“I made the story complex because that’s how life is. It’s very complex. And in the middle of it, you laugh.” – Mindy Halleck
Mindy Halleck is a Pacific Northwest novelist, short story writer, blogger and writing instructor. After her short story received Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 76th Annual Competition Mainstream Literary Short Story (2007), Mindy developed it into Return to Sender, her debut novel to be released by Booktrope in October 2014. Mindy’s published work includes personal essays, one non-fiction book and hundreds of articles based on her Romance & Money series.
The protagonist of Return to Sender is Theodore (Theo) Riley, who in 1956 is a priest in Manzanita, Oregon, on the Pacific Coast, and who was a prisoner of war in Korea a few years before. He tries, but can’t forget the horrors he had been through. He drowns his guilt in whiskey while counseling other veterans afflicted with what, at the time, was not known as PTSD. He also becomes the obsession of a serial killer with a twisted understanding of the Bible and a plan to kill children and send them to Heaven.
Mindy and I talked on July 9th, 2014 about Return to Sender, about the history—remembered and researched—that she worked into her story, and about the path she forged for herself to write this novel.
One of Theo’s greatest sorrows is that, in Korea, he left behind a group of orphans who probably didn’t survive the war. This may come as a surprise to many people, but during the Korean War (between 1950 and 1954) U.S. soldiers rescued thousands of Kosian orphans from the advancing North Communist Army. Who were the Kosian children and why were their lives in danger?
The term Kosian, which came from Ko-Asian is a term used for mixed-race children in Korea and Japan. During the Korean War, a lot of the GIs got very wrapped up in terrible humanitarian issues that were going on with orphan children over there that were of mixed race. Because the North Koreans (the NK) and the CCF, the Chinese Communist Forces, would come in and kill these children because they had no value whatsoever to them. Pure blood line, to this day, is an important thing in their culture. The orphanages were filling to the brims with these kids—“throw-away kids” is what the GIs called them and the GIs got very sentimental about them. They stole their hearts.
My father-in-law was one of the GIs and that’s why I have so many photographs of these children. Over 10,000 of the Kosian children were saved by GIs during a three-year period when the “non-war” started and at the end of the war they actually saved 50,000 children and built or refurbished over 400 orphanages to help these children. And these GIs, our US GIs, did this, making most of them on average $100 a month, and they managed in a three-year period to save $2 million dollars to save these children.
How were these children killed?
In my story I took a particularly horrific story that my father-in-law had told me where all the children, eighty of them—the North Korean or the Chinese Forces, I’m not sure we were ever clear who it was—went in and just lined them up and shot them. Children as young as three and four years-old. Lined up holding hands, and shot them. And my father-in-law, who by anyone’s account was not one of the nicest guys in the world, couldn’t tell this story without tears. It impacted me dramatically. I was about twenty when he told me that. And pregnant. I was twenty and pregnant and he’s telling me about these little kids and how they were being killed and how they were being starved, just what a sad and horrific situation it was and how they would take equipment from their base and build shelters for these children out in the woods, when they had a pack of ten or twenty of them living in the woods. They’d build them shelter and bring them food. It was dramatic.
On your website, you have information about those atrocities and also links to war stories and to the Korean War Children’s Memorial in Bellingham, Washington. But you learned about the war from your father and your father-in-law, who had been there. Tells us about your father-in-law’s box of letters and photo negatives from that time.
My father-in-law did have these photos and I’ll put some of these on my blog—you can see that it’s quite a mess—but here are the photographs of these children, the ones that he fell in love with and that he tried so hard to help and who stole his heart. They absolutely stole his heart. And in the boxes, along with the photographs and the old photo album were letters, letters that he brought home.
And the things he talked about, in particular one story that’s in my novel, Return to Sender, is when his sister-in-law wrote him a long, long letter about this newfangled electric skillet she got and how excited she was to try all these new recipes and how excited she was to send these recipes to him so he could share them with his friends. And he remembered sitting down in the middle of the forest and reading this letter, where they had just seen a village that had been slaughtered. And, he said, he sat down and he cried because it reminded him of home. He said that it was one of the letters that he saved and kept in his pocket because, he said, it was just his silly sister talking about recipes “to share with his friends.” Like he’s making lasagna in the middle of the Korean forest.
And that became the letter that Imogene, Theo’s sister, sends to him in the book.
Yes. So it’s a real letter that I reference there.
The Korean War became the backstory of your novel, Return to Sender. How closely have you witnessed the effects of that war on veterans?
No one ever goes to war and isn’t affected. The family is going to be affected. My father did some things in war that we learned much later in life, right before he died at 54. He did things in war that I can’t even reconcile with the man that I knew. And there are things that he did in war that we’ll never know about because his file is sealed and we can’t get access to it. The effect of the war on my father was alcoholism. And bouts of rage. I was seventeen when we had him committed to a mental institution for trying to kill me. And it was a terrible time. The alcoholism was ultimately what destroyed him. He just couldn’t deal with what he saw there and the things that he had to do. And that is not a rare or unique story. We’re hearing it every day on the news with our young men coming home from the Middle East and we’ll always hear it as long as there’s war.
Let’s talk a little bit about Theo Riley, your protagonist. He was born in Ireland, but his family was forced into exile because of a feud with a competing clan back home in Dublin. Your great-grandmother moved from Ireland to Kentucky as a young woman and, through her, you have that experience of belonging to two places—sometimes not belonging anywhere—an experience you made part of your protagonist’s burden. What forced your ancestors into exile before World War II?
Theo and his family had to leave because of battling Protestants and Catholics. That’s been an ongoing, well-known issue in Ireland, but as far as the bigger story, people had to leave to survive. People had to leave Ireland from the 1840s to the late 1860s because of the Potato Famine. My grandmother was born here, in America, at the turn of the century, but her parents had left Ireland. My great-grandmother was Scottish, a highlander, and my great-grandfather James was Irish. There’s a big story there and I’ll write about that another time. They left because they were actually wealthy people who wanted to come to America and spread Catholicism to the heathens, which is funny because we’re not Catholics.
My grandmother was their only daughter. I have a picture of them, the O’Cleary clan, up on my website. When she was only five or six, her parents died in an auto accident, which also tells you that they had money—they had an automobile at that time. And the kids were launched into poverty. They had no means to support themselves. They grew up in the hills in Kentucky and ended up uneducated and all the things their parents left Ireland to protect them from they ended up launched into even worse. There’s a huge story about the great diaspora from Ireland as there is with most countries, but theirs was primarily because of famine.
Genghis Hansel—a great name for the serial killer—makes Theo and Manzanita his targets because Father Riley, Theo, refused to give him absolution for murdering children. The stakes are high. There are children in Manzanita, there is an orphan who needs protecting, there’s the son of Theo’s long-lost love Andréa. Theo has a chance to redeem his past mistakes if only he can put down the bottle and become a warrior in the fight against the criminal madness of Genghis Hansel. Tell us about the biblical symbols of Hansel’s warped world view. Was he himself an abused child or an orphan?
Thanks—I know that Genghis Hansel is a great name. I can’t take credit for it. When I was a little girl, we spent our summers going down to Manzanita and Cannon Beach and Seaside—that’s kind of the trio of beaches you would visit if you lived in Portland—and of course I had a bunch of cousins, we were about the same age and we would have our bonfires on the beach and make roast marshmallows, and of course we told those ghastly ghost stories that kids tell each other. They scare the beejeebees out of each other and nobody can sleep. One of the ghosts that haunt Cannon Beach is Genghis Hansel. So, I grew up with those stories about the ghost Genghis Hansel that haunts Cannon Beach. He was blown off the Promenade in Seaside in the middle of a storm in 1952. So I thought, well, it’s the same time that the story takes place. I grew up being afraid of that name, so now I got to use it and make him the bad guy.
And was he an abused child himself, oh, yes. It might sound cliché to say he had a holly-roller of a dad who was a Baptist preacher, but the reality is it’s cliché for a reason. I grew up with my Irish grandmother telling me about these holly-roller preachers that she knew when she was in Kentucky and Tennessee and Arkansas, and how some of them would do the Appalachian snake-handling: they wrapped a snake around your wrist and if today it didn’t bite you that meant that today you were clean of sin. But you gotta do it again next week. Which is insanity.
His father was one of these Pentecostal ministers. He had tent revivals and all that. So he tortured Genghis with his venomous version of religion and his righteousness and everything that he made up. They often take things from the Bible and twist them into just horrible poison and that’s what his father does. There is this one scene in the book that talks about some of the abuse that Genghis went through. Anyway, Genghis grew up, and some of this abuse—as religion—is internalized and, of course, part of him believes it’s right, while part of him understands he was abused. Many of the images that Genghis has in his life, these tattoos and things, they are these snakes. Some people pick the tattoo of the thing they are most afraid of. On their body, to keep it close to them. That’s why he has the tattoo of the snakes that he has.
As a young Irish immigrant in America, Theo thrives with the help of Solomon, a Nehalem Native-American man. After the Korean War, Theo finds Solomon again, and his old mentor helps him in his struggle against Genghis. You studied the Nehalem culture closely for this novel. Is there a real-life model for Solomon?
Yes, there is. I mean, I didn’t know this man and I didn’t know if he was anything like Solomon, but he left a deep impression on me. When I was about ten years old, my dad and my uncles would go fishing and then we’d go together to the Cannery in Wheeler, Oregon, and they would go inside and have a beer and talk for a long time about smoking salmon, so for a ten-year old girl who was carrying her Barbie doll this was not a very interesting time. So I would go sit outside on the bench and wait. And outside there frequently sat this elderly Nehalem Indian gentleman, and it was widely-known there that he didn’t speak. So, I assumed that he was deaf and mute, like I had seen in Portland. And back in those days they had popsicles that break in two, so I broke my Popsicle in half and handed him one and he said “Thank you!” That startled me because I didn’t know he could talk. So I said to him, in one way or another, “I didn’t know you could talk, and you can hear me, right?” The type of thing a ten year-old would say. And he had this cryptic language and tone of voice, very guttural—it was a wonderful, soothing voice, I loved it—and he said “I don’t talk to white people over twelve years old because they lost their souls and they don’t know how to listen.” It was a huge statement to me at ten years old. I mean, I went for years thinking, why people lose their souls after twelve years old? I mean, it stuck with me. I know I’m not remembering exactly as he said it but that was the essence of what he said. And he said, “…but I can tell that you listen.” And I remember thinking, yes, I’m a good listener. And those three times maybe that I sat on the bench with him, he just told me little stories and he said that they were Indian stories and that the Indians used to live there and that this used to be his family’s homeland and that piqued my interest at the age of ten years old.
Flash-forward a lot of years and I decided that I would put this character in my novel and unconsciously created Solomon, who is my favorite character in the book. He is a shaman, a healer, and he heals Theo and helps him transcend this life and move onto what his destiny is.
I unconsciously created a healer while I was dealing with cancer. So I really got involved with writing about him as a healer—what kind of herbs he would’ve used—while I was going through my own healing process. And it wasn’t really until I made it through the cancer and realized that I was going to live that I looked back on that and had the epiphany that, while I was going through that journey, I subconsciously created what I needed. I needed a healer.
Later, I bought Clara Pearson’s book at an auction held by the Oregon State University. She was considered the last living Nehalem Indian and she was interviewed in 1953 by the Oregon State University and they documented it all in a book called Nehalem Tillamook Tales. So I bid on that book and got the only one they had. And I read through those myths, which was very difficult because it’s very cryptic English and the interpretations are a little, I would say, wonky. It’s a brutal read. But I went through that and all of the myths and things that Solomon says in the book come directly from real Nehalem myths as does his language and the way that he speaks and I tried to make it resonate with that man that I met when I was a kid.
You worked on your novel, Return to Sender, for almost a decade. The box of photographs you’d had with you for forty years had to be opened and shared. But there is more to the story, even beyond the Dublin murders and the Native-American world seen through the eyes of Solomon. There is the pursuit of a serial killer along the Pacific Coast. There is Theo’s interrupted love story with Andréa. There’s Theo’s PTSD. This is a complex story. How did it you manage its complexity while you were writing it?
Life is complex. During the time I wrote the book, I was dealing with misfortunes in my own life. The toughest of them was my cancer. I thought that I can sit and be quiet and worry about these things that kept waking me up at two and three in the morning or I can laugh. And I decided to laugh. So we got Robin Williams’ Special and I lay on the couch and put my feet up and my neck was in this brace and I just laughed. This was all in one week when I’m thinking, am I going to live, am I going to die, is the treatment working, and I’m choosing to just laugh at Robin Williams. And also dealing with all my doctors and all the questions and medications and in the middle of all that my mom’s husband died and then my daughter got a divorce and I was worried about my grandkids and it’s all happening in a week. And then a friend died and I thought this is a horrible, horrible month in my life, and then I thought, life is very complex. And all these things happen in synchronicity and it’s what we choose to do to deal with them, get through them, that really matters, but it’s also what makes us human.
And so, coming back to my story, as I was writing it, Theo is going through a lot of stuff. And he’s trying to be something he really isn’t, which is a priest. He’s trying not to love a person that he really loves. He’s trying to help a sister who really has to help herself. He’s trying to return to some spiritual roots that he has forgotten. And he’s dealing with a wound that’s keeping him grounded and a lot of things are going on and he’s haunted by these children who were killed. A lot of things going on. So I made the story complex because that’s how life is. It’s very complex. And in the middle of it, you laugh. That’s why I wrote the church ladies into the book.
They’re hilarious. They have a crush on Theo and they follow him everywhere, always dressed in their church-best. Quite the sight!
Thanks. And everybody laughs when they read the church ladies. It’s because life is complex. And you just need something to laugh at sometimes.
Was this story always about redemption, or you discovered that also, while working on it?
I’d like to think that I started off writing about a theme and I knew that I was writing about that theme, but that would be a lie. And I think that almost everything that I write, when I go back and I read it, I realize that almost everything is about redemption. And I do believe that it all comes back to my father and to wanting to write a happy story for a man who didn’t have a happy story, for a man who did some things he wasn’t proud of and he didn’t know how to balance with his Christian upbringing. He wanted redemption. And I think I write about my father’s need for redemption a lot. And it’s unconscious, it’s accidental, sometimes it’s on purpose, but most of the time it’s accidental. Because, in reality, Return to Sender is a coming-of-age story for Theo—but it also is about redemption.
You have a successful blog called Literary Liaisons in which you offer writing advice and resources to the Seattle writing community and beyond. You also write at Louisa’s Café with scores of other writers in a group guided by Seattle authors Jack Remick and Robert Ray. How did the community of writers around you help—or hinder?—the writing of your book?
I like that you say hinder. They helped greatly because any writer should be plugged into a writing community. And any time you write with a group of talented writers like the writers at Louisa’s Café you can’t help but learn something. Everybody you write with has a style and your ear tunes in to that and then you begin to develop your own style. And you have to be immersed into it, you have to be exposed to it. Writers who do write in a vacuum—in my opinion—generally aren’t very good writers. And I like to think that my writing is a living thing. Nothing I ever finish writing is finished. Until it’s in print, and even then I cringe because I see mistakes. And every writer goes through that. It’s a life-long apprenticeship and being plugged into a large group like that really helps.
As far as being a hinder, sometimes going and trying to write a serious passage or something like that and working with a group of people in a café where it’s loud, I can’t do it because I have to have quiet when I write. So I tend to do mostly editing when I’m there. I’d rewrite a scene, I’d try to do it from memory, but I’m not good at that either—worst memory in the world. But often I’d get into editing the piece and a creative flow just happens because there’s a synergy when you’re writing with a group of people, and it’s contagious. In that way, that hindrance becomes a help, and that help becomes the greatest creative gift you can get.
What’s next in your writing career, Mindy?
Well, I’ve got another novel that I wrote and am now rewriting, it’s called Esmee’s Letters—that’s the working title, and obviously I have an issue with letters. That was unconscious until I looked at Esmee’s Letters and Return to Sender and I realized, I like letters, I like old letters, and I like letters as a way of communicating something you might not communicate in a conversation. Esmee’s Letters is about Esmee, who is a Holocaust survivor. It’s fifteen years after the war. She ends up in Portland, Oregon, after being in a concentration camp and going through what we all know was horrific, and she falls in love with a man who is not who he says he is. And ultimately she ends up dealing with a past she’s tried very hard to camouflage and not deal with. And, as the story unfolds, a lot of secrets are revealed. The life they live in downtown Portland, northwest Portland, is based on my childhood. My father owned a shoe-repair shop in downtown Portland and I worked there from the time I was nine years old. And I knew a lot of Holocaust survivors—there was a large Jewish community there—and they came to my dad’s shop. And we had a lot of Roma Gypsies there. It was a very eclectic community, lots of Greeks, and I grew up with these people and their stories and I’m using them in my book.
Thank you, Mindy, for taking the time to talk to me today.