While researching for another interview, I was introduced to Susan E. Isaacs‘ new book, Angry Conversations With God. And I’m glad I found out about it–and even better got a chance to interview her. First some background on the book:
“Angry Conversations With God began when Susan hit hit forty and found herself loveless, jobless, and living over a garage. When a churchy friend told Susan that she needed to look at her relationship with God was it like a marriage, Susan decided to take God to marriage counseling.
Angry Conversations chronicles Susan’s spiritual history, from childhood faith to a midlife crisis, and all the bizarre church experiences in between.”
And now for some info on the author:
“Susan is an actor, writer and comedienne with credits in TV, film, stage and radio, including Planes Trains & Automobiles, Scrooged, Seinfeld, and My Name Is Earl. She is an alumnus of the Groundlings Sunday Company and has an MFA in screenwriting from the University of Southern California.”
My thanks to Isaacs for the interview. Keep an eye out for her this fall, as she goes on a multi-city tour, promoting the book.
Tim O’Shea: Most religious memoirs do not have a tinge of irreverence to them, did you fear alienating your potential audience by going this route?
Susan E. Isaacs: People who don’t handle irreverence or extreme language shouldn’t read Jeremiah, Elijah, or St. Paul. Like in Philippians 3, Paul considers his previous accomplishments “loss” compared to knowing Christ? The original Hebrew for “loss” is a vulgar term for excrement. But we can’t print St Paul’s original intent because we’re Christians. I think there’s a difference between gratuitous irreverence, and irreverence that’s necessary to the character and the story. I took out all but two or three instances of profanity where I felt they were necessary to show the character’s desperation. Like, in one instance I spelled it out phonetically to show how violent my father’s cursing sounded to me as a child.
Now I realize people have different thresholds. Those with delicate temperaments won’t like my book, and that’s OK with me. I wouldn’t want them to read it if it hurt their feelings. But they’ve already got a wealth of reverential books at the Christian bookstore to inspire those readers. There aren’t many books out there for the Christian who grew up with Saturday Night Live and Monty Python, who respond to a different tone and story. Anne Lamott and Donald Miller proved that there’s a huge hunger for a more frank, even cheeky take on the spiritual life.
The book was originally a solo show that I performed in front of a very secular, skeptical, spiritually searching Hollywood crowd. I needed to be irreverent; that’s how I broke down their suspicions about religion, got them to trust me, and allow me to take them on my spiritual journey.
Lastly, while I may have been irreverent depicting the ‘twisted god in my head;’ when the true God emerges in my book, there was no disrespecting or dismissing him.
O’Shea: You covered a lot of ground and a great many people who crossed your paths over the years–since the book’s release have you heard from folks who found out they got mentioned in the book?
Isaacs: Actually I’ve been back in touch with quite a few people, including my high school drama teacher, friends from childhood, college, and all the churches I attended over the years. They’re scattered all over the world, from Florida to Switzerland and Cyprus. Writing a memoir is one way to find lost friends. I haven’t heard from any of the ex-boyfriends, but one friend emailed thinking she was “Martha,” the churchy character in the book, and apologized for judging me. She wasn’t the real Martha. The real Martha loves the book and is a good sport.
O’Shea: Did Rudy read the book before it was published. If not, has he seen it? What does he think of the book?
Isaacs: Rudy read the book and loves it. His real name, which I can disclose, is Dr.Ron Boyer. Ron is still a therapist, but he also went back to pastoring a church. In Topanga of course.
O’Shea: You discuss a great many painful issues in the course of this book, werethere points in compiling the memoir that it almost got too painful to recount? Or was writing the book a form of therapy in its own way?
Isaacs: Ever had one of those dreams where you’re back at high school walking around naked thinking, “Why OH WHY did I come to school with no clothes on?” Once and a while someone asks a question like yours, I think “why, oh WHY was I so vulnerable in the book?!” But then I remember Ezekiel stood in the city gate naked for nine months. (He also cooked his food over a poop fire, but that’s where I draw the line).
Actually, I started writing this story when I was in the deepest part of my crisis. I had to write, just to try to grasp what was happening to me. Writing kept me sane. Of course some of my fellow classmates thought I was nuts. But when you have stared into the abyss, nothing scares you any more, even other people’s opinions. Later when I shaped it into the book, it was hard to relive some moments (I’m so easily plagued by regret) but it was therapeutic; like a confessional. It was transformative as well. I got to see the story and character arcs of my life – how God was shaping and directing me all along. There’s a book called Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography, or something like that. A friend at church told me about it. I think it’s a very therapeutic thing to do, and even more so if you can share it with the right kind of people, like a writers’ group or a pastor.
O’Shea: I was a kid who went to 12 years of Catholic school and am still a practicing Catholic–but with a very acerbic sense of humor–I wonder do you ever find yourself having to fight your sense of humor while attending your church’s services? For me, there are times where I’m thinking of a joke in my head and forgetting the reason I’m at church.
Isaacs: ALL THE TIME! Jokes are like apples on a tree. They drop suddenly from the boughs and you want to pick them while they’re ripe. A few weeks ago my husband and I were at a church where the pastor rambled incoherently for 45 minutes; then ended with, “But you don’t need another boring sermon.” I wanted to shout, “No. We didn’t.” The other night I was with a group of people and one woman averred, “Jesus traveled to England and Europe, you know; they have proof. It was on the History Channel!” I blurted out, “Maybe that was Para-History channel.” Everyone busted up, but I think it embarrassed her. I have to watch myself.
O’Shea: After writing this book, is there any chance you might try your hand at another book that combines your sense of humor with your perspective on religion?
Isaacs: Yes. I’m thinking of writing Racy Conversations With God (About Sex, Love And Dating). I experienced so much weirdness being a single Christian in my 20s and 30s. Our entire culture is experiencing a massive relationship famine. We may be fat and relatively rich, but we are starving relationally. The church is trying to deal with this epidemic, but it’s made some errors, espoused some strange ideas along the way. I and many friends have been the victims and perpetrators of those ideas. That’s what my next book is about. I talked about it some in Angry Conversations, so I’ll go into that in more depth. And I’ll be asking readers for their wacky stories!
O’Shea: This book grew out of a show you wrote ultimately into a book–were there aspects that you realized work better as being told orally in the show, versus being told in the book?
Isaacs: Most definitely. The audio version of my book runs 8 hours. Yikes. A live show has to be succinct. 90 minutes tops. And you can’t just transpose narrative: words that read well on a page can sound wooden or dorky out loud. The story was first a solo show, five years ago. Now I’m going back to the show but the story has changed. Five years ago I was stuck in the crisis of the second act; God wasn’t speaking and I didn’t know how the story was going to end. The counseling dialogues with God in the book didn’t exist in the solo show before, because God was silent. I’m working with a producer on the new solo show; he’s convinced the best part of the solo show will be those dialogues with God. So I guess I’ll be editing the dialogues, and finding succinct ways to plow through the narrative stories in between.
O’Shea: Do you think your sense of humor was enriched by your spiritual pursuits or vice versa or neither?
Isaacs: Well, yes and no. Yes: because good art deals with deep issues: who are we, why are we here, do we matter? Good comedy can show us who we are and maybe get us to see ourselves (and God) in a new way. My spiritual pursuits gave me a wisdom about life and forced me to see a deeper reality. If I can use them wisely my humor can be based not merely on jokes but on those deeper, universal truths about God and about humans: our frailty, our stupidity, our
weakness vulnerability, hope, etc. And I think my sense of humor has helped others see God in a different way.
No: in that comedy and the church are often at odds: similar to your question about reverence. Comedy is messy! Comedy is based on vulnerability, surprise, exposing weakness and frailty. The church is often uncomfortable with that kind of messiness. Most of my life I felt that my spiritual and artistic lives competed with each other. “Too wild for the church, too tame for the world.” I definitely see this changing, however, and that’s really encouraging.
O’Shea: As you tackle your spiritual journey in this book, do you fear that it may pigeonhole who you are or label you unfairly (as “too” religious) in some entertainment industry circles?
Isaacs: I tried for a long time to stay out of the Christian market, because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. But a good deal of my audience are Christians. So what was I gonna do, shoot myself in the foot? Ironically, my book was a hard sell with the Christian Booksellers Association. (Maybe because it says “Lutheran slut” on the inside book flap?) There it is again, too wild for the church, too tame for the world. Fortunately the book is starting to gain momentum, in Christian and secular bookstores, which is terrific. Like most of my life I’ve had to take a long view.
As for entertainment people unfairly pigeonholing me … as Glenn Close’s character said in the Big Chill … “f#&© ’em if they can’t take a joke.” I tried for so many years trying to crowbar my personality into whatever weekly role was being cast. Now I’m over 40; I can’t play Hanna Montana or the next a DD-cup hottie crime scene investigator. Hollywood may have been done with me anyway. So I’ve just got to do the story that’s in me, and God’s in the story. Maybe some entertainment types will come along for the ride.
O’Shea: Throughout the book, you described some pretty vivid dreams you had–do you still have such vivid dreams?
Isaacs: I got so burned during that charismatic period of my life, that I went in the other direction and stopped looking for any meaning in dreams. My husband did a lot of dream analysis in counseling, so he looks for the psychological angle. Maybe the psyche and the spirit and the Spirit are all linked. But many years ago I had a dream I was on a plane sitting next to the film director Sydney Pollack; and I felt an urgent need to share my faith. The next day, Mr. Pollack’s son died in a small-plane crash two blocks from my apartment – how do you explain that in psych terms? I’m only now allowing myself to think about dreams or the gifts of the spirit that my old charismatic churches used to emphasize.
O’Shea: Any parting thoughts?
Isaacs: Some people have read my book and said, “It was just hilarious!” I reply worriedly, “But did you see the spiritual depth in it too, right?” My secular Jewish lesbian friend said, “Wow it was way more serious than I expected.” I replied, “but you thought it was funny, right?” Still others say I was too angry and got too sinful; and I want to scream, “But didn’t you see the redemption? What kind of redemption is there when you’ve lived a sinless life?” But I’m just being an insecure weenie. People are going to get out of it what they get out of it. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to speak to people. It’s my job to get up and write the next book.