Interview with Ira Wagler, author of “Growing up Amish” and Drawing for a Free Copy

 

I had the privilege of interviewing Ira Wagler, author of a new memoir: Growing up Amish. Here is that interview:

 

For anyone writing a memoir, there are tough decisions to be made about which experiences to write about and which ones to leave out, especially if it has to do with others’ shortcomings. How did you decide what to include or leave out of your story?
 
Well, I just wrote and wrote, mostly at night, and let come out what may. Then reworked and edited and reworked and edited. As it was, I submitted 115,000 words in my original manuscript. Tyndale sliced that amount down to 72,000 words. A 40% cut. Then, during the editing process, we went back and forth. I reinserted some scenes I thought were important. We both gave and took a little. I’m very happy with the end result. As with most memoirs, I suspect, the book was as much about what wasn’t written as what was.
 
Did you allow any family members to read your story before it was published? Why or why not?
 
Strange that you ask that. During the entire writing process, I kept everything very close to my vest. Never allowed any of my siblings to read any of it. I did contact them often, though, about dates and incidents where I needed a bit more information. After the ARCs came out, Carol Traver of Tyndale asked me if I’d allowed anyone to read the manuscript. She seemed mildly horrified that I had not, and insisted that I send my siblings copies of the ARC. So I did, and it was a good thing. Amazingly, at least to me, they were all supportive, some more so than others. More importantly, they caught a few factual errors that could still be corrected. So it all worked out, and Carol was so right, as she has been, mostly, throughout this process.
 
Has publishing your memoir changed your relationship with your family members? If so, how?
 
Mostly, they have been amazingly supportive. All of them commented on how searing it was to return to those days and “relive” those events. They were around me as it was all coming down. Not as involved as I was, of course. It was my life. But they were there, and they can now look back and realize the intense emotional trauma I was going through that had not been visible to them before. That said, there has been a bit of resistance/blowback from some of my siblings who remain Amish. Nothing that will estrange us, though, I think.
 
There are many powerful moments in your book. One of them is the way you describe the Amish mutual aid system after your brother Titus’s accident — the money that poured in, the buggy that was built to accommodate his wheelchair, the neighbors who came in and took over the farm chores, and so on. You also pointed out what the community was unable to provide. Will you tell our readers what was missing?
 
Well, I go into a bit of detail. The Amish have an amazing support system when unexpected tragedy strikes. Support for all your physical needs. But for emotional trauma, not so much. There is no language in their system for that. One is expected to bear one’s burdens in silence. And mostly, one does. And so the emotional trauma is never properly faced or really dealt with, and remains buried inside.
 
I was also struck by Titus’s and Ruth’s commitment to their relationship, in the face of their hardships. How are Titus and Ruth doing today?
 
They are doing quite well. Titus is a real businessman. He runs a small truss factory with his brother-in-law. A very successful little operation. Back about five or six years ago, he and Ruth adopted two little baby boys, one year apart. Robert and Thomas are full blood brothers. So they are now one active and happy little family. Titus and Ruth are very good parents, I must say.
 
For me the most powerful scene in the book is when your youngest brother, Nathan, left home.  He deliberately walked away in broad daylight.  Your mother’s reaction was so dramatic, that it caused you to reflect on why most Amish youth who leave do so in the dark of night. Will you share these reflections?
 
Chapter 22, where Nathan walks out in broad daylight, contains some of the most brutal scenes I have ever tried to write. It certainly cost the most tears in the writing. Nathan did the manly thing, leaving openly like that. But the cost in emotional trauma probably outweighed the guilt he would have had to deal with, had he just snuck away like I did, and like most such do. That’s why most Amish youth who go out there on their own leave at night. So they don’t have to endure what Nathan endured.
 
You did something in response to your mother’s anguish that Amish people just don’t do. Will you describe what you did? And where did that impulse to do what you did come from?
 
Yeah. It was all so intense and heartbreaking. I was watching from off to the side a bit. As he walked into the distance to the road, she was beside herself with the anguish and grief of seeing her youngest child walk away. I approached her, and held her in my arms and tried to comfort her. I can’t really say why I did that. It seemed like the natural human thing to do. It certainly wasn’t anything I had been taught, or that I had ever witnessed in my family before.
 
I read a statement from you somewhere that you think the romanticized view of the Amish is at its peak and that it will begin to wane. Will you tell us why you believe that?
 
I’m not sure when it will wane.  But I believe we are at the apex of the popularity of “bonnet” fiction. The market has been saturated now for some time, and there are only so many ways bonnet fiction can be written, however inaccurate. It may take some time, even a generation, before bonnet fiction crashes. But it will, because all such things ebb and flow. There is a time and a season for everything. Same will hold true for society’s vastly inflated romantic view of the Amish.
 
You cause your readers to think about many aspects of life differently. What overall message or messages would you like your readers to come away with after reading your book?
 
My journey at its core was no different than many coming of age journeys. The one big distinction: it all came out of the backdrop of the Amish culture. From my book, I would like my readers to grasp in some small sense the depths of my despair until I reached out and made my peace with God. And I’d like my readers to realize that the Amish are normal, flawed human beings, as we all are.
 
 
 

Ira has graciously offered an autographed copy of his book for a giveaway. To enter, please leave a question or comment for Ira or me here on my blog and indicate clearly whether you would like for your name to be entered. Next Sunday I will do the drawing. The winner can then be in touch with Ira with the appropriate shipping address.

Also, be sure to visit Ira's blog.

Disclaimer: I am getting no compensation for interviewing Ira Wagler. I bought a copy of his book and read it before being inspired to conduct this interview.

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32 thoughts on “Interview with Ira Wagler, author of “Growing up Amish” and Drawing for a Free Copy”

  1. Ira, Have you always been a writer? If so, what genre do you normally write? What made you decide to publish a memoir? Did the popularity of the “bonnet” fiction have any influence on your timing?

    Would love to be entered into the drawing.
    Thank you both,

    Lynnanne

  2. I’m looking forward to reading both your book and Ira’s. Please enter my name n the drawing for Ira’s book.

    CB

  3. Ira, you are a fascinating storyteller and your writing reflects that. I also enjoy your blog. I would love to win a copy of your book and learn even more about your family and your growing-up years!

    Thank you,

    Sandra

  4. Do most people you talk to try to fit the Amish into nice, stereotypical categories? My other question is a bit off the wall. As I was reading this blog entry, I asked my husband if he’d like to be Amish. He replied “no” and I teased him about not being able to have a cold beer on the weekend. Then I realized that I didn’t know if the Amish consumed any alcohol; do they? Please enter me in this drawing. My son and I would both enjoy reading it.

  5. Thank you everyone, for your comments and questions. I’ll see if Ira will make an appearance here to answer the questions directed to him.

    Sharon Marie, the answer to your second question is not straightforward, at least not in my home community. I believe Ira will have a different answer to this question from his community.

    In my community, beer drinking was done, but mostly by young people, not yet married. The parents looked the other way as young people drank (often in excess), but when they join the church and get married, they are expected to give up their “wild ways.” However, there is the occasional alcoholic among them. My maternal great-grandfather was a hopeless one, who drank even as his family went hungry. Mostly though, alcoholism goes unrecognized and is the only reason married people would drink.

    I’ll also answer your first question from my perspective. I get very few people in my audiences who are obvious bonnet fiction fans who don’t want to hear my message that tends to complicate their view of the Amish. Most likely these people don’t want to know “Why I Left the Amish” and therefore don’t appear at my talks, though I’ve had several people ask questions that clearly tried to take the conversation in that direction. I stay on course, with my message that the Amish can teach us much about our own lives by virtue of how they live theirs, but that good and evil exist in their communities, just as they do in the rest of the world.

  6. Just thought I would ask Ira…if he has the least bit regret leaving his Amish culture and if there is any one thing that he may miss about it in anyway? Yes,I would love to enter for a chance to win a copy of his book…thanks for sharing this interesting post…blessings

  7. Lynnanne, I’ve always written some, but got serious about four years ago, in 2007, on my blog. I write whatever strikes me, stories, musings, some politics (not much, though). Tyndale decided I would write a memoir, and I was not in a position to refuse. I’m sure the current popularity of bonnet fiction had something to do with Tyndale’s contract offer.

    Sharon Marie, it depends. The youth of course imbibe alcohol in a lot of communities. In some places, even married members make homemade wine and enjoy a glass. That was never allowed in any community in which I lived, though.

    And Shelley, I have no regrets about leaving. I still go back to visit now and then, but even then I usually stay somewhere nearby in a motel room. There are a lot of things about Amish culture that I deeply respect. But not enough to ever draw me back.

  8. Saloma, I enjoyed your interview with Ira. I already read his book but would love to own an autographed copy. I was impressed with Ira’s writing and wonder when the next book will be available?
    Blessings, Leanna

  9. I can’t imagine the anguish of leaving home and family. Have you and Ira ever compared your stories?

    I would love to be entered in the drawing.

  10. I have always wondered if an Amish leaves and is shunned, can they return and be part of the Amish family again at any time…
    I would love a chance to win a copy of Ira’s book…

  11. Saloma! I’m so glad I popped in to say hello :-) Such a busy summer but I would love a chance to win a copy of this book. Very interesting reading your blog. I might even get a chance to read a book again, when summer camp/crafts and our mini golf business is over for the season! Thank you and Ira so much for this offer.

  12. I recently found your blog Saloma and enjoy it so much. Now Ira has me hooked. I would LOVE to win a copy of his book. Vicki

  13. I’ve been a long time follower of Ira’s blog. It is one of my favorites – along with yours. Thank you for the give-away. I would love to be entered.

  14. My ancestral heritage is PA Dutch, all the way back to my Hessian solder ancestor who settled in PA after the Revolutionary War. But my family is “Gay Dutch”. I’ve always been facinated with the plainer side of my German heritage, Thank you both for writing these memoir, Question, what percentage of the youth today are leaving the Amish faith and lifestyle? I would love to read both books and hear that Saloma will be speaking in my area soon (Camden, Maine). Please enter me in your book giveaway contest.

  15. Saloma, it was so great getting to meet you today. I look forward to getting to know you and your husband better.

    I enjoyed your interview with Ira. I really know nothing about the Amish, so I look forward to reading both of your books. Could you please enter me in the drawing.

    A question for both of you. . . what is the number one misconception of the Amish that you see on a regular basis?

    Thanks,
    Melissa

  16. I greatly enjoyed Ira’s book (particularly the parts about the wheat harvest) which was lent to me by a friend, and I would love to have my own autographed copy! I’ve also read your book, Saloma. Very well written, but it made me sad to learn about what you experienced in your home as a child and teenager. It sounds like, thankfully, you have made ‘peace’ with your past. Praise God for the healing He offers.
    ~Beverly

  17. Looking forward to reading Ira’s book. I look forward to reading your blog Saloma.
    FYI – There are a lot of Mennonites in the area of Illinois I grew up in. The Mennonite boys were the wildest, partying, bad boys I have ever met! Wow!
    Still waters run deep!

  18. I just love this question and answer session with Ira, and also all the comments. I don’t want to enter the contest as I have a signed copy from Ira. I am just making a comment.

  19. …if it is still not too late to enter the drawing, please add my name. Born and raised in western PA as an Anabaptist Presbyterian Protestant, I have always been interested in the Amish. Looking forward to reading any and all of your writing, although will have to miss your Rockland lecture. Grüße,
    Dorie Klein

  20. Enjoyed the interview w/ Ira! I already have (and read) his book, but if I’d be honored to have an autographed copy and give the other one away! btw- enjoyed the book a lot!

  21. I’m just about finishing with your book (I’m liking it). Got it from the local library here in town, so my own copy would be great. Because Ira, you and I are about the same age, I was born in 1961, it was interesting how the way you described your world was not all that different from being brought up as a Catholic. The Amish and the Catholics keep their families on a very short leash during the 60’s and 70’s. Much different then todays Catholics. After high school, I went to college at Drake University in Des Moines, just N. of Bloomfield. I spent quite a few hours waiting after my bus rides to Ottumwa waiting for the Amtrack train to take me back to Ohio from Christmas brakes. I assume we may have been at the same depot. Now married, my wife and I have visited Holmes County, Ohio numerous times and also do bike tours near LeGrange/Shipshewana, Indiana in the summer (actual bike tour is tarts in Howe, In). I have a feeling one day we may pass each other on the street and never know. My wife and are are making plans to visit Lancaster, Pa this coming summer, I just seem to be drawn to the Amish culture, I guess. Since I haven’t finished the book I have no idea where you live, but maybe one day our paths will cross. Best of luck to you. And I very much am enjoying your book.

  22. I thoroughly enjoyed Ira’s book. I wish not to open old wounds, but wondered whatever happened to “Sarah” in the book. Did she ever get married? I was in tears reading that one and the event of Nathan’s leaving. I am a retired Pastor, now 72 years old living in loudon, New Hampshire. I have a deep burden for the Amish people because many, if not most, may not be saved due to their beliefs. I am not a judge, however, and only God knows. I would love to be able to minister to the ex-Amish if I had the opportunity. I do believe I could be a help to them, spiritually. I would like a copy of the book, signed or yours too for that matter!

  23. William T Williford

    I know Ira through the business he runs in Gap, Pennsylvania. A pole barn company. I had read “Growing up Amish” about a year before it was published. A VERY warm person who offered me donuts when I first laid eyes upon this author. A VERY likable personality.
    I came back about a week later wit the book, and he personally signed it, and to go a step further, when I got home that night, started to read it again. It’s a book worth reading especially for me, for my Mom was 1/2 Amish, and I felt a a kinship with the whole Amish thing

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