Interview with Steven and Aaron Reed
The Myth of the Summer Moon
Reader Views is talking with father-son writing team, Steve and Aaron Reed, about their new book “The Myth of the Summer Moon.” Steve and Aaron are being interviewed by Juanita Watson, Assistant Editor of Reader Views.
Juanita: Hi Steve, Hi Aaron…Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. We are very interested to hear more about your new book, “The Myth of the Summer Moon.” Would you please tell us the storyline?
Aaron: Hi Juanita. Thanks for your interest in the book, and for giving us the opportunity to talk with you. As far as the storyline goes, I really like the summary that the editors wrote. ‘It’s the story of three families of middle and high school youth plagued with poverty, personal loss and handicaps working together to overcome life’s obstacles, both within themselves and their community. Myths of generosity, sacrifice and courage play in these young lives hidden from the world of the Great Depression in the valleys of Appalachia.’
Steve: The story is about love in all forms. Two young teenagers, Jimmy and Helena, fall gently, innocently, and romantically in love. Their sisters, Gabriella and Frankie, love each other in a friendship that persists even in the face of racism. There’s the constant, indestructible love evident in the honest affections in the families. There’s the gentle, honorable, earthy love between the Grandparents and Helena. The endearing, competitive commonality of love between Frankie and Titus the great bull is prevalent. Interwoven in the Greek Myths and the actions of the characters is the underlying love of God. And finally, there’s the spiteful self-love of Zach and his gang that threatens to destroy everyone’s lives.
Aaron: I agree with the theme of love being prevalent throughout the story, but you shouldn’t get the impression that this is a mushy Harlequin romance novel. I mean, in order for love to be a factor, there has to be elements of hate involved as well, hence, the conflicts in the story. Dark themes of prejudice, domestic violence, bigotry, etc, set the stage for love to exercise its awesome power.
Juanita: What inspired you to write “The Myth of the Summer Moon”?
Steve: I was sitting on a boulder outside of my school, waiting for my carpool, and the whole first chapter came to me. I replayed the dialogue in my head, while I sat on the rock. Thankfully, my wife was late that day, so I was able to extend the plot as far as Zach and the “bully” gang. In the succeeding weeks, I had the first three chapters rounded, didn’t know exactly where the story would eventually go, had all the characters, but I was having difficulty visualizing the heroine, Helena, so I called Aaron.
Aaron: Actually, Dad hopped a plane to Boston, where I was living at the time, to pitch the book to me. I was in between apartments, so while waiting to move into my new place, Dad and I drove up to Northern Maine and camped for a week on Flagstaff Lake just outside Eustis. We hashed out the basic format of The Myth there.
Juanita: How did this unique father-son collaboration of writing books begin?
Steve: Aaron had written a screenplay and a novel. I had written a novel, several short stories and some curriculum pieces. We had each helped edit each other’s work, but had never worked on a project together. When it came to Helena’s character, I couldn’t get her right…the voice, and mannerisms. She just wouldn’t come alive for me. Aaron, at the time, was teaching and doing social work in Boston with people with special needs. When I described what I wanted in Helena’s character, he saw her immediately and developed her. He loved the concept, so we charted the spine of the book, divided the responsibility for chapters and each of us wrote separately. I would send him my chapters for his edits, he would send me his chapters for edits and finally it was my task to weave the chapters together into one voice. The process isn’t without difficulty, but we have solved some of the stress by designating a lead writer for each project. We have just completed our third novel together.
Aaron: That was the biggest challenge in co-authoring for me…putting everything into one voice. Because the original ideas for The Myth came from Dad, we naturally chose to use his voice. Stories with dual narration can often become confusing. In order for the narration to be consistent and fluid, it’s better to have only one voice. I began working on my chapters. I’d send them off to Dad and then they’d come back completely altered. My content was still there, but my voice had been completely transformed into my dad’s voice. I remember sitting there frustrated, reading my edited chapters thinking, “What? This isn’t what I wrote!” After getting over the initial shock, I realized that everything I had written was still there; it was just being told differently. The interesting thing was that the more we worked together, the more my voice became my dad’s voice, and vice-versa…to the point that by the end of the story, we were both pretty much writing using the same voice. Our narration had melded. It was fun to watch that happen.
Juanita: Who are your main characters, and what are their contributions to the story?
Aaron: I see The Myth as very character driven, as opposed to plot driven. Actually, the plot is very universal and basic: Characters finding faith and courage within themselves to surmount life’s obstacles. You have the good characters (Frankie, Jimmy, Helena) pitted against the evil characters (Zach and the gang.) In my own reading, I like stories that involve characters who undergo significant transformation. We tried to implement this into The Myth. Whether changing for the worse or for the better, characters who experience significant change are the most interesting for me. Change initiates growth, or lack of, and gives people a platform upon which to build. Many of The Myth’s characters experience change. Out of all the characters, I’d say Helena experiences the most beautiful metamorphosis. By the end of the story, Zach’s gang buddy Luther changes as well.
Juanita: Would you tell us more about Titus, the bull, and his symbolic significance, if any?
Aaron: We used the ancient Cretan legend of the bull (Titus) to serve as a platform to support the plot. Helena uses Titus as a catalyst to demonstrate her transformation of character. Titus is hell on wheels…or, rather…hell on hooves. As an animal he’s predictable, but as a character, he’s quite unpredictable. In order to enhance Titus as a character, we built in a lot of human characteristics into him. He’s a little of Frankie, a little of Jimmy, a little of Zach, a bit of Helena too. I suppose if he were to symbolize something, he could symbolize life in general. Life can be unpredictable, and it’s up to us to do our best to conquer the obstacles as they come.
Juanita: How did you come up with your setting – small town Appalachia, circa 1930’s? What significance does this time/place have in your book?
Steve: Although I was born a “Yankee” in Detroit, my heritage is Southern, and my parents would send me to Virginia to spend the summers with my Grandparents – one of the greatest gifts they ever gave me. I spent glorious summers on the cattle farm in Jonesville, Virginia with my grandmother, Uncle Buck, Aunt Valdean and Cousin Judy Ray. Many of the characters and stories recited in Myth, also the conditions during the Great Depression come from stories I heard from my family, or incidents I lived in those Southern summers.
Juanita: How does the atmosphere of this particular setting, depression-era Appalachia, contribute to the storyline? What are the challenges of the time, or that area that play out in “The Myth”?
Steve: The first eight years of my life I was nurtured in a very tight family which included one set of grandparents who lived upstairs. Later, spending summers in Virginia, I had the privilege to sit at my great grandfather’s knee and hear stories of family. I was part of the care, respect and love my grandmother gave him. I was woven into the tapestry of the uncles and aunts and numerous cousins, into the earth and livestock and work of the farm, into the family fabric which regardless of circumstance, or hardship, or age, glued every aspect of life together. I came to understand that it does ‘take a village to raise a child’. And so, I used this difficult time in the history of the United States to symbolize the hard times and challenges that every family encounters. I wanted kids in modern families to realize that family love and connections are possible even in the most difficult of circumstance.
Aaron: The Myth emphasizes how families in America used to live: Grandparents living with sons, daughters, grandsons and so forth…everyone taking care of each other. Sadly, this ideal of extended family structure has become ‘a myth’ in our modern day culture. This theme of extended family is so foreign to kids growing up in America. In America, there’s so much emphasis placed upon independence, growing up and getting out on your own. In my travels to other countries (Ecuador, Cambodia, India, even Japan) I’ve seen the virtues that are sustained through extended family structure. Kids that are raised in extended families are taught the importance of taking care of one’s parents and elders. There are aspects of respect, devotion, commitment and care that I see largely absent in the modern day American family. In The Myth, we tried to rejuvenate the paradigm of the way things used to be, placing emphasis on the way kids used to show love, dependence and care that thrives throughout an extended family structure. Just because extended family structure doesn’t exist like it used to, doesn’t mean that kids these days can’t be taught the virtues that stem from that type of upbringing.
Juanita: Would you tell us more about the Greek references, and how the use of Greek myth weaves into the story?
Steve: Sitting on the rock, waiting for my carpool, I had been thinking of Bill Martin, and remembered his book White Dynamite, which I think triggered the whole sequence of the story. After I had finished the first chapter, I had this great character, Titus, and I didn't want to lose him. The others: Frankie, Buck, Jimmy, Judy Rhea, ‘Becca were from my real life, but Titus was a creation. The year we wrote the book, I had been reading The Golden Bough by Sir James George Fraser, which chronicles early myths and their connection with Christianity. I re-read the section on the Cretan Bulls and the plot line unfolded. I wanted a Greek girl to serve as the heroine of the story.
Aaron: To be honest, I’ve never really been a fan of Greek Mythology, but I wanted to expound on what my dad had conceptualized, so I implemented the poetry of Emily Dickinson. I’ve always loved her verse, and visited her house in Amherst a few times while living in Massachusetts. Given the reclusive life she led and the mysterious verse she wrote, I’ve always seen Ms. Dickinson as a type of mythic figure. So, I implemented her into the story to serve alongside the Greek myths my dad was using.
Juanita: How do you use the Dickinson poetry and other images in “The Myth”?
Steve: In one of the reviews, Jane White, professor at Austin College, Texas, comments that Jimmy has insights that most boys his age do not develop. Many of the images in the book are created by having the characters express these insights. They speak honestly to each other about what they see and feel. The Greek Myths are images that tie the characters and pieces together as well as provide a mirror on which the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters find light. When I write, I actually see and hear the characters. I see them like watching and hearing a movie and I think this lends to creating an image. I also adhere to the Annie Dillard adage, Living on Fiction, that good literature should be a performance, and so purposefully look for the lyrical quality in my writing.
Aaron: I like to define imagery as ‘guiding the reader towards what they’re searching to see.’ When you read a passage, you want to be invited into a circumstance or situation that you perhaps haven’t seen, or participated in before. Imagery invites a new way of participating, or seeing something. We used a lot of imagery in The Myth; implementing visual abstractions and descriptions in order to enhance the reader’s perceptions. Emily Dickinson was a master of imagery. We implemented five of her poems, nursing her use of imagery in order to further our story.
Juanita: Why did you choose this particular cultural background?
Steve: I had already seen Helena as tender hearted, different, gentle, and as Aaron brought her to life, I recognized the strength in her. Introducing a Greek family in Appalachia brought to mind stories my parents had related about immigrant miners and farmers and the racism they confronted, so this necessitated the writings that pertain to this aspect of Helena's life. Making Helena Greek also necessitated extensive research into Greek customs, family life, language, myths, and culture. I found Greek songs pertaining to the bull leaping, created dialogue and translated English words to Greek off the Internet. Of course, the word and sentence structures were completely wrong. When Aaron approached a friend to check the English to Greek translations, she had no idea what we were saying. We had to completely start all over with the language and restructure it. The name ‘Christofis’ is the last name of a great friend. The name Helena is for the great beauty Helen of Troy. Gabriella, her name came from the angel ‘Gabriel’ who announced the coming of Christ.
Juanita: Were any of the characters or places based on real-life events, or people?
Steve: Buck and Judy Rhea are based on my uncle and cousin. I have a sister and a daughter much like Frankie. When I would write Frankie’s dialogue, I would stop and ask myself what would they say in this circumstance, and their voice was constant. None of the events are re-enactments, but they are all taken from images and smaller pieces of living that have occurred in our lives.
Aaron: I developed Helena largely from a friend I had back in collage. This person had a beautiful spirit and a way of looking at the world in a very pure, uncomplicated way. Some would say Helena is slow. I like to think of her as more of a silent observer than slow. She doesn’t need to speak in order to assert herself. Her strength is shown through gentle gesture rather than outward force. She beats her nemesis through kindness, and establishes herself through bravery rather than cunning. Her strength comes from a deep, hidden inward place.
Juanita: Would you comment on the spiritual nature of “The Myth of the Summer Moon”? What are you trying to convey to readers?
Steve: I’d like readers to understand that we are not in life alone, that if we give ourselves over to Christ, He is faithful to keep what we have entrusted to him. I would like them to see that we all have a hero inside of us, to nurture and develop, a hero that other people need.
Aaron: The spiritual nature of The Myth evolves from a scripture verse found in Romans chapter 5. The message there encourages people to actually be happy when faced with trials because trials help our endurance as people. And endurance develops our strength of character.
Juanita: What themes are you touching on in “The Myth of the Summer Moon”?
Aaron: Exactly what Romans 5 talks about: Rise to challenges as they come. The book will hopefully show the importance of developing endurance, strengthening character through standing up for what you believe in.
Juanita: What is the underlying message of “The Myth of the Summer Moon”?
Aaron: Be bold in your convictions…stand up and confront injustice through deliberate, non-aggressive means. This is a struggle for me, maybe for everyone, but is something we all should aspire to do.
Juanita: Sounds like a great message, and one that we all could be reminded of. Who is your reading audience? Who do you envision reading your book?
Steve: Depressed from numerous publisher rejections, The Myth sat quietly on my bookshelf for more than a year. One day my wife spotted it and said, “Aren’t you ever going to send her out again? Maybe God is too evident in the story for regular publishers. Why don’t you try a Christian Publishing House?” I selected five houses and received a reply from one – Baker Trittin. They call it a cross-over market book – a good read in both the Christian and secular market. It was initially written for young adults, but all the reviewers have stated that it’s an equally good read for adults, so I think the book is for every audience.
Aaron: We didn’t set out to write a Christian book. The story isn’t religiously specific. We just wanted to create a book for a YA (young adult) audience that would offer a story emphasizing virtuous themes that would give the reader a wholesome perspective. I think this is what the publishers saw that led them to categorize the book as a cross-over that could serve both the Christian and secular market. My father and I are both active in our Christian faith, but I don’t see anything in The Myth that couldn’t also apply to a reader from the Muslim community, or the Jewish faith, or a reader from the Hindu tradition. This book was written for everyone to enjoy.
Juanita: Do you have any plans for future books? What can readers expect from further works of the Reed writers?
Steve: We have the reprint of my first novel for young adults, Frazier’s Tree, under consideration with Baker Trittin.
Aaron: And we just completed an adult novel titled The Good People’s Party, which aims to confront the socio-economic injustices of modern day America. The Good People’s Party has been submitted to a number of publishers who are reviewing it.
Steve: We’re currently knee deep at work on two other pieces of fiction, one for teens, and the other for adults.
Juanita: Is there any particular theme or mission that you’ve created as the Reed writing father-son duo, which will weave its way through all the books your write together?
Steve: In a television interview, after I had won a Teacher of the Year Award, I stated that my classroom curriculum was “life.” It made my principal shudder because I was supposed to say something about textbooks and curriculum maps, but my teaching is all about life, relationships, self esteem, tolerance for difference, learning to commit to excellence and leaving no one behind. Our books will mirror this same kind of message. My Mother-in-law’s rule of life is, “You know inside your heart what is right, just do it.” I think this will come out in everything we write.
Aaron: My dad slants towards stories that involve intense human relationships. He can get corny and mellow-dramatic at times. I tend to develop stories with a plot-driven pace. I often get so carried away with the rhythm that I forget the character. When one of us starts meandering, the other is there to yank the meandering one back into line. We both agree we want to write books that offer positive social themes. Our problem as co-authors isn’t what to write about; we’ve got a thousand pages developing characters and laying down plots like train tracks! The challenge comes through learning how to co-join and meld two perspectives into one voice. I’m amazed at how effortlessly our collaboration has developed. We hardly ever disagree on what not to write.
Juanita: What are your particular backgrounds that have brought you to this point, in respect to schooling, career, and your drive to write?
Steve: I’ve been a teacher now for thirty-two years at every level of education, and taught on the staff of Dr. Bill Martin Jr. (Brown Bear, Brown Bear) for seventeen years. He mentored both my teaching and my writing. While teaching at The American School in Singapore, I was part of a reading club. We shared our books and our lives, our stories, and I wrote a piece based on one of my colleague’s remembrances, submitted it to a contest sponsored by the BBC, and won. I realized I had something to say, and that people appreciated my skill.
Aaron: I’ve always gravitated to writing in order to express myself creatively. I’m pretty clumsy when it comes to verbally expressing myself, and I’ve always been a horrible visual artist. My mom’s the visual artist in the family, and I definitely did not inherit her skills. My sister sings like an angel, and I can’t carry a tune. So, writing allows me to express myself, my opinions and how I perceive the world in a way I find pleasurable.
Juanita: How can readers find out more about you and your endeavors?
Aaron: My brother-in-law, David, created a website to support The Myth: http://reedwriters.com./ . Perhaps we’ll be able to publish our other projects and add them to the website. And if not, then that’s fine too. We’re pleased, humbled and blessed with having The Myth published. But it’s not about getting more books published. If an author falls into the trap of writing for the publishers, then the real writing process becomes compromised. It’s just about writing. It’s always been about the writing.
Juanita: It has been great talking with both of you today. Thanks you for taking the time to give us a closer look at your book, and the interesting collaboration that brought it together. Readers will certainly enjoy this thought-provoking, inspirational story. Do you have any last thoughts for readers today?