ALTON, Iowa | Do dead men tell no tales?
That's not what James Calvin Schaap thinks, since the retired Dordt College English professor has dug up the imagined musings of characters who are clearly thinking outside of the crypt.
Set in a small Midwestern town, Schaap's "Up the Hill" -- an eBook collection of short stories set to be released Tuesday -- tells interconnected tales of the dearly departed as they reconcile the prospects of being spirits in a world that, more or less, continues without them.
Schaap's humorous and enlightening book -- based upon a cemetery in Doon, Iowa, and narrated by a fictionalized version of the town's former newspaper editor -- isn't morbid. In fact reviewers have likened it to "Our Town" ... only populated with folks planted six feet under.
For Schaap, author of such novels as "Romey's Place," "In the Silence There Are Ghosts" and "The Secrets of Barneveld Calvary" in addition to non-fiction books like "Things We Can't Say" (the biography of Dutch Nazi Resistance fighter Berendina Eman), the prospect of writing about the deceased proved to be surprisingly lively.
How did you come up with the idea for "Up the Hill?"
"For lack of a better description, I consider myself a regular inspector of cemeteries. I like taking photographs of them and I enjoy visiting them because there so many stories. One morning, I literally bumped into the grave of a woman who had died at age 21 in 1920. I knew instantly that she was the woman who served as the inspiration for a novel written by (critically acclaimed writer and Doon, Iowa, native) Frederick Manfred (1912-1994), who was both a mentor and friend of mine. Eventually, she inspired 'January Thaw,' one of the stories in 'Up the Hill.'"
So, both you and Manfred found inspiration with a woman the two of you never met before, right?
"Exactly. When you live in a little town, the cemetery sometimes becomes a meeting place. Stories are passed along from person to person and, then, generation to generation. My wife Barbara is originally from Doon. She can still remember stories she heard as a small child."
I take it that you believe cemeteries are haunted.
"Yes, I do. That's why I visit them. I could swear I feel the presence of people when I'm in a cemetery. They may be beyond sin, but they're still around, smoking pipes and reflecting upon life."
I imagine that's a very comforting thought for the people left behind, isn't it?
"I think it is. My mother died a while back. A week behind she did, mom said dad came by to visit her, even though he had been gone for 10 years. Mom was 95 years old. Was she imagining things? Maybe. Was she comforted by the presence of my dad? Definitely."
This may seem like a strange question, but with the number of zombie books, why are dead people so popular?
"I wish I knew. Personally, I was brought up in the 1960 school of realism. Yet, my former students were increasingly drawn to the magical realism of Harry Potter. 'Up the Hill' represents my attempt to get with the program, so to speak."
I suspect your former students are probably fans of "The Walking Dead." Are you?
"Actually, I'm not. My wife and I like to binge watch television drama, which as a genre seem to going through a new golden age. Yet, we're more drawn to British mystery shows and (CBS') 'The Good Wife' than we are anything with zombies in them."