By Jim Minick
The novel Fire Is Your Water started out as nonfiction. Two fires struck my family in this one small area of Pennsylvania where I grew up, and though I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to make a larger book about these, especially because one fire occurred before I was born. So it took me five years of wandering in the wilderness of words to understand fiction would allow me to combine these stories if I could figure out how.
Part of that “how” came by collapsing four generations of people into two generations, and thirty years of stories condensed to three months. The larger part of the “how,” though, was discovering the connecting thread, which eventually became this: what happens to a faith healer when she loses her ability to heal? That became the driving question.
Ada Franklin, the main character in Fire Is Your Water, is based on my great-grandmother, Ida Franklin Minick, who was a faith healer or powwow doctor in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. She could remove warts, stop blood, and take out fire, like Ada in the novel. And like Ada, she entered a burning barn with a relative, who was severely burned in the process. Afterward, my great-grandmother was not the one who healed my grandmother’s hands—another person did. So that got me thinking about why and what happens if faith is lost. I’m pretty sure that did not happen with Ida, but it opened a door for me.
My first memory is sitting on my great-grandmother’s lap, but then Ida died when I was four. So I wish I had known her better, and in a way, this novel helped me imagine a little of her life, like what it was like to work on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 1950s, or to heal an epileptic, or even, to heal a bleeding cow by saying a chant through the phone. All of these are family stories I was able to weave into the novel to honor these people and this place.
I worked on this novel, off and on, for fifteen years. Attention got pulled to other projects, so in that time span, I wrote four other books, plus taught full-time. At some deeper level, I think I knew I wasn’t ready yet to write this book, so I had to learn my way in, through other genres, and then through extensive reading and studying of novels I admired, like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
One of the great risks I took with this book is with the character of Cicero, a raven who learns to read and talk. Most of Fire Is Your Water is in third-person point-of-view, but Cicero’s chapters are in first-bird’s POV, and as, one reviewer commented on the bird’s swearing, he is “foul-beaked.” Cicero and the idea of a talking bird came much later, maybe two-thirds of the way into the writing. I was taking a fiction workshop with Darnell Arnoult (an excellent teacher and writer), and I knew the other main character, a man named Will Burk, loved birds, so I kept playing with that idea, trying to figure out how to develop that passion of his. Then I remembered reading an essay about a person growing up with a talking crow as a pet, and that, along with encouragement to just experiment, let me walk through that door of magic realism to find Cicero there waiting to chew my ear off, literally.
And yes, many birds, especially “smarter” species like ravens and crows, can learn words. I collected several stories from fellow birders about such. One ornithology professor told of a raven tamed in grad school. The bird loved to say, “Nevermore,” and he loved to drink whiskey. When he got too tipsy, he’d just repeat, “Never, never, never….”
When Cicero heard this, he wanted to file an animal abuse report until he realized that it all happened decades ago.
I’ll end with one of Cicero’s favorite quotes, from Eubie Blake: “Be grateful for luck. Pay the thunder no mind—listen to the birds. And don’t hate nobody.”
Jim Minick is the author of five books, including Fire Is Your Water, a debut novel released this spring. His memoir, The Blueberry Years, won of the Best Nonfiction Book of the Year from the Southern Independent Booksellers Association. His honors include the Jean Ritchie Fellowship in Appalachian Writing, and the Fred Chappell Fellowship at University of North Carolina-Greensboro. His work has appeared in many publications including Poets & Writers, Oxford American, Shenandoah, Orion, San Francisco Chronicle, Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Conversations with Wendell Berry, Appalachian Journal, and The Sun. Currently, he is Assistant Professor at Augusta University and Core Faculty in Converse College’s low-residency MFA program.
Jim and his new book will be featured at the Women’s National Book Association Charlotte’s 8th Annual “BIBLIOFEAST” Book & Author Dinner on Monday, Oct. 16. Tickets are available at http://wnba-charlotte.org/wnba/calendar/bibliofeast-tickets/ (credit card) or at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, 704-525-9239 (cash or check).