Tim O’Shea: Do you think you would have come back to Catholicism if you had attended a more traditional conservative Catholic parish in another part of the country?
Kaya Oakes: That’s a good question, because I am Bay Area to the bone. I’ve only briefly lived in other parts of the country/world, and those were fairly liberal urban areas. My family parish in childhood was ultra progressive, and the Catholic schools I attended were run by liberal/progressive religious orders. So it’s very hard to imagine what my faith life would be like had I come from a more conservative place or set of circumstances. Frankly, I would probably not be back in a pew. In researching the book I did visit some more conservative local churches, including our local cathedral Mass, and I even went to a Latin Mass, and let’s just say that the urge to return is… nonexistent. The Catholicism I grew up with was social justice oriented, not just about sex and birth control. And after some searching, I did find that that kind of Catholicism is alive and well.
Thanks to a tweetby Reuters Bureau Chief in India, Paul de Bendern, I was made aware of a new New York Times article about writer Christopher Hitchens. As I noted when I first wroteabout his announcement that he was battling esophageal cancer, while intellectually I have not agreed with Hitchens since about 2001, I still respect him. I sometimes find it odd that I respect him, considering I believe in a God, and he does not. But what the hey, fortunately as I get older I seem to be getting more open-minded.
Anyways, you should go read the piece. Consider this excerpt.
But in most other respects Mr. Hitchens is undiminished, preferring to see himself as living with cancer, not dying from it. He still holds forth in dazzlingly clever and erudite paragraphs, pausing only to catch a breath or let a punch line resonate, and though he says his legendary productivity has fallen off a little since his illness, he still writes faster than most people talk. Last week he stayed up until 1 in the morning to finish an article for Vanity Fair, working on a laptop on his bedside table.
I am grateful to my parents for many gifts, but I rank my Catholic education/upbringing and intellectual curiosity as among some of the best. While Evan Howard, the author of The Galilean Secret (released last month), are not of the exact same religion (he is the pastor of the Community Church of Providence [Rhode Island), given that we are both Christians and that he is even more intellectually curious than myself (as well as the owner of a doctorate in theology from Boston University)–well it made for a great interview. In this email interview we discuss his novel–which is described as follows:
“When Karim Musalaha, a Palestinian on the run, seeks refuge in a forgotten cave near Qumran, he discovers a half-buried clay jar that contains a fragile scroll. His quest to discover its origins takes him on a high-speed chase through hostile Jerusalem and West Bank neighborhoods. Caught between his brother’s relentless ambition for martyrdom and the forbidden love of a Jewish woman with ties to the highest levels of the Israeli army, he must choose between honoring his father and betraying him to serve a higher purpose.
The scroll’s message also resonates with Judith of Jerusalem, a first century Jewish woman who, under the cover of darkness, gallops into the desert with the brother of the man she was betrothed to marry. When her allegiance to the burgeoning Zealot revolution pits her against the Roman occupiers and their priestly collaborators, Judith sees the cruelty of war and realizes her mistake. But is it too late for her to escape and find forgiveness? A letter written by a mysterious Galilean rabbi holds the answers, but the Romans have placed a price on his head. Should she risk her life for a rabbi she hardly knows, or risk her soul for a cause and a man whose beliefs she now rejects?
Bound by a letter that spans two millennia, both Karim and Judith will either succumb to hatred, violence and hopelessness, or reveal a wisdom that could save us all.”
I’m grateful to Howard for his valuable time and thoughts, as well as Kelly Hughes for facilitating the interview. Go here to read the first chapter.
Tim O’Shea: Tackling two plots with historical complexities in one book is fairly ambitious. How much revision/aggressive editing was involved in the pursuit of balancing the respective narratives and their unique pacing for both stories?
Evan Howard: The decision to include plots in two different time periods came about unexpectedly. As a first-time novelist I didn’t plan to use this method because of the difficulties involved, but readers of an earlier version of the book (which I had self-published) expressed frustration that I hadn’t resolved what happened to Karim, the Palestinian student who appears in the first chapter, the action of which takes place in the present. Since the rest of the novel happens in the time of Jesus, at first I resisted developing Karim’s story because I thought it would be a very complicated undertaking, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw that having two time periods and multiple plots could make the novel more multi-dimensional and increase its suspense. This process required that I write fifteen new chapters and blend them with the historical material. It took me about seven months to do this and involved a great deal of revising and editing along the way. Once I entered into this process, I found it highly challenging but also a lot of fun—like working on a giant literary jigsaw puzzle. Since there is a lot of action in both stories, the issue of pacing wasn’t a major problem.
Every once and awhile a book concept hooks you in the first sentence. Such was the case with Benyamin Cohen‘s My Jesus Year. “One day a Georgia-born son of an Orthodox rabbi discovers that his enthusiasm for Judaism is flagging. He observes the Sabbath, he goes to synagogue, and he even flies to New York on weekends for a series of ‘speed dates’ with nice, eligible Jewish girls. But, something is missing. Looking out of his window and across the street at one of the hundreds of churches in Atlanta, he asks, ‘What would it be like to be a Christian?’ … So begins Benyamin Cohen’s hilarious journey that is My Jesus Year — part memoir, part spiritual quest, and part anthropologist’s mission.” Next month the book will be released in paperback. With that in mind, I recently email interviewed him. My thanks to Cohen for his time and to Kelly Hughes of DeChant-Hughes & Assoc Inc. for arranging it.
Tim O’Shea: What was the hardest part of the journey for you, both in terms of the actual experience and/or writing about it?
Benyamin Cohen: The hardest part of the journey for me was when I went to Confession: The entire year, wherever I went, I let people know I was Jewish. But at Confession, since technically only Catholics are allowed, I had to pretend to be someone else. And I’m not an actor. The other hard part about Confession was that it was an audience of one. At all the other churches, I could sit in the back and be a fly on the wall, watching what was going on and taking notes. But in the confines of the Confession booth, it was just me and the priest. Scary stuff.
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.