The power of forgiveness
On the heels of ‘American Masculine,’ Shann Ray Ferch will read latest work at tonight’s Bedtime Stories
In the new story he’ll read tonight in Spokane, love comes first. Then comes hatred, then comes violence, then comes forgiveness.
It’s the last part that fascinates Ferch, as a path back to love, as a healer of violence. His lauded short story collection “American Masculine” reflects that fascination, containing, as one reviewer wrote, “an echo of forgiveness” that sounds through 10 stories about men and women suffering the everyday wounds of addiction, abuse, marriage.
The stories are set on Montana reservations and in small towns and, occasionally, Spokane.
Among the four authors who’ll read new work at tonight’s Bedtime Stories event – a fundraiser for Humanities Washington, set for the first time in Spokane – Ferch may be the up-and-comer. He is an accomplished up-and-comer.
Most recently, “American Masculine” won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, to be formally awarded next month. The book, published in 2011 by Graywolf Press, also received the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize and has appeared on “best-of” lists including Esquire’s Three Books Every Man Should Read. In 2011, Ferch received a $25,000 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Ferch – who writes fiction under the name Shann Ray – teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University. His nonfiction book, “Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity,” was published in November, and he is a practicing psychologist. Ferch played basketball for Montana State and Pepperdine universities and professionally in Germany.
Humanities Washington has hosted the annual fundraiser in Seattle for more than a decade. The nonprofit provides reading, writing, lecture and discussion programs throughout the state.
Tickets are sold out for Bedtime Stories’ first date in Spokane. Kim Barnes, Jim Lynch and Nance Van Winckel also will read new work inspired by the event’s theme. Jess Walter will serve as master of ceremonies.
Eastern Washington is gaining attention as home to a host of accomplished writers, said Julie Ziegler, the humanities organization’s executive director.
The attention is “long overdue, honestly, but hopefully a long trend,” she said.
Ferch, 44, lives with his wife, Jennifer Ferch, and three daughters on Spokane’s North Side. In advance of Bedtime Stories, he answered questions about his work. Here’s a transcript of the interview, edited for length:
S-R: The theme of the event is “Red Eye.” What did that theme inspire in you?
Ferch: Someone had told me that the Mat Kearney song “Like Ships in the Night” was about a friend he knew, struggling in their marriage – (they’d) kind of lost each other. It struck when I was driving to Montana and listening to Mat Kearney: That would be good, to talk about that notion that people really do fall fully in love and fall fully out of love, and how terrifying that is, and disappointing. All the way through marriage, you look up, and you hate each other, sometimes.
For me, the Red Eye theme, I wanted it to be something about violence, not about tears or sleep. And I wanted that violence to be reconciled by unconditional forgiveness. Those were the aims of the art for me in that short story … falling in love, falling out of love, getting hateful, getting violent and then reconciling.
S-R: Several characters in your book are on the wrong end of marriage, where resentment, even repulsion, runs high. What does marriage do to people in the worst-case scenario? What does it do for people in the best?
Ferch: The country in general is really struggling with how to relate in an in-depth form of love that will endure and heal and give people life. I think everybody wants that, but once we get into it we get lost really fast. And the reason we get lost is that the art of loving is almost all about self-responsibility and self-sacrifice, and the country has a very difficult time with self-responsibility and self-sacrifice.
… It’s like we just run headlong into this war zone without knowing that’s what we were going to do. And we have no idea how to avoid it usually. If you look at examples of people married more than three to five to seven years, how many of them do you see delight in their eyes and a quality of affection that is engaging and that you can tell gives them life?
And I think that’s just the sad state of it.
Now, people that you do see like that have earned it. To understand that level of sacrificial love is very hard work. Once it comes into play as a real change in a person’s body, it’s not as hard work anymore.
S-R: Your nonfiction book addresses the role of forgiveness as it can address abuses of power, and you teach forgiveness studies. Will you talk about the field?
Ferch: Forgiveness had always been studied in theology and philosophy. Now it’s really a strongly advanced field of study, and some of the findings are stunning. For example, people with higher forgiveness capacity have lower anxiety, lower depression, less heart disease, and there’s bridges being made now to stronger immune systems. The findings are unreal, powerful, beautiful, commonsensical.
There’s been a major movement of study that has clarified that forgiveness is not co-dependency, forgiveness is not victimhood, forgiveness has its own true power. What I’m fascinated by is the idea that ultimate forgiveness and ultimate violence are in a systemic interrelationship. Ultimate forgiveness heals ultimate violence.
S-R: Do you ever take your family to visit the reservation where you lived as a child?
Ferch: A lot of my most deep, true relationships are with Cheyennes or Sioux or Blackfeet, just different friendships over the years. The foundation is Cheyenne, because that’s where I lived (on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeastern Montana). The Native American community in Montana is tight-knit, especially in basketball, so you get to know people all over the place. My family’s gone back to various reservations.
It’s awesome and hilarious how the world is so unique and diverse everywhere you go. One time we were in Browning, and it’s on the windswept high steppe on the base of the Rockies. We’re just driving through downtown, it was small, and a couple of Blackfeet kids are on their horses going through Subway drive-through. That was awesome for our girls.
(My dad, Tom Ferch) grew up also very close to a Native American community and ended up coaching two different reservation teams that were awesome and drew the whole community together. He’s still so honored in Native American communities. They honor elders, period. He still plays at age 70. The last Blackfeet tournament I was in with him they had a whole halftime devoted to him and gave him a beaded belt buckle and wrapped him in an Indian blanket, which symbolizes, “You’re always welcome here.”
S-R: Have you finished your novel?
Ferch: It’s in the rounds of finish. This one’s called “Blood, Fire, Vapor, Smoke.” I hope to go to my agent with it in, I hope, a month or two. It’s finished, from the perspective of everything’s there. Now it’s honing and filling out different parts. I think it has a better chance than the last four that died, but we’ll see.
S-R: What’s it about?
Ferch: It’s a love triangle set around the turn of the century, 1900 up to maybe 1933. It features the daughter of a copper baron out of Butte, the very poor white trash-oriented big man that is featured in “The Big Divide,” the story in “American Masculine.” So it’s her, him and the young grandson of one of the Cheyenne peace chiefs named Black Kettle. It’s that love triangle between those three, and the various violent and forgiveness-oriented tensions of life.
S-R: Spokane appears as a setting in “American Masculine.” Why do you live here?
Ferch: Spokane is a great microcosm of the masculine and the feminine, the struggle between the races, the struggle of socioeconomic status in a community that desires to exalt beauty, goodness, truth, community. I think it can do that because of the size. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect at it, but it’s a special community.
And the arts community is incredible, just so outstanding, with the powerful amount of depth of thought in art that comes from people like Sherman Alexie and Kim Barnes and Jess Walter (and others). So that’s a huge nexus if you’re talking about literary arts – that would be hard to find in other areas of the country – with a certain grounding that comes with being imbedded in wilderness, not in urbanness.
You get a certain grounding from being imbedded in wilderness which means you didn’t walk only on concrete your whole life, you actually walked in forest or on mountains, or in rivers, in lakes. That does something to your body and to your mind and to your spirit, which I think is healthy and helpful, especially in light-speed society.