An Interview with Sophfronia Scott

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Sophfronia Scott is author of the essay collection, Love’s Long Line, from Ohio State University Press’s Mad Creek Books and a memoir, This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, from Paraclete Press. She was a writer and editor at Time and People before publishing her first novel, All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press). Her latest novel is Unforgivable Love (William Morrow). Sophfronia teaches at Regis University’s Mile High MFA and Bay Path University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Visit her website, here.

Introduction and interview by Elizabeth Cohen

In the amphitheater of American horror stories, the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting of 20 school children and six adult staffers may be the saddest of all. The writer Sophfronia Scott, in her two new creative nonfiction books, This Child of Faith and Love’s Long Line, explores various facets of the tragedy and other topics with the vise of witness and her writer’s deep and empathic eye. Her son Tain attended the school and he survived that day. Not so his dear friend Ben, and many others from their community. Her two books, one written as a co-author with Tain, now 13, parse the enormity of that loss, along with the largest subjects of them all: faith, origins, life’s fragility, and motherhood with a capital M.

In time, the Sandy Hook shooting would come to stamp a certain part of central Connecticut with the broadest imaginable girth of tragedy, and most certainly those families most affected by that day, with a sort of scarlet letter L, for insurmountable loss. But for me, Sophfronia has another identity altogether.

When I moved to New Fairfield, Connecticut in 2007, not knowing a soul, a mutual friend told me, “You have to call my friend, the writer Sophfronia Scott.” That suggestion led to an early morning meet-up at a Starbucks just off the highway near her home. Her many dreadlocks were pulled into a haphazard swirled top notch and as she walked my way, I saw she had a New York Times in one hand and a large chai latte in the other. Her face was a canvas of warmth with the most delightful spill of freckles that made me think at once of a child I once knew who told me her mother told her that her freckles were “angel’s kisses.” I confess I can’t recall much specifically about our conversation that day, but I do recall the feeling of it. If empathy and maternal solidarity could be made woman, this was that woman. She had brought me her novel and I had brought her a memoir I wrote. We were there because of writing itself, and that eternal quest among writers for the fellowship of our kind, but we quickly discovered the bonds of motherhood, love of music and nature and books, books, books. A friendship followed that involved visits to cafes to hear her singer-songwriter husband Darryl Gregory perform, and eventually to her home, set on a wooded lane, where she often hosts groups of her writer friends. By the morning that the Sandy Hook shooting occurred, I had long since moved away, but my bond with Sophfronia was so very real. I immediately thought of several families I knew who might be affected. And then one word came flying into my brain: “Tain.”

Reading her new books this winter was to travel back to that time and further, to her childhood, to the horrific experience of miscarriage, to her joyful days as a mother, seeing Tain in the rearview mirror of her car and knowing “all is right with the world because he is there.” Traveling, in short, on the magic carpet of her narratives, in which she weaves snatches of memories, both sharp and incandescent, philosophical ponderings and marvelous literary experimentations like an essay that follows the “Holy Week” between Palm Sunday and Easter, and one which contemplates words themselves stemming from her son’s daily vocabulary school homework. Beneath all of these is that same humming presence of intelligence, empathy and something I will just call grace. That thing I first witnessed all those years back, couched in the angel-kissed face of the woman who came out to meet another writer at a Starbucks, to invite her into her community, with fellowship and light.

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Q #1: Both of your creative nonfiction books, This Child of Faith (yours and Tain’s) and Love’s Long Line, at first glance, could be easily described as books forged in tragedy, but upon reading the essays it quickly becomes clear that they could also be seen as invitations to grace and faith. When you describe them, what overarching concepts do you feel connects or defines them best?

Sophfronia: Grace and faith are certainly the overarching concepts, both present in almost all of the work whether I’m writing about them directly or not. I’m also big on forgiveness and love. But the connection in both books is in my seeking of how these concepts show up in the reality and everydayness of life. The title of the essay collection was inspired by Annie Dillard’s observation in her book Holy the Firm that we all “reel out love’s long line alone…like a like wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.” I like to think my essays show that yes, there is loneliness, longing, and grief exacted by a fearless engagement with the everyday world. But if you hold onto the line, there’s an abundance of joy and forgiveness to be had as well.

Q #2: In the first essay of This Child of Faith you tell the reader that there was a time in your life when you came to the realization that your father was illiterate. This made me wonder about the powerful experience for parents – and especially writer parents – of seeing their own children learn to read. Was this especially meaningful to you, knowing that you come from a parent who could not?

Sophfronia: Actually, the more meaningful experience for me was realizing Tain could recognize beauty in writing. He was in fourth grade, I think, when he first said “Mama, you’ve got to read this!” I thought he wanted to show me something he thought was funny but it was a gorgeous paragraph of metaphor comparing boys to puppies in the way they gathered and then learned to run and race each other. I still remember how he excitedly said, “And you know the boys are not really puppies, right?” I said I knew, and told him this was a wonderful example of metaphor. He repeated the word, slowly, as though I’d just taught him a magic spell. “Metaphor.” Since then he’s said, “Mama, you’ve got to read this” many times, and I always listen. He recognizes the most amazing writing—Home of the Brave, a novel in verse by Katherine Applegate, was one of his recommendations when he was in fifth grade. That’s so exciting to me, and gratifying because I’m not sure if you can teach how to feel the wonder of words. But he has it and so abundantly.

Q#3: What has it been like passing along the torch of writing to Tain, in the act of co-writing a book with him? Was it fun writing this together?

Sophfronia: There were days when Tain would not have called it fun! The way our book is set up, I write the main narrative but each chapter contains a section called “Tain’s Take” where he writes his version of the story. We recently spoke to the writing classes at his school, Newtown Middle School, and one of the things Tain told his fellow students was how frustrating it was because of the many times I would send his writing back to him because he hadn’t told a story fully or included enough details.

As we started to work, I found it interesting how the questions Tain asked about the process and the issues I guided him through were the same ones I work on with my adult creative nonfiction students. Tain was concerned that he couldn’t remember exactly some of the events because he was younger, really another person, then. I taught him how he could research his own life, how there were clues to help him. He interviewed our minister and the Sunday school director at our church. We tracked down entries he’d written for the “Jesus Doll” binder the director keeps. He learned that he could write from these materials. It was hard work, especially as the deadline pressed upon us. But I’ll never forget the day when the finished book arrived and I put it on the passenger seat of my minivan for when I picked him up from school. When he saw it he said, “We did it!” and high-fived me. I loved that moment.

Q#4: Much of the book This Child of Faith is about the source of faith and the actual definition or coming to an understanding of the nature of God. Tain writes, “I asked my mom who God is and what Sunday School is.”

I wondered if you can explain a little further how motherhood seems to have invited you to explore the nature of God deeper for yourself, and if you can discuss a bit how this deeper experience of spirituality has informed you as a writer, given that it is a recurring theme for you in these books.

Sophfronia: That invitation is really the heart of This Child of Faith because I didn’t know my own faith would be so deeply affected by guiding Tain in developing his. And honestly, I didn’t expect it to find its way into my writing. When I started writing about faith it was more in conversation with close friends and for myself. But it became clear by the way those near me responded to my words that I’m somehow able to write about this huge abstract concept in a very down to earth way. I see that as a gift, a very important one, so I continue with it. And I believe one feeds the other. Faith opens my eyes to the wonder of the world and that shows up in my writing. Writing about faith grounds me in my feeling for it, affirms it for me in a way. It’s hard to describe concretely, but that’s the way it is, like a river flowing through me.

Q#5: Building on that question, two more queries arise for me on the nature of God which you parse in these essays in both books. Firstly, you have written here in your essay “The Hairbrush Song”: “I feel the essence of faith is written in our cells” and that God is “definitely imprinted in our DNA.” This led me to wonder how you reconcile the generally accepted idea that God is a being outside the self, do you feel God exists bout outside and inside us, and also made me wonder how God can love us and be in us. To say “God loves you” would seem to imply God is “other.”

Secondly, here, I found myself wondering what you think of the concept of the “God gene” proposed by the geneticist Dean Hamer, a hypothesis that human spirituality is influenced by heredity and that a specific gene, may be controlling this. Do you feel God is written upon us in this biological way, as he asserts? What does this mean for those who do not possess this gene? And what are your thoughts about this?

Sophfronia: I think many see God as “other” and “out there” but I believe our connection to God is no different than our connection to our own parents. Each of our parents is within us—we are made up of their cells. And yet they are separate people walking around outside of us. Likewise, God is in our cells within us and God is all around us. God really is that close—that may be hard and even scary to contemplate—but I believe it’s true and comforting. It’s true for everyone. We are all children of God whether we realize it or not. I don’t know anything about the God gene concept so I can’t speak to that. But I’ve noticed that it does seem to be easier for some more than others to believe and make that connection. I’m not sure why that is, but I think that’s why it’s important for me to write what I do—in case there’s a chance that I can provide an assist from someone trying to get there.

Q #6: The theme of the power of names and naming seems to crop up repeatedly in these books. Most notably, in your essay about your own name, “Calling Me by My Name” in Love’s Long Line, you write that in bestowing on you at your birth a rare name and, by accident, an unusual spelling, your father “poured into my tiny vessel of possibility the essence of what I would become.” In This Child of Faith, you describe teaching a Sunday School class at your church in which you ask a little girl what her favorite part of Communion is, to which she replies, “I like it when Pastor Kathie says my name.” Clearly names hold a certain power for you, a framing and recognizing of individual being and belonging. Can you discuss this theme in your writing and talk a little about Tain’s name as well, and what it means to you?

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Sophfronia: Yes, I believe a name can be a powerful stamp of who we are and I think many beliefs and individuals act on this as well: notice how when someone wants to signal a big change in their life they often change their name. In many faiths when you reach certain stages you are given a different name. I think a name is powerful whether it is common or not, but I’m more attentive to this because of my unusual name. As I said earlier, I tend to write about the grace and love in everyday life but I do it in a personal way hoping readers can see similar aspects in their own lives. And you recognize your life by your name, your own name. How we show up in the world can be a way of demonstrating how we own our names. How do I show up in the world as Sophfronia? How do you show up in the world as Elizabeth? How do people connect with us in this very basic aspect of ourselves?

Of course feeling this way about names, I knew I wanted my child to have a name he could hold and feel very much as his own. I write about this in the book, but when I was pregnant and learned I was having a boy I knew I wanted him to have an Irish name to represent my family’s Scotch-Irish ancestry. I am black and both of my parents are black, but on my father’s side of the family red hair and freckles run rampant. One of my sisters, preparing for a reunion, started researching our family background and this was her discovery. Who would have thought it was possible to be both black and Irish? I didn’t! So I wanted the baby to grow up knowing this aspect about himself. One day Darryl came home and told me he’d been listening to a jazz drummer, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and said Tain was a cool name. I agreed. It was simple yet different and elegant. We started considering the name, and I mentioned this to a dear friend who happens to be well-versed in Irish lore.

“Tain is an Irish name!” he said, and told me of an ancient Irish epic called The Tain. It’s the story of a legendary cattle raid, and it has the same standing in Irish culture that Homer’s The Iliad has in classical Greek literature. Tain means cattle or bull.

Obviously, I thought, this was supposed to be his name. He is Tain. And to this day that’s how I respond when people compliment him or marvel over something he’s done: “He is Tain.” It is fact and explanation. His middle name is Elijah, a reminder for him that he is close to the voice of God.

Q#7: You write about sharing a hometown in Lorain, Ohio, with the author Toni Morrison and how at a certain point you felt it was important to acknowledge your shared roots with this American literary legend. In your shortest essay “Toni Morrison and Me” you seem to make peace with the fact that you are so very different from her, yet share a love of stories and storytelling, plain and simple. I wondered if you could have an opportunity to interview Ms. Morrison, what the one question you would ask her would be.

Sophfronia: Toni Morrison and I have a similar background in that, though she’s older than I am, our fathers both worked in Lorain’s steel mill and we had a bit of that hardscrabble upbringing. I still think of that and how much of it is still within me and I wonder if it’s the same for her. If I were to articulate that in a question it would be:

“Do you ever recall the smell of the steel mill’s sulfur that filled the air at times, and the reddish orange tint of the sky from the smoke billowing from its smokestacks? I do.”

Q#8: Lastly, in many of these essays you are self-reflexive, discussing the act of writing the essay itself in these essays. So much so that I began to see this as a stylistic feature of your writing, this writing about the writing inside the writing. Do you see this as so? And what fuels you to include in essays material about their genesis or development or purposes?

Sophfronia: Wow, I guess I do do that. I didn’t notice that before. I suppose I do it for two sort of similar reasons. First, it’s my way of thinking out loud. I’m often describing in my work a very specific thought process and I want to make sure I have the reader with me, that I don’t lose him or her as we walk through foggy places. Second, as a creative nonfiction writer and specifically an essayist honoring the definition of essay, which is “to try,” it’s important to me to signal to the reader that I’m making an exploration, an attempt at something. I don’t know how it will turn out and the results may be imperfect, but here we go. Let’s see what happens.

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ElizabethCohenphotoElizabeth Cohen is associate professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh and editor of the Saranac Review. She is the author of a memoir, The Family on Beartown Road; a book of stories, The Hypothetical Girl, and five books of poems, most recently, Bird Light, published by Saint Julian press.  She lives with her daughter, three cats, and brand new puppy, in Plattsburgh, NY.

 

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