Q: Setting in Lay It On My Heart—the rigidly evangelical, rural Kentucky town of East Winder—plays a big part in how it affects the lives of the characters within it. Is East Winder based on a real town?
A: East Winder does have a lot in common with my own hometown in Kentucky. Some landmarks are clearly borrowed—like the electric cross on the water tower, the seminary, the many churches, the proximity to the Kentucky River—but I wanted the freedom to add and subtract details to make the setting for the made-up story better. And these days most of the nearby tobacco fields of my childhood are gone, replaced by sheep and hog farming. I think I was most interested in trying to puzzle out on the page what it felt like to grow up in a place narrowly and absolutely defined by a particular strand of religion—a place that was also somewhat isolated, geographically. I remember a time for myself when evangelical Christianity was my entire frame of reference, and when anything outside of it was regarded as sinful, worldly, etc—and with a kind of fear. I’m guessing it’s harder to keep “the world” out these days, with the internet. And when I go home now the town doesn’t seem nearly as isolated as my memory makes it. But I remember how powerful glimpses of the larger world were. I got my hands on a Glamour magazine in the 1980s and saved it forever. At the time it felt like my own private manual to life on another planet—a planet I felt guilty for being curious about.
Q: The main characters in your novel are evangelical Christians. Do you have an evangelical background and why did you choose to write a story about an evangelical family? Do you still consider yourself a religious person?
A: I do have an evangelical background. I come from three generations of ministers—but no prophets! These days, after years on the West Coast, I’d consider myself spiritual. In my hometown, that word marks me as “from California.” What it means to me is that I have a healthy respect for the mystery of what we can’t know, which I’m convinced is all a lot bigger than I can imagine. We humans have these narratives we’ve created to explain this mystery, and some of them are very beautiful. Whether they’re literally true or not, or even likely, seems less important than the effect they have. And that’s been a mixed bag to say the least. On the one hand you’ve got the horrors of the Crusades and the Inquisition, the contorted justification for slavery; on the other hand you’ve got the astounding beauty of Sistine Chapel, the legacy of Jesuit scholarship, the profound expressions of Girard Manley Hopkins.
When I left home, I also left evangelical Christianity. I couldn’t make peace with the idea that there’s only one route to God—among some other issues of tolerance, unacceptable definitions of what counts as immoral, etc. But I’m still curious about this belief system and the kind of people who choose it. This culture has become an easy target, brought about by not a few of its disgraced ambassadors. But as with most easy targets, things strike me as more complicated than they appear. I think it’s a complex and sometimes troubled culture, with many well-intentioned—and often very kind—individuals. People doing the best they can in spite of their mistakes and blind spots. Which actually sounds like a lot of other cultures, too.
Q: The novel focuses heavily on the mother-daughter relationship between Phoebe and Charmaine. Were you inspired by your relationship with your own mother while writing this relationship?
A: Ha! My mother would probably be the first to understand how much the answer to this question is both yes and no. The idea that mother-daughter love is rich, complicated and sometimes too close for comfort, especially in adolescence, resonates strongly with my experience—and also with the experience of every mother or daughter I have ever discussed it with. To me, the single-parent, single-child dynamic is especially interesting. An emotional pressure-cooker of sorts, with no sibling relief valve. That’s how I grew up.
I actually started writing the first draft of this book from more than one point of view, including Phoebe’s. Ultimately I decided on just Charmaine’s, but I really wanted to suggest Phoebe’s trajectory, too. Her life, her outlook, is changing. She’s angry, hurt and more than a little outraged. I like to think she wants something very different for Charmaine and is, in her own way, getting that message across.
Generally I’m trying to honor something real about the way these characters interact. To get at some of the intense, messy little moments between people who are close to one another. With the other characters, too. There’s all the comfort and discomfort of bodies in physical proximity—in a trailer, say, or sharing a bus seat—that affects our need to connect or resist, or both. And for all the mess there are those moments when another person breaks open a bit and you see something that touches you unexpectedly.
Literal parallels? Well, my mom was a teacher. She was—and still is—very petite, like Phoebe. She was always much smaller than me, growing up, so there’s some of that in the book. We are close. As an only child it was a struggle for me to feel good about leaving home. So there are some true emotions in the book, for sure, but the events didn’t happen.
Q: Charmaine’s mentally ill father believes that he is a prophet. Can you talk more about the theme of evangelicalism and how it permits mental illness?
A: In a culture where people believe they have a direct line to God, and it’s unmediated by, say, the authority of a pope or priests, then if a person can convince others that God has revealed something to them—well, who’s to say otherwise? It just becomes very easy for cults of personality to develop. Sometimes it’s as innocuous as a church split, usually led by a prominent leader in the congregation and justified by some practical application of doctrine. At the other end of the spectrum you have something that approaches cult-like behavior and the magnetic insanity of David Koresh or Jim Jones. Somewhere between those lie people like David, whose mental illness is masked for a long time by what’s considered possible—even normal—in some evangelical circles. Not that all evangelical Christians buy into folks who call themselves prophets, to be sure. But within a family, the paternal authority structure can really complicate matters. When you combine a sincere, shared belief that the father should be the head of the household with said father’s mental illness—well, that can be a disaster waiting to happen.
Q: Is prayer without ceasing a real practice?
A: I heard a couple sermons on it as a child. It appealed to me, then. The sermon mentioned in the book, by Spurgeon, really exists. So does the Russian monk. And then there’s Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, where Franny gives it a go. I’m guessing that it’s meant to suggest turning everything over to God, rather than the whole breathing thing. It’s part of what’s interesting to me about evangelical Christianity—the insistence on the literal interpretation of scripture. Reading the Bible like a manual for life rather than an inspiring spiritual text. These literal readings of course lead to endless discussion, discourse and disagreement. But because consensus is unnecessary—God tells one person one thing, another person something else—the way individuals behave according to their own literal readings, as well as their direct information from God, is endlessly varied and interesting. You can have evangelical rock bands of pierced, tattooed musicians right alongside girls in skirts who haven’t ever cut their hair or pierced their ears.
Q: Were there any other experiences from your real life that shaped the writing of your novel? Would you call your novel “semiautobiographical?”
A: It would be very hard to call this novel “semiautobiographical,” though often debut novels with first-person narrators fall into that category. I once interviewed Lorrie Moore for The Believer magazine and asked her about the issue of personal exposure in writing. I loved her answer: “…there is always a little personal exposure, to use your phrase, and more than that there is the illusion of personal exposure, which may have the same annoying repercussions.”
It’s a compliment, I think, if people find your work convincing enough that they can’t believe it didn’t really happen. It’s just that “did this happen” is usually the wrong question if you’re looking for the writer in his or her work. I’d say, “Are the things in this book important to you personally, and why?” is probably the more certain route to discovering a writer’s connection to the work. And, you bet—the priorities in this novel are very important to me: the closeness of the mother-daughter bond, female friendships, the behavior of boys and girls, men and women, around sex in a restrictive environment. Sincere intentions and their painful results. And the setting, of course, is a lot like one of the important settings of my past. And the reason these things are important to me are rooted in my own life. Some of the details are real—the cross on the water tower, the “tuna wiggle” dinner—but the events just didn’t happen. It’s probably significant that I believe they could easily have happened, to me or to lots of families in my town, and I certainly observed patterns of behavior that informed the book. I heard rumors of kids climbing the water tower, but not me, no way! My dad wasn’t mentally ill, or a prophet, or even on the extreme edge of evangelical circles. He left the family and stopped being a minister when I was very young. Some of the sadness of his leaving informs the book, but the situation could not have been more different—or more mundane, I might add.
I teach fiction writing at Stanford, and while I can’t quite bring myself to make my own work required reading, I do offer my students an annotated version of a story of mine that appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012. I use the “comments” function in word, and I am as honest as I know how to be about what actually came “from life.” The story, “Occupational Hazard,” is from a male point of view, but it takes place in Kentucky, in a town a lot like the one in the book, a lot like my hometown. My students are always surprised at what’s “real” (many if not most of the thoughts and observations) and what’s not real—all of the characters and events. I share it with them not to satisfy some curiosity they have about me, but to show them the convoluted way experience and observation show up in fiction so that they can begin to draw upon their own resources in perhaps less direct, less anecdotal ways. As a writer, I probably get closer to the core of what I’m trying to discover or express when I make stuff up than when I share something that actually happened to me. It’s not that way for every writer, and some of my favorite books are memoirs that manage to feel like novels—and beautiful ones—in the way they drill down both directly and indirectly: Mary Karr’s Lit, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.
You can’t get away from the experience that formed your sensibility, and you shouldn’t try. But for me, at my stage of writing, invention goes deeper to the heart of my experience than any of my attempts at accurate reporting or representation.