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When author and city-slicker Deb Elkink fell in love and married an introverted cowboy, she moved from her bright lights to his isolated cattle ranch far off in the prairie grasslands. Still—between learning to pilot a light aircraft, sewing for a costume rental store, and cooking for branding crews of a hundred—Deb graduated with a B.A. in Communications from Bethel University in St. Paul, MN; she also holds an M.A. in Theology (both summa cum laude).
Her award-winning debut novel, THE THIRD GRACE, is set in the contrasting locales of Parisian street and Nebraskan farmyard, and incorporates Greek mythology and aesthetics with the personal search for self. Her writing has been described as “layered and sumptuous,” “compelling,” and “satisfying.”
Visit her website atwww.DebElkink.com.
Pick up your paperback copy of Deb Elkink’s THE THIRD GRACE at Amazon.
Thanks for agreeing to an interview today, Deb. What’s the significance of your novel’s title, The Third Grace?
A: It’s lovely to chat with you, thanks. The Third Grace grapples with mythological, aesthetic, and spiritual themes, and the concept of grace runs throughout it.
Can you expound a bit on that?
Well, to begin with, I always christen my characters according to name meaning. Back when she was 17, farm-girl Mary Grace (meaning “bitter” and “charm”) felt anything but graceful. She fell in love when French exchange student François flattered her with compliments comparing her to a Greek goddess, Aglaia (meaning “brightly shining one, keeper of treasures”). Mary Grace legally adopted the name when she redefined herself, running away from farm, family, and faith to the big city of Denver, determined to become a poised costume designer and climb the ladder of success in the arts world.
Then, my title reflects the artistic and literary aspect of grace through Aglaia’s professional involvement with the stage and her obsession with Greek mythology. Her namesake goddess was the most beautiful sister of the Three Graces (or Charites)—daughters of Zeus and attendants of Aphrodite presiding over the banquet, the dance, and all the fine arts. Even Aglaia’s love of sewing imitates the artistry of these goddesses, and François’s enduring stories continue to enchant her all these years later.
Now, she’s about to leave on a business trip to Paris, the city of her dreams and the pinnacle of sophistication. Aglaia also hopes to play the tourist and visit the Louvre’s marble statue grouping of The Three Graces that François used as the icon of his seduction. Maybe between business meetings and sightseeing she’ll even look for her lost lover in the flesh. But she keeps running into her past life through her reading material and her memories, which together remind her of a third definition of grace as the “unmerited favor of God.”
There’s more to the title The Third Grace, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say that Aglaia faces what Mary Grace, The Three Graces, and the metaphysical concept of grace itself are all about.
So your story includes a lot of Greek mythology?
Yes, and I loved researching the topic, which holds the key to François’s motivation and much of Aglaia’s identity.
For example, I learned about Chaos, the dark nothingness from which all else sprang. And I read about Gaia, who gave birth to the starry heavens as eternal home for the blessed and bestial gods, and then gave birth to Tartarus as the lowest level of the underworld and a wretched pit of blackness reserved for eternal punishment, and then gave birth to Eros as erotic love: heaven, hell, and sex all born out of one divine womb.
The Graces figure in many of François’s mythological tales: Embodying refinement, they dressed the gods in the finest of clothing for their sumptuous banquets and brought luxury to the pantheon on Mount Olympus; they wove the rainbow for Iris to wear; they were involved in the love affair between Orion and the nymph Merope; they tempted Sisyphus, and his lust damned him to the everlasting task of rolling a boulder uphill.
It sounds as though there are parallels between Greek myths and biblical stories—I mean, creation and heaven and hell . . .
That’s exactly the connection François made when he jotted notes into the margins of a Bible his host family forced on him that summer in Aglaia’s past—notes she now discovers, and which reignite all her passionate teen memories of him. For example, where Genesis says, “In the beginning, God created,” he wrote, “In the beginning, the gods created.” The juxtaposition of motifs is at the heart of the story: fatalism versus faith, devolution versus incarnation, imagination versus reality, wandering journey versus purposeful quest.
How do you answer the criticism by some conservative readers that The Third Grace is too steamy?
I wonder: Don’t they have memories of falling in love, being swept away by that sultry glance and that first kiss?
In fact, it’s true that my whole novel is steeped in sensuality: tastes of French wine and Mennonite borscht, scent of fine perfume, howling of prairie wind and murmurs of throaty saxophone, glimpses in a Parisian market of dead chickens hanging from twine-wrapped claws and brown blocks of Marseillaise soap. And I admit that a few of my scenes sizzle with romance some readers find perturbing.
My answer is that real life can’t avoid the senses of the physical body, which is after all the container of the soul. I didn’t write these scenes to cause discomfort, but I also didn’t write my story for children. Maybe it’s a bit spicy, but I wouldn’t call it erotic.
Please share with us a few telling lines from the novel, with some context.
François quotes Ancient Greek poetry about the Three Graces as he sweet-talks Aglaia:
“Their alluring eyes glance from under their brows, and from their eyelids drips desire that unstrings the limbs.”
Aglaia’s boss at Incognito Costume Shop, Ebenezer MacAdam, sees her floundering in her personal life and refers to Dante’s Divine Comedy when he tells her:
We all wake one day, midway the path of life, to find ourselves in a dark wood where the right way is wholly lost and gone. Perhaps trying to look good is the first step homeward.
Dr. Lou Chapman, Aglaia’s mentor manipulating her for professional and personal ends, schemes with a colleague (the university theater department head) in trying to hire Aglaia away from her current job:
I think she’ll bite, Oliver. I’ve inferred to Aglaia that you’ll give her a lecturing position in the arts program.
Much later, in a short but pivotal line, Lou writes alongside François’s penciled jottings in the Bible another message in ink—a direct challenge to the boyfriend’s influence:
SEE ME. LOU.
In a scene where Aglaia reconnects, rather unwillingly, with a plodding and unimaginative childhood friend who still lives out in the country and eventually reveals a pivotal bit of news, we read:
Naomi had never been as pretty as Aglaia, a fact she freely admitted as a teen. But she still wore joy on her face like a makeup.
Aglaia is overwhelmed by feelings stimulated not only through mythological stories but also through Bible verses learned by heart as a child and haunting her again as, emotionally and spiritually parched, she reads Francois’s margin notes:
Her subconscious was soaked in the words of the text, and they taunted her now . . . Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters, her memory echoed.
In another echo of the words of invitation Aglaia can’t get out of her mind, her farmer parents make an astounding request:
“Won’t you come back home to us? . . . “Won’t you come back?”
Some of these lines arouse in me a desiderium—that ardent longing (or even grieving) as for something lost. My epitaphs at the very beginning of the book express it well:
Be mindful, goddess! of thy promise made;
Must sad Ulysses ever be delay’d?
Around their lord my sad companions mourn,
Each breast beats homeward, anxious to return.
Man has always lost his way. He has been a tramp ever since Eden; but he always knew, or thought he knew, what he was looking for.
(G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World)
Does your next novel deal with similar themes of finding oneself, of looking for meaning?
In in a way, it does. Libby, a Minneapolis salesclerk being harassed by a bag lady, is on the verge of her first home purchase, while her best friend is tempting her instead to spend her money in traveling along to “sacred sites” around the globe. Discovering a child’s Victorian ring in her deceased grandmother’s effects sends Libby to a mansion museum in North Dakota, where she finds her own heritage and the true meaning of “home.”
That sounds intriguing. I’ll be watching for it.
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