When Amish youth come of age they have the opportunity for Rumspringa — a rite of passage where normally strict rules about clothes and social activities are relaxed so they may experience the outside world until they are ready to re-enter the Amish community permanently. In the novel “The Overdue Life of Amy Byler,” by Kelly Harms, main character Amy Byler is offered a chance at what she calls a “Momspringa.”
Byler, a single mother of two, has been reeling since her husband left her three years ago. He returns out of the blue and asks to take the children for the summer, giving Byler a much-needed break from life. She travels to New York City and attempts to be someone else.
The book is the third from Madison author Kelly Harms. She recently talked with the State Journal about her latest book and what’s coming next.
Q: The term “Momspringa” is hilarious. Where and how did you come up with this concept?
A: I think it was already in the lexicon, but it didn’t get used at all. I was talking to people about living in Amish country … seeing the kids (during Rumspringa) go from buggies to race cars and wondered what would happen if a mom had a similar experience.
Q: The main character, Amy Byler, lives in Amish country in Pennsylvania — but much of the book takes place during the two months she spends in New York City, where you also have lived. Did you enjoy writing about a place you used to live?
A: I lived there for almost a decade and it was fabulous and I hope a lot of the New York affection came through.
Q: This is your third book; was writing it any different than your two previous novels?
A: I had a little bit more experience with this character’s back story because I’m a single mom myself. In that regard, (writing this novel) was a little bit different. I never would have had a Momspringa by Amy’s standard, but there was a time during the full-time single parenting where I had one day off a week. And I did live it up on those days. I was tired and I was like Amy in that I just wanted to read a book, but as time went on ... I got to enjoy that time. My son also goes to grandma camp once a year. I can’t recommend that enough.
Q: How autobiographical is the main character?
A: Within reason. I have a far better co-parent than the character in this book. I invented John (the husband who leaves) and when John came to me he wanted to be this two-dimensional character that could be this jerk. But there’s always more to the story. So Cori’s (the 15-year-old daughter) perspective of him really helped me get a little bit more of John’s experience in the story. I don’t think he’s the bad guy of the story at all. He really rises to the occasion when it comes time to parent.
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(As for Amy being a librarian,) my mom is a librarian and I love to read. I made Amy a children’s librarian because I really wanted to make sure her life was just steeped in teenage crazy all the time. Then I started to read the books she would have been reading for the students … and fell in love with the young adult scope of books. That really helped me write Amy as an interesting person … there is no problem you can’t solve by finding the prefect book recommendation. I got to meet a lot of teenagers and find out what books they are reading.
Q: One book you mention is “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell, a personal favorite of mine. Why highlight that one?
A: That was very intentional. I decided to go through and find my absolute favorite authors and, where I could, mention them if possible.
Q: Main character Amy is a librarian and part of the novel focuses on her idea to break down stigmas in teen reading levels. Her goal is for students to choose what books to read from a personal e-reader, not knowing what other students are choosing to read. Is this something you feel passionately about personally?
A: I have a son and he is only choosing books that have been branded toward boys. He’s a little boy raised by a single mom who is a strident feminist. If I can’t get him to read girl books, no one can. (In addition) I’ve been put into this genre of women’s fiction, (however) single dads are really responding well to this (novel). My characters are inspecting some of the strictly feminine parts of their lives, but there’s a utopia somewhere where books are books. Since I wrote this book I’ve heard from so many teachers and I’ve been able to share (that information) on my social media.
Q: Sections of this book are written as part of a text dialogue and, conversely, other sections are written as journal entries. What made you want to use different writing styles in the book?
A: The texts come directly from my own life. My best girlfriends and I don’t get to see each other enough anymore. We are on group texts and it goes on all day. I think for motherhood there couldn’t be a better way to cope. We all have those moments where you lock yourself in the bathroom with your kid’s Halloween candy. If you do that and you bring your phone, then your girlfriends are there, too. And honestly, phone conversations are so clunky to write … that’s why I chose the texts. Although me and my girlfriends are trying to bring back the art of the phone call.
Q: Byler’s daughter, Cori, seems to have wisdom way beyond her 15 years, which comes through in her journal entries that her mom makes her do. Did you intentionally write her that way?
A: She seems ... mature, but I spent a lot of time with kids before I wrote Cori and they are amazing. They have an emotional vocabulary we just can’t understand. They’re facing different sets of challenges and they’re living with that sort of omnipresent fear of their schools not being safe. One way they’ve learned to cope with that is they’ve become hyper verbal.
Q: I read the book very quickly, and right at the end you had me near tears with an unexpected accident involving Cori. I was shocked! Did you always intend to have that be part of the story?
A: I just think in real life our kids are just walking around in the world and we spend so much energy pretending that they are perfectly safe and I couldn’t (write about an) experience of a woman leaving her kids without exploring what we all fear. There was nothing that Amy in the story could have done to make that accident not happen, but … it’s just killer when your kids get hurt and you’re not there. I don’t plot my books out, but I knew Cori was in deep trouble, because of how much I liked her character.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m working on the final revisions of my next book. I have a strange relationship with my phone. My phone keeps me close with my friends from all over who otherwise I would only get to talk to every so often, and it also helps readers reach me. (However,) I hate that it’s the first thing you look at in the morning and it keeps you awake at night. We are going through a time where we grew up without (cellphones) and now can’t live without them. I wanted to try a story about someone who grew up without (a cellphone) … and what would happen if such a person threw her phone off a cliff and had to go completely without cellular.