Tag Archives: Rumer Godden


Prayers from the ArkRumer Godden is the kind of author that makes people say, “Who?” And you say “Black Narcissus, you know, the film?” And they say, “Oh, did he write more than that one movie?”

Let’s start there. She was a woman. She was the incredibly prolific and talented writer of more than sixty books for children and adults, fiction and non. And she had this thing about nuns, and growing up in India; both of these feature prominently in her work. Check out The Greengage Summer, or Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Prayers from the Ark is one of my favorite books, both by Rumer Godden, and from life’s big eternal library of humanity. It’s actually a translation Godden made of a French collection of poems by Carmen Bernos De Gasztold. This is one of those occasions when the story behind the book is as fascinating as the book itself.

Godden went on a lot of writing retreats, several to a Benedictine Abbey in France. If you want to see where she was, click http://www.abbaye-limon-vauhallan.com

At one of these retreats, while helping the nuns clean–because nothing clears the brain for writing like bottoming out a closet–she found a small, locally-produced book of poems. Charmed after reading the collection, Godden discovered that the poet had lived in the Abbey as a patient (after a mental and physical breakdown) and written the book during the Occupation years of the 1940s. The nuns had encouraged De Gasztold to write as part of her treatment.

Godden sought out the author and worked with Carmen to produce two translated books from her poems: Prayers from the Ark (published in English in 1963) and The Creatures’ Choir (1965).

I love, love, love Prayers from the Ark as much as I love the story of how it came into being. Some of the poems are cynical – the pig, for instance, talking of how hard it is to be grateful when your ultimate goal in life is to be bacon. And some are so sweet. The donkey asks God to please “let me find my little brother of the manger once more.” And the rooster, although grateful for God’s many blessings, wants the Deity to remember that “It is I who make the sun rise.”PrayerOfDucks

Godden spoke of the difficulties of translating the poems: “The economy of words, the subtle play on the double meaning on some of them, the integral rhythm, have been almost impossible to catch…”

Impossible to catch, they may have been, but they caught on quickly, selling out the first American print run within a week. Ivor Davies, a Welsh musician, later set the English translations to music. Call me a plebeian, but I never could get into those performances; such dramatic music over top of that simplicity and sweetness negated the joy for me.

In print, quiet and on the page, they’re brilliant. They’re lovely. They’re thought-provoking. The book has been reprinted again and again. Read it. You’ll see.

The Prayer of the Cat

I am the cat.
It is not exactly that I have something to ask of You!
I ask nothing of anyone–
if You have by some chance in some celestial barn,
a little white mouse,
or a saucer of milk,
I know someone who would relish them.
Wouldn’t you like someday
to put a curse on the whole race of dogs?
If so I should say,


Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, publishing, Uncategorized, writing

Korean Interview, second half

The second half of the interview with Hyoung Eun and the Kyobo Book Club of Korea. It’s interesting to have a different country’s ethos applied to our bookstore’s story. Also, Korea had the cutest cover of all six translations. It’s adorable!book cover Korea I really want a poster of this to put up in our bookstore (yeah, ego, but also it’s just so frigging cute).
5. After your book was published, what changes occurred in your neighborhood and your everyday life?
We have traveled a great deal, visiting other bookstores to promote the book with signings or other events, and meeting lots of like-minded people. What surprised us was how many groups and individuals have come to visit the bookstore, sometimes from quite a distance. This is good for the town as visitors need to eat somewhere and will explore the neighborhood and visit other shops. And it’s loads of fun for us, as everyone brings a different perspective on what they read, what they liked. A lot of them want to meet the cats, or see the Kiwanis letter; that was one of the most resonant points of the book for many people. The other is, oddly enough, “I’ll put the kettle on.” You touched on that earlier!
6. Did you had any ultimate aim with publishing your book? If you did, what was it? 

 Hhmm – I didn’t set out with aim of publishing anything actually. I just wrote down our various experiences, disconnected anecdotes, really. I was more or less trying to make sense of all the things that happened in our first three years, and remember some of the people that we met. Then I thought about writing a “how to” book about running a bookstore, but when I sent that to one agent she told me to forget it, bookstores were dying and no one would publish it. Later a writer friend suggested trying to find an agent for my disconnected collection of stories instead of the how-to, because she thought readers would find the stories hilarious. I still find myself astonished that Little Bookstore not only got published by a mainstream company but then proved so popular. It seems to have really captured where a lot of people are in their lives, the sort of crossroads of dreams and reality in American business culture.
7. Reading your book, we can tell you’re a great storyteller. Do you by any chance have a plan to write a sequel to <The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap>? Or any other writing materials in mind not related to your bookstore? 
 Aw shucks. Thanks! I am actually working on another book – a kind of sequel, but a broader view than just our bookstore. I touched on the tension between neighborhood stores and the big chains in The Little Bookstore and the new book, tentatively titled, Is Being Little the Next Big Thing? will explore this in more depth. It will also have some more cool cat and customer stories in it.
8. If you have any new animal family/staff members, please introduce them to us! 
We always have foster kittens around.I think since we started fostering two years ago we’ve saved about 65 cats from being euthanized in the shelter! And my husband is very proud that of all those foster cats, only one has stayed. We adopted Owen Meany last year just as the book was going to print. I named him Owen Meany because my editor, Nichole, sent me a funny note when we were just starting to work together on Little Bookstore. She’d read the part where I talked about books I didn’t like and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t publish anyone who dislikes A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY.” And this wound up being a joke between us; I’d offer to take that part out if she let me keep writing about something she wanted to discard, etc. So when we adopted a little special needs boy kitty, I said to Jack, “You know what we’re going to name him, right?” And Jack said, “Owen Meany.” And Nichole refers to him as her godcat and sends him notes at Christmas.
9. We’d like to know what used book (the book you actually bought in a used book store at one time or another) you cherish the most through your whole life.
Jack’s is a worn hardback copy of The House at Pooh Corner he got as a birthday present when he was very young from his sister. It came from a used book store. He hand-colored the illustrations himself right after he got it.
My special book is Rumer Godden’s A Candle for St. Jude, which I picked up in Scotland years ago, at a little shop I’m not even sure is there anymore. It was in Milnathort, a tearoom and bookstore called “Common Ground.” It was about as big as an average American living room. And I loved that shop and this book. The book is about never giving up in the artistic world or in life. It’s about dancers, but it applies to all artists. Nothing is ever over. There is no such thing as no more chances. Just keep going.
10. The book market in Korea is shrinking fast. What do you think is the most important part/element in the business that will give life to the market? Or what should we consider to resuscitate it?
We’re not really very knowledgeable about the Korean market, but here in the US the move from printed books to electronic ones is beginning to slow down and there’s evidence that some folk who have been encouraged to read through electronic media are also buying printed books (I’m assuming you mean the market for printed books). These are people who have either never read much before or had stopped reading books. There’s also evidence that folk do value their local independent bookstore – preferring the human contact there to the anonymity of buying on-line. And that comes down to the independent bookstore. I think publishers can’t play as large a part as indie sellers can, in our bricks and mortar shops. We have to become community centers, places where people WANT to go to get a cup of tea and have a chat, sit on a couch, browse, just lower their blood pressure for 15 minutes. In my book I talk about the third place, neither work nor home, and how that’s what bookstores are for people.
There was an article that featured our bookstore and book along with several other independent booksellers, in the Christian Science Monitor this past winter. We talked about 2012 being the year of the bookstore, when people began to discover that online shopping isn’t nearly as fun as actually going to the store, if the sellers are doing it right. Jack and I organize a lot of events, using community expertise. People who are good at astronomy, or drawing, or baking bread, what have you, they will host nights teaching other people to do these things, and those events are very popular. We run events every month, to draw new people to the shop and give regular customers a place to relax, or even showcase their talents. It’s going to be important for bookstores of the future to take this on in a big way.
I see a lot of the bigger bookstores adding merchandise, selling other things besides books, and that seems like their way of trying to make up for lost revenue. But for the smaller stores run by a person or a few people, I think the future lies in being customer-oriented: events they like, service they love, personal touches that bring them back because they feel valued and appreciated. They like being in bookstores because the bookstores like having them there. It should be a win-win.
Thank you for taking time to talk to the Kyobo readers.
 Thank you for asking me! Your questions were thought-provoking.


Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, publishing, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized