I heard about a book called Death by Living. You've got admit, that's an intriguing title isn't it? Then I read an excerpt. And then I got lucky enough to be invited to interview the author. So here's my interview with author N. D. Wilson, followed by that excerpt that so intrigued me.
First, by way of introduction:
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Death by Living is a follow-up to N.D. Wilson’s critically acclaimed Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl. While Notes focused on a way of seeing life, Death by Living focuses on a way of living life. Wilson reminds each of us that to truly live we must recognize that we are dying. Every second we create more of our past—more decisions, more breathing, more love and more loathing. “Each of us is in the middle of a story. But for some reason, we don’t show the slightest desire to read it, let alone live it with any kind of humble self-awareness,” he says. We need to know “the chapters that led up to us” and “consciously begin to shape those chapters coming after.”
In his uniquely poetic style, Wilson writes the stories of his grandparents, grapples with the concept of time, and inspires readers to “Burden your moments with thankfulness. Be as empty as you can be when the clock winds down. Spend your life. And if time is a river, may you leave a wake.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
He has adventured on camera for the National Geographic Channel, is currently involved in producing C.S. Lewis' “The Great Divorce” for the screen (which he adapted himself), and once typed a short story on a napkin for Esquire magazine. His writing has been featured on media outlets ranging from NBC's “Today" show to NPR's “All Things Considered.”
He was born and raised in Moscow, Idaho, where he currently lives with his wife and their five young kids (along with two tortoises and a snake). He is a Fellow of Literature at New Saint Andrews College, where he teaches freshmen how to play with words.
1. So, ND, I've just read "About the author" and I'm really curious: How do you "type" on a napkin?
Very carefully! Especially when you only have one to work with. I advise cutting it into strips and feeding it into an old typewriter with normal paper to back it. Then knock yourself out. But don't listen to me...I've only done it once.
2. I'm also wondering, after reading about your family: Do tortoises like snakes?
They seem oblivious. But my tortoises are now big enough to seem oblivious to most things.
3. And what drew you to the idea of filming C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce?
I think it's a beautiful, hilarious, and moving book that is often completely misunderstood. I was thrilled to write the script and hope to see it on screens some day sooner than later!
4. I'm making a guess you like Tolkein (since you mention Hobbits and Ents in the excerpt) as well as C.S. Lewis. What other favorite authors have influenced your thoughts on "life as a story"--or on anything else?
Chesterton. His book, Orthodoxy was an absolute mile-marker in my life. It is still the only book that I have ever finished and immediately flipped back to the beginning to start over again.
5. I love Chesterton's books too. Moving on: Family clearly means a lot to you. Do you see families as having stories, as well as individuals? What about cities and nations?
Absolutely. My personal narrative is built into and on top of so many others, I can't even begin to sort it out. We live our little bite-size lives cropping out thousands of years of back-story and billions of co-characters. Every electron has a story and so does every solar system. God tracks a narrative thread for every molecule that I ever exhale and off its story goes. He knows where every part of one of my thirty year-old sneezes is today and could give us a little where-are-they-now? show if He really wanted to and if we had the required attention spans (we don't). God really is infinite, and the telling of tiny stories in no way distracts him from the telling of massive unbelievably huge galactic stories. Clearly, He is incapable of boredom.
6. My favorite line from your writing says "If time is a river, may you leave a wake." I guess that's not really a question, but if you'd like to respond...
Glad you liked!
7. When did you first think of writing this book, and what made you decide to act on that thought?
I've been chasing these themes for more than a decade, but the book didn't take outline shape until my father's mother passed three years ago. The work began. I crossed the finish line with urgency after my mother's father passed one year ago. I'm so blessed to live and breathe thanks to them, and I am who I am because of them. This book is about living faithfully in the face of mortality in all phases of life. But my granddad and my grandmother were the first to show me faithfulness at the finish.
Thank you N.D. I really enjoyed interviewing you and reading your excerpt. With your permission, I'd like to include it here:
Don't miss this excerpt from Death by Living, by N.D. Wilson
Chapter 8: The (Blessed) Lash of Time
On Saturday nights, our family gathers at my parents’ house to eat and laugh and drink to grace. My sisters and their husbands come with their tribes and I with mine.
My grandmother, mother to my father, went into the ground on top of a hill two years ago. James Irwin Wilson comes to these Saturday dinners alone (and yet not). He is the one most likely to ask if he can invite an ex-convict, or to need a ride because he loaned his car (knowingly) to a thief, and now it is gone. His heart struggles. His blood struggles. The man who rowed at the Naval Academy now walks with a cane. The boy who was there when a stallion was rearing and his father was falling to the ground, the boy who ran a ten-acre farm and finished high school and worked eight-hour shifts every night in the Omaha stockyard is now eighty-five and not yet spent. Though he is trying to be. My grandfather has no intention of ending his life with closed fists. His hands will be open and they will be empty.
I began meeting with him early on those Saturday afternoons, and I set up a camera. He was uncomfortable that first time, because I was demanding that he talk about himself, and because he had forgotten to wear a tie. I laughed (in my sweater and jeans). He hasn’t forgotten his tie since.
When he turned eighty-five, he asked for no presents. Like a good hobbit (though I have always said that he is more entish), he wanted to give to us. He is not in the business of accumulating, especially now, as he hears the crowd counting down. He had some birthday menu requests (with pie for dessert), and then he wanted to tell stories to his great grandchildren.
That Saturday, aunts and uncles and cousins came, and when we had eaten and sung and laughed, we settled him in an armchair and sixteen great-grandchildren wrapped around his feet on the floor.
He had no doodads to give. No cheap party favors. Instead, he gave those kids what they could never buy for themselves, what they could never find on their own. He gave them the memories of a boy on a Nebraska farm with brothers, a boy trying to break a wild prairie mustang. He gave them memories of his mother, born in a sod dugout in the prairie grass.
He gave a crowd of mostly small people (who all exist because of his choices in his moments) a glimpse at a time long gone, at moments extinct, at vapor seen with his eyes and remembered.
I—and all of those children—reap a tremendous daily harvest thanks to his faithfulness, thanks to the man with the cane who has received his life with joy, and whose large hands have always been open. Thanks to the Author who crafted such a character and set him on his path, who claimed his heart and carried his burden.
For my part, as he sat and talked, I held a camera. A time will come, I pray, when I am the spent one in the chair still aiming to give. And if I reach his age in 2063, I hope, even then, to introduce this man to generations unborn, to give them more than words, but the flickering image of this face, and the sound of this voice.
On his birthday, this grandfather is not yet done. He has more wealth to give. He chose a passage of Scripture for each of his children and their spouses, for each of their children and their spouses, and for each of their children. Forty-six souls (and counting). He asked a son to arrange and print each passage on archive paper, and he wrote a note of marginalia to each of us, in the sharp, perfect handwriting of another time.
To the youngest of all, my sister’s two-month-old son, he handwrote a simple message next to Colossians 1:9–12: “You may not remember me. I remember you and prayed for you when you were one day old. -Great Grandpa”
My sister cried.
My grandfather’s accounts are in order. His seed is sown. His hoard is elsewhere, in the faces at his feet, and in the hundreds and thousands of stories his own story has touched and will continue to shape.
Drink your wine. Laugh from your gut. Burden your moments with thankfulness. Be as empty as you can be when that clock winds down. Spend your life. And if time is a river, may you leave a wake.