A former English teacher, Amanda Dykes’ novella Bespoke: A Tiny Christmas Tale was met with critical acclaim from Publishers Weekly, Readers’ Favorite, and more. Her debut novel is Whose Waves These Are (Bethany House). She links together painful events from two time periods—1944 and 2001—as a family reconciles over an incomplete WWII memorial. In this interview, the author reveals the origins of her novel, shares the authors who have inspired her, and explains how her faith impacts her as a storyteller…
Amanda, Whose Waves These Are features events from two different time periods. What inspired this novel?
It’s funny, I set out to write a contemporary small-town story akin to Avonlea or Mitford, set on the coast of Maine. Then, I finished reading Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter, which deals in part with the men who came home from serving in World War II, never to speak of the things they endured or witnessed.
Around that same time, my wonderful “pen pal”—a woman in Maine who was helping me with book research out of the kindness of her heart—also made mention of the men who came home from the war and never talked about it. When the same theme starts to come at you from all angles, it’s time to pay attention.
I got to thinking. What were the stories of these men? Their families? That’s when Robert Bliss, the prickly accidental poet, became more than a side-character, and took over the story itself along with his twin brother, Roy.
Your protagonist in the present is Annie Bliss. What can you tell us about her? What about her wanted you to tell her story?
While writing Annie’s story, I came across an article about a village in the Alps who was hoping to revitalize their struggling economy and dwindling population (most of the working population was being drawn away by city jobs) by offering free homes to people who would come live and work there.
When I read in my research books that some of the island populations off the coast of Maine faced similar challenges, that intersection became Annie’s story. That article became a part of Annie’s past, and those coastal communities a part of her future.
Annie is living in limbo, you see. Hiding out a bit in Chicago, in a safe job far from the risk of the field job she once had helping (and, she believes, failing) one such Alpen village.
When she is summoned because of family needs to Ansel-by-the-Sea, a place that envelopes her with community, I wondered what that would mean to someone who didn’t know where home was, and was followed by the shadows she believes define her. When a soul in search of home finds a place like Ansel, something is bound to happen.
I hoped that the questions looming on the horizon of her future might be answered as she followed the breadcrumb (or stone dust, as the case may be) trail in her family’s past. In her story, she discovers both peace and courage, right in the midst of the yet unknown—a lesson I feel like I’m always re-learning. I suppose I hoped to extend that invitation to such peace and courage into readers’ lives, too.
The story also touches on events from decades earlier. How did you conduct your research to get the historical details right?
World War II often seems afar off, when in reality it’s still just decades away from us in our history. This means we have oral histories, interviews with veterans—primary accounts that can bring us straight into the heart of what life was like.
I spoke with my grandmother, who was a child during the war. I tracked down an authentic Bluejacket’s Manual (the naval manual) from World War II on eBay as well as a commemorative reprint of a WWII issue of Time magazine, Our Navy, and several vintage copies of Downeast Maine Magazine.
I watched movies from the era, films such as Since You Went Away, and I’ll Be Seeing You, so Claudette Colbert and a grown Shirley Temple helped me get a taste for the time. I watched documentaries, I sat in libraries and wept (quietly) over war books and an account of a ship that came to the aid of a sinking boat.
I reached out to the chamber of commerce in Machias, Maine, to make sure my train station details were correct, and they were so kind as to go above and beyond and reach out to a local historian, who provided even more stories from the era and the area.
I wrote to a house-name bake ware company, who had once also been highly involved in manufacturing lighthouse parts. When I received no response, I reached out to the United State Lighthouse Society, and their executive director made time for a phone call, and answered all manner of questions about era-specific details.
In short: I was blessed by the expertise and generosity of others!
Who are the authors that influence or inspire you as an author?
Oh, my. So very many, I could go on and on—but for starters:
Charles Martin (Long Way Gone), Leif Enger (Peace Like a River), and Francine Rivers (The Mark of the Lion Series) are three who have challenged me, through their stories, to take a second look at what a story can be.
Jan Karon, Wendell Berry, Louisa May Alcott, and L.M. Montgomery have shown me how letters on a screen (or page) can become hearts beating in tight-knit community and family.
C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tokein, and George MacDonald are in my bones—their stories, and their story philosophies exploring the architecture and soul beneath the words on the page—and how the most lingering, impacting stories, although they are made up—are true at their core, in their echoes of The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Charles Dickens is the classics-king of characters, and Jane Austen the classics-queen of layered character dynamics.
Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre) and Lois Gladys Leppard (The Mandie Series) were my early story loves, each reminding me that shadows and mystery are deliciously inviting in story.
Laura Frantz, Lori Benton, Jocelyn Green, Joanne Bischof, Joanna Davidson Politano—these ladies can weave history and heart together so seamlessly, each in her own distinct way.
I just finished Jolina Petersheim’s How the Light Gets In, and she utterly delighted me by completely surprising me TWICE in one story with plot twists. Plot twists rarely ever get me—and she got me twice, all wrapped up in a story as heart-deep and soul-moving as a tale could possibly be.
And finally—I am hopelessly attached to children’s books. Storybooks and chapter books alike. They remind me of the wonder of this world, of the enchantment of story and illustration, of how these are tools to reach hearts in lasting, beautiful ways.
Whether it’s a middle grade such as Charlotte’s Web, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, The Penderwicks, The Green Ember or The Wingfeather Saga, or a stack of timeless picture books like One Morning in Maine, Miss Rumphius, My Mama Had a Dancing Heart, I Love You Forever, or James Herriot’s Treasury for Children…these are the books that, quicker than any other, take me back to the breathtaking magic of family, wonder, hope, community, life—and redemption. These are the themes I hope and pray might be present on the pages of my books, too.
How does your faith impact how you write as a storyteller?
Faith changes everything. It is the pivot on which storytelling diverges, and upon which I can reflect on what’s been done for me—and to offer that hope to others.
We live in a difficult world, and every person we meet has known difficult things. Is probably facing difficult things right this very moment.
But what takes my breath away is how real—how palpable, how nearly tangible, hope is in the midst of the difficult things. How light was made to flood darkness. Hope was made to bathe pain, to mend it. How healing doesn’t merely stitch broken things back together, but rather offers a logic-defying gift that allows God to breathe life into other broken places around us, too.
It’s my prayer that my stories attest to this healing, brave hope. That not just on the letters on the page, but in the scaffolding of story far beneath them—a song of redemption will sing there in the shadows. A song of a God who gave everything to enter into that brokenness, to hold and cherish, to gather and mend and breathe life again.
It comes back to the verse you’ll find on the very first page of Whose Waves These Are, from Amos 9:6–“He who . . . changes deep darkness into morning . . . who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the surface of the earth, The Lord is His name.”
Visit Amanda Dykes’ author page:
Whose Waves These Are