Kaya Oakes on The Nones Are Alright

These are the facts Kaya Oakes, a nuanced spiritual person who defies boundaries in her current book, found in the latest step of the journey toward the new book The Nones Are Alright.

When talking early on in the book about your father and his death how hard was it to delve into that after all those years or is it something you’re comfortable with discussing?

It’s been a long time since my dad passed away, and I find with distance, it’s much easier to write about the role he played in my life. One of the upsides of getting older is that we understand our parents a lot better. We can see their flaws as well as the good things they brought into our lives, and weigh those things a little more evenly.

Were certain people that were reticent about discussing their faith despite the level of trust you want obviously always gain with folks in your interviews?

To be sure, a lot of people who initially wanted to discuss their religious experiences backed out. It’s a loaded issue, and sometimes, people are still processing the decision to leave religion behind, and didn’t feel comfortable opening up for fear of hurting family members or friends. But for the most part, people were very open and willing to talk.

Was there one particular chapter that was harder to write than the others?

The hardest part of writing a book is the beginning. I knew I wanted to put the atheists in the first chapter because it made sense to begin with people who had grown up in completely non-religious families. They hadn’t had any experience of losing religion because their parents brought them up without it. And that seemed to be like the right idea, but because I knew a couple of the people in that chapter before I wrote the book, it was a little harder to step back and separate our relationships from writing about them. That chapter took a few whacks and finally, thanks to some help from my editor and friends, I figured it out.

Have you been happy with a response to the book so far?

The most important thing to me was that the people I wrote about liked it, and so far, they have been so gracious and kind. One of the people I wrote about said it was like looking at a snapshot of himself from a year or so ago and seeing how much he’s grown and changed since then. I really appreciated hearing that. I’ve also had some great feedback from reviewers and friends, and it’s being taught in a few classes, so I’ve had the chance to Skype with students who are reading and writing about it, which is pretty cool since I’m a teacher myself. Of course, not every person loves every book, and I’m sure at some point someone will hate it, but that’s fair — I don’t love every book I read either.

Periodically you’re afraid of your husband of being unhappy at the amount of work you do to the detriment of your health how are you taking the heat and the more to care for yourself put the oxygen mask on yourself before spiritually engaging your associates?

I take a lot of breaks from things. Breaks from writing, breaks from church going when it’s unpleasant or hard, breaks from work. Another thing about getting older is you learn your limits, and I’m getting a lot better about that, but I love writing generally, so when it’s going well, it doesn’t feel at all like work.

How much did It please you to have the book published it Orbis?

Very pleased. I had a great relationship with my editor Jim Keane from the beginning. We both write for America (the Jesuit magazine), and since Jim is a smart, terrific writer, I knew he’d also be a good editor to work with, and he was. Orbis has been so ahead of the game on church issues and theology, publishing lots of landmark thinking on religion way before anyone else. It’s pretty humbling to be lined up in their list of authors alongside people like Gustavo Guttierez, Joan Chittister, Elizabeth Johnson, and James Cone.

Do you ever stay in touch with interview subjects where did you find that complicates matters?

With every book I’ve written and every essay or journalistic thing I’ve done that involves interviewing people, there are inevitably a few times when someone and I hit it off and become friends. That’s a natural byproduct of the process, I think, because the work I do is pretty intimate in terms of getting people to open up about faith issues, which is very personal stuff. So, usually I wait until the piece is done being written and then if a friendship naturally evolves, great. I think it’s an empathetic process with a lot of reciprocity both ways. With this book, I really loved all the people I spoke to, and am lucky to say I’m friends with quite a few of them as the result of the conversations we had.

How did you decide what to call certain chapters. I loved liminal phase

Oh my gosh, I suck at titles. It’s probably a good thing I never had kids because I’d never figure out what to name them. It’s kind of a crapshoot whether a title will stick once an editor and copy editor get their hands on it but these pretty much did. And the book title is of course from The Who.

Was the LGBTQ chapter easier to discuss due to the years in California? 

Sure, growing up in the Bay Area I’ve been surrounded by gay people my whole life. My mom’s neighbors were a lesbian couple with kids and some kids in my schools growing up had same-sex parents — and this was in the 70s. Then in high school and college I got involved in AIDS activism since that was a scourge living here. A friend of mine died from it in the early 90s and several friends have been living with HIV for a long time. And I work with a lot of LGBTQ students and colleagues, and my favorite religious leaders are usually gay. So writing about LGBTQ people for me, although I’m not one of them, just feels like writing about people I’ve known and loved my whole life. Of course, it’s like writing about anything else and positioning is important. You’ve got to say to readers that you’re writing from a position of solidarity but not from their POV.

You have many footnotes to this I wonder if fun of you use after that was a jackass opinion but I have to justify it.

Haha, I hate footnotes and actually, I had the whole manuscript in endnotes. Then, I realized my publisher wanted footnotes and when I went to change it, there was a terrifying moment when I deleted the whole book. Luckily this was reparable but that freaked me out. It was like a curse. But research is one of my favorite cheap thrills so doing a lot of it for the book was actually pretty fun. Let me try convincing my research writing students of that this semester.

Since you had time and space to distance yourself from this book from her number months how do you view it from your rearview mirror perspective

Every book has a different relationship with its writer as time goes on. Some things I’ve written feel very dated to me now, like the book I did on indie — dated because it’s from a specific time. Radical Reinvention really seems to hold up, and people keep finding it and writing to me about it, which surprises me because it was kind of a small press deal with not a lot of promotion behind it. With this book, I look back on finishing it right around this time a year ago and realize I’m still in flux spiritually myself — still Catholic, but not attached to a particular parish. But also, that searching, which is an experience I shared with the people I wrote about, has been really liberating to the way I write, because I can pretty much say whatever I want. I had a super productive and fruitful year of covering church issues for a number of different magazines since I finished the manuscript. Eventually, I hope to settle down somewhere because I miss the community feeling of being part of a church, but until then, I’m enjoying the anonymity and freedom of this in-between state, and that’s something the people I wrote about helped me to understand is an okay place to be.

Shawn Colvin

Shawn Colvin’s version of If These Walls Could Speak. And it happens to be her birthday today. Happy Birthday, Shawn!https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oB3OS1a4XOc

Posted by Jimmy Webb on Sunday, January 10, 2016