The author talks about the surprising way she hopes her latest novel will resonate with readers.
Three-time Christy and two-time Carol and INSPY Award–winning author Cathy Gohlke writes novels steeped with inspirational lessons from history. Her stories reveal how people break the chains that bind them and triumph over adversity through faith.
Her novel Night Bird Calling (Tyndale House) is a historical fiction story of courage and transformation set in rural Appalachia on the eve of WWII. With war brewing for the nation and for her newfound community, Lilliana must overcome a hard truth voiced by her young friend Celia: “Wishing comes easy. Change don’t.”
In this interview, the author talks about the inspiration behind the novel, why her novel touches on such difficult topics, and how she hopes her novel will resonate with readers.
What inspired you to write Night Bird Calling?
Years ago, I wrote a number of short stories based on some quirky characters in a fictional North Carolina foothills town called No Creek. I loved those characters, but in order to create a novel I needed an outside character who could see both strengths and foibles in my town folk and still care about them, still want to become part of their community, and who could tie their stories together.
For many years I’ve also wrestled with the idea of writing about the racial divide and abuse I saw growing up during years of the civil rights movement in the South, as well as domestic abuse and church oppression, things I experienced in my youth and young womanhood. Night Bird Calling is the marriage of all those experiences and stories.
Night Bird Calling involves some very challenging topics like domestic abuse, racism, and church abuse. What motivated you to write on these topics?
I grew up mostly in the South during years of the civil rights movement, where I witnessed segregation, desegregation, racial oppression, and abuse but also heroic stands against injustice and some hard-won changes. I learned that attitudes do not change just because laws change. Transformation of the heart is also needed. That is as true today as it was then.
As a young woman, I ran away from an abusive marriage and an oppressive church. My journey toward emotional and spiritual healing took many years. I want women in similar situations to know that they are not alone, that God loves them so very dearly and that the condemnations of their oppressors do not come from Him.
I wrote Night Bird Calling not only for victims of abuse, but in the hope that readers might gain insight, sympathy, and empathy for those who’ve been abused or pushed down, that they might better understand and see creative ways they can help, ways they can be a voice for the voiceless or those needing someone to walk alongside them.
The novel is set in a rural community divided by racism, in a country on the brink of World War II. What prompted you to write about this particular time period and setting?
I see a number of correlations between the years leading up to WWII and our present day. Economic fears, joblessness, uncertainty about where our world is headed, questions about our responsibility and ability to help those who’ve been abused or are in need, and our serious racial divide are all issues people grappled with in 1941 just as we do today.
Sometimes it’s easier to understand our complex difficulties and find creative solutions by viewing them through the lens of a historic time frame rather than the busyness and political divides of modern day. Historical fiction provides that little bit of distance to enhance our objectivity.
How do you expect the novel, especially the struggles of your characters, to resonate with your readers?
We all have ingrained in us a bit of prejudice and a hesitancy to get involved in the troubles of others. We’ve said or done things we later realized were not honorable or kind and have regretted our words or actions.
Many of us have at one time or another been the victim of abuse or oppression or at least marginalization. Some of us have wondered if God could really love us, forgive us, or if we could possibly be welcomed into the church community.
Sometimes we’ve stood as lions against injustice and been that needed voice for the voiceless. Sometimes we’ve been the accuser. Sometimes we’ve been the accused. Sometimes we’ve cowered when we know we should have stood strong against injustice.
No Creek is a community that contains all those characters, with their strengths and foibles. At heart they’re mostly good people who learn they need to change so they can do better, be better and kinder, wiser. I think we all relate to those characters, for at one time or another we’ve all been or known them.
I think that seeing ourselves or our loved ones in the shoes of these characters helps us realize that we, like they, can stand against injustice and work for change and growth within ourselves and our communities.
Can you tell us about the historical research that went into writing this novel? Did you learn anything new that surprised you?
Much of my prior WWII writing has focused on foreign shores, but for this story I researched the American home front before and during WWII through books, Internet research, archival film footage on the Great Depression, Jim Crow laws and their results, the history of lynching and the KKK, racism and the great migration, and the work of Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as histories of Wilkes and Surry Counties in North Carolina and the Appalachian home moonshine industry and its culture. I read about and visited lifesaving stations on the Outer Banks.
Legal sources were interviewed for information regarding trusts, wills, and divorce proceedings in 1941. Newspapers archives for Wilkes County were helpful.
I interviewed some wonderful older people who had lived there during those years and pulled some real-life stories from them, my family, and my own life, then enjoyed a trip to the North Carolina foothills and mountains, soaking up its music and a visit to the church and cemetery where some of my ancestors were buried. For the Oswald and Biddy Chambers threads, I found wonderful information in the biography Mrs. Oswald Chambers by Michelle Ule and in Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God by David McCasland, as well as pertinent passages in My Utmost for His Highest.
I was surprised to learn how close to civilian life the military in North Carolina practiced war games as they trained recruits. I can only imagine it was startling and perhaps frightening to those able to observe.
Stories of racial division and wartime highlight the difficulty of living in uncertainty and dealing with the unexpected. How does faith play into this aspect of the novel and into the novel more generally?
None of us know the future. We don’t control the present. Life—our own and the community and nation in which we live—can turn on a dime. We all need a source, a touchstone, a safe place that also presents a moral lens and a high, stable bar.
Jesus Christ and faith in His unfailing love and provision fills all those needs. Lilliana, Celia, Gladys, the McHones, and others to a lesser extent all learn this lesson and grow from it.
Night Bird Calling presents intriguing and lovable characters in heartbreaking and challenging situations. Did the journeys of any of the characters surprise you as you wrote their story?
I loved writing the big personalities of small-town characters in No Creek, especially precocious eleven-year-old Celia Percy. Celia possesses a lion’s heart in a small body and is ready to rail against injustice and champion the underdog no matter what. Lilliana, the story’s timid young heroine who flees abuse, grows into the woman God intended her to be by relinquishing misguided beliefs, trusting in the Lord’s love for her, and reaching outside herself to help others.
The town is peppered with courage, love, and kindness, as well as prejudice, meanness, and oppression. Such a diverse and racially divided town is a microcosm of our world. Only by embracing the worth of others while acknowledging the “beam” in their own eye could change come to No Creek. That is true for each of us. I love the parable in that.
Marshall, the fifteen-year-old nephew of Olney Tate, descendent of slaves, surprised me. Marshall was sent to live with his aunt and uncle, Mercy and Olney Tate, after his father was murdered in Georgia. Though Marshall could barely read or write, he had a keen eye and a thirst for learning.
I knew Marshall was a hard worker and an honorable young man, but I did not anticipate his excelling so quickly or that he would develop a passion for healing and a desire to apprentice himself to Dr. Vishnevsky—a desire cut short due to the dangers of racism in No Creek. But it is in leaving No Creek that Marshall finds his future—a future that will be explored in my next book.
Opening a lending library from their home to everyone in the community, regardless of race, was a radical move in 1941 Appalachia. What inspired this?
Sometime after fleeing my abusive marriage as a young woman, I bought an old trailer in a run-down neighborhood—a far cry from Garden’s Gate—but the best I could afford at the time. Children in that neighborhood ran as wild and untended as weeds in a garden run amok.
I befriended many of those children—or they befriended me—bought a used bookcase and books at yard sales, and opened a lending library right there in my trailer. Children came for hours sometimes to color pictures, read or be read to, enjoy glasses of milk and homemade bread with jam, and just talk, asking questions about life and God and prison (where one of their fathers served time)—everything imaginable.
Parents often took advantage of their community’s new “free” babysitter, but those were precious and healing days for the children and for me. Years later I remarried and bore my own precious children. When they were old enough, I worked as a children’s librarian in a school. Those memories became the inspiration for Aunt Hyacinth’s lending library in Night Bird Calling.
Is there one character whose experience you especially identify with or one whose story grew out of lessons you learned in your own life?
I identify closely with both Lilliana and Celia, for different reasons. Like Lilliana, I ran away from an abusive marriage and oppressive church as a young woman. It took many years to work through the issues surrounding that and to find healing, to believe that God could really love me.
Helping others in need (by opening the lending library and offering literacy help to the community, opening her home to the Percys, and doing what she could to rescue Ruby Lynne, a girl with similar problems to her own) was important on the path to Lilliana’s healing. Reaching out to help others in need has been a help to me, too.
Like Celia, I was the creative child with big ideas, a strong sense of social justice, and a determination to speak out against injustice no matter the consequences that my mother didn’t know what to do with.
What did you learn by writing this novel, and what lessons do you hope your readers take away?
Night Bird Calling is fiction, as are its characters, though parts of Lilliana’s escape from an abusive marriage and her challenged growth into believing that God really loves her and has a plan for her life were drawn from my own life. I found the dredging up of memories I’ve wanted to forget and the necessary baring of my soul to write this story emotionally challenging, yet in the end I also found it freeing.
Shame loses its hold once confessed. It is truly a gift if that confession helps free others. Abused women are often told not to tell of their abuse and are threatened with dire consequences to ensure their silence. Often they are filled with shame that they cannot stop the abuse, cannot change their abuser, and feel helpless to change themselves or their circumstances. They believe their situations are unique, that no one will believe them, that they are truly alone.
I hope that in writing Lilliana’s story, other women will realize those things are not true, and that abuse does not come from God, no matter what their abuser or oppressor insists. I hope women realize their value lies in the very life God has given them and that He is above all the Husband who never fails us, never hurts us, the One who loves us and always wants a strong and healthy relationship with us. He wants us to be whole.
Visit Cathy Gohlke’s author page:
Night Bird Calling
Buy the book from our store!
From award-winning author Cathy Gohlke, whose novels have been called “haunting” (Library Journal on Saving Amelie) and “page-turning” (Francine Rivers on Secrets She Kept), comes a historical fiction story of courage and transformation set in rural Appalachia on the eve of WWII.
When Lilliana Swope’s beloved mother dies, Lilliana gathers her last ounce of courage and flees her abusive husband for the home of her only living relative in the foothills of No Creek, North Carolina. Though Hyacinth Belvidere hasn’t seen Lilliana since she was five, she offers her cherished great-niece a safe harbor. Their joyful reunion inspires plans to revive Aunt Hyacinth’s estate and open a public library where everyone is welcome, no matter the color of their skin.
Slowly Lilliana finds revival and friendship in No Creek—with precocious eleven-year-old Celia Percy, with kindhearted Reverend Jesse Willard, and with Ruby Lynne Wishon, a young woman whose secrets could destroy both them and the town. When the plans for the library also incite the wrath of the Klan, the dangers of Lilliana’s past and present threaten to topple her before she’s learned to stand.
With war brewing for the nation and for her newfound community, Lilliana must overcome a hard truth voiced by her young friend Celia: “Wishing comes easy. Change don’t.”