The Scent of God
Today, I interviewed Beryl Singleton Bissell, author of "The Scent of God," a truly fascinating memoir about two religiously devoted people who fall in love with each other, leaving them to choose between their life calling and their life together. Beryl talks about the challenges of writing such a memoir and winning the Best of 2006 Minnesota Authors award.
Tell us about yourself.
I should have this down pat by now, but each time I’m asked that question I wonder where to begin. Perhaps I’ll just say that I’ve packed several lifetimes into one – I’ve been a nun, a wife, mother, widow, single parent, divorcee, and grandmother (8 precious children). My work experiences are almost as varied. I’ve worked as a nurse, cook, manager, set designer, picker in a clothing distribution center, jeweler, office manager, development director.
I have lived in New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and Italy and despite my yearning for warmer climates have moved progressively further north – returning to New Jersey from Puerto Rico before moving to Minneapolis and from there to Minnesota’s beautiful North Shore of Lake Superior, freezingly close to the Canadian Border.
Tell us about your book, "The Scent of God."
The Scent of God tells of the search for God that led me into a cloister at the age of 18 and the unraveling of that vocation 15 years later in Puerto Rico when I met and fell in love with a handsome Italian priest. From New Jersey, to Puerto Rico, to Italy Padre Vittorio and I wrestle with the seeming contradiction between our growing love and our desire to remain faithful to our religious commitment -- a journey through doubt to acceptance, from guilt to redemption, from life through death.
Why did you decide to write a memoir about this time in your life?
I actually began writing this memoir 10 years ago when I overheard my son tell a confidant that he thought he was damned. God had it in for him because his father had been a priest and his mother a nun. I realized that I needed to tell my children the story of the events that led to their birth and to resolve for myself the doubt I’d kept hidden until then – whether Vittorio’s death from cancer while the children were babies was punishment for our exodus from religious life.
What were the challenges of writing this memoir?
Digging for the truth concealed within the story through draft after draft. The book went through 10 different drafts altogether, at one point becoming an unwieldy 800 pages as I moved from present to past and back again. I had to pare the story down to under 300 pages – which meant cut, cut, cut! Every word, phrase, or event that did not move the story forward had to be eliminated. Finding the right structure to support the narrative was the most challenging literary problem. Bringing my dark side to the light was the most painful creative effort. I thought I’d finished writing when an agent sent the manuscript back and told me that I had a great story and the skill to tell it but that I hadn’t told the story yet. I hadn’t gone deep enough. I’d danced around huge issues that I didn’t deal with. She was right. When I reread the manuscript after putting it away for a period of time, I saw what needed to be done and did it. Not an easy task when it meant bringing secrets to the light.
You are now remarried, did you worry about the affects of the book on your current marriage and family?
No. I went forward because they had prodded me to tell this story, my husband especially who moved me to the North Shore so I would write this book. What he found difficult was hearing me talk about Vittorio before audiences. I did a lot of interviewing for this book, so almost everyone in it knew that I was writing about events in which they figured. My beloved sister nuns, however, who provided me with much support and information found the book distressing – primarily because I identified the monastery and the nuns by name.
How do you remain true to a story knowing there might be something someone in your life may find hurtful, offensive, etc?
This is proving more of a difficulty in the work I am now writing which deals with the events that led to my 24-year-old daughter’s violent death six years ago. Many of the persons in The Scent of God are now deceased so I was able to speak of those incidents without such concern. Having experienced the nuns discomfiture with the book, however, I will need to change names and places in this one. Many persons that will be included in this book are alive and as some of the topics I deal with are dark I am weighing the possibility of taking this memoir into fiction. Fiction can give the writer the opportunity to get closer to the truth.
You were named Best of 2006 Minnesota Authors, how did you win this award and what was your reaction?
I had no idea I was even a contender for this title and didn’t know about it until a writing friend wrote to congratulate me. The news quite stunned me and I lost no time in checking it out. It must be remembered that this was not an award per se (though it felt like one) but a decision made by Minnesota’s largest newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Have there been things you've learned about yourself in this process?
I discovered that in exposing what we are inclined to hide, confronting what we’d rather avoid, we learn that our failings are gifts. We realize our limitations and thus become more compassionate and loving toward others. It is in this sharing of our humanness that others find gifts for themselves. “We tell our stories because they are your stories,” the director of Tsotsi said and judging from others’ responses to The Scent of God this is true.
What kinds of books do you like to read?
Memoir is my favorite genre, followed closely by books on spirituality and literary fiction. I am crazy for books coming from other cultures, and love a good mystery now and then.
What's next for you?
I hope it is a lightning strike of creative inspiration that will launch me into a series of books. As I mentioned earlier, I am working on the sequel to The Scent of God, and remain busy with ongoing marketing and publicity efforts for The Scent of God. I am also boning up on my Spanish which has become very rusty and is easily confused with the little Italian I managed to acquire in Italy. I’d like to speak it well and then bring the same effort to the study of Italian.