Charlene Ann Baumbich
Charlene Ann Baumbich is a popular speaker,award-winning journalist, and author. Her stories, essays, and columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and Today's Christian Woman. In addition to her DEAREST DOROTHY series, she has written six nonfiction books of humor and inspiration. She lives in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
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"When the story calls, I listen," says Charlene Baumbich, and for her many loyal readers, Baumbich's fictional evocations of the antics of the residents of Partonville make them seem like old friends, and provide endless pages of enjoyment. She has penned the first three books of her projected five-book series --- DEAREST DOROTHY, ARE WE THERE YET?, DEAREST DOROTHY, SLOW DOWN, YOU'RE WEARING US OUT! and DEAREST DOROTHY, HELP! I'VE LOST MYSELF --- and is hard at work on the next. FaithfulReader.com interviewer Cindy Crosby recently chatted with the irrepressible Baumbich about the delightful characters who populate the Dearest Dorothy series, her love of a well-told story, the importance of intergenerational relationships, and her confessed addiction to White Castle hamburgers.
FaithfulReader.com: Is Partonville, IL, based on a real place?
Charlene Ann Baumbich: Hey! BASED ON?! Partonville is certainly a Real Place in *my* mind! ;>) Partonville is actually another conglomerate of three towns I know well, all between the northern and southern parts of Illinois. (Get that?)
FR: Charlene, you write about "oldsters" so convincingly. Who was your model for the "Dorothy" character?
CAB: Although there was a REAL Dearest Dorothy in my life (lots of her spunk in my Partonville Dorothy), the Dorothy character (and her band of merry oldster friends) is a conglomerate of a lifetime of folks I've observed and been connected to in one way or another. Yes, I've been blessed to meet (and be related to) an eclectic band of rowdy, God-fearing, cantankerous, quirky merrymaking oldsters who catch my attention, help grow me, model what I don't want to be.... And, since I was a journalist before becoming an author, I've had opportunities to write about a senior citizens softball league (sound familiar to Dearest Dorothy readers?), real estate developers, AARP 55-Alive driving seminars (and now I've *taken* one myself!), and tons of other interesting things that allowed me to poke around in the real lives of those who are aging. I've been scared to death driving with oldsters who should no longer be driving and my own grandmother had to move from one place to the next, each a downsize. I am a born observer, I would say, of actions and emotions. Oh, and I'm also heading toward 60 myself, so...perhaps my mirror is my model, too? (Clue to answer: yes!)
I was also raised on a small farm, which I continue to miss and which is still a part of my very smile. I love the land. Amen.
FR: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer?
CAB: Heck NO! I wanted to ride in barrel races (which I did), and be lovestruck around every corner (which I was), and hang with my friends (which I did) and LIVE life rather than spend time reading or writing about it! But I have always loved stories and my whole family was alive and well in the grand tradition of living the stories, then passing them on. Oh, and I'm mostly Irish. Need I say more?
FR: When you began writing fiction, what was your biggest challenge?
CAB: Hmm. Biggest challenge to writing fiction. I LOVED jumping right in and typing up the story as quickly as I saw it unfolding in my mind (I'm a seats-of-the-pantser more than a plotter), but I had to occasionally bat down the voice that said, "You don't know what you're doing," since I'd had no formal training in writing fiction. I think one of the biggest challenges to *all* writing (and I've also authored six nonfiction titles) is to get out of your own way so the story can "get through." When you're self conscious about the process, it shows. IN A NUTSHELL: "Shut up, Charlene's head, and let the story talk.")
My biggest headache was discovering WAY - way Way WAY!!! --- too late that I needed to have charts and graphs, timelines and details written down, especially for what has turned into a series! (What color were his eyes? Did she turn left or right to get into that room? What's next to the Harry's Grill?) I mean I'd spend HOURS looking for details that I couldn't remember whether or not I'd mentioned. Made myself NUTS! I still get caught with things like that (and I YELL at my computer!), but I'm better at a "system" now --- although nobody seeing my messy office would ever believe it.
FR: DEAREST DOROTHY, HELP! I'VE LOST MYSELF has a little different tone to it than the first two books.
CAB: There is a storyline --- a secret about someone --- in HELP! that I've known about since the beginning of the series. It is a storyline that pushed and pulled me through the first two books and that will continue to play out for the rest of the series. When I set out to write HELP!, I reread the first two books and discovered how *many* hints I'd sprinkled along the way, more than I had even imagined. The story subconsciously whispered itself into the pages, you might say. The intensity and ramifications of this secret unfolding are definitely a serious matter and responses call for soul-searching, prayers and a reframing of one's "self"...not just for the main person, but for those surrounding her. The storyline simply called for a different tone. When the story calls, I listen.
FR: There's a poignant scene in the DEAREST DOROTHY, SLOW DOWN, YOU'RE WEARING US OUT! where Dorothy watches her possessions auctioned off that seems convincingly real.
CAB: I've written newspaper stories about auctions and estate sales. When my parents moved from Illinois (off the farm) to New Mexico, they held an auction. After my father died (my mom was already gone), we held an auction to disperse his estate since I knew it's what he believed in. I had to sort through my grandmother's and aunt's belongings after their deaths.... Making choices about what to take, what to leave behind --- and then *finding* things TRULY left behind...HARD STUFF!
I braved stopping by my dad's auction and had the wound-laid-bare timing of finding them auctioneering near his tool bench in his garage. My dad was a tool and die maker, a machinist, a business owner in the trade...It was more than I could stand and I left in tears --- sobbing, actually. (Yes, I could relate to Dorothy breaking down and heading out behind the barn during her own auction, the intensity of her emotions running so high watching pieces of her life sail off.) When I thought my dad's auction was over, I went back, only to discover a family packing up a whole set of patio furniture and talking about how anxious they were to get it all set up and enjoy it. God's grace allowed me to see the JOY in *their* discovery. New hope and life breathed into the midst of death. Grace.
FR: In DEAREST DOROTHY, SLOW DOWN, YOU'RE WEARING US OUT! Dorothy comes to grips with another loss that any senior citizen will empathize with --- being able to drive.
CAB: As previously stated, I've written about seniors and driving in my Real Life. In my own life, I hop in my car to do this and I hop in my car to do that. I cannot imagine life without all that HOPPING! Oh, what a loss of independence it would be! And yet, one needs to pray one knows when they have become a hazard, to themselves and the world around them.
Partonville's Dearest Dorothy LOVES the feel of the breeze blowing through her hair as she zooms down country roads! She loves to do for others and her wheels have always been a part of that ability. But then...she scares *herself* one day. Mind you, she has scared MANY in Partonville beforehand, but one day she scares herself. And then comes the choice, the prayer --- and the sacrifice based on The Answer.
It takes a wise person to make this wise choice, and yet it will never be an easy one.
FR: Are you a speed demon yourself?
CAB: Nope. I just take off fast. (We're on the record, right? ;>)) Seriously, I do love to feel the wind in my face (have owned two motorcycles) and the sense of power when I tromp (I meant to say *step*, of course) on the gas. My whole family (parents to kids) loves to head out on a road trip, and what better way to do so than PEDAL DOWN!
FR: You do quite a bit of speaking. How does it mesh with your love of writing?
CAB: I guess I just love telling a story, in whatever form it takes. With the advent of book deadlines, however, I've had to cut back a little on my speaking, but I could never cut it out. It's through being WITH the people that I continue to want to talk TO them through story. It's being reminded of others' trials and tribulations, successes and goofs that I am able to write stories that ring true and touch us (yes, including me) where we live, I believe. In other words, being with Real People is the seedbed for talking about Fictional People as if they were Real. Since I am comfortable in front of an audience, the combination of speaking and writing creates the perfect synergy.
FR: God plays such a natural role in Dorothy's life. Tell us about your own faith.
CAB: Can't imagine a joy-filled life without it! I mean, Who you gonna turn to? GOD! Amen and THANK YOU BIG GUY! (I aspire to be Dorothy when I grow up. Readers will learn much about my faith through hers.)
FR: FaithfulReader.com heard a rumor that you are addicted to White Castle hamburgers.
CAB: So much so that I was the 1996 Celebrity Judge for White Castle Hamburger's Fifth Annual Cravetime Recipe Contest! White Castle purists out there might not like this, but my favorite White Castle product is now the Jalapeno burgers! I can't eat as many of the five-holed squares as I used to in my youth, though. (Down from 6+ at a meal to 2, maybe 3.)
FR: It's great to see the relationship that the 87-year-old Dorothy has with the teenager, Josh, in the series. Do you believe intergenerational friendships, or mentoring relationships, are important?
CAB: They are more than important. I believe they are absolutely critical if we are to survive and thrive as a society. What would youth turn out to be if not for the wisdom of the elders --- aside from hooligans, like Acting Mayor Gladys McKern might refer to them? (Notice I didn't say judgment, but rather refer to wisdom as the grace-filled imparting of guidance, encouragement and knowledge.) What would the elders turn out to be (aside from rigid and grumbling, like Acting Mayor Gladys McKern often is) if they don't stay open to the continual inspiration, energy and new ideas of youth?
Seasoned eyes have a way of noticing what *isn't* being said since, well, they've seen so much in their lives. Wisdom helps us know what to *do* with that information, and that's what I believe our Dearest Dorothy models so well. On the other hand, youth has the benefit of seeing things anew, without preconceived judgments. Ah, how REFRESHING! Dorothy draws from that energy and finds inspiration in it as well.
Oldsters plus youth equals another perfect synergy, especially when their "doings" are circled by prayer. In my own life I've been blessed by friendships that span the ages. I actively seek to cultivate them.
FR: Your books obviously resonate with people. Is it because we have nostalgia for small-town life?
CAB: To be honest, I don't think it's as much a longing for small-town life as it is a desire to be CONNECTED with people, and for better or for worse, it is believed small towns offer a better platform for connections. (I say for better or for worse because some think small towns offer no anonymity, which makes for living in glass houses and everybody knowing your business.) I believe the relationships in Partonville speak to a deep longing in each of us to be known.
On a hopeful note, I feel pretty convinced these connections *can* happen in apartment buildings and subdivisions, in corporate settings and in families (gasp! Surely you're not talking about THOSE relatives are you?), but we have to determine these connections are important enough to prioritize those efforts (yes, efforts) in our lives, be less afraid to be vulnerable (and WAY less afraid in general) and more determined to accept and embrace those around us.
FR: What do you hear from your readers about the DEAREST DOROTHY series?
CAB: That they are "getting" and being blessed, tickled and entertained and inspired by everything I hoped they would, and more. And that Gladys gets on their nerves (yup!) and that they're worried about Josh's transition in his new school and they hope Dorothy (who they tell me helps them with their prayer lives) doesn't die (Oh! Me TOO!) and that they are enjoyed by many generations (9 to 91 years of age, so far) and that readers are dealing with the same things in their lives that the folks are in Partonville. Feedback from readers has blessed and encouraged me more than I could ever express. THANK YOU! BLESS YOU! THANK YOU, Dear Readers!
FR: Tell us about your fun website at www.welcometopartonville.com.
CAB: My desire was to create a FUN place (and thanks for mentioning one of my favorite words) that would offer perspective readers the flavor of the books and characters, while giving seasoned series fans a place to learn a few new things. It's also where I post my book tour stops (not speaking engagements, since those are at www.dontmissyourlife.com/calendar.html) and give contact info, provide shameless PR (and a couple dreamy pictures of me) and encourage people to sign up for the TwinkleGram, my FREE monthly email newsletter wherein I tell stories out of my Real Life to encourage readers not to miss their OWN!
FR: What's next for you, writing-wise?
CAB: I love the idea you have the word "wise" attached to my writing! Hahahahaha. Book #4 in the series, DEAREST DOROTHY, WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT?, is in the editing phase and will be released summer of 2005, and I'll soon begin work on #5! Then I'll be writing my next nonfiction title on the subject that is my most requested as a speaker (and on which I've been speaking since 1991): DON'T MISS YOUR LIFE! (It's better than you think!) Then...hopefully, continuing reader support for the series will enable us ALL to dwell in the land of Partonville for a little while longer.
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Q: You've recently done quite a bit of touring. In your travels, have you found your books strike a chord not limited to geographic region? Where have you been most surprised to find a fan base?
Charlene Ann Baumbich: I guess one of the biggest and most delightful (and celebrated!) surprises was to be embraced in the deeper South as a Southern writer, especially since I've lived in the Chicago suburbs all my life and Partonville is only as far south as the "northern part of southern Illinois," which, at least to my way of thinking, is decidedly the Midwest. But regardless of geographical locationsfrom the Dakotas, to the Deep South, to the East Coast, to Washingtonreaders tell me via e-mails and store appearances that I've nailed life in their town, or one that they used to live in or their grandmother lives in now. They are identifying more with the spirit of small-town life rather than its actual geographical location. One far-from-the-state-of-Partonville lady told me she was sure I'd written about her town. She also said she had to admit to liking the folks in Partonville better, though. I laughed out loud at that one!
What especially blesses me, however, is when someone takes the time to tell me a detailed story out of their past, something Partonville reminded them of, reawakened within them. Readers have shared some of the most precious, intimate, and hilarious moments of their lives with me. It's humbling, really, and I hold their stories very close.
Q: Partonville is a wonderful exploration of small-town America. Were you raised in a small town?
CAB: Although I've never lived in a town as small as Partonville (population about 1,500), through endless visits to relatives and dear friends I've grown familiar with the dynamics of small-town life. And I've been that visitor who took someone else's stool at the counter (or unofficially "reserved" seat on the commuter train into the city!), the one driving the unfamiliar vehicle that makes everyone curious: Who are you and what are you doing in our town? I've also been that outsider kindly embraced into the fold, whether at a weekend retreat, into a church body or at a gathering of women or men who do lunch. Who I was raised by, I believe, is more important than where I was raised when it comes to small-town hospitalities: I was raised by parents who were inviting and accepting. A smile, a plate of fried chicken, and several rounds of storytelling were always more important than who you were or where you came from, the dust on your shoes. or your reputation.
Since I was a little girl, I guess you might say I've been a curious student of behavior. I've always loved people-watching, thinking about the lives in the houses behind the front porches. It's my observation that people everywhere, even in large metropolitan areas, share the same need to feel connected. I believe it was Frederick Buechner who said that the story of any one of us is the story of us all. I think if you honor true emotions in a story, no matter what size the town, you'll strike a familiar cord that resonates deep within people, tapping into a loneliness or wish, joy, or fear, and stirs our need for a sense of community.
Q: If there's one thing to be said for Dorothy Wetstra, it's that her faith can surely move mountains (of mayhem and otherwise). How does your faith compare with Dorothy's? Is she a role model created entirely from your own mind or is she a re-creation of a faithful child of God you've encountered in your own life?
CAB: How does my faith compare to Dorothy Jean Wetstra's? I aspire to be Dorothy when I grow up, and one of the main reasons is because her default mode is to go straight to the Big Guy, whether it be to praise, wail, question, or duke it out. She trusts that God can take it and will respond with perfect love and timing for her life. Her faith-filled eyes give her endless hope and an exuberant kindness; she looks for the best in people, even those with whom she finds herself at odds. One of my favorite things about her faith is that when the wheels seem to fall off, she asks God to remind her about what she already knows, what she's already heard God say and promise.
It would be fair to say there are similarities in our faith: we both trust God and understand how huge is God's grace and mercy. (Honestly, if it weren't for grace and mercy, I have no doubt I would have been smote about a gabillion times by now!) Of course there was a real Dorothy in my liferather I should say there still is since her memory is a blessing forever and I continue to feel her hands on my shoulders all the way from heaven. She did have a strong faith. But Dorothy Wetstra's faith is an eclectic blend made up of kind men and women I've known, wizened older folks I continue to seek out, sons and daughters of God who never forget their own Childness of God, who see more than is being said, pray for you before you've asked (and faithfully remember to do so when you do ask), don't take themselves too seriously, and definitely enjoy God's sense of humor.
Q: How have Dorothy and the other residents of Partonville changed your outlook on aging?
CAB: Since I am a keen observer of behaviors, let me say I've witnessed many ways to age. Some oldsters have been graceful, and grace filled every step of the aging process; others have been perfect models of negativity, always focusing on what's wrong rather than what's right, what they don't have rather than what they do; how they used to do it compared to "those kids today." Ironically, perhaps those folks have taught me the most, which is to magnify for me what I don't want to be.
One of my best friends has quite a few years on me. She is active, spunky, age-appropriately stylish, involved in her church, a woman with a true servant's heart, one who models a keen interest in the arts, and she loves her God. She loves to laugh, as did the real Dorothy. As did my mother, whom I lost when she was only fifty-six and I was thirty. Up until my mom's early death, she agedinside and outgracefully. Laughter and the giving of love keep a heart young and merry. My mom was warm and kind and kept her priorities in order. Since the older I get the more I look like my mom, I find my own physical aging process fascinating. I will continue to look in the mirror to catch glimpses of what she might have looked like had she aged to . . . whatever age I might live long enough to be. And I am always inspired by intergenerational relationships. Always.
Having said all of this, I see that rather than Partonville folks modeling something to me about aging, I'd say they are the voice of what I've already seen modeled in my life, and that is that aging is what you decide it will be. If you spend all your time fretting about vanities and complaining about everything, aging will be about vanities and negativity. If you spend your time seeking to shine God's Light into the world no matter what your circumstances, then your aging will be about Light.
Q: Dorothy says, "God is a God of constant surprises." Do you think faith is important for "going with the flow" and adjusting to the ever-changing world?
CAB: Since God is the only sovereign thing on which I can truly rely, my faith in God and God's ability to make sense out of the senseless is the only way I know to go with the flow and enjoy the ride!
Q: Dorothy's penchant for speed and erratic driving seems unusually authentic. If you don't mind, how is your own driving record?
CAB: I've been driving for more than four decades. (As of this writing, I'm heading toward fifty-nine.) I only have one speeding ticket to my name and that was acquired about thirty-five years ago. Although I do like to take off fast and need to feel a car kick into passing gear when I put my foot on it (and I mean now!), have owned two motorcycles (ridden horses in barrel races), and still am jazzed by the sound of a big engine (Harley-Davidson or any other engine that goes vroooom-vroooom, rumble-rumble!), I'm oddly not a huge speeder. My mom, however, was often driving on her limit of tickets; my dad enjoyed the wind in his face. Both of my sons own motorcycles, the oldest definitely enjoying any experienceengine-related or notthat goes fast, whether it be driving, skateboarding, snowboarding, bicycling, etc. We all love(d) to feel the power. Feel the "edge" of . . . whatever. It's in our genes, I guess. And the real Dorothy . . . yikes! She scared the living daylights out of me when she drove everywhere fast . . . even in reverse! Her unapologetic and complete explanation to me as to why she had a dent in her house in front of where she parked her car was "That was the last time I bought a car with turbo charge."
Q: Your depictions of nature reveal a love for the land. Are you outdoorsy at all?
CAB: I love the outdoors (unless it's too hot and then I'm a hopeless whiner). I see beauty in straight rows of corn, which I learned to appreciate when my grandfather, a farmer, pointed them out as he slowly drove down the hard road observing such things. I love the sounds of a creek, wind in Ponderosa pine trees, the whir of hummingbird wings, the moo of a cow, the happy chirp of crickets, and the goose-bumpedy strains of mourning doves and coyote howls. I oooo and ahhhh at sunsets and sunrises, comets and sparkling rocks, falling leaves and the pattern of ice on a window because my parents were always saying, Look at that! Listen to that! Ain't that perty? (my dad's unique expression). I am sensory loaded, nerve endings automatically honing in on the tiniest detail of a flower and the vast grandeur of the mountains. I cannot help but inhale the fragrant scent of petunias (Yes, they do smell. Try it!), horse sweat, freshly mowed fields, and puppy breath. Each of these things is such a pure and free gift.
Q: After raising two sons, you are able to capture the confusion and angst present in many teenage boys. Does writing from a boy's point of view give you any trouble?
CAB: None. I didn't try to think like a teenage boy; whatever rings true about that was just there. I'm not sure what that says about me, but it's the truth. Like I've said, I'm a keen observer. But maybe I didn't have trouble writing like a boy because as a girl, I never did understand tea parties where friends would drink air tea when they could just go get a soda. I much preferred crawdad hunts and worm forts (I do not recommend putting swimming pools in themnot pretty) to dolls and lace. But now, as a "fully growed woman," as my grandmother would have described it, don't even think about messing with my earrings or lip gloss or I'll slam-dunk you! (Just kidding. About the lip gloss. Maybe.)
Q: What are you working on now?
CAB: I'm currently working on Dearest Dorothy, WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT!, which is number four in the Welcome to Partonville series. Next I'll be working on number five. WAHOO! Then I'll be working on my next nonfiction, which is a topic I've been speaking on since 1991, "Don't Miss Your Life!"
Yikes! I just freaked myself out. Gotta stop working on this interview and get busy! Besides, I'm anxious to see what's been going on in Partonville since last I visited.
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