An Interview with N.D. Wilson, author of Death by Living

Death By Living_Book Cover_High Resolution

I had the great pleasure of interviewing N.D. Wilson, a best-selling author whose latest book, Death by Living: Life is Meant to be Spent, was published this past July.

Death by Living is a follow-up to Wilson’s Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, which was critically acclaimed. Wilson is an insightful writer, who at the same time obviously likes to have fun. Just read his bio:

N.D. Wilson is a best-selling author, professional daydreamer, and occasional screenwriter. His novels include the 100 Cupboards trilogy and the Ashtown Burials series; his first work of nonfiction was Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, and he has several scripts in various stages of development. He enjoys hilltops, calluses, and the smell of rain on hot asphalt. He and his wife have five children, and they watch them battle the sea with surfboards and buckets as often as possible. He once faked the Shroud of Turin, which got him yelled at on Hungarian television, and he typed a tiny novel on a paper napkin which was then printed in Esquire magazine (that bastion of righteousness). He is currently a Fellow of Literature at New Saint Andrews College, where he teaches freshman how to play with words. Like everyone else, he is made from dust.

Wilson had a lot of insightful things to say, about his writing and about life:

SR: When and why did you decide to become a writer?

N.D.: I don’t remember ever deciding to be a writer. I remember realizing that I was going to be a writer and making that declaration at the dinner table some time in the 6th grade. But at the time, I was only thinking about novels. It wasn’t until my freshman year in college that I began playing around with the first seeds of the type of personal creative nonfiction that is now fully enfleshed in Death by Living (and Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl before that). I wanted to write in part because whenever something wild or funny happened, I felt a deep itch to reexpress it my own words (usually for laughs).

SR: What was the first story you ever wrote?

N.D.: Something wretched in the sixth grade set in a cave in Scotland after a nasty bit of head-knocking. Don’t remember what I called it at the time, but I remember being pleased with it and reading it aloud to my fam (including grandparents). My grandfather was…honest in his response.

SR: What influences your writing?

N.D.: Life. Weather. My kids. Wind. Any part of creation that I am privileged to glimpse. Oh…and Lewis and Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton and P.G. Wodehouse.

SR: How often do you use Twitter and Facebook? Do you feel those mediums can convey any significant/valuable messages?

N.D.: Less than most. I tweet (@ndwilsonmutters) but not with any kind of focus. I have never in my life gone wandering the wilds of the Facebook (although I have a page).

SR: What’s your take on authors who tell stories in under 140 characters?

N.D.: There once was an author who decided to tweet an entire narrative biography.

SR: How did you come up with the idea for Death by Living?

N.D.: By being alive. By seeing birth. By seeing death. By looking at the horizon of my own mortality with as much faith as I have been given.

SR: How long did it take to write Death by Living? What kind of research, if any, did it require? And how long did it take to research?

N.D.: Since I’m drawing on everything I’ve known and felt, I could cop out and say it has taken me my whole life (34 years). But as far as the writing proper goes, some of this began 12 years ago when I was first married, and at least one piece of this prose tapestry even predates that. These are themes and thoughts that I have been chasing and feeling and teasing out for a long time. But it wasn’t until I was writing the eulogies for two of my grandparents that this book began to take shape as one single work. Standing beside those graves, I found words and thoughts that I had been groping after for years. As for research, I spent hours doing interviews with both of my grandfathers, and that process gave me a sense for my own smallness in God’s narrative that I hope is communicated in the book.

SR: What is the biggest takeaway you want readers to have from Death by Living?

N.D.: Live hard. Be willing to be used up beautifully, to lay your life down for those coming behind.

SR: What would you recommend people do to live life in a more meaningful way?

N.D.: Forget yourself. Your own life is not about you. Be grace to the people closest to you. Always.

Here’s the official description of Wilson’s book. Read on for an excerpt, or if you’re already sold, buy your copy here!

A poetic portrait of faith, futility, and the joy of this mortal life.

In this astoundingly unique book, bestselling author N.D. Wilson reminds each of us that to truly live we must recognize that we are dying. Every second we create more of our past—more decisions, more breathing, more love and more loathing, all of it slides by into the gone as we race to grab at more moments, at more memories made and already fading.

We are all authors, creators of our own pasts, of the books that will be our lives. We stare at the future or obsess about the present, but only the past has been set in stone, and we are the ones setting it. When we race across the wet concrete of time without purpose, without goals, without laughter and love and sacrifice, then we fail in our mortal moment. We race toward our inevitable ends without artistry and without beauty.

All of us must pause and breathe. See the past, see your life as the fruit of providence and thousands of personal narratives. What led to you? You did not choose where to set your feet in time. You choose where to set them next.

Then, we must see the future, not just to stare into the fog of distant years but to see the crystal choices as they race toward us in this sharp foreground we call the present. We stand in the now.  God says create. Live. Choose. Shape the past. Etch your life in stone, and what you make will be forever.

An excerpt from Death by Living, by N.D. Wilson

Chapter 8: The (Blessed) Lash of Time

On Saturday nights, our family gathers at my parents’ house to eat and laugh and drink to grace. My sisters and their husbands come with their tribes and I with mine.

My grandmother, mother to my father, went into the ground on top of a hill two years ago. James Irwin Wilson comes to these Saturday dinners alone (and yet not). He is the one most likely to ask if he can invite an ex-convict, or to need a ride because he loaned his car (knowingly) to a thief, and now it is gone. His heart struggles. His blood struggles. The man who rowed at the Naval Academy now walks with a cane. The boy who was there when a stallion was rearing and his father was falling to the ground, the boy who ran a ten-acre farm and finished high school and worked eight-hour shifts every night in the Omaha stockyard is now eighty-five and not yet spent. Though he is trying to be. My grandfather has no intention of ending his life with closed fists. His hands will be open and they will be empty.

I began meeting with him early on those Saturday afternoons, and I set up a camera. He was uncomfortable that first time, because I was demanding that he talk about himself, and because he had forgotten to wear a tie. I laughed (in my sweater and jeans). He hasn’t forgotten his tie since.

When he turned eighty-five, he asked for no presents. Like a good hobbit (though I have always said that he is more entish), he wanted to give to us. He is not in the business of accumulating, especially now, as he hears the crowd counting down. He had some birthday menu requests (with pie for dessert), and then he wanted to tell stories to his great grandchildren.

That Saturday, aunts and uncles and cousins came, and when we had eaten and sung and laughed, we settled him in an armchair and sixteen great-grandchildren wrapped around his feet on the floor.

He had no doodads to give. No cheap party favors. Instead, he gave those kids what they could never buy for themselves, what they could never find on their own. He gave them the memories of a boy on a Nebraska farm with brothers, a boy trying to break a wild prairie mustang. He gave them memories of his mother, born in a sod dugout in the prairie grass.

He gave a crowd of mostly small people (who all exist because of his choices in his moments) a glimpse at a time long gone, at moments extinct, at vapor seen with his eyes and remembered.

I—and all of those children—reap a tremendous daily harvest thanks to his faithfulness, thanks to the man with the cane who has received his life with joy, and whose large hands have always been open. Thanks to the Author who crafted such a character and set him on his path, who claimed his heart and carried his burden.

For my part, as he sat and talked, I held a camera. A time will come, I pray, when I am the spent one in the chair still aiming to give. And if I reach his age in 2063, I hope, even then, to introduce this man to generations unborn, to give them more than words, but the flickering image of this face, and the sound of this voice.

On his birthday, this grandfather is not yet done. He has more wealth to give. He chose a passage of Scripture for each of his children and their spouses, for each of their children and their spouses, and for each of their children. Forty-six souls (and counting). He asked a son to arrange and print each passage on archive paper, and he wrote a note of marginalia to each of us, in the sharp, perfect handwriting of another time.

To the youngest of all, my sister’s two-month-old son, he handwrote a simple message next to Colossians 1:9–12: “You may not remember me. I remember you and prayed for you when you were one day old. -Great Grandpa”

My sister cried.

My grandfather’s accounts are in order. His seed is sown. His hoard is elsewhere, in the faces at his feet, and in the hundreds and thousands of stories his own story has touched and will continue to shape.

Drink your wine. Laugh from your gut. Burden your moments with thankfulness. Be as empty as you can be when that clock winds down. Spend your life. And if time is a river, may you leave a wake.

Published by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Purchase your copy here.


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