of enjoyment I get from reading him. And even before I knew Walt well, I’d read several of his books. The Book of the Dun Cow, The Book of Sorrows and Potter come to mind. And they were and are among my favorites. To paraphrase Aristotle, reading Walt’s books before I knew him, I couldn’t conceive of who wrote them, but after knowing Walt, I realized only he could.
Matthew: If you had a budget to pick any of his writings and make a film of them, what would it be?
David: Several years ago I brought Horton Foote and Walt together to adapt his memoir, Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace, into a film. They talked for days. Horton ended up writing a lovely screenplay that told the story of Walt’s life from birth into his early twenties. It was an engaging and poignant piece, as you would expect from the screenwriter of To Kill a Mockingbird. Several studios were interested. But it turns out that it was one of those projects (of which there are many) that was on everybody’s list to read, but nobody’s list to make. Another movie-worthy work of Walt’s is The Book of the Dun Cow. A friend of mine wrote an Off-Broadway musical version that is wonderful. And I’ve always thought The Book of the Dun Cow would make a terrific animated feature. And who knows? In Hollywood, great projects can sit on the shelf for years until suddenly they’re rediscovered.