f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 6: Part II of Ann Tatlock's Interview

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, February 09, 2004

Day 6: Part II of Ann Tatlock's Interview

(This is part of II of Ann Tatlock’s interview on the subject of faith and fiction.)

FiF: What makes a novel "Christian"?
AT: Obviously the word Christian is in quotation marks here because the novel itself isn’t Christian; the novelist is. Everyone has a worldview—even people who think they don’t—and in work of fiction, the novelist’s worldview is going to come across. I just can’t see that there’s any getting around it. If “Christian fiction” is seen as propaganda by unbelievers (“Just a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon dressed in an unrippable bodice”) then by rights, secular humanist fiction, for example, is also propaganda (“We’re all doomed to eternal extinction and we might as well be brave enough to face it”). Any novelist is simply putting down on paper what he/she believes.

The Christian novelist sees life’s experiences from the Christian viewpoint. And so he writes from that viewpoint. He has a right to do so. And a responsibility to do so. As Paul Harvey pointed out in a recent commentary, the greatest right for all men and women (Writers: think “readers” here) is the right to hear the truth.

FiF: When people ask about your writing, how do you define it for them?
AT: To answer this question, I will lift FAQ #1 from directly off my website. “What kind of books do you write? If someone could give me a one-word answer to this question, I’d be grateful. This is my MOST frequently asked question, and I don’t have a good answer. I don’t write romance stories, though I’m often—to my great puzzlement--categorized as a romance writer. My books have been described as both contemporary and historical, though it seems a good trick that they should be both at once. I know for certain that my stories, so far, would never be considered science fiction, mystery, western, futuristic, allegory, or suspense. Maybe the closest category would be inspirational, but that might mean different things to different people. And so my usual answer to this question is, “I write books about people.” The common response to this statement is a blank stare. However, at this point, it’s the best I can do.”

(It appears, from looking at this, that I try to avoid the label “Christian fiction.”)

FiF: Who or what is your first priority as writer in starting and working through a novel?
AT: Many things are important to me as I work: to tell a good story, to create believable and memorable characters, to write well, to be historically accurate.

But my first priority as a writer is to say something.

Seems obvious but, oddly enough, in the postmodern literary world, this concept is completely out of vogue. The thought here is not so much that writers don’t say anything, but that they CAN’T say anything. Or maybe they ARE saying something, but they themselves have no idea what. Words don’t have any innate meaning anymore that we can all agree upon. And so, whatever the reader gets out of the novel—well, that’s up to him. The reader decides what the novel is telling him.

Baloney. It just doesn’t work that way. Language is for communicating. We take words, string them together, form paragraphs, create books because, as human beings, we have something to say to each other. We have an inborn desire to share our thoughts, ideas, beliefs—hence, the development of words that have meanings we all agree upon (for the most part).

Writing a novel is one way of giving voice to an idea, but so is simply having a conversation. All of us do it everyday. To pretend as the postmodernists do that it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to say, that what matters is only what your hearer thinks you’re trying to say, goes against all human reason. The world would be in complete chaos if this were true.

Postmodern novelists would do well to reach back into their childhoods and take a lesson from Horton the Elephant: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant.” If you don’t have anything concrete to tell me (whether it’s something I might agree with or not), then don’t waste your time and mine by putting out a book.

Saying something. That’s what writing’s all about.

FiF: Is there any theme or issue you're unwilling to write about? Any content you're unwilling to put in your books?
AT: It’s our job as storytellers to examine the human condition and to portray the world in all its splendor, squalor, beauty and sordidness. And always, always, always to do this with hope. There’s a place for escapist literature, but there’s also a need to tell the truth. Frederick Buechner (one of the best, in my opinion) said of his characters in an interview with “The Reformed Journal” (March 1990): “[A]ny saint I write about [will] always have feet of clay, because they are the only saints I know anything about or that I could imagine. I don’t think there are any other kind. I can’t imagine a hero of the faith in the sense that he or she did not have shadows and darkness.” That’s us; saints but plodders.

I think it would be interesting (innovative?) to have a Christian novel with a homosexual hero. That is, “hero” in the literary sense: protagonist, main character, yes, saint with feet of clay. They are out there. Homosexual men and women who are struggling with the manifestation of the Fall within them, just as we are all struggling with our own brokenness.

A word about discretion here. On the whole, it’s a concept that has been lost, or maybe tossed aside as an antiquated inhibitor of human expression. Another ‘60s thing, I suppose. “Look at us! We’re finally all grown up! We can talk about anything!” As far as I can see, a loss of discretion does not a mature adult make.

There are simply parts of the human experience that are not meant for public consumption. If I were to have a gay protagonist, I would take you into his heart, his mind, his soul, the daily interactions of his life, but I would not take you into his bedroom. Neither should you want to go in there.

FiF: What's your favorite novel or two that tackles issues of faith?
AT: A story called “Master and Man,” found in the book, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy. Talk about heroes with feet of clay. The Master is Vasili Brekhunov, a well-to-do innkeeper and merchant, a church elder who likes to dip into the church coffers if he needs money for a business deal. He’s basically a greedy snob who looks condescendingly on the poor peasants who work for him. One such peasant is Nikita, a fairly likable fellow, except for the fact that he drinks too much, has at times a violent temper, can’t seem to hold on to his money, and has a wife who would just as soon not be his wife.

It’s a story about grace. As the two men take a journey by horse and sleigh through the snowy Russian countryside to take care of a business deal, Vasili journeys inwardly toward the understanding of what “the real thing is”—that real thing that gives joy, and true satisfaction. This revelation comes, amazingly, while Vasili is in the act of laying down his own life to save Nikita from freezing to death.

Thanks to Ann, Donna, Lynn, Jana, and Dale for helping out and responding with their thoughts. Thanks to Micah T. for helping with the posting in my absence. I hope everybody enjoyed this little break and I promise I'll try to come up with some more interesting names to interview in the near future.

Tomorrow, we're back with regular posts.