f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 1 of <i>Gilead</i>

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

Monday, May 02, 2005

Day 1 of Gilead

I bought the new Bruce Springsteen Devil's and Dust CD today. Too new to comment on it, but can I just say it took a literal six minutes--360 stinking seconds--to get through all the packaging. Shrink-wrapping, a hard plastic sleeve, those impenetrable labels, and finally a little latch on the cover itself. May our radioactive waste be so well-protected.

Oh, Gilead? Yeah, I guess we'll spend some time on that, too. In fact, I think we'll spend a good amount of time--maybe two full weeks--partly because of some personal reasons but also because in reading it, I think we can see a kind of apotheosis to some of the things that those of us writing "Christian" fiction talk about and look toward.

So, if you've not read it, I think now's the time. Or the next two weeks are going to be boring.


There's a reason I rarely like to give writers advice on a book idea, rather than on actual sample pages. The reason is that a great, or even good, writer can turn nearly any idea into something workable. The cliche, in outline form, becomes filled out and three-dimensional when given pages to blossom.

If Marilynne Robinson had turned in Gilead to me, for example, as a three-page synopsis I probably would have been mildly grumpy.

First, it's an epistolary novel. This form often turns out badly. Letters are not the same thing as a novel. How often do we put dialogue in our letters?

Second, it's an epistolary novel written from the POV of a guy waiting to die for his young son who will grow up without a father. Very Lifetime channel.

Third, the guy waiting to die is a pastor. I see a lot of pastor stories and often they're simply an excuse to preach. So that's a red-flag.

Fourth, the pastor is a widower. And there's an entire graduate thesis waiting to be written about the number of widows and widowers in Christian fiction.

Fifth, there are deep, dark family secrets.

And sixth, it's set in Iowa. And Kansas. In a small town. Because apparently that's the only place people can have faith in our country anymore. Oh, and the town is called "Gilead" which is weighty and biblical. And also, the Civil War figures in, because that is one of only two historical events in US History worth writing about. (The other is WWII.)


And yet.

And yet.

And that "yet" is what we'll spend the next nine days exploring. How did something that looks, well, so ordinary and overused become original and wonderful and moving? How can we learn, if not from Gilead itself, then at least from Marilynne Robinson's example in turning sow's ear into a purse.

Go to Day 2 of our discussion of Gilead.