Interview: October 2004
"When the story calls, I listen," says Charlene Baumbich, and for her many loyal readers, Baumbich's fictional evocations of the antics of the residents of Partonville make them seem like old friends, and provide endless pages of enjoyment. She has penned the first three books of her projected five-book series --- DEAREST DOROTHY, ARE WE THERE YET?, DEAREST DOROTHY, SLOW DOWN, YOU'RE WEARING US OUT! and DEAREST DOROTHY, HELP! I'VE LOST MYSELF --- and is hard at work on the next. Bookreporter.com interviewer Cindy Crosby recently chatted with the irrepressible Baumbich about the delightful characters who populate the Dearest Dorothy series, her love of a well-told story, the importance of intergenerational relationships, and her confessed addiction to White Castle hamburgers.
FaithfulReader.com: Is Partonville, IL, based on a real place?
Charlene Ann Baumbich: Hey! BASED ON?! Partonville is certainly a Real Place in *my* mind! ;>) Partonville is actually another conglomerate of three towns I know well, all between the northern and southern parts of Illinois. (Get that?)
BRC: Charlene, you write about "oldsters" so convincingly. Who was your model for the "Dorothy" character?
CAB: Although there was a REAL Dearest Dorothy in my life (lots of her spunk in my Partonville Dorothy), the Dorothy character (and her band of merry oldster friends) is a conglomerate of a lifetime of folks I've observed and been connected to in one way or another. Yes, I've been blessed to meet (and be related to) an eclectic band of rowdy, God-fearing, cantankerous, quirky merrymaking oldsters who catch my attention, help grow me, model what I don't want to be.... And, since I was a journalist before becoming an author, I've had opportunities to write about a senior citizens softball league (sound familiar to Dearest Dorothy readers?), real estate developers, AARP 55-Alive driving seminars (and now I've *taken* one myself!), and tons of other interesting things that allowed me to poke around in the real lives of those who are aging. I've been scared to death driving with oldsters who should no longer be driving and my own grandmother had to move from one place to the next, each a downsize. I am a born observer, I would say, of actions and emotions. Oh, and I'm also heading toward 60 myself, so...perhaps my mirror is my model, too? (Clue to answer: yes!)
I was also raised on a small farm, which I continue to miss and which is still a part of my very smile. I love the land. Amen.
BRC: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer?
CAB: Heck NO! I wanted to ride in barrel races (which I did), and be lovestruck around every corner (which I was), and hang with my friends (which I did) and LIVE life rather than spend time reading or writing about it! But I have always loved stories and my whole family was alive and well in the grand tradition of living the stories, then passing them on. Oh, and I'm mostly Irish. Need I say more?
BRC: When you began writing fiction, what was your biggest challenge?
CAB: Hmm. Biggest challenge to writing fiction. I LOVED jumping right in and typing up the story as quickly as I saw it unfolding in my mind (I'm a seats-of-the-pantser more than a plotter), but I had to occasionally bat down the voice that said, "You don't know what you're doing," since I'd had no formal training in writing fiction. I think one of the biggest challenges to *all* writing (and I've also authored six nonfiction titles) is to get out of your own way so the story can "get through." When you're self conscious about the process, it shows. IN A NUTSHELL: "Shut up, Charlene's head, and let the story talk.")
My biggest headache was discovering WAY - way Way WAY!!! --- too late that I needed to have charts and graphs, timelines and details written down, especially for what has turned into a series! (What color were his eyes? Did she turn left or right to get into that room? What's next to the Harry's Grill?) I mean I'd spend HOURS looking for details that I couldn't remember whether or not I'd mentioned. Made myself NUTS! I still get caught with things like that (and I YELL at my computer!), but I'm better at a "system" now --- although nobody seeing my messy office would ever believe it.
BRC: DEAREST DOROTHY, HELP! I'VE LOST MYSELF has a little different tone to it than the first two books.
CAB: There is a storyline --- a secret about someone --- in HELP! that I've known about since the beginning of the series. It is a storyline that pushed and pulled me through the first two books and that will continue to play out for the rest of the series. When I set out to write HELP!, I reread the first two books and discovered how *many* hints I'd sprinkled along the way, more than I had even imagined. The story subconsciously whispered itself into the pages, you might say. The intensity and ramifications of this secret unfolding are definitely a serious matter and responses call for soul-searching, prayers and a reframing of one's "self"...not just for the main person, but for those surrounding her. The storyline simply called for a different tone. When the story calls, I listen.
BRC: There's a poignant scene in the DEAREST DOROTHY, SLOW DOWN, YOU'RE WEARING US OUT! where Dorothy watches her possessions auctioned off that seems convincingly real.
CAB: I've written newspaper stories about auctions and estate sales. When my parents moved from Illinois (off the farm) to New Mexico, they held an auction. After my father died (my mom was already gone), we held an auction to disperse his estate since I knew it's what he believed in. I had to sort through my grandmother's and aunt's belongings after their deaths.... Making choices about what to take, what to leave behind --- and then *finding* things TRULY left behind...HARD STUFF!
I braved stopping by my dad's auction and had the wound-laid-bare timing of finding them auctioneering near his tool bench in his garage. My dad was a tool and die maker, a machinist, a business owner in the trade...It was more than I could stand and I left in tears --- sobbing, actually. (Yes, I could relate to Dorothy breaking down and heading out behind the barn during her own auction, the intensity of her emotions running so high watching pieces of her life sail off.) When I thought my dad's auction was over, I went back, only to discover a family packing up a whole set of patio furniture and talking about how anxious they were to get it all set up and enjoy it. God's grace allowed me to see the JOY in *their* discovery. New hope and life breathed into the midst of death. Grace.
BRC: In DEAREST DOROTHY, SLOW DOWN, YOU'RE WEARING US OUT! Dorothy comes to grips with another loss that any senior citizen will empathize with --- being able to drive.
CAB: As previously stated, I've written about seniors and driving in my Real Life. In my own life, I hop in my car to do this and I hop in my car to do that. I cannot imagine life without all that HOPPING! Oh, what a loss of independence it would be! And yet, one needs to pray one knows when they have become a hazard, to themselves and the world around them.
Partonville's Dearest Dorothy LOVES the feel of the breeze blowing through her hair as she zooms down country roads! She loves to do for others and her wheels have always been a part of that ability. But then...she scares *herself* one day. Mind you, she has scared MANY in Partonville beforehand, but one day she scares herself. And then comes the choice, the prayer --- and the sacrifice based on The Answer.
It takes a wise person to make this wise choice, and yet it will never be an easy one.
BRC: Are you a speed demon yourself?
CAB: Nope. I just take off fast. (We're on the record, right? ;>)) Seriously, I do love to feel the wind in my face (have owned two motorcycles) and the sense of power when I tromp (I meant to say *step*, of course) on the gas. My whole family (parents to kids) loves to head out on a road trip, and what better way to do so than PEDAL DOWN!
BRC: You do quite a bit of speaking. How does it mesh with your love of writing?
CAB: I guess I just love telling a story, in whatever form it takes. With the advent of book deadlines, however, I've had to cut back a little on my speaking, but I could never cut it out. It's through being WITH the people that I continue to want to talk TO them through story. It's being reminded of others' trials and tribulations, successes and goofs that I am able to write stories that ring true and touch us (yes, including me) where we live, I believe. In other words, being with Real People is the seedbed for talking about Fictional People as if they were Real. Since I am comfortable in front of an audience, the combination of speaking and writing creates the perfect synergy.
BRC: God plays such a natural role in Dorothy's life. Tell us about your own faith.
CAB: Can't imagine a joy-filled life without it! I mean, Who you gonna turn to? GOD! Amen and THANK YOU BIG GUY! (I aspire to be Dorothy when I grow up. Readers will learn much about my faith through hers.)
BRC: FaithfulReader.com heard a rumor that you are addicted to White Castle hamburgers.
CAB: So much so that I was the 1996 Celebrity Judge for White Castle Hamburger's Fifth Annual Cravetime Recipe Contest! White Castle purists out there might not like this, but my favorite White Castle product is now the Jalapeno burgers! I can't eat as many of the five-holed squares as I used to in my youth, though. (Down from 6+ at a meal to 2, maybe 3.)
BRC: It's great to see the relationship that the 87-year-old Dorothy has with the teenager, Josh, in the series. Do you believe intergenerational friendships, or mentoring relationships, are important?
CAB: They are more than important. I believe they are absolutely critical if we are to survive and thrive as a society. What would youth turn out to be if not for the wisdom of the elders --- aside from hooligans, like Acting Mayor Gladys McKern might refer to them? (Notice I didn't say judgment, but rather refer to wisdom as the grace-filled imparting of guidance, encouragement and knowledge.) What would the elders turn out to be (aside from rigid and grumbling, like Acting Mayor Gladys McKern often is) if they don't stay open to the continual inspiration, energy and new ideas of youth?
Seasoned eyes have a way of noticing what *isn't* being said since, well, they've seen so much in their lives. Wisdom helps us know what to *do* with that information, and that's what I believe our Dearest Dorothy models so well. On the other hand, youth has the benefit of seeing things anew, without preconceived judgments. Ah, how REFRESHING! Dorothy draws from that energy and finds inspiration in it as well.
Oldsters plus youth equals another perfect synergy, especially when their "doings" are circled by prayer. In my own life I've been blessed by friendships that span the ages. I actively seek to cultivate them.
BRC: Your books obviously resonate with people. Is it because we have nostalgia for small-town life?
CAB: To be honest, I don't think it's as much a longing for small-town life as it is a desire to be CONNECTED with people, and for better or for worse, it is believed small towns offer a better platform for connections. (I say for better or for worse because some think small towns offer no anonymity, which makes for living in glass houses and everybody knowing your business.) I believe the relationships in Partonville speak to a deep longing in each of us to be known.
On a hopeful note, I feel pretty convinced these connections *can* happen in apartment buildings and subdivisions, in corporate settings and in families (gasp! Surely you're not talking about THOSE relatives are you?), but we have to determine these connections are important enough to prioritize those efforts (yes, efforts) in our lives, be less afraid to be vulnerable (and WAY less afraid in general) and more determined to accept and embrace those around us.
BRC: What do you hear from your readers about the DEAREST DOROTHY series?
CAB: That they are "getting" and being blessed, tickled and entertained and inspired by everything I hoped they would, and more. And that Gladys gets on their nerves (yup!) and that they're worried about Josh's transition in his new school and they hope Dorothy (who they tell me helps them with their prayer lives) doesn't die (Oh! Me TOO!) and that they are enjoyed by many generations (9 to 91 years of age, so far) and that readers are dealing with the same things in their lives that the folks are in Partonville. Feedback from readers has blessed and encouraged me more than I could ever express. THANK YOU! BLESS YOU! THANK YOU, Dear Readers!
BRC: Tell us about your fun website at www.welcometopartonville.com.
CAB: My desire was to create a FUN place (and thanks for mentioning one of my favorite words) that would offer perspective readers the flavor of the books and characters, while giving seasoned series fans a place to learn a few new things. It's also where I post my book tour stops (not speaking engagements, since those are at www.dontmissyourlife.com/calendar.html) and give contact info, provide shameless PR (and a couple dreamy pictures of me) and encourage people to sign up for the TwinkleGram, my FREE monthly email newsletter wherein I tell stories out of my Real Life to encourage readers not to miss their OWN!
BRC: What's next for you, writing-wise?
CAB: I love the idea you have the word "wise" attached to my writing! Hahahahaha. Book #4 in the series, DEAREST DOROTHY, WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT?, is in the editing phase and will be released summer of 2005, and I'll soon begin work on #5! Then I'll be writing my next nonfiction title on the subject that is my most requested as a speaker (and on which I've been speaking since 1991): DON'T MISS YOUR LIFE! (It's better than you think!) Then...hopefully, continuing reader support for the series will enable us ALL to dwell in the land of Partonville for a little while longer.