Tuesday 10 October 2023

An Interview with Cherie Dargan

This month's FTRS featured reader is Cherie Dargan, the author of The Gift, a novel from the Grandmother’s Treasures series. The Gift, set both during WWII and the contemporary period, tells the story of three sisters who leave Iowa to work in California during WWII and the lasting impact of those years on their family. Dargan is a retired instructor of English at Hawkeye Community College, and you can follow her on Substack

Cherie Dargan will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on October 26 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The open mic takes place at 7:00 p.m., and Cherie Dargan takes the stage at 7:30. Dargan’s reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a Zoom link. 

Interview by Patrick Markovich.

Patrick Markovich: How did you manage the voice of each person you write about?
Cherie Dargan: While I based characters on my mother, Charlotte, and my aunt Jeanne, I didn’t tell their life stories. I created a fictional family, a family tree, and a cast of characters for the 2012 story and the one set during WWII. However, I read through my mother’s big notebook about WWII. She wrote a chapter about each year from 1939 through 1946. She wrote about teaching in a one-room schoolhouse for two years, teaching her small town about food rationing, and wiring up the schoolhouse and farm. So those things are true to life. My mother died 25 years ago, but her hard work documenting her life helped me write the book. Aunt Jeanne was 96 in 2020 and read the first draft and loved it. I put the published book in her hands a week before she died at age 98 and told her that Aunt Violet lives on in three more books! 

PM: Where did you get the idea for the series?
I inherited a dozen antique quilts stored in a big antique chest built by my grandfather. In addition, Mom left notebooks filled with family genealogy. I got the idea for Gracie’s grandmother to say, “Every quilt has a story.” So, I took little bits and pieces of family history and created a series of novels that each included a mystery or puzzle about an old quilt. Quilts and making quilts were more than something to keep warm. They represented women gathered at churches or in people’s living rooms around a large quilting frame. Friends, family, and neighbors worked side by side and as they did, they told stories, shared gossip, and listened to their friends and loved ones. 

PM: How did you go about approaching the symbol of the quilt? I like to think it’s a really significant part of the story since it’s related to documenting family history and preserving it.
Thank you! Yes, I was trying to create a story with a quilt at the heart of it, but the quilt was only a symbol of the problem. It was a concrete reminder of what had happened in California. The mother and aunts thought they could reconcile the two sisters if they sat down to quilt together. But that effort failed and made things worse because they didn’t confront what had happened. Worse still, no one in the younger generation knew what had happened in California, so it was a big mystery. Gracie asks her mother why the quilt is called the California quilt, and her mother does not know. The grandmother hid the quilt away in a closet and didn’t want to talk about it. So, as parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles died, only the twins and their big sister, Grandma Grace, knew what had happened in California. She told the story through the tapes and trusted her granddaughter to take the next step. I have several faded old quilts that could be the California quilt. I pondered what it would take to betray a twin sister and create chaos and heartbreak throughout the family. And then I found my story. 

PM: Was it always intended to be a dual timeline story?
Yes, I’m fascinated with the idea of the dual timeline/dual narrator novel where the reader is getting two perspectives, and the storylines weave together. Since the main character, Gracie, works at a county museum, has deep roots in Jubilee Junction, and has two elderly aunts on her mother’s side and three on her father’s, there are all kinds of possibilities for discovering an old quilt, photo, diary, telegram, or other artifact. I used a series of cassette tapes instead of letters in The Gift. I wanted to introduce the concept of oral history as part of the novel. Gracie realizes the power of hearing her grandmother’s voice and incorporates that into her exhibits. In my family, cassette tapes were a big deal in the 1970s and 80s. I went off to college in 1972 and my grandma would send me a cassette tape instead of a letter. So, I’d sit on my bed or at my desk and hit “play.” My grandma Nellie would walk around the farm and carry the little tape recorder with her. She was around 4’ 11” and 100 pounds, walking around the farm or sitting in her swing from the willow tree, talking to me in her soft little voice. “Well, Art’s going to take me into Garwin, and we’re going to get some groceries after I get my hair done.” All the while, I hear the birds, chickens, cows, pigs, horses, Shep the farm dog, and my Grandpa Art. And she doesn’t mean to be funny, but she is, somehow. My hallmates looked into the doorway of my room as if they expected to see farm animals. 

PM: You’ve said that The Gift is part of a projected series. Without giving away any spoilers, can you say anything about where the series is headed?

The series sees Gracie make some important relationship decisions in the first book. She also makes a new friend of David MacNeill, the new history teacher at Jubilee Junction Community College. As each book reveals a new quilt—coming from a different grandmother—she gains confidence in her abilities to find answers, and we get to know her family and friends. And her relationship with David turns romantic. I hope to get at least Books Three and Four out next year, and perhaps Book Five. Then, I have ideas for three more books at least.

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