An interview with Cynthia Ruchti,
Author of As Waters Gone By
Every married couple has tensions they need to work through, but can a relationship survive hundreds of miles and endless yards of razor wire? The tenacity of God’s love and His longing to redeem broken people and their relationships are principles at the core of award-winning author Cynthia Ruchti’s new novel, As Waters Gone By (Abingdon Press/May 5, 2015/ISBN: 978-1426787270/$14.99).
Q: In a few sentences, tell us about As Waters Gone By and your inspiration for the book.
As Waters Gone By is the story of a woman struggling to figure out what happens to a marriage when the distance they face isn’t miles only, but concrete walls and razor wire. Emmalyn and Max’s marriage was given a court-mandated five-year time-out when Max’s actions sent him to prison and put an end to Emmalyn’s hopes for motherhood. On a self-imposed exile to beautiful but remote Madeline Island in Lake Superior, Emmalyn has only a few months left to figure out if and how she and Max can ever be a couple again.
When writing As Waters Gone By, I quickly saw the connections for those whose spouses are deployed or gone for long stretches because of their jobs. How do you make a home when your mate is never home?
Our family has been plunged into some of the chapters in As Waters Gone By. My brother-in-law is currently incarcerated several states away. I’m watching my sister react to the situation with such grace, and the remarkable strengthening of their marriage and their faith despite the grave disappointments and uncrossable distance. Their marriage has been an inspiration to others who make the natural assumption that time behind bars is an automatic death knell for a marriage. It doesn’t have to be. Through this novel’s characters—whose story is much different than the one my sister and her husband are living—I wanted to communicate the Hope I’ve personally witnessed, and the grace that can transform a long distance relationship from unraveled to hemmed in that Hope.
Q: You aren’t afraid to take on difficult subjects in your stories. As Waters Gone By deals with serious life issues such as infertility, broken marriages and even the incarceration of a spouse. Why do you take on these heavy-hitting topics?
It would be far easier to pretend these issues don’t affect us or to write about the most popular topic of the day. Instead, I feel most drawn to the stories that rattle us to our core but offer unshakable hope. My books are an emotional journey for the characters and usually prove to be the same for readers too. And yet, there are moments of humor and tenderness in the stories because those elements also show up in our life crises. I pray readers find themselves identifying with the characters and their faith struggles as well as their conflicts. And if they don’t identify with the circumstances, I pray they’ll empathize. My hope is that their compassion for those who do face stories like Emmalyn’s will grow, that books like As Waters Gone By will touch readers at a soul-deep level. While answering these questions, I heard from a reader who gave me the greatest compliment by saying that I have such a way with broken characters that she has a hard time leaving them behind.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your heroine, Emmalyn. Did you include any elements of yourself when crafting her?
Emmalyn Ross had her life plan figured out. Her career path and her husband’s tracked as they wanted them to. But heart-wrenching disappointments chipped away at their carefully crafted plans and at their pride. Emmalyn is unlike me in dozens of ways. I haven’t faced her battle with infertility, but I care deeply about those who do. And through Emmalyn, I had the opportunity to explore what happens to a strong woman when she’s rendered helpless to make a difference in the most important areas of her life — her marriage and her longing to have a child.
I probably identify most with the character who owns the Wild Iris Inn and Café. The owner saw hope hiding behind Emmalyn’s pain and served as a spiritual midwife, in a way, to help Emmalyn see the hope too.
Q: Do you think a marriage can survive any kind of trial?
It’s not easy. I watch as my sister and brother-in-law grow their marriage during his incarceration. They’re intentional about seeking God’s help, about beating the odds, about doing what it takes to invest in their marriage at a time in life when the natural thing would be to walk away. They’ve become living examples that even prison bars don’t have to spell the end of a marriage. And they’re helping convince other couples of the same truth. Emmalyn and Max did almost everything wrong when faced with that forced separation. And still, hope fought its way to the surface.
This is a theme that found expression in my first novel, too—They Almost Always Come Home. In that story, the husband and wife grieved in completely different ways, and it almost spelled the end for them as a couple. I think where we lose our way when faced with what we feel is an unbearable situation is in giving up because it’s easier to give up, or calling it quits because it’s the expected thing to do, or pulling away from each other because of the crisis rather than leaning INTO each other.
Q: How can families come together during a tragedy rather than letting it drive them apart?
Some families might find that natural. Their individual personalities make linking arms and hearts at a time like that seem the obvious choice. But others—especially those who’ve been bombarded with a history of tragedies or shredded by past relationship distresses—might find they have to work at it, seek outside counseling, take determined steps toward each other rather than away.
When Emmalyn and Max in As Waters Gone By began talking—really talking—and watching out for the other’s best interests, when they sought outside help, and subconsciously renewed their commitment to the marriage is when change started to happen and hope was reborn.
Q: How can unmet expectations drive a wedge between us and God?
Unmet expectations can become a wedge in any relationship. Parent/child. Marriage. Friendship. When life doesn’t turn out like we thought it would, our natural inclination is to look for someone to blame. Max made an easy target for Emmalyn’s blame-fixing. She might not have admitted to herself that she also blamed God — for not preventing what happened, for not answering her prayers, for seemingly abandoning her. How many people would tell the same story: that unmet expectations escalated to blame-fixing and bitterness and ultimately to emotional distance from those they love? When Emmalyn learns how to guard her heart against the effects of unmet expectations, she can finally start to gain her footing.
One of the significant subplots in As Waters Gone By is the undercurrent of acceptance and mending that is rooted in the Wild Iris Inn and Café. It’s a location that represents an attitude—taking people as they are—unmet expectations and all, understanding the pain that lies behind unwise choices and the power the lies in second chances. The owner of the café lives an outrageous example of love and acceptance that becomes contagious within the community and for Emmalyn. And for me.
Q: In your own life, how have you found peace in life despite disappointments or troubling circumstances?
Life is laced with disappointment and troubles — some small enough to weather with a mere sigh before we take a deep breath and move forward. Others rock us to our core.
I sometimes need the reminder, though--and I assume many readers do too--that every disappointment we face in life is temporary. And that we’re not left alone to flounder during those times.
Q: Do you think God brings certain people into our lives at the right moment? Could you share a story about someone who came into your life at just the right time?
I think that’s been His pattern from the beginning of time. We read in the Bible that He brought Boaz into Ruth and Naomi’s life at just the right moment. He sent Mary to Elizabeth’s house at a time that provided much needed encouragement for both of them. In my own life, I’ve often had reason to lean on the Bible verse in Habakkuk 2:3 TLB that says, “But these things I plan won’t happen right away. Slowly, steadily, surely, the time approaches when the vision will be fulfilled. If it seems slow, do not despair, for these things will surely come to pass. Just be patient! They will not be overdue a single day!” Sometimes the answer I waited for was a person. I remember going through a stretch of time when I had no kindred spirit friend. Lots of acquaintances, but my heart longed for that heart-to-heart kind of friend. I prayed and prayed. Waited and waited. My answer lived next door. She was 22 years older than I was, but our friendship has lasted more than 36 years and eventually led us into decades of working together. Hope often shows up in the form of a person.
Q: How important are strong female friendships during hard times?
Immeasurably important! A circle of caring friends—even a small circle—can:
· Help us laugh when that’s the last thing on our mind.
· Remind us someone cares.
· Remind us God cares even when we don’t see the evidence at the moment.
· Hold us up when our knees are weak, when our faith is wobbling.
· Help keep us from drowning in the details of the crisis.
· Return our focus to the act of living while we’re waiting.
It hasn’t been intentional on my part, but in every novel I write, female friendships play a significant role. It’s been there all along in They Almost Always Come Home, When the Morning Glory Blooms, and All My Belongings. In As Waters Gone By, Emmalyn found pieces of her broken heart’s puzzle through her friendships with Boozie and Cora.
In the novels yet to be released, it will play out again—that remarkable impact of friendship.
Q: You use actual locations and geographical features found on Madeline Island, Wisconsin, in the book. Tell us about your trips to this area and how the setting, including a little cottage, stayed with you.
Almost everything location and geography-wise in As Waters Gone By is authentic, with a few exceptions. The Wild Iris Inn and Café — and its outrageous owner — are products of imagination, as is the hunting cottage Emmalyn worked to restore. Someone’s home stands not far from where Emmalyn’s cottage lives in my imagination. Maybe I should put that piece of property on my bucket list.
My husband and I vacationed on Madeline Island years ago. We biked the backroads of the island. The memory of the bike trip is vivid in my mind, as is the moment when the road led us to a sharp elbow of asphalt with the clear waters of Lake Superior on our right and an enormous maple tree in front of us, an explosion of sunlit yellow leaves. Just beyond the tree lay a stretch of cobbled beach . . . and a for sale sign.
We had no money for vacation property. We barely had money enough for the ferry ride back to the mainland. But when we returned to the village, we stood outside of a realty office and looked through the listings plastered to the windows until we found the listing for that piece of property. For a few moments, we allowed ourselves to dream about calling that enchanting intersection of woods, water and shore ours. Ours.
What a sweet memory. Even before writing my first novel, I held onto that scene in my mind.
Q: In what way is that setting—and the timeline of late autumn and winter—key to the story?
I live in the Northwoods, about 200 miles south of Emmalyn’s Madeline Island. So I understand the starkness winter often represents-- the loneliness that winter’s bitter cold exaggerates. The sense of imprisonment Emmalyn would have felt when the island’s ferry stopped running and she was cut off from the rest of the world, just as Max had been. I think as the island changes from a tourist destination to the quieter season when the island’s residents began to hunker down for winter, Emmalyn felt Max’s isolation on a soul-deep level. She hadn’t felt a soul-deep connection to anything with Max for too long. Symbolically, the seasons had a voice in her healing.
Q: Most of the characters in As Waters Gone By are layered with their own painful histories or current crises. How did it change you as you created them?
Every book I write educates me. I learn more about myself, about humanity, about the intersection of God’s story and ours. Fleshing out characters like Boozie Unfortunate and Pirate Joe, Emmalyn’s mom and sisters, Cora and the book club ladies deepened my understanding that the people who surround me every day — those I meet through speaking engagements, listeners to interviews, readers I’m privileged to connect with — have stories behind their stories too. How could my compassion and empathy not grow?
Q: You chose to use several instances of symbolism in As Waters Gone By. What was the most meaningful piece of symbolism for you?
I’m not alone in being mesmerized by waves on what we sometimes call “big water” — oceans, inland seas like Lake Superior, large lakes. The rhythm of the waves, the realization that they have their source far beyond the shore, their consistency yet uniqueness, the treasures they carry to shore and debris they carry out to sea. . . . The premise of As Waters Gone By was birthed from a single verse of Scripture I must have tripped past dozens of times throughout the years. Now that I’ve seen it — really seen it — it won’t let me go. It’s Job 11:16, and it helps explain why waves represented hope to Emmalyn, why they represent hope to me. It reads, “You will surely forget your trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by.” (NIV)
Q: What do you hope readers learn about the evolution of personal faith by reading As Waters Gone By?
I think one of the smartest things Emmalyn did — despite her long line of less-than-wise decisions — was to allow herself to be real with the God who knew what was going on inside of her all along. She risked trusting again.
Faith is always a risk. And always a risk worth taking. So is love.
To keep up with Cynthia Ruchti, visit www.cynthiaruchti.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook (CynthiaRuchtiReaderPage) or follow her on Twitter (@cynthiaruchti).