Friday, January 9, 2009

Kathleen Popa, On Wrestling with Angels

What is Christian fiction?

I’m tempted to chafe at the term, “Christian Fiction,” because I’m not all that comfortable with the sense that we Christians have our own books that are just like other books, only safer. It makes me worry that we have given up on making a meaningful contribution to the great conversation going on out there, and have instead retreated to a little anteroom to talk among ourselves. Not only does this seem the wrong way to represent Jesus , but it also makes for bad art, if we go at it with the first thought of being safe. I’ll talk more about this in a later question, but I almost want to say there is no such thing as Christian fiction; there is only fiction and some of it is written by Christians.

But then I consider how often, in my writing, the fundamental way I view things has come through in ways I never planned. I’m convinced that’s true for other writers as well. So despite myself, I’ve concluded that a novel penned by a deeply Christian author would likely have a thematic undertone, like a soundtrack, a quiet little song that, in the brightest and darkest moments of the story, hints that there is something terrible and beautiful behind it all, that there is an immense, inscrutable God of overwhelming ferocity and unfathomable love.

Conflict is central to fiction, but how do you create a work of fiction that is tense, difficult, and sometimes even frightening, yet make it a place readers want to go to, spend time in, and get to know well?

I once heard someone pose an answer to critics who say we shouldn’t put monsters in children’s stories, because they might frighten the little readers. The response was that children are already afraid. They already know there are monsters in the world. That’s why they love stories about them, because in the stories they can get those monsters out of their heads and onto the page, and confront them from the safety of their reading nook.

We grownups are just children with layers added, only at our age, they put the monsters on the evening news, and now we are the adults, we are the ones who are supposed to keep things under control. Tense? Difficult? Even frightening? Oh yeah.

That’s why we so love to battle Sauron's armies until Gandalf comes charging in on his white horse. It’s why we love to enter Maycomb, Alabama, and peek out from the soul of little Scout Finch, who calls each man in the mob to his better self, and makes a friend of Boo Radley, the monster across the street.

Just be sure to keep that soundtrack playing.

Tell us about the relationship between your writing and your spiritual life.

Back to the idea of “safe” fiction: I think playing it safe makes for bad art and bad prayer. We need to dive into the deep waters of our subconscious*, and trust that God will not let us drown.

Too often, we keep to the surface. When things threaten to get painful, we pull out a Sudoku puzzle or surf the internet. (Don't ask how I know.) As writers we create stock characters doing predictable things. The issue is control. We have to know exactly what is going to happen. We definitely need to know what our story is about before we write it. Otherwise it could mess with the way we see ourselves and each other and even - ack! - the way we see God. Predictability is safe, at least.

It’s also boring. It’s like offering God a gloved hand, and commenting on the weather, when all along, he knows that our insides are screaming. The reader is no less bored, having come to the page hoping to battle with monsters and win.

Remember the psalmist, soaring with joy one moment and wretched with terror the next? Remember Jacob, wrestling with his angel? I think, of all people, the novelist is commanded to wrestle with angels.

Think of a novel you have not written - yet - but would like to one day. The best thing you will ever write before you die. Don't tell us what it will be about, but instead, tell us how it will make the reader feel.

William Blake was once asked, “When the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire something like a guinea?” Blake answered, “Oh no, I see an immeasurable company of the heavenly host crying “Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

When my readers come away like William Blake, I will have written my best novel, and I will lay down my pen. (Maybe.)

*A wonderful book on writing from the subconscious is From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler.


Anonymous said...

I'd been struggling just yesterday with trying to find an apt image for the totality of God's involvement in the world. I thought of Gerard Manley Hopkins' assertion that

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

But somehow your example of the coin is better. You are a very perceptive writer, Katy, and I'm privileged to read what you give to the world.


Kathleen Popa said...

Thank you, Latayne. My goodness, how kind you are!

I love that image, "shining from shook foil." Think I've got to read me some more Hopkins.

Patti Hill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Great interview, Katy. You've got me thinking, what would my spiritual soundtrack sound like? Hmmm...could take some time. I think of yours as a bit like the Yo-Yo Ma CD I bought at Starbucks this Christmas: playful, with authenticity and elegance.

Patti Hill said...

Another thought on Christian fiction. I don't believe that truth belongs only to Christians. I've been prompted to seek God or right a wrong by artists who don't claim a relationship with Jesus. Maybe part of the responsibility of finding truth is on the reader. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful insight that helps us know Kathleen Popa a little bit better. Her thoughts are so worth delving into!

Kathleen Popa said...

Thank you, ladies - Patti, I agree.

Debbie, I love Yo-yo Ma! Ever watch him explain his thoughts on his art? Very inspiring. He has a podcast too. Go to his website, and you'll find it.

Anonymous said...

Katy, even in your blog you write beautifully! I love your style and your stories.

Deanne Barth

Kathleen Popa said...

Deanne, thank you! You're such an encourager. Must be the genes.

LeAnne Hardy said...

I too am bothered by the concept of Christian fiction as 'safe.' What I love about the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing is that it embraces all writing that deals with faith--even Salman Rushdie. (You can't write about this region without taking faith into account, he explained despite his own atheism.) I am comfortable at Calvin as an evangelical, but the discussion is stretching, rather than safe.

Kathleen Popa said...

LeAnne, The Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing has been on my "one day" list for years. It really hurt to miss the one in 2006 - is that the year when Rushdie was there? Leif Enger was there, and Marilynne Robinson, and Walter Wangerin Jr., and Andy Crouch, and the list goes on and on. It was like they'd crawled into my head and found out every writer I loved, and I couldn't go. Ouch! Oh, and Dave Long was there, one of my favorite people.

I hope you will make yourself at home here at Novel Matters and share your thoughts. We will talk more about safe vs. unsafe fiction, and we will do our best to stretch ourselves and our readers.

Hmmm... Do you think Rushdie would guest-blog? Just a thought.

Nichole Osborn said...

Question: Are we talking about Calvin College in Michigan?

Kathleen Popa said...

Nichole, yes, it's Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan, and the conference happens every two years, the next one coming April of 2010 - see

Nichole Osborn said...

How long has it been going on? I lived in Grand Rapids for 11 years and never knew Calvin had a writers conference. I live 2 hours from GR now. I will definately check it out. Thanks!