Religion in ‘The Book of Ever’

Richard Wright, the author of Native Sononce said:

The more closely the author thinks of why he wrote, the more he comes to regard his imagination as a kind of self-generating cement which glued his facts together, and his emotions as a kind of dark and obscure designer of those facts. Reluctantly, he comes to the conclusion that to account for his book is to account for his life.

Where does the writer end and the writing begin?  To some extent every artist puts some of himself, of his or her own life, into his work.  Sometimes this is intentional.  More often, it is an unavoidable side effect of living and being an artist.  It’s certainly true for me.  I’ve discovered that writing is an intensely personal process for me: my ability to write successfully, such as it is, is intimately tied to my own life experience.  As Wright says, imagination serves as a glue and emotion as a designer, but the stuff of writing is memory and observation.  I suspect this is true of most writers.

It goes without saying, therefore, that there is much of me in my first novel, Exile: The Book of Ever.  In some ways, that reflection is literal: the book is set in New England, where I grew up and still live.  In other ways–in most ways, really–that reflection is thematic.  And one of the major themes of the novel is the question of faith.

The main character, Ever, is a young woman who grew up in a deeply religious community, one who managed to survive the apocalypse by remaining insular and holding true to a firm set of beliefs.  During her journey through the story, she often relies heavily on her faith in God to make decisions and maintain hope and determination.

More than a few readers of Exile have commented (with uniform courtesy and general acceptance) that they were surprised by the religious elements of the novel.  The simple presence of a religious theme seemed unexpected to them.  This isn’t surprising to me, and in fact is comforting in a way: I didn’t write the book for a religious audience, and as I’m currently not religious myself, I wouldn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a Christian writer.  I was pleased and flattered to see that my intent had, for the most part, succeeded: readers seem to see Ever’s faith as a part of her character, a driving force and a motivation.

Another theme of the book, and one I hope I conveyed adequately, is that all is not as it seems: that our reality is, in the end, defined primarily by our current perception and understanding, and that these things naturally change as we go through life.  Ever has faith, but by the end of the novel, hopefully it is clear that her exposure to the larger world and her experiences in it have begun to change her.

Faith is a journey that has no end except death, at which point, hopefully, our questions are answered one way or the other.  I was raised Roman Catholic.  I went to Catholic school for 13 years.  For most of my young adult life, I identified as an atheist.  Over the last few years, that atheism grew into something I like to call, tongue firmly in cheek, spiritual agnosticism.

I’m in the process of writing up an account of my long, strange, spiritual trip, but here’s the punchline: about a year and a half ago, for a variety of reasons, I decided to join the Mormon Church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints).  I was baptized, attended for over a year, and went through their temple ordinances.

I am no longer a Mormon (thank all of the many, many Mormon gods, thank Krishna, thank Christ).

Why?  The short answer is because, at the end of the day, I couldn’t force myself to knowingly participate in a cultish church whose doctrines are not only intolerant but batshit insane.

Religious belief for me is a bit like an electron: hard to pin down, and changed innately by the act of observation.  If you asked me what my religious beliefs were, I’d say that the most accurate description of me would probably be that I’m an atheist.  But it’s a bit more complicated than that, and as soon as I define it the questions return to swirling around in their cloud.  Suffice it to say for now, however, that my long-held, shortly-retired, recently-reacquired viewpoint on organized religion is generally negative.

I think my readers are going to be very surprised by the direction Ever’s spiritual journey takes in The Book of Ever.

Writing Religion

My first novel comes out in about a week.  I’m nervous, for a variety of reasons, but a big one is that the story and the world include more than a little religion, and I’m not sure how readers will respond to it.  I’m self-aware enough to realize that this is probably my own insecurities at work more than anything else, but that doesn’t make the nervousness go away.

I was raised Catholic; I went to 12 years of Catholic school.  By the time I graduated from high school I had developed, for lack of a better term, a kind of allergy to organized religion.  The reasons behind this are legion, but suffice it to say that I grew up in a very parochial and narrow-minded environment where to be something other than a white, (mostly) Irish Catholic was to be just that–Other.  I was a proud atheist for many years.  As I grew older (I’m 32 as of this writing), my atheism slowly evolved into a kind of scientific agnosticism, and from there, rather abruptly became an unexpected flowering of faith.

In the way of these things, I found faith in the last place I looked, and the last place in the multiverse I expected to find it: Mormonism.  By this point in my life, the idea of finding religion wasn’t so surprising.  I had become a more spiritual person, and was certainly seeking something–I just didn’t know what.

When I first declared myself an atheist, I did so rabidly; I was exactly the kind of atheist that gives atheists a bad name.  I was critical, intolerant, insecure, and volatile.  I looked down on all organized religion, particularly Christianity, and particularly the Roman Catholic Church in which I was raised.  I had a particularly poor opinion of Mormons, because, in addition to being anti-religion, I was also very sheltered in some ways.  I could on one two fingers the number of Mormons I had met in my life, and I knew even less about their actual beliefs.  I had the kind of opinions you’re used to hearing about Mormons: they’re crazy cultists that wear special underwear, have multiple wives, and don’t drink.  I was particularly opposed to the missionary nature of the religion; that was what turned me off the most.  Who did these people think they were, walking around ringing door bells with their stupid name tags?

The proof turned out to be in the pudding.  I ended up attending a Mormon service with my wife and loving it–the people were some of the happiest, kindest, most well-adjusted folks I’d ever met.  My decision to join was based more on these experiences than in any particular confidence in the doctrine.  I started living life as a Mormon and quickly realized that it made me much happier.  I became confident that it was good for me and my family to have this structure and support system in our lives; it helped me become a better husband and father.  The irony, of course, is not lost on me.

When I started writing fiction seriously, none of the projects I was working on featured religion in any particular or positive way.  In fact, aside from The Book of Ever, the books I have written and plan to write aren’t particularly faith-promoting.  But Exile came into being almost fully formed, and suddenly, to my surprise, became the first of my novels ready for publication.  It’s both appropriate and intimidating, in its own way, that in publishing this novel I’m also in some ways coming out of the closet as a Mormon.

The Book of Ever, a trilogy of which Exile is the first part, is in no way intended to be polemical.  It has no ulterior message relating to Mormonism.  First and foremost, it’s an adventure novel, a science fiction book set in a post-apocalyptic United States, centuries after a nuclear apocalypse.  The word “Mormon” is never mentioned; the faith the protagonists subscribe to is referred to in different terms, as this is a different world and a different era.  But to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Mormons, the genesis of the community at Bountiful should be clear.

I hope that the story will prove exciting, the characters believable and gripping.  The struggles they face throughout the trilogy will test their faith and their stamina, and I hope prove rewarding to readers.  I hope also that the faith-related aspects of the novel are balanced well enough that they don’t get in the way of the story while also providing a bit of a spiritual experience for those who seek it.  But more than anything, I suppose that at this point I’m simply grateful to have written it, grateful for the chance to write it, and grateful that the writing of it helped me to learn more about myself and the choices I’ve made.

Exile: The Book of Ever is out in ebook and paperback in August 2014.  You can read the prologue and the first five chapters here.