A Chat with the Real Emma
  The real Emma was 91 when she began her collaboration with her son,
    Douglas Armstrong, that led to the novel, Even Sunflowers Cast Shadows.
    Here is a conversation with her three and a half years later at age 95.


Q: Have you had a chance to read the book?

    A: I read one of the first drafts of it a couple of years ago and then again when it came out in hard cover.

Q: Did you like it?

    A: I loved it. It is beautifully done. There were times when I was reading that I had to stop and remind myself I was here in Minneapolis, not back there and then.

Q: There is a lot of discussion about how much of the story is true. What can you tell us about that?

    A: Several people have asked me that. It’s interesting reading I think because it’s partly true. He’s changed most of the names and moved things around in time. He changed it so much that when I first read it, I told him “this is your story, not mine.”

    Generally, the book is based a lot on what happened. There’s a lot of truth woven into the whole thing. I pray that nobody crawls out from under a rock who might know my name from back then. But I don’t want to say too much because it could give away some choice bits of the story.

Q: Do you regret getting into so much—what—intimate detail?

    A: You will probably think I’m nuts, but I always thought should I ever attempt to write about my life, I would start with something naughty that would be a bit eye catching, since the dirt seems to sell better than anything.

Q: Do you think the book reflects your childhood in a larger sense?

    A: Yes. I think it reflects my childhood in lots of ways. I still marvel at how well he managed to get inside a six-year-old’s head. I must say he may have given me a bit more credit for having sense at that time than I really had, though. And it’s not the complete picture. There is nothing in there about us having to pluck the chickens Mom cooked for dinner.

Q: How did the project get started? How closely did you work with your son?

    A: I had always felt I could write a story about the characters who lived in the small town where I was brought up. So when my son said he would write it, I was delighted. I told him stories at different times as they came back to me. There are still things that pop into my mind that I wish I could have remembered when we were working on this. We live in different states and have to work by computer email. We worked as closely as we could under the circumstances.

    I don't hear very well nor see well, so the computer is my lifeline. When I thought of something to put in the book I would write Doug an e-mail, and let me tell you there were many e-mails.

Q: How many?

    A: Hundreds.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the book?

    A: I almost cried when Mary Ellen died. I don’t know how he could have written it so much like I remember it, because we never discussed it very much.

Q: One of the surprising things about the story is just how much hanky-panky goes on. Was this
      upsetting to you as a child?

    A: Like most kids, I was made aware of the difference of the sexes at an early age and felt secure in the love of my parents in our home. I suppose we snickered about things that were out of order if we understood what was going on. I don't really remember how I felt about that. I guess I just felt it was a part of life unrelated to me. I just thought that that was the way things were.

Q: Your Grandmother really was named Thaney. Tell us what she was like.

    A: Yes, my grandmother's name was Thaney, but that's only a shortening of her real name, which was Bethany. Why anyone would want to be called Thaney when she had a pretty name of Bethany, I don't know. It's hard for me to remember what I really thought of her at that age if I ever thought of her. She was just grandma as was my other grandma. Before I left home and before she died I resented her for all the work she caused my mother who never complained.

Q: Did you feel loved by your real grandmother?

    A: I didn't worry or really think much about it. I probably didn't care. You know how kids are. I still see her with her feet over the floor register trying to get warm, huddled in her rocker at our place, but that was when I was much older. I really remember about talking to her then, because if I said something, she would say, "I didn't hear what you said, dear." I really didn't pay much attention to either grandmother. They were just there.

Q: And your grandfather, Joseph? He seemed like a kindly old man in the book.

    A: I was more or less scared of Pa Josey, as I recall. I remember one time at the table—and I remember so clearly—we were at the farm and Pa was serving the ham after he sliced it. He had a slice on his fork and pointed at me so I held up my fork and he said to hand him my plate. His tone really scared me. One would think after all their boys and only Fern as a daughter, finally, they would have cherished us three girls. I don't know. I do know Thad wanted more sons. They needed them to work the farm, I guess.

Q: Many people have a strongly favorable reaction to the character of Emma in the book. How does
     it feel to be the person whose childhood inspired that?

    A: I am overwhelmed by the response. I thank my son for the intelligence he accorded me in the book.

Q: How has the book gone over with your family?

    A: My family and my extended family have raved about it, which makes me feel great! I just hope their enthusiasm sells more books.


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