I first met Sophfronia Scott at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids last April. I’d admired her writing work from afar, particularly an essay in Ruminate magazine about dancing in her kitchen. I knew she’d be speaking at the Festival and scanned the meeting places, looking for her beautiful dreadlocks and beaming smile. I noticed her at one of the hotel counters and taking gumption in hand, I introduced myself, told her what a fan I was of her writing and asked if I could interview her. She said “yes!” May I introduce Sophfronia Scott.
1) In your essay collection “Love’s Long Line” you begin by telling your readers about the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary where your son Tain was attending 3rd grade. After this book, you went on to write a book with him, “This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World.” What was that process like, working with a young child who also happens to be your son?
First of all, your readers should know that the way our book is set up, I’ve written the main narrative but each chapter contains a section called “Tain’s Take” where he’s written his version of the story. I didn’t want a combined voice because Tain’s voice is really what got us here. I thought he should have his own space in the book. Working on that space wasn’t always easy. 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. At the time he was 12 writing about when he was 5 to 9 years old. 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. 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.
2) One of your essays in “Love’s Long Line” is about reading an old letter your father had written to you. You liken the process to “peeling off the emotion, lies and last of all, the story I’ve told myself about all those pieces just so I could endure them.” Do you find you are still peeling those layers?
Yes. Not those layers specifically but I’m always peeling layers in general. We all have so many layers and I don’t think we’ll ever be done with them because we are still creating them all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s simply growth, just like the rings within a tree. But it’s good to peel back to get a sense of where I’ve come from and a hint of where I’m going.
3) Practical question: Your writing experience covers a gamut of genres and styles–fiction as well as non-fiction, and work as an author and editor. When and how did you make the change from being an editor at Time and People magazine to writing for yourself, so to speak?
It started while I was at People magazine. Working for those magazines was really a training ground for me because I went straight to Time out of college. As the years went on I could feel that apprenticeship ending and I began to think about what I wanted to write on my own. Eventually, while working at People, I fell in with a group of actors and being around their energy and creativity inspired me to get to work on my first novel.
4) Names are important, the spelling of them especially. I am constantly respelling my name–Jody with a ‘y’ not ‘i’–as are you, adding the ‘f’ in the middle of ‘Sophfronia.’ Tell us about your son’s name–Tain.
Here’s the story: 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. But back then there were so many Ryans and Aidans and Connors! One day my husband, a musician, told me about a jazz drummer, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and said Tain was a cool name. I agreed. It was simple yet different and elegant. Then a dear friend who happens to be well versed in Irish lore told me, “Tain is an Irish name!” and referenced a book, an epic called The Tain. It’s the story of a cattle raid. Tain means cattle or bull. The fact that the name suited both aspects of myself and my husband and so much felt like it was supposed to be Tain’s name made it easy for us to go with it.
5) The essays in “Love’s Long Line” weave in the theme of forgiveness, because, as you say, if we live with unforgiveness, we don’t tend to our families and our gifts, we forget how to experience joy. The Sandy Hook tragedy will always be a part of your experience–How do you and your family, especially your son Tain, “experience joy” in your everyday lives?
Tain reminds me daily how to experience joy because it arises so naturally from his very being. He sings and whistles to himself all the time. And when he’s doing something that he loves to do, like being with his friends or acting in a musical or playing his favorite video game, I can see he’s totally invested in the moment and enjoying it thoroughly. I think experiencing joy is about being open to the wonder of life and love that is so simply in front of us every moment of our lives. Sometimes there are obstacles, yes, especially when terrible things happen but I’m always seeking to learn about how to deal with them. Recently I’ve read The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and found it both helpful and hopeful. I feel all that we need is ever near us, ever closer than we think. We have to notice it, and accept that joy and love, especially God’s love, is right there for us.