An interview with Cynthia Ruchti,
Author of Song of Silence
What’s the first thing mentioned when introducing two strangers? Typically, one person introduces another by saying the individual’s name, followed by his or her vocation. “This is my friend, Bob. He’s an airplane mechanic.” “I’d like you to meet Sally. She’s a triathlete.” It’s natural for people to derive their sense of self from what they do, not who they are. In her latest novel, Song of Silence (Abingdon Press/April 5, 2016/ISBN: 9781426791499/$14.99), award-winning author Cynthia Ruchti reminds us God takes a different approach when it comes to identity and explores what happens when identity can no longer be linked to an occupation or life’s passion.
In Song of Silence, readers meet Lucy and Charlie Tuttle who, despite their differences, can agree on one thing: They’re committed to each other for life. The trouble is neither of them expected life to look like this. Charlie retired early, but Lucy has been completely devoted to her long-term career as a music educator in a small Midwestern school . . . until the day she has no choice. Now what? How will she survive the gravest disappointment she can imagine when “who she is” is silenced?
Q: Your characters are usually based on people you know or have met. Can you tell us about the woman who inspired the main character, Lucy, in your new book, Song of Silence?
Some teachers leave a lasting impression on our lives and — deeper than that — on our souls. When my family moved to southwest Wisconsin when I was in fifth grade, I met a vocal and general music teacher who helped feed my passion and appreciation for vocal music. Lucy (her real name that I asked permission to borrow) taught the children entrusted to her not only the enriching importance of music in life, but its elegance and ability to communicate. She drew out of us the kind of emotion, excellence, and love for vocal music that my father succeeded in evoking through his role as the instrumental teacher at the school, a respected role he held until his death in 1993. He was the one who fueled my love of instrumental music and so much more.
The storyline in Song of Silence is not the story of that vocal music teacher’s life. She moved from music to another creative art: co-owner of a flower shop known for its stunning, stirring arrangements and its sensitivity to the needs of the human heart. In that role, years later, Lucy created my wedding flowers! But the Lucy of my childhood and the Lucy of the story share the same passion and the same ability to leave a lasting imprint on hearts. The real Lucy blessed me to my toes when she attended a book signing near her area. Reconnecting with her that day underscored the inspiration for Song of Silence.
Q: Music is almost a character itself in this book. How do you use music and song to tell the story?
Music and story share so much in common. Rhythm. Pace. Lyricism. A ballad-like quality. There’s the risk that some readers for whom music does not play a strong role in their lives would assume Song of Silence is a book about music. Though music does play the role of a character — present in many scenes, voicing its opinions, interacting with other characters — music could also be seen as part of the setting around which the action and interaction flows. Lucy’s passion could have been neuroscience or clean eating or lace knitting, and the tensions and disappointments she experienced would have put her through some of the same emotions.
Even those who aren’t musicians are often appreciators of music, or they subconsciously turn to music as a salve, a motivator, a comfort, or an accompaniment to life’s celebrations. Why? Because music moves us on a deeper level than many other elements of life.
In Song of Silence, readers can “hear” when the music fades for Lucy. They pick up on the subtle rhythms that hint at hope’s crescendos and diminuendos as she faces a future not at all as she planned. The most satisfying musical pieces use moments of discord and harmony. Chords resolve. Life resolves. Not always in the same key.
Q: What role has music played in your personal story?
I grew up in a musical family, and road trips in the station wagon with my parents and four siblings often became songfests with at least four-part harmony. As Johnny Cash sang in an old country song, “Daddy sang bass. Mama sang tenor. Me and little brother(s) (and sisters) would join right in there. Singin' seems to help a troubled soul.” Many of the songs we sang were hymns or our parents’ era music, such as “Skinnamarinky dinky dink, Skinnamarinky do, I love you!” and other deeply meaningful classics.
As children of a music educator, all five of us siblings learned to play at least one musical instrument. Among us, we played clarinet, bassoon (me), French horn, flute, trumpet, tuba, piano, guitar, and bass drum in the marching band (me, again).
But playing music wasn’t the point for my dad or for any of us. Communicating emotions such as joy, peace, exuberance, sorrow, strength, courage, and grief through music was the goal. Music is expression rather than notes. One of Lucy’s repeated messages in Song of Silence is that we are to play the rests — both in music and in life — with as much intensity and intentionality as the notes on the page.
Q: As in music, rests or pauses in life play a key role in Song of Silence. Some rests are welcomed, while others can feel like cruel interruptions. Have you ever experienced an imposed rest, and how did you handle it?
My husband was forced into early retirement. Twice. He embraced that challenge much differently than I would have, but observing the fallout of those life changes informed some of the elements of Song of Silence.
For a writer, any time she is between contracts feels like an unnatural or unwanted pause, holding her breath until it becomes clear whether another opportunity will present itself to share another story with readers. Writers keep writing intentionally, with intensity. But will the story find its way into readers’ hearts or just our own?
In other ways, I’ve experienced those imposed rests through different health issues throughout the years. Lyme disease knocked me flat for an extended period of time when I was a young mom writing and producing a radio broadcast. Back issues kept me couch-bound a couple of times. Foot and knee surgeries landed me on the same couch. My world shrank to that two-foot by six-foot space . . . and the pain-wracked distance to the bathroom and back.
During those imposed rests, I did some things right and wasted other opportunities. I tried to strike a balance of rest and work, not letting the rest keep me from caring about and for people, not letting it silence my ability to keep my mind alert and ministry moving forward. But I did not fully embrace the quiet as I should have. Our souls heal best in the quiet of stilled waters, God tells us. Like many, I probably erred on the side of trying to accomplish something during those imposed pauses rather than soaking in the deep meaning of the rest.
Q: One of the other major themes in Song of Silence is identity. From where do you think most people derive their sense of self? What does a healthy identity look like?
This was a tough lesson for Lucy. Many Americans introduce people to one another with a name followed by a job. “This is my friend, Bob. He’s an airplane mechanic.” “I’d like you to meet Sally. She’s a triathlete.” We derive our identity from what we do, not who we are. When what Lucy did was stripped from her, she flailed and floundered. When her husband gave up what he did, she wasn’t sure how to relate to him anymore.
God takes a different approach to identity. Who we are and whose we are, because of who He is, eliminate long-term identity crises. No matter our position, station, work, or lack of it, I am His beloved child, and He is my loving Father. The rest are mere details.
Q: Why did you choose to write about a couple who has been married for 30 years in this book, when so many people are used to reading about young love?
Thousands of books about young love line our shelves. If young love stayed young, that would be sufficient, wouldn’t it? But where are the stories that show how to cope with the middle of the plot of a lifelong love? Where are the stories that show the realities of toughing it out through decades — not months — of struggle or conflict? Who feeds us stories that invite us into the lives of those who wrestle with the issues that challenge relationships long after the honeymoon stage?
My prayer is that young readers will find courage for the long haul in Lucy and Charlie’s story, that those in the stage of their relationship when raising children consumes their energies will look ahead and set themselves up for success years down the road, and that those in or near retirement years will finish Song of Silence with insights that will help sweeten that time in their relationship. I’m convinced couples nearing retirement need pre-retirement counseling just as we expect pre-marital counseling (spiritually, emotionally, financially, and relationally) for a bride- or groom-to-be.
Song of Silence is a novel, a story. But even in the editing phase, the truths embedded in its lines and between the lines made an impression on my marriage.
Q: What lessons can couples approaching a later season of life learn from Lucy’s relationship with her husband, Charlie?
When we’re first married, most of us go through a period of adjustment that isn’t always comfortable. The way he squeezes the toothpaste tube. The fact that he likes catsup on his tacos. The cloud of hairspray she leaves in the bathroom when he’s trying to trim his beard. Then there are the more serious issues about handling money, responding to crises, or how long each of us needs to process information before discussing it.
Too few of us realize that after the children are grown and gone, or at the point of retirement, another period of adjustment awaits us. For Lucy, it was the sense that “he’s home all the time.” Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? But when I say that line to women of all ages, I get the same response: an immediate and knowing “Ohhhhh.”
Whether stay-at-home, work-at-home, or work-away-from-home women, we understand the unique tensions in the 24/7 aspect of a relationship, even with someone we dearly love. The kitchen feels smaller. Our thoughts seem to have no room to breathe. A measure of independence is crimped, needing to accommodate the other person in the relationship once again in as dramatic a way — or more so — as when we went from single to married.
We have to find ways to move in sync with each other, to value the other person’s core values, to allow for differences, and to remind each other what we love about each other.
So many challenges, but so great a reward!
Q: Each of the characters in Song of Silence takes a unique path in dealing with his or her disappointments. What have you learned from your own letdowns and frustrations?
For me, a key element has been retaining or recapturing a sense of humor about what can otherwise seem to be labeled as irritation or inconvenience. Unmet expectations don’t just affect new couples starting out; sometimes they fester and rupture later in life. Treating every incident as a single event rather than as one more in a long list is so much more manageable, livable, and survivable.
It doesn’t come naturally, but seeing frustrations and letdowns through the other person’s perspective makes a huge difference in our ability to emerge intact.
Q: Lucy’s grown children move home again because of life changes, which is something we see more and more in this day and age. Do you think a parent’s job is ever really done?
Never. Parenting evolves into new phases, including the phase when parents begin to need counsel from their grown children! How do we navigate that stage with grace?
At one time I thought, “If we can just get our kids through high school without major damage to either them or us. . . .” I honestly thought my prayer labor could let up a little after that stage. They’d lived through toddlerhood, adolescence. Job well done, right?
Parenting takes on a whole new challenge when the decisions they make are life-changing decisions, and then when they’re deciding not only for their own futures, but the futures of our grandbabies.
We hold our offspring tight to our hearts forever. We care about how they feel, what they do, who they love, how they love, and the crises they face whether they’re pre-born or near the end of their lives. But love is what compels us, so we’re grateful for the assignment.
Q: How were you emotionally impacted while writing some of the very tender scenes in Song of Silence?
I cry through several scenes every time I read them. Rewriting. Editing. Final proofreading. I think the scene between Lucy’s son, Sam, and Sasha in the small chapel is one of my favorites ever for its emotional impact. Can’t wait until readers get there to see if they feel the same way.
Q: Do you think the arts should be a more prominent part of modern education?
It is a debate that raises its head often. It’s hard to find just cause to disagree with the flood of evidence — scientific, medical, academic, and anecdotal — that shows a strong correlation between the arts (including music) and stronger brains, stronger compassion and empathy, stronger problem-solving skills, and richer lives.
Q: You’ve said the church small group you participate in with your husband always plays a role in the writing of your books. How is that?
They’re invested. They pray for each book as it’s written and after it launches. They care about the readers and are diligent encouragers. They pray me through tight deadlines and enthusiastically talk about the books with others. I often test-drive book concepts with them or draw from the insights I gain from their lives and wisdom. Our whole church community is like that, but it’s intensified in our life group.
Q: What is the number-one message you hope readers hear from the words of Song of Silence?
Hold onto hope even when life’s song is silenced, even when unexpected and unwelcomed pauses interrupt the music.
Learn more about Song of Silence and Cynthia Ruchti at www.cynthiaruchti.com, Facebook (CynthiaRuchtiReaderPage), Twitter (@cynthiaruchti), and Pinterest (cynthiaruchti).