Between the trifecta of assassinations—JFK, MLK, Bobby Kennedy—Vietnam, race riots, The Beatles, and any number of other events and spectacles, we might be forgiven for overlooking the fact that life went on in the 1960s. People went to work, fed their cockatoos, rooted for the Mets, celebrated the Fourth of July, all without a hitch. And yet, as much as everyone strived to maintain a sense of normalcy, everything was experienced in light of the enormous historical happenings. Just imagine if your much-anticipated sixteenth birthday party fell on the same day President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The world stopped on that day and not because you failed to blow out all the candles on your cake.
Barbara Dzikowski’s new novel The Moonstoners is set in those tumultuous times, and a careful read of the book shows that she enjoyed the writing experience immensely. As she says in the interview below, the sixties epitomized “excess of all kinds, including loving too much,” and she found it an irresistible setting to write this first in a family saga trilogy Mari Carlson reviewed in the July/August issue of Foreword Reviews.
We recently caught up with Barbara to discuss love, gravestones, Bobby Kennedy, and other interesting aspects of the novel. Enjoy the interview.
The novel takes place in the US in the 1960s, set against the backdrop of the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. Why did you feel this was the optimal setting for your novel?
It was impossible for me to separate the 1960s from the major theme of The Moonstoners, which is an exploration of love and the true meaning of Blaise Pascal’s mystifying quote, “when one does not love too much, one does not love enough.” Though the novel is coming out on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, it was the lost dreams of that decade, the might-have-beens—Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s “Promised land” and Robert Kennedy’s “newer world”—that inspired me to write it. The ‘60s were the epitome of excess of all kinds, including loving too much. It was a daring time when love was exalted as the supreme panacea to right this world’s wrongs and hatreds.
So not only were the ’60s the optimal setting for this story, it was the only one—the calamities befalling the Trudeaus and the Ziemnys parallel the relentless tragedies of that unique, tumultuous period when national events singed everyday lives—young men being drafted into an unwinnable war, black people trying to throw off the shackles of segregation, women struggling to redefine themselves in a male-dominated, misogynistic society. It was also a challenging time for immigrant neighborhoods, when the America that brought them into being in the first place was in chaos. Yet, in spite of all the traumas, a redemptive quality underlies the novel, the belief that love will ultimately have the last word. The dreams of the 1960s were worth dreaming. They still are.
Love is an enduring theme in the book, touching every character’s life in one form or another throughout the course of the story. Do you feel this message lends a timeless quality to the book, in spite of its ’60s setting?
Absolutely. We’re living in a very divisive time. The opposite of love, of course, is hatred, or maybe indifference to it. So the 1960s are extremely relevant again. The essential questions they raised are perennially relevant. On the surface, The Moonstoners is a love story between a particular man and a woman during a turbulent time in history, but underneath is an exploration of love of all kinds, including the love between parents, children, and siblings; of country and self; the love of martyrs (like King and Kennedy), and the love of God.
Sometimes we do the wrong things for love. Sometimes loving too much can be as destructive as hatred. Pascal’s quote is used not so much to judge characters actions, as to measure them. In their own way, each character loves too much, rightly or wrongly. What does loving too much really mean? Is it about forgiveness? Self-sacrifice? Redemption? Noël comes to her own personal transformation about what it means to her.
One of my biggest influences when researching this novel was a controversial speech that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave against the Vietnam War exactly a year before his death called “A Time to Break Silence”—it’s weaved into one of the most pivotal chapters. If it’s possible to define what “loving too much” really means, Dr. King defined it powerfully in this seminal speech. It captured the gravitas and urgency of that moment in history when we teetered on the precipice between love vs. hate, peace vs. war. Radical as Jesus’ teaching, the speech ignited a firestorm.
In the novel, you utilize multiple narrators: Noël, Ricky, Theckla, Leon, and Adam. Whose perspective did you find the easiest to write? Why?
In writing The Moonstoners, I wanted to try to examine love from multiple perspectives—male and female, old and young, black and white. As a philosophy major in college—and later as a counselor—I’ve always been fascinated by our different worldviews and their etiology, their validity, and their inherent flaws. No one has the cornerstone on absolute truth, which is another reason why we need each other. We’re all broken by life in some way, but we’re all beautiful underneath.
I love writing in multiple perspectives, exploring different sides of the same coin. The Moonstoners is the first book in a family saga trilogy about the Ziemny-Trudeau families, and I just completed the second book, also from multiple POVs. Set in the 1990s, the next one is about three generations transformed by Walt Ziemny’s Alzheimer’s disease. For many years, I was a counselor for people with dementia and their families so it’s a subject near and dear to my heart.
There is an emphasis placed on epitaphs in the novel; Noël seeming to have something of a fascination with them. How did you go about finding and selecting quotes for such a poignant feature?
One autumn afternoon when I was around twenty, I happened across an old country cemetery. A majority of the tombstones, especially the older ones, had awesome inscriptions on them, some original, others that were used more commonly. The personalization of the stones affected me deeply. (I quote a few of the more common inscriptions in the first chapter.) Cemeteries have an eternal quality about them. They give us comfort that the world is, was, and always will be, and that our uniquely individual lives, though fleeting, matter in the ultimate scheme of things.
Grief and loss are another major theme in The Moonstoners. The novel starts with that pivotal event, JFK’s assassination, after which the country collectively goes through the stages of grief. The Beatles were in the right place at the right time—three months after JFK’s death, they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, exactly when our grieving nation needed their transformational sound. I think JFK’s assassination was also the catalyst for the way the rest of the decade played out, the shattering of our blind innocence. It always baffled me how we could fight a world war against Hitler’s heinous atrocities, yet remain a segregated nation when we got back home. Kennedy’s assassination pried open our eyes to some very hard truths.
You mention meeting Senator Robert F. Kennedy yourself while he was campaigning for president. How did this interaction inform your writing of the fictional one between Senator Kennedy and Adam?
When I was twelve years old, I went to an event where I met Robert Kennedy. The set-up was that we assembled in a single-file receiving line and filed past Kennedy one-by-one. When it came my turn to shake his hand and Bobby Kennedy looked down at me—like the cliché—the world started moving in slow motion for me. His hand in mine felt huge. His face had a reddish tint under the lights. He didn’t smile; his intense blue eyes seemed to look right into me. It was a moment that changed my life. I was absolutely crushed when he was murdered five weeks later.
In The Moonstoners when Adam meets Kennedy, I tried to incorporate some of my original awe, but I used thoughts and ideas from Kennedy’s speeches and TV interviews so that I wasn’t putting words in his mouth that he wouldn’t have thought or felt. The same was true for a short speech Kennedy gives in a later chapter when he comes to campaign in the Polish neighborhood.
The book boasts something of a soundtrack, mostly provided by the character of Leon. How did you go about selecting the songs you would use from that era? Do the songs chosen also reflect your personal music tastes?
Music was a huge part of the 1960s. I don’t think you can write about that decade without making reference to it. Television too. The Boomers were the first generation to grow up saturated in and shaped by both influences, and The Moonstoners reflects that.
Leon is the character who is most enigmatic. He goes through his own transformations, but music is the one area that keeps him in touch with his soul. I used song titles to try to evoke the time. They were not necessarily the songs I loved the most from that era, but the ones that were on the Billboard charts when certain events occurred.
Is The Moonstoners your first novel?
I wrote Searching for Lincoln’s Ghost in 2011, a coming-of-age novel about an orphaned eleven-year-old girl who goes hunting for Lincoln’s ghost to confirm the existence of an afterlife. It’s a mystical sort of journey as this young girl desperately seeks answers to life’s most difficult questions and finds surprising answers along the way.
The Moonstoners, 978-0-9840305-3-8, Wiara Books, Barbarajdzikowski.com