I just found this questionnaire for writers about their works-in-progress on my friend Libby Mosier’s blog, and I thought it might be fun to do. People are always asking me about my novel, and I often have a hard time knowing how to talk about it. I still do, but answering these questions helped me think about how to talk about it in a more focused way.
If you have a work in progress, feel free to answer the questions yourself in the comments, or on your own blog, and I will link to your answers!
What is the working title of your book?
The working titles of my book are very much working titles. If I am ever fortunate enough to get this novel published, I assume it will get a different title. But I need to call it something for now, so I started out calling it Faith, but then I saw a new novel out called Faith, by Jennifer Haigh (which I have not read yet, but it looks terrific and it’s on my list) and decided I needed something of my own. I settled on Philadelphia Freedom, which evokes the novel’s setting (Philadelphia) and that wacky Elton John song, and Elton John is gay and so are some of the characters in my novel, and Philadelphia means City of Brotherly Love, which is also kinda funny in a gay way …. But mostly, I have to admit, with some chagrin, that I had recently read Franzen’s Freedom and was annoyed that this great American novel failed to have any substantive people of faith or people of color in it (OK, there’s one, but really? One?). My novel has lots of both.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I have long been interested in intentional communities where folks make a commitment together to “live simply so that others may simply live,” as the Quakers say. For about ten years I have been especially intrigued by two intentional Christian communities in Philadelphia: New Jerusalem, a recovery community in North Philly founded by one of my heroes, the radical Sister Margaret McKenna, a Medical Mission Sister; and The Simple Way, a “new monastic” community in Kensington, founded by a progressive evangelical named Shane Claiborne. I spent about six months when Micah was a baby volunteering and attending Bible study at New Jerusalem, and when I ran a literacy summer camp and after school program in Kensington for a couple of years, I visited The Simple Way several times. I love the work both of these groups are doing, and I love their love-and-justice oriented interpretation of Scripture. But especially the folks at The Simple Way – along with a whole group of progressive evangelicals (the “red letter”/Sojourner-type Christians) – either explicitly still speak of homosexuality as a sin (albeit in much kinder, gentler ways than some of their more rabid evangelical colleagues), or they just refuse to take a stand on it at all. Needless to say, I find their position, or their lack of courage to have a position, disappointing.
So the initial spark that became my novel was the thought, What if a lesbian from my tradition and a progressive evangelical with a Simple Way/Sojourner sort of background were thrown together in an intentional Christian community of the Catholic Worker/new monastic sort? It’s evolved a lot from there, obviously, but that was the original germ.
What genre does your book fall under?
I think there’s a subset of literary fiction that I call “literary fiction that smart people like to read on vacation,” and I would put Barbara Kinsolver, Jonathan Franzen, Ann Patchet, Chad Harbach, folks like those in that category. That’s what my novel aspires, at least, to be.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
A younger Lyle Lovett could play Timothy. Angela Bassett with dreadlocks could play Lenore. Maybe Cress Williams with bad teeth as Terry, Naya Rivera with curly hair as Hannah, a younger Mark Wahlberg as Chad, and a slightly chubby Laura Linney as Magda.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Magda, her wife Lenore, Timothy, Terry, Hannah and her fiancé Chad all share the experience of being outsiders –expatriates of sorts – seeking a sense of home, as well as a sliver of theology that calls them to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with their god; otherwise, though, they are a wildly diverse group who struggle to love one another in the face of their diverging beliefs about marriage, sex and sexuality when they are thrown together in an intentional community in the “bad lands” of Kensington, a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood in Philadelphia, in order to run an after school program for students at the troubled local public elementary school.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’ve been writing my novel for 15 months and I’m about two-thirds of the way through I think.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
One of the many reasons I wanted to write this book is that it seems to me there aren’t a lot of contemporary novels in which people of faith appear as just normal folks. Another peeve of mine is that too many writers are — unwilling? unable? too scared? — I’m not sure why, but they don’t write much outside of their own experience when it comes to race and socio-economic status. I’m sure someone really smart and well-read can (and hopefully will) list tons of such books in the comments below, but I don’t know them (I’m not particularly well-read, I’m afraid….). So I don’t really know!
Who or What inspired you to write this book?
I would say my family and my faith community – Old First Reformed United Church of Christ – as well as our wonderful pastor who has become a close friend, as well as the work I did for several years with children living in poverty in Kensington. I just think when secular lefties think of Christians, we’re not even on their radar. And that’s too bad.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s a novel about sex and marriage and my pretty unorthodox Christian views on those issues! You’ll learn how lesbians make babies and meet a snake handling pastor from Georgia! There’s a show-down on Easter with riot police outside a public elementary school!
Whom have you tagged?
I’m not tagging anyone, but if you feel like playing let me know and I’ll post a link!