How would you describe or summarize The Storyteller for someone?
The Storyteller is Daphne’s story. Her father is mentally ill, and subjects her to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse for fourteen years. A delusional and paranoid schizophrenic, he believes Daphne’s body is home to evil spirits. Daphne survives the abuse and, when her only friend is hurt, she makes a courageous decision to leave the gulley. This brings her the chance to meet Cole. Cole is a doctor who ran away from the small town at eighteen, and only returned recently upon the death of his grandmother. Their families are connected in heartbreaking ways, and both will need to confront that pain if they are to fully grasp the redemptive love that’s within their reach. It’s a story of how complicated stories are: their power can be both life-giving and soul destroying.
The book explores many different themes. What are some of the themes it discusses and which of these are the most important?
The most important takeaway, I hope, is that there is hope, particularly through storytelling. Whenever you’re facing a really powerful crisis, it is easy to believe that things will never change. But that’s not true. There is always a way out, and there is always hope. Sexual and physical abuse is highlighted, and a few of the effects of that abuse are detailed. The story also talks about how emotional pain or prolonged trauma can manifest itself physically, which is a topic I don’t think is talked about enough. Mental illness is another topic the book highlights. Mental illness is a disease, one that is easy to overlook. The book shines a light on the irrational thought patterns of abusers, and also invites a discussion on responsibility for actions when mentally ill. All of these topics are important.
The book does use creative stories. But isn’t the Storyteller the cause of pain, in both his own family and Cole’s?
Yes. The Storyteller creates wounds that last for generations. But the mini stories that are told throughout the book, and the fairy tales discussed, create hope and tenderness. The Storyteller was a person; his behavior caused the pain, not the stories he told.
In the story, Daphne is selectively mute after witnessing her mother’s death. What are other ways trauma shows up in physical ways? Why was this speech for Daphne?
There are as many different ways as there are people! Physical manifestations can be as simple as feeling nauseas or as extreme as suicide. Survivors of abuse are told to be quiet. Silence is mandatory. They frequently also internalize beliefs like, I shouldn’t be here. Everything is my fault. These beliefs can then lead to a need to be invisible. Daphne’s loss of speech invites conversation on this exact question – what does silence do a person; why is it so damaging?
Tell us about Dusty.
Dusty is the hardest character I’ve ever had to write. I felt sorry for him, even after he murdered his wife. This was the man who called her Brave Heart, who genuinely believed only he could protect her from government spies. This was the guy whose father chased him around with a knife, and destroyed his family. This was the guy who got nervous in crowds; this was a guy who, in the beginning, said Dana was out of his league; he didn’t think he was good enough for her. He was schizophrenic, and I researched that disease ,what interviews with people who suffer from it. Many are able to lead productive, semi-normal lives, thanks to medication. Others are not. They all describe feeling intense fear, isolation, anxiety. This is an awful disease to live with, and I felt compassion for these beautiful humans. Consequently, I felt compassion and wanted to empathize with Dusty. But there is a progression to Dusty’s illness. He doesn’t harm Dana (until she threatens to leave him). By the end of the book, he’s smashed windows out of the house because of the hallucinations. He left his daughter physically and emotionally scarred. The sexual abuse of his daughter ultimately changed my perception on Dusty.
He throws Dana’s phone away, isolating her from her friends. He repeatedly rapes a very young girl. He murders. Are any of these things justified because of his mental illness?
No. I didn’t want to publish this book for a very long time because of this question. I want to make two things very clear. First, schizophrenia does not make a person a criminal; it does not make a person “bad.” Mental illness is a disease and should be treated with compassion and understanding. Second, and this needs to be very, very clear: mental illness does not give someone the right to harm another person. Abuse is wrong. Period. It is never justified.
Can survivors heal from abuse of any kind?
Your daughter, especially Alight, contributed to many aspects of this book. Can you tell us about that?
They did! My oldest one helped review and discuss the themes of the book, and she gave me Cole’s name! She’s very good at coming up with appropriate names. Alight’s contributions were really significant. We had such fun talking about cover designs, and the ending of the book. Key elements that I wouldn’t have thought about for the ending came from Alight; she also helped with the design idea for the chapter headers. Sharing something with those we love nourishes the soul. This book is very special to me for many reasons; one of those reasons is that they helped, and let me ramble on about my characters!
What gives you hope?
My faith gives me a lot of hope. I believe in the Biblical promises, and in who God is. He is the only one who has never hurt me; He’s always shown me a way out. Beyond my faith, I also find hope in stories. Writing, of course, but also in hearing the inspiring stories of others. Sharing our stories reminds us that we are not alone and, when we remember that, hope is easier to see.