Award-winning author Cynthia Ruchti’s new novel, As Waters Gone By (Abingdon Press) tells a complicated story, but still, true to her style, one that is “hemmed in hope.”
This book approaches a very controversial topic, especially for people of faith. When is it okay to walk away from a marriage? Why did you choose to write about this topic?
People of faith have long debated not only what seems right to us, but what God has to say about walking away from a marriage. I’m intrigued by the unique way a novel can address subjects like that by starting conversations, helping the warring parties see depths and layers of the issue (not just the inciting incident or the problem), and developing our empathy while we develop our opinions. Christian fiction has the distinct privilege of expanding our capacity for empathy without prying our hands from our grip on truth.
Emmalyn and Max’s story provides a behind-the-scenes look at a relationship crisis that is not solely reserved for those with an incarcerated spouse. During the process of writing the book, I was gripped with the similarities for others who try to make a home when a spouse is never home–in families of the deployed or those whose work takes them on the road for long stretches of time. Emotional distance can be more crippling to a relationship than physical distance.
I chose this topic because our extended family is living it right now. All my preconceived notions about what it’s like to have a loved one in prison crumbled. Ankle-deep in the fallout, I’m watching people I care about deeply not only survive the separation, but learn how to thrive as a couple despite the distance and the disappointments that caused it.
Hearing from readers who identify with Emmalyn and Max’s struggles reminds me that our family is not alone. And hope is present, even in this. We don’t always notice it. But that’s one of my passions as an author–pulling back the curtain to reveal where hope may be hiding in the bleakest of circumstances.
Can you tell us about your main character Emmalyn and where she finds herself in the beginning of your book?
Emmalyn has lost everything–her identity and career, her marriage (at least short-term), her house, her friends, her connections to her social circles, and her hope of ever becoming a mother, which had been an all-consuming passion until her husband was sent to prison. Her self-imposed exile to Madeline Island was supposed to offer her a safe place to figure out where her life and her marriage are headed when her husband is released in a few months. But the hunting cottage with which she’s saddled is in as much disrepair as everything else about her life. Her faith is so faint, it leaves no marks. She hasn’t seen hope for so long, she’s not sure how to spell it anymore. But the Madeline Island residents–especially the owner of the Wild Iris Inn and Cafe–embrace her brokenness and offer hints that hope may still have a chance.
What would you tell a reader or friend dealing with a similar issue as your main character when they are unsure about the future of their marriage?
One of the worst decisions Emmalyn and Max made was to stop talking. They quit communicating, which can only breed false assumptions and heighten the devastation of unmet expectations. For a time, they both quit communicating with God, too. That can only end poorly. They allowed their hurt and depression to build walls more impenetrable than the cement block and razor wire that separated them. Some friends or readers who observe the path Max and Emmalyn took in the early pages of the story may see themselves and say, “That’s not who I want to be.” As they turn more pages, they may find themselves noticing the differences when the characters sought help, listened to wise counsel, surrendered their preconceived notions in favor of a new dream, and walked through the hard part to get to the healing.
How was this book different from your previous projects?
Every book I write affects me to my core. The novels I feel compelled to pursue don’t shy away from tough topics, and don’t shy away from claiming–as the Wild Iris innkeeper says–“Hope lives here. Even here.” In those ways, As Waters Gone By shares commonality with other novels I’ve written. I’m grateful to Abingdon Press for allowing me the freedom to explore the heart-wrenching on the way to the hope-giving.
If I were to point out a difference in As Waters Gone By, it might be the fact that a secondary character–Boozie Unfortunate, the owner of the Wild Iris–became so vital to the story that I’m not sure Emmalyn and Max would be where they are today without her influence. (And yes, I realize I’m talking bout imaginary characters. But that doesn’t make them fake. They are truth in story form.)
I emerged from writing As Waters Gone By with a strong desire to listen to and love on the hurting I’d too often bypassed in my life. But that kind of life-change happens to me every time. So, how is this book different from the others? Each new novel seems to require more courage to write. I pray that never changes.
This book is set in a special place. Can you tell us why you chose this setting?
Madeline Island is one of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, a ferry ride away from Bayfield, Wisconsin. It is a small island, with a small village and minuscule population in the off-season. But its beauty is breathtaking. A verse in the book of Job (which fits Emmalyn’s situation all too well) says, “The day will come when your troubles will appear as waters gone by” (Job 11:16). The verse and the remoteness of the island, surrounded by a lake so large the locals call it an inland sea, seemed an ideal match for a woman intent on disappearing from life in order to find it.
My husband and I have had getaways on Madeline Island. The couple I’m watching rebuild their marriage from scratch during his incarceration have vacationed there, too. From prison, the husband read the book and reported feeling transported to that unique setting. He also reported what it felt like to read about the realities of what life behind bars can do to a relationship, and the details of his challenges in his own remote island. The spot where Emmalyn lands is a place that I consider one of the most compelling I’ve ever visited. I’m heading there someday soon to take more pictures and soak in the atmosphere in which hope finds its home.