INTERVIEW: If you could travel in a Time Machine would you go back to the past or into the future? I would be interested to go back in time and see what the historical Jesus was actually like. I think that would be quite illuminating. It would be useful if the machine also gave me a working knowledge of Aramaic and a quick course in cultural taboos so I wouldn’t find myself getting stoned by an angry mob.
Please tell us in one sentence only, why we should read your book. It is probably not what you expect when you hear its subject. It is worth giving it a look to see what it is.
What inspired you to want to become a writer? My father was a writer and he was of the opinion that I was a born writer. I did not share that point of view. I wanted to be a rock star or an actress. As it happens I have no talent for acting and I hate being in the spotlight. It was as though I had never met myself. I read an article in a psychological magazine recently that says that a skill for writing is an inherited trait. Little by little it became clear that this was something not everyone can do and that my still for writing was out of proportion to my skill for other things. Like water running into a groove in the dirt.
Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published. I was first published in 1999, so since my first book was published I’ve had many rewarding experiences. Most of them do not have to do with writing. Being on tour with a Russian ballet company was probably the most rewarding experience. Also working as a volunteer at The Guthrie Center in Massachusetts and getting to know some great people. Touring with my partner, a Russian ballet dancer, and meeting people all over the country is rewarding. Writing in flow is always worthwhile, and stumbling on the spark of inspiration that made my novel click after ten years working on it was the most rewarding part of the process. The writing was a better experience than the publishing process. The best experience connected to my novel Angel being out in the world was having the opportunity to join in a book club discussion about it. People assume that you get a lot of feedback as a writer, but you really don’t. You put out a book and you never really know who reads it and how they react to it. You tend to long for interaction with readers, at least I do. I love my characters, and they seem more alive when other people react to them.
If you could jump in to a book, and live in that world.. which would it be? The thing about great novels is that they are full of drama and conflict, so I’m not sure I would want to live in the worlds of any of my favorite novels. I would prefer to live in a collection of poetry.
What is your dream cast for your book? I told an interviewer once that I would like Michael Emerson who played Ben on Lost to be the protagonist Paul. I admire him as an actor, although he is a bit older than the character. But he has that “everyman” quality with a certain emotional intensity. I could see him doing a good job with it. Ian, the second main character, would be played by the British actor Lee Williams as he looked in the film The Wolves of Kromer. He is older than the character now. Whoever played Ian in a movie version would have to be physically beautiful. I have a much clearer idea of his “look” than I have of Paul’s.
What was your favorite book when you were a child/teen? As a kid I loved “If I Ran the Circus” by Dr. Seuss. I also loved Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose.
Is there a song you could list as the theme song for your book or any of your characters? I listened to Calling All Angels by Train over and over when I was writing Angel.
What’s one piece of advice you would give aspiring authors? Don’t do it! Run, quickly, the other way! Get out now while you still can! If you fail to heed my sensible advice, you will most likely find your own way through the crazy world that is publishing. I started a long time ago, with agents and traditional publishers, and the landscape is so different now I am still trying to figure it all out myself. If I had any idea of what works I would tell you.
If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be? I liked living in the Berkshires. I miss it sometimes. The most beautiful city in which I have lived was Edinburgh, Scotland. I miss it sometimes too. I like the culture and pace of life in the UK.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you “grew up”? When I was about three, I told my parents I wanted to be “an astronaut or a babysitter.”I wanted to be an actress when I was a kid. I even majored in theater in college.
If a movie was made about your life, who would you want to play the lead role and why? Heidi Klum because then people would think I looked like a Barbie doll. The movie of my life would involve a lot of sitting and staring at computer screens. It would be interesting to have it done by some avante garde director who does crazy art films.
Who are your favorite authors of all time? William Shakespeare, Milan Kundera, G.K. Chesteron, Douglas Adams, Rumi, Alain de Botton
Can you see yourself in any of your characters? The protagonist of my novel, Paul, is an introvert who is in a job that requires a certain extroversion. Being a writer has elements of that. What you are most suited for is being alone in a room, reading and writing things down. But there is also a promotional aspect to being a writer that kicks in. As a minister, you may have great insight, but if you are not able to get up and connect in the pulpit, it doesn’t matter. So the introverted aspects of Paul are more like me. I tended to think of him as like me and Ian as different, because he is an extrovert but when I started to work on a sequel to Angel from Ian’s perspective I decided to do a Myers-Briggs type test answering as Ian. It turns out that his personality letters with the exception of the I/E scale (introversion/extroversion) are exactly like mine. Paul’s came out quite different.
What’s the craziest writing idea you’ve had? I wrote in my journal that I wanted to start a novel with the world “meanwhile.”
What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you? My father told me “Never, but never, underestimate publishers’ ability to delay payment.”
Hidden talent? I can juggle three balls. I used to be able to make balloon animals, but I’ve forgotten how. It is a hold over skill from my short career as a professional mime at Dorney Park in Allentown.
What movie and/or book are you looking forward to this year? When I got the advance for my forthcoming non-fiction book I ordered a copy of the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary on CD-ROM. It’s not a read through in one sitting type of book, but I’m really excited to have that reference. I’ve become a bit of an amateur Bible scholar since writing Angel.
How do you react to a bad review? I haven’t come across too many bad reviews of Angel that bothered me. When I person gives two stars to it, it is just a measure of how she related to the book. The negative reviews I’ve gotten have tended to fall into the category of people having different expectations. They picked the book up because they were in the mood for a traditional romance novel and they found my book to be different than what they wanted. Sometimes they get upset with me because they want the characters to do something different. In those cases, I take it as a compliment because they are invested enough in the characters to get mad at me.
You have won one million dollars what is the first thing that you would buy?A new car. Mine has 222,000 miles on it.
Which authors have influenced you most and how? The most direct literary influence I had was my father, Albert Lee. I was not formally trained in writing. I was apprenticed.
What do you do in your free time? My vocation and my avocation are the same. So I don’t differentiate between my free time and my work time. I don’t have a lot of hobbies. I get uncomfortable when I am not producing writing.
How did you celebrate the release of your first book? Actually, I threw a book release party and nobody showed up! I haven’t tried that since.
What is your guilty pleasure? I am a fan of Project Runway. I don’t know if I’m supposed to feel guilty about it though. I tend to think you should like what you like. I like those little pizza roll things too.
Finish the sentence- one book I wish I had written is…. The DaVinci Code or Harry Potter. Then I would have the money to devote myself to writing the other things on my “to write” list. Of course, I might end up with a very confused audience.
Favorite places to travel? I’m on tour half the year with my ballet project. I like that lifestyle. We have especially liked West Virginia, South Carolina, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Duluth, Minnesota.
In your wildest dreams, which author would you love to co-author a book with? Kundera seems like he’d be kind of grumpy and opinionated. Douglas Adams is, alas, no longer with us. I know! How about Stephen Fry. That would be cool.
What do you hope readers will take away from your most recent book, Angel? I am hoping that it is a book that is read quickly, but that stays with the reader. I would like to hear a reader say, “You know, I kept thinking about this one thing in the book.” I would love it if they close the book and feel little lonely because they know they are going to miss the characters.
Did you find, as you were writing, that you drew upon any of your own life experiences or based any of the characters on people you know? There are some individual episodes in the book that come from experience. For example, there is a moment early on when the character of Ian talks about growing up with a mother who had very strong, very conservative religious beliefs. I don’t know if “conservative” is quite the right word. She was a supernaturalist and believed literally in angels and devils fighting for men’s souls. Ian tells a story about a neighbor giving them a couch and then later discovering that the neighbor had a Ouija board in her house and so they took the couch off to the dump in case the devil was in it. I did have a friend growing up who told me a similar anecdote from life, and it stuck with me. The idea of the devil taking up residence in the couch stuck with me. So there were little things like that throughout. Basically writing this book was like taking all of my life experience and putting it into a food processor and then seeing what came out.
Was there anything that you learned by writing from the perspective of a gay man? I talked about this on my blog recently. I can’t say that I learned anything about what it is like to be a gay man. But when the book was going to come out, people would ask me what it was about. It is about a Christian minister falling in love with another man. It never occurred to me not to write on this topic or to keep it under wraps. Yet when people asked me the subject, there was a moment when I would size them up and try to decide if they were going to react badly to the idea. If it was someone I worked with in my other career, would my answer potentially have any effect on that relationship? As a straight person, I hadn’t really faced that before. Before I wrote the book, I had the luxury of holding but not voicing my opinion about gay rights when it was not convenient, of keeping quiet and letting people assume I agreed with whatever they believed. Like most luxuries, it came at a high price: fear and inauthenticity. So I am glad that I cannot hide in that particular closet any more. It has spilled over into my life in other ways. I’m less likely to worry about making everyone happy with what I think. I have more confidence to just write what I’m called to write and hope that it resonates with at least some people. I realized that people generally accept you as you are. My conservative Christian friends have not said, “I can’t be your friend any more.”
Your central character is a Christian minister, what kind of research did you do to get the details of a minister’s vocation right? For the day-to-day reality of working in a church I didn’t need to do any research because I worked in a church for a number of years so I know a lot about the kinds of things that happen in the office. The only real research I did was to look up some statements on sexual orientation from some mainstream denominations to be sure that I was depicting that correctly. Since I wrote it, churches like the Presbyterians have changed their positions. There is a great deal of social change happening in this area. The language I ended up using was taken from the United Methodist Church although I didn’t want to identify Paul’s church as Methodist. I didn’t want to get that specific, because it is not really a political statement about one religion or another. Paul’s church is a mainstream protestant denomination. Not Evangelical. The kind of church that is trying to take a neutral position on the issue of gay rights. Trying to welcome LGBT members while at the same time not allowing same sex marriage or the ordination of gay clergy. I also view his denomination as one that allows a pastor to stay as long as his church community still wants him to be there. Some denominations assign pastors for a certain length of time.
Have you heard from any gay Christian readers and how have they reacted to the book? I have met some, yes. The ones I have spoken to were positive on the book. I have met people who have had the experience of being fired from positions with churches for their sexual orientation. I’m sorry that art imitates life in that way.
The book is full of mountain imagery. What is the meaning of the mountain and the nature imagery in Angel? For me, as a writer, it is helpful to have some kind of imagery and a central question to explore. When I write fiction, I often start with some image. I keep that in the back of my mind and when I get stuck, I do a couple of things. The first is that I ask myself, “What am I missing here?” And then I go away and let my subconscious work on that question. The other is that I go back to my central image and I do a completely unrelated bit of writing. How is this situation like the mountain? I often find myself coming back to the characters and the drama at hand very quickly. The stuff that I wrote about the mountain, or whatever image it is, tends to be cut out, but there are echoes of it in the end result.
How have Christian readers reacted to your book? I would love to hear from more Christian readers and see more reviews by people who identify as Christian. The ones I have heard from had good things to say about the book. For the most part they have been from the more liberal end of the Christian spectrum. There are a lot of Christians out there who support gay rights because of their faith, not in spite of it. Some of my friends are more middle of the road or conservative Christian and they have read the book because they know me. They probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise, but some of them have said, “I didn’t know what I would think about this but I really liked it.” I also know Christians who have a problem with the idea and would probably not like the book. So Christians are not a monolith, in spite of what the pundits might have you think.