The Backstory of “A-Tumblin’ Down”

The long past and deep roots of the first novel to be published by Thornbush Press.

The very first scenes of A-Tumblin’ Down were written in 2006 or 2007, when I was in a little fiction writing group in grad school. Donald and Kitty arrived on the scene first, fully formed and self-named. Donald was already haunted by his imposing grandfather and the historical veracity of the battle of Jericho; Kitty’s council was more real to her than any human beings. Some of the bits of the first two chapters involving them survived to the present novel.

I filed the tiny seeds of this story away in the deep freeze and went on with another dozen or so years of life. I wrote other stuff in the meanwhile—some failed novels and some successful short stories. I read a lot on how to craft a story that works. I’ve concluded that it’s almost random which one of the many excellent methods out there finally gets through to an aspiring writer, but for me it was The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. I used it to structure and edit my memoir, I Am a Brave Bridge: An American Girl’s Hilarious and Heartbreaking Year in the Fledgling Republic of Slovakia. Luckily, that year in Slovakia was already a self-contained story arc: art conveniently imitated life, and I thereby finally grasped the logic of story structure.

In spring 2020, the entire world shut down for reasons entirely too obvious to state. In response, I started Thornbush Press and put out the memoir as well as a couple shorter books to learn that side of the business. Then I realized there was no better time to start writing the Great Lutheran-American Novel. Part of our decision to move to Japan in 2018 was to give me more time to write anyway. So it was now or never!

I went back to my many abortive novel projects and notebooks of ideas to vet possible story candidates. Out of the many choices available, this one kept pushing its way forward. I’m not quite sure how these things play out in the creative mind, but in the end the story that would become A-Tumblin’ Down beat back all other contenders and insisted on being written.

Lacking confidence in my choice or ability, I decided to go to Starbucks twice a week and do nothing but work on this book there. A boring environment is good for creativity on the page. Or screen. It took me a couple months to take it seriously and consider it a worthy project. But even as I tentatively started, I realized that it didn’t matter if the book turned out any good. It only mattered that I write it. Even if I never shared it with anyone else, evidently my soul needed to write this book. That ended up carrying me through long enough to gain confidence in the book itself. The whole drafting process lasted thirteen months, from May 2020 to June 2021.

Of course, there were also spiritual and theological forces driving this story for me. Theodicy is obviously one of them, and the answers here are no more conclusive than any others. I wanted to show the range of Christian ways-of-being in America. It’s obvious that I don’t stand where Grandfather Abney does, but I respect him, and I hope the reader does, too. I liked the balance of the ecumenical council, and Carmichael’s curious experience of becoming Christian and a pastor’s wife at virtually the same time.

At the root of it is the question: how do we trust God to do as He promises? The Bible tells me so, but what if the Bible comes into question? Do we get to assert the principle without the historical substrate to bear witness to it?

Creation and evolution and dinosaurs all seemed too obvious and done to death. I liked the idea of Jericho being the neuralgic center of Donald’s doubts instead. It helped that the city of Jericho has echoes in the New Testament and in the news, too, not to mention the old spiritual that became a Sunday School standard.

Long after writing the initial scenes with the Jericho debate, I actually got around to reading and wrestling with Joshua. It is, for me, the hardest of the canonical books of the Bible to bear. I had a chance to write a commentary on it once, but on rereading it I only got as far as chapter 8 before I said, “Nope, nope, nope, not a chance!” (My dad ended up writing the commentary instead—a much better arrangement all around.)

Still, it’s hard to be a theologian and pastor committed to the Scripture as the word of God, yet regard part of it with such repugnance. So I turned it into a challenge for myself: could I make this most difficult of all biblical books fruitful for the Christian faith?

Admittedly, I left out all the mass exterminations and herem warfare. (I have my limits.) But in the end I drew on quite a range of motifs in Joshua, and it did end up bearing fruit for the Abneys. Hopefully for readers, then, too.

The final thing to say about the book is its setting. My memoir about living in Slovakia, I Am a Brave Bridge, ended with my returning to upstate New York, where I’d grown up in the years before Slovakia, after a very long time away. So long, in fact, that it had become a foreign country to me, and I saw it with dual lenses: one showing me my childhood memories, the other showing me the place as a distinctive locale as exotic as any other I’d visited in my nomadic wanderings. In short, although as a teen I’d left as soon as I could and never looked back, in middle age I became curious again about this foreign country I was raised in.

Much of the detail of the story, then, is drawn from that place and time. Shibboleth is not exactly Delhi, New York, but it’s close. Mt. Moriah Lutheran is something like Immanuel Lutheran, though my family didn’t go through what the Abneys went through, thank God. Those conflicts are rather an aggregate of my own later experience as a pastor, and the many, many stories I’ve heard from fellow pastors over the years. As in my memoir I came to terms with my Slovak heritage, in this novel I turned my attention to the German side of my heritage. I hope the resulting depiction has the texture of real life, even for those who have never been to upstate New York or lurked about German Lutheran churches.

N.B. This is a spoilers-removed excerpt from the Palimpsest Guide to A-Tumblin’ Down, a behind-the-scenes look at the writing, details, and themes of the novel. If you love the book and want to know more, definitely check out the guide! You can also get the dessert section of the Mt. Moriah Lutheran Church Cookbook to try out Carmichael Abney’s apple crisp, Arlene Mayer’s maple-walnut spirals, and other such goodies.