Book Article

Talking to Kate Braestrup

The ''Here if You Need Me'' author talks about her life

Kate Braestrup greets you at the door of her small-town Maine farmhouse with a grilled cheese sandwich. Her 17- and 15-year-old daughters are lolling about upstairs, trying to wrest the new Harry Potter from each other's grip. The family terrier, Chaos, trots around underfoot, her cheerful husband, Simon van der Ven, makes more sandwiches with a phone to his ear, talking to Braestrup's brother, who's calling to say that her Amazon numbers are soaring. Hollywood may call soon. ''Apparently Nicole Kidman read it,'' says the 45-year-old chaplain for the Maine Warden Service, throwing up her hands in a mystified laugh. ''Of course, all the wardens are going nuts. 'Nicole Kidman knows about Maine game wardens? Oh, my God!'''

But few would have guessed a Hollywood happy ending for Braestrup's unconventional memoir about grief and loss. ''Here's this neat little book about death!'' laughs Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch, who emerged victorious from a 12-house auction for the book. ''But her voice and those ideas about comfort and the power of presence come through in her writing with a simplicity and clarity and unimpeded force that I've just never experienced before. You want her near you.''

In the summer of Christopher Hitchens' best-seller God Is Not Great, Braestrup provides something of a calm, clearheaded response. Her theology is progressive. On evolution: ''I'm convinced that Darwin's theory explains with elegance and considerable proof the origin and development of life.'' On hell: ''The doctrine is illogical, it's unscriptural, it augments and justifies evil.'' But she does believe in God, and, for her, God is love.

She and van der Ven, a ceramics artist, met three years ago when Braestrup was presiding over a funeral of one of his students from the local high school. ''She handled the day with such grace and warmth, I left thinking, 'How does one meet a woman like that?''' he says. Flush from her high-six-figure deal, they threw a huge wedding last August for 200 guests. The reception was in their backyard under a big tent, where waiters, many of them van der Ven's former students, swirled around the party with food. Van der Ven brought his own two teenagers into the mix. ''We have a 21-, 19-, 18-, 17-, 16-, and 15-year-old,'' says Braestrup. ''It's a pile!''

While she celebrated her happy union, Little, Brown worried around a New York conference table about how to best market her book. Braestrup turned in the manuscript under the title Finding the Body: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Law Enforcement in the Maine Woods. ''It did sound a little grim,'' says Pietsch. So the marketing department started throwing out some more-uplifting ideas. ''I vetoed everything that had the word grace in it,'' says Braestrup. ''If I picked up a book that said 'This is about a faith journey,' I'd think it was creepy and saccharine and put it down immediately. That probably reflects badly on me as a minister, but oh, well.''

After lunch, Braestrup follows Chaos back to the barn studio that van der Ven recently built. There are paintings on the wall by her mother, grandmother, aunt, and youngest daughter, Woolie. A bench is crowded with clear candy dishes of yarn and brightly colored sweaters that she's knit herself. On her computer rests a family picture from the perfect wedding. Braestrup beams in a champagne-colored dress, her oldest son is in his Marines uniform, and the girls are all beautiful and barefoot.

On the bookshelf is a black-and-white photo of her first husband, Drew Griffith. He's standing in his uniform in front of his police car, with a great big joyful smile on his handsome face. It's the last picture taken of him before his death. ''Doesn't he look happy?'' says Braestrup. ''He could've used three more lifetimes.''

Braestrup waves off any anxieties over her book's critical and commercial reception. ''I don't care,'' she says. ''I've done what I can do. If it completely flops and gets remaindered, hey, at least I'm not the one who spent a million dollars on a bad book,'' she says, the moon-shaped earring in her right ear flapping as she throws her head back to laugh at her good fortune. ''I still get to be married to Simon. The kids are all darling. I've got more yarn than I can knit in a lifetime. And I still get to be the chaplain of the Maine Warden Service. So I'm good.''

The next morning, Braestrup woke up at 4:30, fastened her little slab of a clerical collar, and drove off into the dark to a faraway town where a 3-year-old girl had wandered into a river and drowned. People needed comfort.


Kate Braestrup's Must List
Here's the entertainment that makes this minister say ''Thank you, God!''

GERALD DURRELL
''He's an animal freak, and he writes very funny stories, and I've been devouring them since I was a kid.''

MURDERBALL
''I remember being told what it was about [quadriplegics playing rugby]. Huh? But now it's my favorite movie!''

LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION
''I'd love to have a conversation with [author] Sam Harris. He's right, in that religion has a lot of splainin' to do.''

DOROTHY SAYERS
''I love English mystery writers. The stories are puzzles. Only one person dies, and it's always the disagreeable character.''

Originally posted Aug 10, 2007 Published in issue #948 Aug 17, 2007 Order article reprints