ehrenreichBiographile, April 8 2014


LIVING WITH A WILD GOD: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything

By Barbara Ehrenreich
Twelve, 256pp. $26.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Living with a Wild God is a departure from her impassioned political bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch — it’s a personal story, although not a conventional memoir. Ehrenreich revisits and explores a period in her teens when she experienced a series of inexplicable “encounters” that shook her faith in the reality of the world. Culminating in a kind of epiphany in the California desert, these mystical experiences both disturbed and intrigued the young Ehrenreich, who was already questioning the purpose and meaning of life.

Raised as an atheist and trained as a scientist, Ehrenreich had no language or framework to understand these encounters, except as the frightening onset of mental illness. The book is the story of the adult writer’s attempt to describe and understand what happened to her — and what it might mean for the rest of us.

Biographile: At the beginning of the book you describe rediscovering your teenage journal and deciding to try to unpack this mysterious story. How did the writing process develop from there?

Barbara Ehrenreich: There was a certain point where I said, OK, I think I’m actually going to do this, and started writing the first chapter. After that, I had plenty of other things that I went on doing, but this was my project. It was spread over several years, but that’s just how long it took to do.

BIOG: So you had a fairly clear idea of what you wanted the story to be from the start?

BE: No! There were a lot of surprises. I knew I had things to figure out, and that I would be working very hard to describe what I always thought to be indescribable. I did research along the way and found out some amazing things. One that stands out in my mind was about this kid I had gone on the skiing trip with, that ended so spectacularly — or cataclysmically, in my case [with her vision in the desert.] To find out that he claims he was transporting nitroglycerin in the car on the way back… [Ehrenreich discovers this in a phone call during the writing of the book.]

BIOG: It’s a great moment: a clash between how you describe yourself as a teenager, as very solipsistic, and the realization, looking back, that in fact you were at the mercy of the world around you.

BE: And that there were some people a lot more solipsistic than I was!

BIOG: It’s rare to come across a memoir, perhaps especially by a woman writer, that is so much more focused on a philosophical coming of age than with emotional or sexual discovery. Was that a deliberate decision, to keep the focus on intellectual discovery?

BE: There are a couple of reasons for that focus. One is that’s what the journal is about: I didn’t think it worth my time to write down anything I considered trivial or frivolous, like high-school life, and I wasn’t that interested. I was a super-geek, although outwardly getting along fine in terms of going to school and doing what was expected of me. But once I started asking that question, What is going on here? — that’s what I was obsessed with, starting at age thirteen.

BIOG: We also tend to assume that teenagers are just hormonal creatures, so we don’t take their philosophical development very seriously.

BE: Or worse, we say, “Oh yes, you have those big questions when you’re an adolescent, but when you grow up they should go away. When you become a mature person, you should accept everything as it is and just get on with your life.” I didn’t do that. I think we should all take our younger selves a little more seriously.

BIOG: There’s clearly so much that you learned from going back to your journal.

BE: Yes, and with some impatience on my part. I was frustrated at how unrevealing my journal was for those things that I knew I was thinking or feeling. At other times, as an older person, I felt real respect for that younger person.

BIOG: It seems as though the central question of the book is one of communication: how we describe things that are indescribable. When you were writing the book, how did you find the words for these experiences?

BE: I thought of myself as not so much writing a memoir, but more of a metaphysical thriller. Here I have this question, this event, this mystery in my life, and it doesn’t go away. I have to return to it at a certain time in my older life.

BIOG: I’m curious about this as a literary problem — how have other writers tried to describe this? You mention fire as a metaphor that comes up a lot.

BE: When I was gearing up to work on the book, I read a lot of accounts of mystical experiences, and was amazed to discover how often they used the metaphor of flames or fire. Then I thought, hey, burning bush! This goes way back! And I can’t claim that my experience is anything parallel to those of other people who claim such experiences, but it seems to be. My guess is this is a pretty widespread phenomenon — we just don’t talk about it.

BIOG: And even though finding the language is difficult, there is some way of approximating in words what is going on.

BE: A lot of people solve that problem by saying it was God, or a god — something supernatural or some kind of being. I didn’t have that “out.” I didn’t have that imagery, didn’t have that kind of comparison to make. You really have to dig deep to reimagine things.

BIOG: You write a lot about mental illness in connection with this kind of mystical experience, and it seems we have similar narrative problems there. I wanted to ask about that in connection with your other writing, which has been so much more clearly politically motivated. Is that where this book has a political urgency, in the way we understand and treat mental illness?

BE: I would say so. I was terrified as a teenager of being seen as mentally ill, because when I went to the library and read everything I could about unusual psychological experiences, that’s all I could come up with: mental illness, probably schizophrenia, which seemed really scary. So I thought, you just don’t talk about these things, or you end up in a locked ward. It bothers me very much that the dissociation — which is the psychiatric term I used for my early perceptual anomalies, which started when I was thirteen — is considered an illness. There is the psychiatric assumption that there is one shared reality, and if you’re not down with that reality, you’re pathological. That’s horrible. That’s totalitarian, as far as I’m concerned.

I was so nervous when I first showed this book, or the proposal for the original chapters. I just thought, people are going to say you’re nuts. And you could make a case for that, that’s fine, but so far nobody has said that to me.

BIOG: And then the scientific side of your thinking comes out, in that that’s not enough of an explanation. Even if you were to say this was a symptom of some psychiatric anomaly, that’s not the answer, that’s just the first question.

BE: My scientific feeling is that when something bizarre and seemingly inexplicable happens, you don’t just bury it out of sight. You have to look at it with the full power of your own mind and rationality.

BIOG: That seems connected to your scientific training, at the beginning of the era of uncertainty, and your discovery of how much was unknowable in chemistry and physics.

BE: Yes, and this book turns out — somewhat surprisingly, to me — to be more a critique of science than it is of religion. It’s a critique of a kind of Newtonian or Cartesian science that separates the mind from the body completely, and then says we humans are these little conscious lights in a universe in which everything else is really dead and operating mechanistically. I’m taking that on!

BIOG: Whether the mystery is out there or whether it’s in us, it’s still such a mystery.

BE: Yes, but I don’t like to leave anything as a mystery. I was talking with my sister on the phone over the weekend, and she said, “Well, isn’t it enough, Barb, to just say it’s all a mystery — it’s so big and our little minds will never understand it?” I said no! I have to die trying!

BIOG: I’m curious how you hope this book connects with readers. It’s such a personal story, but then it gets as big as humanity in some ways.

BE: Well, it’s a little different from a lot of my previous books, when clearly at the end I want the reader to put the book down and march on City Hall. I felt in writing this that I was making a report: Here’s what happened. For many, many years I had no idea what to make of this. I’m sharing it now, because I think it’s a human responsibility to share even bizarre experiences and observations. I would really like to hear from more people who’ve had similar sorts of experiences. I would like people to feel, maybe there’s something going on here, and that this has something to do with their own lives too.

BIOG: It seems likely that you would have a lot of readers who have stories that are not explained by their particular religion, or they’re not satisfied with the explanation.

BE: Right. It took me an awfully long time to realize that this was a widespread phenomenon still. You can go back to Moses and the Burning Bush, or so many of the prophets in the Old Testament. I spent a lot of time reading — which was very strange reading for me — the Christian mystics. They always attribute what happens to them to God, but I can see parallels and similarities with what happened to me. So I think there’s something widespread but unacknowledged. We’re a society, a culture, that just does not speak of them, but I think even bizarre and mystical things can be in the purview of rational thought and science.

BIOG: So the idea that science and religion are in opposing camps, and to accept one you have to reject the other, is unnecessarily reductive.

BE: I do object to religions that require belief, because there’s so much that’s against scientific rationality. Not all religions require belief — a lot of Jewish people will say you don’t have to believe, you just have to follow the law. I have always been fascinated by the ecstatic religions of West African derivation, where there’s no idea of believing in the deities or spirits, you actually see them in an ecstatic trance. That’s impressive to me. But I don’t like the idea of belief because that’s like a surrender: “I can’t prove it, and you can’t see it, but there is something there.” Well, let’s find out!



self-help-messiahBiographile, November 21 2013


By Steven Watts
Other Press. 592pp. $29.95

Steven Watts’ Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America is the first biography of Dale Carnegie, the self-help guru whose multimillion-copy-selling 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People remains one of the most-read and most influential books of the twentieth century. In his revealing biography, Watts looks behind the mask of the prophet of positive thinking to uncover his poor rural origins, his checkered professional career, and his complex personal life.

BIOGRAPHILE: You’ve previously written biographies of important cultural figures like Walt Disney and Henry Ford. What led you to Dale Carnegie? Did this project grow out of your previous work?

STEVEN WATTS: In part I was simply looking for a new subject in modern American culture after my last book. But in a more intellectual vein, I had always been struck by students’ reactions to Carnegie’s How to Win Friends when I taught it in various classes. Some hated it and some loved it, and the discussions were always lively. So I looked into Carnegie and discovered no biographies had been written about him. So the project seemed like a natural opportunity to write an interesting and informative book.

BIOG: As you were Carnegie’s first biographer, was there was a lot of detective work involved?

SW: After scouting around, I discovered there was an archive of material on Carnegie at the offices of Dale Carnegie and Associates on Long Island. The company agreed to open those sources to me — they were largely untapped — and I also ended up interviewing several members of Carnegie’s family, including his daughter, his granddaughter, and his son-in-law. So I was able to use a lot of new material in writing the life of this influential cultural figure.

BIOG: What particularly surprised you along the way?

SW: I was surprised to discover that Carnegie mainly saw himself as a teacher, a calling he pursued since he began to teach courses on public speaking in 1912. How to Win Friends, in fact, flowed directly out of the lesson plans and talks that evolved in the Carnegie Course over the previous twenty-five years, and he always considered his writing as secondary to his teaching. I was also surprised to uncover something previously unknown both to his family and his company: a long relationship with a married woman that produced a girl he believed to be his daughter. Even though he broke things off when he married in the mid-1940s, he continued to support and encourage the “daughter,” whom he loved dearly.

BIOG: It seems that Carnegie drew a great deal from his own life in developing his theories — although he was keenly interested in psychology, it was really his own experiences that gave him the basis for his teaching and his books. However, that also meant that he had difficulty reconciling his own life with his fame, and living up to people’s expectations.

SW: Carnegie’s own life was a rags-to-riches tale, as he rose from poverty in rural Missouri to great fame and influence. But it came only after he had cycled through a number of jobs and professions as an actor, a novelist, an entertainment impresario, and a journalist. After becoming successful and writing the book on how to create an attractive personality and develop human relations skills, he discovered that people expected a larger-than-life, charismatic figure when they saw him — when in fact he was a rather modest, soft-spoken Midwesterner. He worried about disappointing people. Carnegie also discovered that his principles of “make the other person feel important” in his famous book aroused controversy over the issue of sincerity. Critics suggested that he was really promoting a program of “flattery” as a way to soft-soap others and make them susceptible to your will. That fine line between genuine appreciation of others, and manipulating others through false praise, continues to bedevil his program.

BIOG: You give an intriguing analysis of his name change, for example; he seemed not to understand its significance, or the idea that it could be seen as insincere or manipulative.

SW: Carnegie’s name change in early adulthood — from “Carnagey” to “Carnegie” — did have a whiff of manipulation to it. While done for practical reasons, he claimed, it also seems in part to have been an attempt to associate himself with the famous industrialist, Andrew Carnegie.

BIOG: How do you feel about him now, having written the book?

SW: Having finished the book, I see Carnegie as neither good nor bad but as fascinatingly human, an individual with a great life story. But more importantly, I see him as a very influential figure in the shaping of modern American culture. His endeavors, both with his course and his books, created the foundation for modern notions of success in our complex bureaucratic society. Carnegie created the foundation for the plethora of self-help programs that have become central to the therapeutic culture that envelops us today.


than-you-for-your-service-finkelBiographile, November 11 2013.

Joanna Scutts

By David Finkel
Sarah Crichton Books. 272pp. $26

David Finkel’s powerful new book, Thank You for Your Service, follows a group of soldiers home from Iraq, exploring how they, their families, and the military establishment tackle the day-to-day stresses and dangers of life in the “after-war.” Here, we catch up with Finkel on what brought him from The Good Soldiers to Thank You for Your Service and more.

BIOGRAPHILE: How did this book develop out of your previous book, The Good Soldiers?

DAVID FINKEL: The Good Soldiers was an account of what happens to a group of young infantry soldiers going into the Iraq War, who were on the ground for almost fifteen months. I was with them reporting for about eight months, and the intent was to write an intimate portrait of young men going into really any war: They had a rough time of it, and they came home changed, and that was that. I thought I had done my job, but then – I guess because of the credibility I had gained from the first book – some of them began getting in touch with me and describing sleeplessness, bad dreams, depression, anxiety; I heard of a couple of suicide attempts. So I realized I’d only written half the story.

BIOG: So they reached out to you – they felt this needed to continue as much as you did?

DF: They weren’t talking to many people, but some of them did want to talk to me. I was grateful for that, but I was also disturbed, thinking they’ve got to have someone better to talk to than a journalist.

BIOG: A major part of the story is the men’s need to be heard and to have their struggle recognized – but they also feel inhibited in telling it.

DF: Yes, this is pretty brutal stuff that they’re going through, and for whatever reason they decided that it was worth laying themselves out, so people can have a better sense of what’s happening in a lot of homes across the country. It’s not just the men, it’s – forgive me for saying “wives and girlfriends,” but this new book is an extension of the first one, and because it was an infantry battalion, it was all male. The story I’d told was with these guys, so I stuck with them and their families.

BIOG: How long did you spend with the characters? Were you writing their stories simultaneously, or did you focus on one story at a time?

DF: The only move I have – I wish I had others – is immersion reporting, where you just show up, and you stay, and you see what happens. Over the years I’ve gained confidence that if you stay long enough, some kind of story will develop. For the first book, I came home with a pile of notes and then spent a year shaping them into some kind of narrative. The same thing this time. I had the sense that something was up, so I went, and spent as much time with the families as I could, over the course of a couple of years. Embedding again is a way to describe it – just being present. And over time things did happen, and at the end of it once again I had a pile of notes that I shaped into a narrative of what the after-war is like.

BIOG: Have you had responses from the people in the book since it’s come out?

DF: I’m starting to. The territory of this one, the terrain, is really difficult psychological stuff – not without amusement, not without hope, but it’s pretty tough stuff. So I told these folks that if they signed on to be a part of the project, one of the parts of the deal was that they couldn’t see the book until it came out. They would have to take a leap of faith, and let me be around as long as I needed and wanted to be around, and trust that I would write a book that truly respected what they’d been through. There’s one soldier who doesn’t live far from me in Washington, D.C., so I met him for dinner, gave him a copy of the book, and then we went on our way. Somewhere around two in the morning I got a text from him saying, “I’m on chapter one.” Then he texted again saying, “I’m laughing hysterically”; then he texted a little bit later and said, “I can’t stop crying.” Then a few minutes later he said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it to chapter two.” So that was one response. Other people have said it’s not easy for them to see themselves but they’re going to keep going. So what I’ve heard so far suggests that what they’re reading, they’re recognizing as the truth of their story.

BIOG: You also describe how the personal stories connect to official policy, and what the military is trying to do about suicide prevention and mental health provision. Was that always going to be a part of the story?

DF: Well, I didn’t know what the story was when I began – I was just following these people as they went through what they were going through, which led them to this sprawling, overwhelmed mental health system. There are some successes, but there are also some colossal failures in the system. In the case of Adam Schumann, Nic DeNinno, and Tausolo Aieti – they all reached a point where not only did they enter this system of mental health care but their three varying experiences say so much about what’s out there and how messy it is.

BIOG: And the accidents of their circumstances make their recovery so much harder – lack of money, social and geographic isolation.

DF: Underneath all there’s the intense stigma attached to saying anything in the first place. So many guys would say that they wished they could look in the mirror and see an actual physical representation of an injury, so then they would believe something was wrong with them. As I’ve seen again and again with these guys, once they say something, they’re just waiting to be told that they’re a piece of shit for needing help at all. They’re waiting to be shamed for having to ask, rather than feeling a sense of release for saying something.

BIOG: So they can’t say anything until some kind of violence has happened, and it’s the absolute last resort.

DF: Right, it’s out of crisis. But I’ll say this: There are some incredibly compassionate people in the military leadership who want to help. You have people like [U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff] Peter Chiarelli, who I write about, who understand at a deep level that you can’t go to war without being affected, and that a certain segment of the population will need help recovering, and society needs to take that seriously. That’s great, but you still have the old-fashioned guys who just call somebody who needs help a “pussy.”

We can have disagreements all day about whether these wars were worthwhile, but that’s not the group I’m writing about. These weren’t the people who created policy, they were the people who went over there – for whatever reason – and carried out policy. Adam Schumann, in that regard, by every estimate had done well, and yet he came home feeling guilt and shame that he had to leave early. He’d saved a couple of guys, even though he had a broken leg, and he was on fire, but the thing that causes him to break down was the one guy he couldn’t save, who he dreams about. I remember saying to Tausolo Aieto one day: “Do you ever dream about the guys who you did save?” He said, “Well, that doesn’t seem to be what my dreams are about.” And on it goes. Amanda Doster, the widow of James Doster, what’s her shame? Her shame is that it’s three years later and she can’t get over it. As if there’s a timetable. So we can all assume that we know that the after-war is hard, but I think if you read these stories, you actually do know what the day-to-day is like.

BIOG: You end on the moving idea that ultimately this is not a story of crisis and recovery, but it’s about trying, every day. There aren’t cures or drugs that will take this away: it’s up to the men and their families to just keep trying. That might not be the hopeful ending that we want, but it seems to be the real one.

DF: These are people who went to war thinking they knew what it would be about, and then they didn’t. Then they come home changed, into families where the expectation is they’re home now, so everything’s going to be OK. So day-to-day life is something that’s so out of whack – it’s about reacting to what’s now, what’s next – and against that they keep trying to regain some sense of control. They’d like to feel better, and what else is there to do except wake up, and try again?

BIOG: At the end of the book, instead of being an empty gesture, your title starts to feel more genuine. You feel a sense of respect that isn’t just formulaic.

DF: Maybe the point of the title is that you’ll read this and realize whom you’re thanking and what you’re thanking them for. These wars have seemed so distant, but this is not a book about “those people over there.” They’re not them, they’re us: they went to war, they’re trying to feel better, and here they are.


happy-marriage-ann-patchettBiographile, November 5 2013. (Part II November 13 2013.)

Joanna Scutts

By Ann Patchett
Harper. 305pp. $27.99

The award-winning novelist and memoirist, author of the brand-new collection of writings, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and owner of Nashville’s beloved indie bookstore Parnassus, opens up to Biographile about the public role of a writer, and about tempting fate with a title, in the first part of a two-part interview.

BIOGRAPHILE: In your introduction, you present the book as a serendipitous, almost accidental collection of your nonfiction essays. Do you now see a larger story unfolding through these different stories — a thematic through-line?

ANN PATCHETT: Oh, absolutely — I think I was being cavalier [in the introduction] because it took me two years to do it. My friend Niki Castle put it together and then I kept going through and taking out the pieces that I thought were weak and writing something else to build a narrative arc. Then I would read it through again, and something that had seemed really great two or three readings ago now seemed weak, because I kept upping it, kept pulling things out. If it works the way I want it to work, it’s a book about the things that I am deeply committed to: the things that I am, in a sense, married to. Not just my husband — family, friends, dogs, art, work, bookselling. The things that I wouldn’t give up.

BIOG: So the title, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,is bigger than just the one essay that shares it. When did that emerge as the title for the book?

AP: It was fairly late in the game. On one hand, speaking as a bookseller, it’s a great title. Garrison Keillor was reading at the store last night, and he asked me about the title, and I said it. He looked up and he just looked so shocked, and said, “That’s a great title. It’s fiction, right?” I cracked up and said no, and he said, “That’s terrifying.” And that’s sort of how I felt about it. It’s a great title but it was so scary to me, because it’s as if I’m saying, “My children are beautiful, and they love me, and they get good grades, and they don’t smoke crack” — it’s just a really bad idea from a personal point of view to call a book this, because it’s like inviting the evil into your life. Once I decided to call it that, every time my husband and I had an argument I would say, “Oh, this is great, I’ve got a book coming out in six months called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and look at us now!”

BIOG: You have at least until the paperback version comes out …

AP: That’s right! “This was the story of a happy marriage.” Only have to change two letters.

BIOG: It’s how literary titles tend to go — you’re waiting for the ironic twist.

AP: If nothing else, it’s a title that will make people go to the book and say, “What? What’s that about?” And that’s what you want.

BIOG: There are so many ways it can be read — it brings up ideas of what marriage is, how a happy marriage is different, and what happiness is.

AP: There’s a picture of me on the back of the book, which is something I normally object to, but it’s in the bookstore, and it’s me sitting in this sea of books. There are boxes of books all around, and there are books up to the ceiling, and I’m quite small — and I really like that, because if you picked the book up and turned it over you’d think, well, wait, is she talking about being married to books? And in a way, I am.

BIOG: I wanted to ask about the challenge in nonfiction of deciding what’s private and what’s public. I found the stories about your public engagement as a writer so striking, particularly about opening the bookstore, and around the Clemson speech and controversy. [In 2006, Clemson University in South Carolina assigned Patchett’s book Truth and Beauty, the story of her close friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, to the incoming freshman class, and invited the author to give the convocation address; Patchett found herself subject to a protest and smear campaign by “concerned” locals and parents who objected to the book.] Do you find it harder to write about yourself in these public roles, where it’s not just your story that you’re telling?

AP: No, I don’t — in fact, I’d never even thought of it. When I’m writing about opening the bookstore, or about Clemson, I’m really writing about how I am feeling in that experience, so it doesn’t register as different than when I’m in the nursing home feeding my grandmother.

BIOG: The bookstore story in particular is about becoming aware that suddenly you’re the face of something. It remains your perspective, but it brings up an interesting question about the public role of the writer.

AP: It’s true, because I am telling stories in which I’m in front of an audience, and a lot of other people are viewing me as these things are happening, but that doesn’t change my personal experience in the moment — I’m just in it. I’m also viewing myself with a certain amount of detachment, as the person that these things are happening too, but it doesn’t change me as a person. No matter what’s going on, we’re still just seeing the world with our own two eyes.

Part II

BIOGRAPHILE: Do you think Truth and Beauty would have been as controversial a choice for the students at Clemson if it were a novel?

ANNE PATCHETT: Oh, I think it wouldn’t have been. In the speech that I gave at Clemson I say something about that, that maybe the reason that The Great Gatsby andAnna Karenina and other novels aren’t as upsetting is that they aren’t true, and so we can think, well, people didn’t really behave this way. Yet personally, I find fiction so much more moving and glorious than I do nonfiction. I read a lot of nonfiction and I enjoy it, but if I make a list of my favorite books, they’re always novels.

What fiction is good for is it gives us empathy, because it forces us into the skin of another person, in the way that nonfiction doesn’t always do. Somehow in nonfiction, knowing the story is true, we stay outside and observe it, and yet in fiction — if it’s good — we’re often really forced into the story, and into the skin of the character. We can say, that’s how that feels, or I don’t want to participate in these acts — or I do want to participate — because now I have a better sense of how it feels.

BIOG: And somehow, with an autobiographical piece of writing, it’s easier to blame the writer for the bad feelings we may have when we read. With a novelist, we understand that it’s imagination — we’re a step removed.

AP: When you read a novel you can imagine it happening to you. I read Katherine Boo’s book,Behind the Beautiful Foreversabout Mumbai and the slums, and to me it’s a wonderful book, but I had a sense of disconnect. Compassion, but just thinking, Man, I am never going to Mumbai. Whereas if I read a book like White Tiger, another book about poverty in India, but it’s a novel, I feel it all pressing in on me. I feel like, I just shot that guy. It brings a panic up in me, that closeness with the character.

BIOG: Also the uniqueness of your experience, as a nonfiction writer, is part of what makes your story special. It can’t be shared in the same way, so the writer has to find different ways to share what they’re feeling and thinking. Although this isn’t primarily a book about writing, there’s a lot here about your writing methods. Do you approach nonfiction differently from fiction?

AP: Well, for me, nonfiction is so much a job, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been a successful nonfiction writer, compared to some of my friends who are novelists. This was true especially in my twenties and thirties. I have lots of friends whom I was always recommending to magazines — I’ll put in a good word for you, and you can get this job too — and they couldn’t do it. They procrastinated. They couldn’t do this whole deadline thing, and it made them incredibly miserable, to have the looming assignment, and for some reason that never bothered me; I’m really good with assignments! But there really aren’t a lot of fiction writers who go back and forth between the two. [Elizabeth] Gilbert is a good friend of mine and she of course is somebody who does it brilliantly, but at the same time, everybody is just so shocked that she can write fiction, even though she started out writing fiction. No, there aren’t a lot of people we’re willing to accept this from.

BIOG: You mention that one of the changes in the publishing landscape has been that you’re given different parameters by, say, Audible and Byliner, to write longer pieces. In the book, the difference between what would have been a substantial magazine article feels much smaller next to those longreads, and has a different rhythm. Does that higher word count change your writing?

AP: It really does, because I’m so fixated on word count. Do you know that magazine called The Week? They have an author in there every week who picks six books to recommend, and they said it was supposed to be 320 words. So I pick my six books and I write my six little descriptions, and it’s 320 words, and I send it in. The editor wrote back and said, “Oh my God, you actually turned in 320 words. Usually when I say it’s supposed to be 320 words, an author sends in 900, and then I have to cut it down.” So it has been really interesting to open up. But at the same time, Audible and Byliner also told me how long they wanted it — 15 or 20,000 words. It wasn’t like I could just write forever.

The one piece actually where I had no restrictions was the piece about the Los Angeles Police Department [a story in which Patchett, the daughter of an LAPD captain, successfully tries out for the Police Academy]. I had written a very short piece about that and then I went back and rewrote it for the book and made it really long, because I had all these fabulous notes. But even then, at the end, I found myself going back and cutting out big chunks of that piece, because I was afraid it was going to be boring, that I was giving too much information.

BIOG: So having a sense of the length of a story will start to shape it even before you begin to write.

AP: Absolutely.


men-we-reaped-2Biographile, October 3 2013.

Joanna Scutts

By Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury USA. 272pp. $26

National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward’s first foray into nonfiction, Men We Reaped: A Memoir, is a powerful and painful story from an often voiceless corner of the country. Ward was born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in a close-knit, semi-rural community bedeviled by racism, poverty, and injustice — but also rich in generosity, love, and self-reliance. The book tells two entwined stories, of Ward’s own upbringing as her parents struggled and failed to hold their marriage together, and the loss after loss of five young men, by violence and accident, narrated in reverse: cousins, friends, and Ward’s only brother. The book insists on the connections between these losses and their resonance within and beyond the community, and on the importance of lives that so often go unrecorded and unrecognized.

BIOGRAPHILE: I wanted to start by asking about your title. It comes from a Harriet Tubman quotation about the Civil War, is that right?

JESMYN WARD: Yes, she was telling a story about a battle that she’d been near, and the men she was talking about “reaping” were from a black regiment, and they suffered heavy losses in that battle. That’s the language that she used to describe going into the field after the battle and gathering the men, the fallen men.

BIOG: It’s so powerful, because it connects to the idea that the young men you’re writing about are victims of a kind of invisible war that’s going on right now. Was that connection something you had in your head from the start?

JW: It was. This is the first time that I’ve figured out a title at the very beginning of writing a book, and it actually stayed the same throughout because it fit so well. I felt that Harriet Tubman was telling my story and the story I’m trying to tell about young men — she was speaking to that back then. This is happening again, and the young men are a casualty of this larger war, this unseen war.

BIOG: The statistics you include, the death rates for young people in this kind of community, are the kind that we only otherwise see in war zones. That comes to seem like an inevitable connection, but it’s a shocking one to go into the book with.

JW: Part of what I’m trying to accomplish in the book is to shock people out of their complacency; to shock them so that they’re not thinking in the same modes that they had been beforehand about what it means to be a young black person in the United States in general, or more specifically, what it means to be a poor black person in the South. So that’s what I’m hoping for — maybe if they think about the problems differently, and they actually see it as a problem, then maybe one day this won’t be the case. Maybe we won’t lose our young people in the way that we have been.

BIOG: The sense of outrage that drives the book comes from drawing these connections, and saying that these people’s lives and their losses are connected, even if we don’t see the connection as obviously as we might if we had defined it as a war.

JW: I wanted people to see that not only are they connected, but that also so much of what has happened in the past in the United States has real consequences in the present. I think that’s something that people forget about, and that when they see these statistics, when they see the news about another young black man shot, or hit by a random bullet, they don’t connect the two. I really want people to be aware that the history of racism, the history of poverty, and this larger culture that in general, unfortunately, devalues black people — that they have real consequences in real lives, and everything that happens at the present moment is not just a result of some mythical personal choice, and the choices you make in your life have no connection to anything else. We’re all about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, et cetera — I think that’s a harmful mythology, that the choices that we make and the things that we do in our lives are not connected to anything else. So I’d like to help to debunk that.

BIOG: The structure you chose for the book, with the two timelines running backward and forward — was that also something that you had in mind early on?

JW: Yes, I did — I had that mapped out from the beginning. I’ve found that in fiction — and this is just the kind of writer I am — I can’t really work from an outline. I have a vague idea of the characters at the beginning of the book, and then I have a vague idea of whatever the end of the book will be, but I can’t approach creative nonfiction like that. So from the beginning, when I thought about telling the story of losing my brother and my friends, and using my life as a context to try to help the reader understand why those losses might have happened, I couldn’t conceive of telling the story any other way. I knew that the structure I’d chosen was difficult, but it felt physically wrong to be telling the story in another order. I needed to go forward through time and backward through time at the same time, and end in the middle with my brother.

BIOG: It builds tension in both directions, because you know what’s coming but not quite how how things are going to play out. The structure draws attention to itself, and makes the reader think about how the story is being told.

JW: I know that it’s harder for the reader to orient herself in the narrative because it’s so odd, and the way that I give the information is not very straightforward. So I do make the reader work, but I hope that the conclusions that I come to in the end are worthwhile enough.

BIOG: There’s a striking moment in the book when you’re talking about writing your first novel, and the feeling that you were being too kind to your characters, who also come from this kind of background. Can you talk about that move from fiction to memoir, or creative nonfiction — did you feel pressure to make the story feel more positive, or to shape it differently?

JW: I did, because although it’s based in truth, these are real people, and I come from a really small, tight-knit community, so I felt a lot of pressure to sanitize what had happened, what I’d done, what others had done. But my understanding of memoir is that it’s based in fact, and my job was to tell the truth, in the hope that in telling the truth there’s some result in the end, that I’m working for something. Every page, though, was a struggle. Even though I was committed to telling the truth, it was still difficult — I had to figure out how much of the truth do I tell, how much am I going to share, how far do I go, what do I keep?

BIOG: How did you approach writing yourself in the story? In a lot of the chronologically later sections, you come through as a kind of a watcher, or a witness to events; you’re there, but you’re not always central.

JW: I think that’s definitely true of most of the young men sections. The sections about my life and my family’s life — I had more to work with there. It’s always hard for a writer to make herself into a character; I had to figure out what my defining characteristics were, and that’s something I had to work through multiple drafts to figure out. It was a painful process, because a lot of it involved looking back at events in the past, like the section where we’re living in the subdivision and there’s that creepy cellar out back in the woods. When I began writing that chapter I didn’t realize that that cellar would figure so prominently, but it did. When I sent it off to my editor, she came to that section and asked me: What does this cellar symbolize, why do you think you’re writing about this? She made me do the things that I should have already been doing, as a novelist: She made me look at myself in the past, and offer some kind of judgment, some kind of insight into who I was, and the person I am now. It took a lot of work to go back, in moments like that, and ask what was it about myself in that moment, what was it about that cellar that so horrified me, what did it mean to me? A lot of that character development I was doing in the fifth, sixth draft of the book, because it’s really difficult to — even yourself in the past moment — to step outside yourself and really make yourself into a character.

BIOG: What has the reaction to the book been like so far, in your community?

JW: It’s a mixed bag. The reaction from my extended family and a good number of the people in the community is that it’s a good book and it was a story worth being told. I get that from my sisters, too — but there are some people in the community who don’t like that I told such a personal story, and that I revealed the things I did.

BIOG: It seems that your role of witnessing is a role that falls to women in the community: to watch, to wait, and to grieve. Was it difficult, being a woman and writing about men’s lives in this way?

JW: It was difficult. When I was writing the book I was thinking about gender — in the way that, say, my brother’s upbringing was different from my upbringing, and in relation to my parents, trying to figure out if their differing ideas about gender affected their relationship. But it wasn’t until I got to the end of the book that I realized that people would have this reading, that this is something that just affects young black men. When I got to that last chapter, and I mentioned the young women I knew who died since 2004 — there were three of them — I realized that because I only included events from 2000 to 2004, it skewed the book in that direction. I wanted to acknowledge that young black men are living and dying in this way, but I want people to recognize too that it’s not just young men. Women too — they may not hustle in the way that some of the young men do, but they too have substance-abuse issues, or mental health issues, or are involved in unhealthy relationships. They suffer from the same pressure.

BIOG: So this is not simply a story about women losing men and men being lost, but again it’s all connected. Is there more of this story to tell? Do you think you’ll continue to write memoir?

JW: I’m definitely returning to fiction for my next book. Maybe there is another book I could draw from this subject matter, but I don’t know if I’m up to writing one. It’s very hard to deal with true subject matter, especially when you’re writing about such weighty issues.


miss-anne-in-harlemBiographile, September 26 2013.

Joanna Scutts

By Carla Kaplan
Harper, 544pp. $28.99

Carla Kaplan’s group biography, Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance, tells the extraordinary story of a diverse collection of white women who found their way to the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Bringing with them money, passion, and controversy, they were fleeing restrictive Victorian upbringings and striving to reinvent themselves and forge interracial alliances — often at terrible personal cost. For the first time, Kaplan brings six of them out of the shadows.

BIOGRAPHILE: What first led you to this project?

CARLA KAPLAN: It grew out of my last book, which wasZora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Hurston was a black writer who prided herself on her interracial friendships, and in the course of trying to do research on some of the white women she was friends with, I became more and more aware that there were a number of them who were really very centrally involved in the Harlem Renaissance, but there was almost nothing out there about them. Not only had other historians and critics either written nothing, or simply repeated the same three erroneous paragraphs over and over again, but the archives weren’t there. This was a story I wanted to read, and it became one of those things where if you want to read it, you have to write it.

I sat on the idea for some years, because group biography is so daunting: You have to do the amount of work for each person that you would do for an individual biography, because otherwise you can’t bring them back to life. I also had to decide whether it would be an academic or a trade book. It seemed to me it was an opportunity to share with a wider audience some of what has been central to the academic study of identity for so long.

BIOG: Your book shows how central these women were in so many ways — so why do you think there was this gap in the story?

CK: I think it was a combination of factors. In part it was something that these women bear some responsibility for themselves. Either out of a kind of obsession with control, in the case of Charlotte Osgood Mason, or out of respect for the difficulty of their own position in the case of Mary White Ovington, the founder of the NAACP, they really erased their own footsteps. These were women who traveled with a broom behind them, erasing every step they took. But they don’t bear all of the responsibility, because as I was able to show, they were hiding in plain sight all this time. So then the question is, how have we contributed to erasing them? One answer is that there was a story available about them: they were minor characters in black literature, and in white and black histories of the period, and as minor figures their story is an easy one to tell. It’s coherent and it has some amusement factor to it.

BIOG: It’s a caricature.

CK: Right, it serves our own purposes. The story of them as either bumbling fools, or dangerous, problematic creatures, is a useful narrative, and it tells easily. The third reason there has been this hole in the history is that these women were a mess! They were all over the place, and trying to tell their story means trying to wrap our minds around a rather complicated set of contradictions. These are women who are, to put it bluntly, enormously politically incorrect.

BIOG: And perhaps their stories couldn’t be told until we reached a point in the academic study of the Harlem Renaissance that could encompass these politically incorrect ideas, and people who were trying to figure out what race means in ways that are often uncomfortable to us.

CK: I also think this story couldn’t be told until we had filled in more of the pieces of the black Harlem Renaissance narrative itself — quite rightly, that work had to come first, and I feel I’ve been a part of that. I think we recognize today that we still don’t really know how to talk to one another about race, and we’re failing to create the interracial networks of affiliation and advocacy that we need.

BIOG: And of course the book is about the intersection of race and gender — these women were trying to run away from a world that was particularly constraining to them as women.

CK: It’s not just that gender and race come together — and I would add class as well, because so many of them came from moneyed backgrounds — but that these women were really quite canny about playing these vectors off against one another, to achieve their own modalities of freedom. Now, you can look at that canniness and dislike them for it, or you can admit that we all do the same thing — we gain our freedom however we can, by playing off whatever advantages may come our way against the disadvantages we were born into.

BIOG: Many of these women realized that they could be influential through money, by providing financial support to individual artists. How does the economic history of the Harlem Renaissance play in here?

CK: These women don’t emerge as truly central economic and cultural players until fairly late, after the stock market crash and the great Depression. As the men begin to pull out — the white male philanthropists, the publishers, the cabaret owners — it creates a vacuum, allowing these women to step in. And because we’ve tended to cut our studies of the Harlem Renaissance off after the stock market crash, it’s another way in which these women’s story was almost lost to us.

BIOG: Just by where we place the boundaries on what we call the Harlem Renaissance.

CK: Precisely — as long as we were placing that boundary essentially after Black Wednesday, we were failing to notice the way in which the Depression created a gendered opportunity. It reminds us, I think — or I hope — that where we set the boundaries of the questions we ask determines the answer we get. We’re always constructing the history we’re seeking.

BIOG: What did you find most surprising or unexpected about these women’s life stories?

CK: I’d have to say the thing that kept surprising me over and over again, that I failed to get used to, was the way in which a number of these women didn’t just claim a central place for themselves in the Harlem Renaissance, but they claimed that they were black — and they meant it. They were not kidding. I don’t just mean Josephine Cogdell Schuyler “passing” as a black woman by writing as Julia Jerome, the black Ann Landers of her day, and feeling nothing wrong in claiming that voice and that identity. But beyond her, you have Nancy Cunard and Charlotte Osgood Mason, both saying, “I am partly black.” Nancy Cunard says, “I was African at one time,” and Mason says, “I am a black god.” And we cringe — how can we not cringe at what they’re saying? But there’s something in it. It’s fascinating to me that they so believed in an idea that we think we invented, that identity is malleable, that it’s flexible, and that who we are is a matter of who we identify with. They genuinely believed that their commitments not only lessened their own whiteness, which they did, but made them partly black. And their black friends accept and indeed embrace that idea. I never stopped being surprised by that.

The other thing that surprised me over and over again was how much room there was in the Harlem Renaissance for this range of extremes, and how much room black intellectuals made — not to be nice, not to be polite, but for their own sakes — for this full range of articulations of race, some of which look to us completely nutty.

BIOG: And that flexibility existed in a larger world that was interested in drawing a single racial dividing line that absolutely could not be crossed.

CK: And the more inflexible the wider culture was, the more flexible they could be in Harlem. That flexibility itself was a way of resisting.

BIOG: It must have been hard to decide how to balance the stories and what to include or leave out.

CK: It is tricky with a group biography to figure out how to do that, even the question of which women I would focus on, because I did find about five dozen women who seemed to really represent this group that I was looking at. Then I had to find those who left enough in their own voices that I would have enough material. I initially thought I’d have a big chapter on Mary White Ovington, who was such an important political figure as the white founder of the NAACP, but she was so careful to erase her own footsteps, and never to allow the story to be about her, but always about the NAACP. She had erased herself so completely, the chapter just didn’t work, it wasn’t interesting enough. But although I do feel I let her down a bit by making her a minor character in the book, there have been several biographies of her, and she wrote a terrific autobiography of her time in the NAACP, so I was able to justify that by the sense that her story has been told. The larger goal was to tell stories that are not well known and show them in a new context.


five-daysBiographile, September 10 2013.

Joanna Scutts

By Sheri Fink
Crown. 576pp. $27

Investigative journalist Sheri Fink’s new book, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, is a riveting two-part study of the experience and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina at one privately owned New Orleans hospital. The first section meticulously, and harrowingly, describes five days of storm and floods, followed by a series of disastrous failures of power – both electrical and human. The second part of the book spans the months and years of investigation into what happened during those five days and why, eventually focusing on a small group of doctors and the vials of morphine they had in their possession. In the course of its gripping and razor-sharp investigation into the Memorial case, the book challenges us to examine our deepest assumptions about medical ethics, human rights, sickness, survival, and the right to die with dignity.

BIOGRAPHILE: What first led you to this subject?

SHERI FINK: When I saw in the news that three well-regarded health professionals had been arrested for having allegedly murdered their patients during a terrible disaster, I wanted to know more. I’d been a medical aid worker in several conflict and disaster zones and written a book about a war hospital that was under siege for three years in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but I’d never heard of allegations like this arising in any of those situations.five-days

BIOG: How did your background, as a trained physician who has worked in disaster areas, inform your writing?

SF: I’d experienced how the stresses of a prolonged emergency, the exhaustion that can accompany it, can make it hard to think clearly and act effectively as a caregiver, particularly the first time someone is confronting that without a lot of preparedness. I’d also witnessed how people who are older, chronically ill, can’t walk, or have trouble taking care of themselves are often the most vulnerable in a crisis and the easiest to neglect. And I had seen responders rise above challenges and save lives by improvising and persisting in far worse circumstances even than Katrina. Despite those experiences, I tried not to assume anything about this particular event, and I aimed to learn everything I could about it and to collect as many perspectives as possible.

BIOG: Although the initial timeframe of events is short, the book’s larger subject matter is huge and complex. Can you describe how you organized the material and chose whose stories to focus on?

SF: I stuck as much as possible to a chronological narrative, and when moving from event to event tried to keep either point-of-view, time, or location constant. The events provided opportunities to delve into larger subjects. The choice of perspectives was partly influenced by access – in other words who was generous enough to share their experiences – and partly by who was central to the important decisions made at the hospital or most affected by them. I also considered which people acted rather than were only acted upon by the events, and were changed by them.

BIOG: You give a very balanced and nuanced view of the events at Memorial and their aftermath. Was it hard to stay objective in the face of the evidence you had?

SF: Reporters naturally bring their own perspectives and life experience to the articles and books they write, and it’s easy to argue that objectivity is impossible. However, I think it’s a great and important goal. It’s similar to what’s done in science – you have to test your own assumptions and theories and expectations about how the world works and be open to discovering that you’re wrong. That’s the way we get closer to truth. A fair presentation of the evidence is its own best argument.

BIOG: You mention at the end that a lot of the documents from the investigation into the Memorial deaths remain sealed. How did you work around those gaps in the record?

SF: I interviewed many people involved in the events and viewed documents and other materials from a wide range of sources. It was helpful to work on the book over many years, because some people who were not initially willing to speak were later open to it, and some material that was difficult to access later became available.

BIOG: Are there other books or writers who you looked to as models for this kind of investigative writing?

SF: Yes, many. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Dave Cullen’s Colombine, Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, Chuck Sudetic’s Blood and Vengeance, Adrian LeBlanc’s Random Family, Nicholas Gage’s Eleni, the excellent books written by David Rohde, Deborah Blum, and Laurie Garrett … I could go on and on. There are many good models.

BIOG: You are resistant to the idea that disaster zones should be treated as war zones, and you give the example of the public hospital in NOLA that had better outcomes than Memorial largely because staff stuck more closely to their regular civilian routines. Do you think this approach has been downplayed in disaster planning – and should it get more attention? More generally, what lesson(s) would you like readers to take away from the book?

SF: Yes, disaster or war, it’s helpful to strive to maintain as much normalcy and routine as possible in a very abnormal situation. These events taught me the importance of remembering in the midst of a disaster that there will be a tomorrow and that the choices we make and how we treat each other at a time of crisis will be with us for a long time to come. I hope readers will understand this, too, and see the power of individual action, of flexibility and improvisation along with preparedness, and what disaster geeks call “situational awareness,” the ability to keep in mind the larger picture of what’s going on in a crisis and to respond proportionally. I also hope that reading about the human impact of a severe disaster can help people weigh how much to invest in preparing for unlikely but foreseeable events in balance with everyday urgent priorities. Critically, the rationing of lifesaving care is horrific, and as we prepare for situations where medical needs might temporarily outmatch resources (for example, a number of hospitals and state health departments are drawing up guidelines for how care might be rationed in an overwhelming pandemic or other emergency) the perspectives of a range of people from various backgrounds must be sought. We can’t just stick those value judgments to a few exhausted, frontline health professionals. There are so many other facets to the events portrayed in the book, and I’m hopeful readers will come away with their own insights.


ZealotBiographile, August 27 2013. Part II, August 29 2013.

Joanna Scutts

Random House. 336pp. $27

The biographer of Jesus of Nazareth has been fielding plenty of media interest and controversy over his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which attempts to uncover the man behind the Messiah. We spoke to him about the constraints of biography, the challenge of researching a time before “history,” and Jesus as a political rebel in part one of our interview. Check back later this week for part two.

BIOGRAPHILE: Why did you choose biography, as opposed to any other way of writing about Jesus? What was it about biography that gave you new possibilities?

REZA ASLAN: When you write about Jesus it’s hard to avoid either Christology on the one hand, or apology on the other. For so many billions of people around the world, Jesus is more than just a man, so if you want to treat him as a man, you can’t avoid dealing with the theological implications of his life. The only way to do so is through the lens of a biography, because then you’re limited in how speculative you can be. There are many books about Jesus that challenge orthodox Christian views of him, but so many of those books are themselves a form of theology — they speculate about influences he may have had, places he may have visited, et cetera. What biography essentially forces me to do is to maintain a sense of grounding, to keep from making statements that cannot be backed by the history of the world in which Jesus lived.

BIOG: So it’s a way of limiting yourself to those known facts, which are so few and far between, and resisting speculation.

RA: Yes. What I’ve noticed is that people who criticize the book, and then read it, often respond by saying that it wasn’t that odd or weird; I think they expect wild accusations about Jesus. But there’s no pedagogical purpose in this book — it’s simply an attempt to unearth what little we can know about this historical figure.

BIOG: Can you describe a little of your research process and its challenges — for instance, the multiple languages in which sources are written?

RA: I often say that writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth is not like writing a biography of Napoleon, because by the time Napoleon exists, there is a firm concept of a thing called history. The notion of history as an accumulation of verifiable facts and dates is a product of the modern world. When writing about an ancient figure like Jesus, and one endowed with spiritual significance, you have to make a differentiation between sacred history and history, right from the start. What the ancients thought when they said the word “history” was not what we think. They were much more interested in revealing truth about the characters they were writing about, rather than facts. Facts were secondary, if not irrelevant.

That means that we are immediately at a disadvantage when writing about Jesus, because essentially the only information we have about him is the New Testament, the Gospels — and as I’ve said [in the book], the Gospels are not documents of history. They are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s acts, his works — they are testaments of faith, written by communities of faith, many years after the events they describe. To put it another way, the Gospel writers already believed something about Jesus, that he was the Messiah, that he was the son of God, that he was God incarnate, and set about writing the Gospels to prove that belief. They are theological arguments, so they’re not that helpful in trying to reconstruct the Jesus of history. What I do instead is rely on the world in which Jesus lived, a world that — thanks to the Romans — we know a great deal about. By placing Jesus firmly within his time and place, we can fill in the holes of his life and create a picture of him that is in many ways more accurate than that offered by the Gospels.

The methodology for doing what I just described has been set for centuries — the quest for the historical Jesus is a centuries-long endeavor. The tools that have been developed to try to analyze as far as possible the claims of the Gospels according to the history of the time — to figure out what is more and less likely historical in the New Testament — have been used by thousands of Biblical scholars before me. I don’t do anything different.

BIOG: The book is a wonderful synthesis of so many things that have been known in the academic community, but just haven’t become a part of our larger cultural understanding of Jesus and his time.

RA: Oh, that’s the fault of academics. The biggest criticism I have of my colleagues is that they spend all their time talking to each other, that they rarely bother to synthesize their ideas and their research to make it accessible and appealing to a wider audience. Now, ironically, the biggest criticism my colleagues have of me is that I spend all my time synthesizing research and making it accessible to a broader audience. There is this culture in academia that tends to look down on those who try to reach a wider audience — we’re immediately tagged as not serious. And honestly, that explains why there is such anti-intellectualism in the media and in popular culture.

BIOG: The historical context you bring out seems so basic to understanding the story of Jesus and how the Gospels came to be written — primarily the importance of the Jewish rebellion against Rome and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. That’s generally understood as a decisive moment in Jewish history, but you show that it’s equally fundamental to the development of Christianity.

RA: It changes everything.

BIOG: So in the book you foreground the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, and then fit Jesus’ life into that larger story.

RA: My goal was to so deeply and fully immerse readers in the social, political, and religious context of the first century that by the time you got to Jesus’s story, I wouldn’t have to explain it — you could figure out for yourself the larger implications of what he was saying and doing.

Part Two

BIOGRAPHILE: At the beginning of your book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, you quote the theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who says that the quest for the historical Jesus is ultimately an internal quest, and that scholars see the Jesus they want to see. What kind of Jesus emerged for you in the course of writing this book? He seems like a much more political figure than he is later understood to be.

REZA ASLAN: Well, let’s be clear that in Jesus’s time there is no difference whatsoever between politics and religion. So I don’t know if it would be correct to say that this is a political look at Jesus, because you can’t separate the two in the way that we do in the modern world. “I am the Messiah” is both a religious and a political statement; they are exactly the same. I’m just trying to make the reader aware of the political implication of what most people think are mostly religious issues.

BIOG: One theme that emerges so strongly, especially when you get to the later chapters about St. Paul and the Roman adoption of Christianity, is how certain aspects of Jesus’s life and his teachings end up being pushed out of the story. At the beginning you explain that this is a time of great inequality in wealth and tension between the rural poor and the urban rich, and Jesus is absolutely on the side of that rural poor, and comes from that background, and sees poverty as a virtue. That was always a difficult claim for Christianity to maintain, as the power and wealth of the church grew.

RA: Right, you go from “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” to Joel Osteen, and “Jesus wants you to be rich,” and drive a Bentley. That sums up everything I think about how far we’ve got from Jesus’s teachings.

To go back to the question about Rudolph Bultmann – it’s absolutely true, and I think, by the way, it’s true of every historian, every biographer. Otherwise there would only be one biography of every character in the world. There’s no such thing as objective history: a scholar cannot help but bring his own impressions and perceptions into his study, no matter how hard he tries. For me, my quest for the historical Jesus was launched while I studied at a Jesuit Catholic college, Santa Clara University, and the Jesuits of course are famous for their focus on social justice and Jesus’s preferential options for the poor, so there’s no doubt that that influenced my look at Jesus. The scholars and professors who trained me — there’s no question that their focus on Jesus as a man dedicated to social justice impacted my own scholarly look into Jesus. I also think it’s historically accurate, but nevertheless, I absolutely admit that that influence exists.

BIOG: That Jesuit influence is so interesting, since at the end of the story you begin to get into these debates within the early church about the direction of the faith, but obviously as it develops that’s beyond the scope of the book.

RA: I’m glad you say it’s beyond the scope of the book, because a lot of people have said that this book is about Christianity, or it’s an attack on Christianity. But it’s not — it’s a book about Judaism, because Jesus was a Jew.

BIOG: And about the Roman Empire.

RA: Exactly.

BIOG: It seems to me the book is grappling with a much bigger question, which is the tension between facts and faith, and how far it’s possible to reconcile history with belief.

RA: I think when it comes to a historical look at Jesus, the principal dividing line isn’t whether you believe he’s the Messiah or not, whether you believe he’s God or not. The line is whether you believe that Jesus was utterly unique or not. In other words, do you believe that Jesus was unlike every other Jew of his time? Do you believe that his perception of God, his reading of the scripture, his understanding of the Messiah and the messianic function, his view about the relationship between creator and creation, was completely and utterly different than every other Jew of his world — was totally and utterly innovative? Or do you believe that he was remarkable, that he was extraordinary, that he was charismatic, and all of those things, but he wasn’t utterly unique, that he saw the world the way most Jews in his time saw the world, and that he understood the function of the messiah, the interpretation of the scriptures, the way that most of his fellow Jews did? I think the historian falls in the latter category, and the person of faith falls in the former category.

In other worlds, is it possible that Jesus was utterly unique, is it possible that unlike ninety-eight percent of his fellow Jews he could read and write, is it possible that in contradiction to everything that Judaism has ever said about the nature of God and man, that Jesus thought that he was himself God? Yes, it’s possible. Is it likely? No. The historian’s job is not to say what’s possible: it’s to say what’s likely.

BIOG: I almost wanted a sequel to this book that talks about St. Paul, who did seem to be the one — along with the Gospel writer John — whose way of thinking about Jesus was unique and new and transformative. It was their interpretation of Jesus that broke the religion from Judaism.

RA: That’s right. If you want to put it in its simplest way, an innovation happened in Judaism, otherwise we wouldn’t have Christianity. The question is, when and where did it take place? Did it take place in the mind of an illiterate, uneducated, poor, marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee? Or did it take place in the mind of a Hellenistic, Greek-speaking, educated, deeply Romanized Jew named Paul? Again — choose one. The person of faith says it was Jesus and the historian says no, it was probably Paul.

BIOG: I know you’ve had plenty of extreme reactions to the book, but have readers of faith also been open to this alternative that you’re presenting?

RA: To be honest, the overwhelming response of Christians to this book has been positive. I have received countless emails, tweets, and personal messages from Christians saying that this book empowered and enriched their faith. I understand where that idea comes from. At the heart of orthodox Christianity is the belief that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, but the consequence of that belief is that Christians too often focus on the God part. When you go to church, you mostly hear about Jesus the God, and even when you hear about Jesus the man, there is this kind of safety net underneath him, because his motivations, his actions, the troubles that he encounters are always tempered by the fact that he’s also God. A lot of Christians don’t fully encounter what it means to believe that Jesus was also a man, that he lived in a specific time and place, that he was shaped by his world, that his teachings were in response to the specific social ills that he confronted, and that his actions were a response to the powers of this time. Christians don’t often get that that perspective in church. You can believe that this man that I am talking and writing about is also God, and still be enriched by this biography.

BIOG: The way you write about Jesus is so enriched by the history but also very aware that there was something extraordinary that marked him out, and we’re never going to know exactly what that was, what sort of personality attracted those followers that enabled a new religion to be built on the basis of this individual.

RA: In fact, I think that looking at him as a man makes him that much more extraordinary, more remarkable. The idea that a poor peasant could have started a movement that was such a threat to all the authorities of his time that he was ultimately arrested, tortured, and executed for it; the fact that an illiterate, uneducated man had the charisma and power of his teachings necessary to start such a movement is extraordinary. It makes him that much more powerful, that much more worth knowing and following. Whether you think he’s God or not is fine, but just looking at him as a man, you cannot help but be blown away by him. You can’t help but want to know him and to follow him. Part of the reason why I wrote this book was to show that you can be a follower of Jesus without necessarily being a Christian.

BIOG: You can find his example inspiring without believing that he’s God.

RA: Without the baggage of dogma, exactly.

BIOG: You end up with someone who is restored to non-Christians as much as enriched for Christians.

RA: In fact, the overwhelmingly positive response I’ve received from Christians has been matched by the extremely positive response I’ve received from atheists — both of whom thanked me for confirming their already-held notions of Jesus. Writing a book that brings atheists and Christians together — that’s probably what I’m most proud of.


blue-plate-specialBiographile, July 9, 2013.

Joanna Scutts

By Kate Christensen
Doubleday. 368pp. $26.95

Novelist Kate Christensen, whose books include The Great Man and The Astral, turns her hand to memoir in this month’s Blue Plate Special, an unforgettable coming-of-age story about love, loss, and food. We caught up with Kate to ask her about taste and memory, making the leap from novel to memoir, and why food is such a powerful portal to the past.

BIOGRAPHILE: You mention that the book has its roots in your blog entries. At what point did you see the larger story start to emerge? Did you have to do a lot of editing to turn them into a book?

KATE CHRISTENSEN: It took only three or so months to write the first draft. It came out of me naturally and fast because, of course, I already knew the story. The hard work started after the first draft was written, when I had to figure out how to structure my life as a narrative, how to shape it around my love of food, how the recipes fit in. But the greatest challenge was trying to figure out how to excise my ego from the whole process. I think it all started working for me when I was finally able to treat myself as a fictional character and allow my own voice to be separate from my life.

BIOG: Were you surprised by any connections that emerged between the entries?

KC: I was surprised at how hard it was to write the book after having so much fun with the blog. The blog was one thing: easy, organic, episodic, lighthearted – the book was another. I had to dig intentionally to uncover memories that were raw and visceral and painful to recall. I had intended to write a book about food. But there is no hiding in food: the fact that food was my subject and theme in no way provided any shade. On the contrary, every memory about food, beginning with the soft-boiled eggs of my two-year-old, cataclysmic breakfast, forced me to recollect everything that surrounded it, sad or painful, funny or revealing.

BIOG: What was it like moving from fiction to nonfiction — does it feel like a very different writing process? Do you think you’ll write more nonfiction in future?

KC: I feel a greater sense of responsibility, writing nonfiction. Rather than inventing a cast of characters whose lives are generated by my imagination and the demands of the novel itself, these are people who actually exist, both in my memories and in the world, people whose stories I have appropriated in the course of telling my own. I changed many names and soft-pedaled as much as I could and sent the manuscript around to various loved ones for corroboration, correction, and comments, but in the end, I can’t pretend it was easy or comfortable to write about real people, including myself.

That said, I am fomenting another food book, but one that is less about me and more about food itself.

BIOG: Much of your writing about food focuses on obsession — you discuss gorging on particular foods (like cream cheese sandwiches) and at other times, severely restricting what you ate, which feels different from many food-related memoirs that primarily emphasize pleasure. Did you deliberately set out to describe both joy and the punishment of eating, or do you think those are connected somehow?

KC: As a creature of extremes who strives (usually fruitlessly) for moderation, my life story is, like many people’s, fundamentally an account of sliding along a spectrum of irreconcilable, though coexisting, desires. Both overeating and hunger have been profound parts of my life, and therefore I had to acknowledge both in its telling.

BIOG: We seem to be in something of a golden age of food- and drink-related memoirs by women. Are there other “foodie” writers (men or women) who influenced you during the writing of this book, or whose work you particularly admire?

KC: Food memoirs have saved my life during times of insomniacal trouble, most notably the works of M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Laurie Colwin, and Nicolas Freeling. I also love the fictional and nonfictional works of the likes of James Hamilton-Paterson, Diana Abu-Jabar, John Lanchester, Nora Ephron, James Chase, Jami Attenberg, Adam Gopnik, Cathi Hanauer, Gabrielle Hamilton, Tamar Adler, and Michael Pollan.

BIOG: Throughout the book you’re surrounded by people who are seeking some kind of unconventional salvation, from Berkeley hippies, to anthroposophical communities, to your sister’s involvement with a cult. In the book, it often seems as though food was in part a refuge from the spiritual yearning of the people around you — a tangible response to their otherworldly needs. What kind of spiritual balm, if any, does food offer?

KC: I’ve grown to feel that the deeper the attachment to a dogma, religion, or belief, the less the visceral connection to experience, which is all I’ve ever wanted. If food offers any balm, it’s the comfort of being in a world of pleasurable concreteness, one in which the experience is evanescent and temporary. When food is gone, it’s gone, and then it’s time to make the next meal.