March 2004

Jessa Crispin

features

An Interview with Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet

At a Killing the Buddha reading at the The Beat Kitchen in Chicago, Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet began the evening with a prayer. Of sorts.

There is no God and the Jews are his chosen people. What a great word that is: chosen. As in choice, prime, grade A meat electroprodded into marching up a slanted ramp to a mechanical hammer which hums and burps before slamming down onto the ridge atop bovine eyes, which flutter and close as the creature slumps among splinters of bone and brain fluid, after which the floor's hinged support beam tilts and drops the carcass into the processing room, where steel band saws whine and slice off part after section after part, conveyor belts sending them hither and yon to the fertilizer and dog food divisions and, most profitably, wrapped, packed, and pre-priced, $8.99 a pound, bound for the tables of the nation -- as a new victim shambles into place.

If I wander into Fifth Avenue traffic and get run over by a bus, that does not mean that I should hobble to my knees and pray to the bus.

"Amen," they intone.

The prayer comes from Melvin Jules Bukiet's "Ezekiel" chapter of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Manseau and Sharlet gathered thirteen writers to reflect on one chapter of the Bible, and then they themselves went on a road trip across America looking for expressions of God. Interspersed between A. L. Kennedy's take on Genesis, or Peter Trachtenberg's brilliant meditation on Job, are stories from their journey. There are stormchasers, cowboy preachers, strippers, hermaphrodites, and a church praying for blood. This is no ordinary religious book. The authors do not bow down, rejoicing in God's name. They call him out, they challenge him, dismantle him.

Manseau and Sharlet agreed to sit down with me before their recent book tour stop in Chicago, and we discussed God and road trips over veggie burgers.

What made you start a website about religion?

Jeff: I was working as a journalist and for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Whenever there were articles about religion in the media it was along the lines of, "What do the kids believe today?" The whole realm of theology and religious study, no one was really paying attention to it.

Peter: Even as we've been traveling around with this book, there's been this split in the media response. There have been interviews and reviews that were thoughtful, and we've been asked, "So after you've traveled around the country, do you think religion is good or bad?" There was no swaying him from that, no convincing him that wasn't a good question. They have two boxes in their coverage: good religion and bad religion. Is it going to fit here, or is it going to fit there?

How did you assign the books of the Bible? Did you have certain people in mind for particular books, or did people choose on their own?

Peter: First off, we would ask what they were interested in. And if they said they were interested in something and we thought they'd be better suited for a different book, we would assign them. Darcy Steinke and Rick Moody had originally done this other book years ago called Joyful Noise, which is writers writing essays about books in the New Testament. They're very New Testament minded, so that's what they thought they would do. We asked them not to do that, and based on readings of their work and intuition we assigned Steinke "Song of Songs" and Moody the "Jonah" chapter. That went very well, and those are both books they would not have come to.

Jeff: I think the first book we had was Peter Trachtenberg's "Job," and he had, uh, we knew him a little bit from a reading series some years before. He had just half of that written. The chapter is broken into two halves, and he had sent the second half to the editor that publishes Killing the Buddha. We really liked it. It was so good. So we held onto it for a while and we were thinking about how to make this book. And I can't remember the exact order of things, but it was sort of, well, we could have a series of books like this, but how do we weave it together, and that's where our stories came in. So Peter's [Trachtenberg] was one that he had already written it, and we said, "Think about it more," and it expanded into a larger project.

The official line is that the 13 people in this book are the 13 people that we thought of, and they all said yes, and of course, that's not how it was. You think of all kinds of people, some writers… Jamaica Kincaid said no because she's afraid of God. It was a very surprising answer. I thought I had been very clever in detecting this religious strand in her work, and apparently, it was rather obvious. David Gates was very excited, he found us. He had heard about the project through Darcy Steinke. There's this morally ambiguous struggle in all of his work and I thought he would be great. His e-mails about what he might write and might not write were almost as good as his books themselves. He was thinking about Ecclesiastes, and he had trouble with it. Every once and a while he'd write and say, "I don't know. It's not working." It didn't work in the end. He said, "It defeated me."

We worked on this while we were driving around. We would never want to give any kind of endorsement to Barnes and Noble, but we were in parts of the country where there weren't a lot of bookstores and we would see the green roof of Barnes and Noble. We would buy a bunch of books, take them with it, and then stop at the next Barnes and Noble down the road and return them, except for the ones we liked. There were so many writers we discovered that way… A. L. Kennedy, who I don't think we had read before then. We were pretty far into the trip when we wound up with a new editor for the book, and she said we should check out Haven Kimmel. I knew she had done a book called A Girl Named Zippy, her memoirs, and that didn't sound very good. But she said two things: one, don't judge a book by the marketing, look at her novel The Solace of Leaving Early, which is incredible, but probably because of her success with Zippy she will always be branded as a "women's author." This was one of the most heavyweight, intelligent novels in a long time, and she's also deeply theological…

Peter: Which is interesting, you find that with these writers who get labeled "women's writers" sometimes. These women writers who don't live in New York, who aren't from the usual literary centers and so they're called these housewife authors. They're engaged with these religious themes, but they don't get the credit they deserve.

Jeff: I never thought of it in that regard, but Yiddish literature, how it first got started, was originally… what was it? The Yiddish word for women's literature? Yiddish literature was… men read the Hebrew books and so on, and then on the back of the carts -- these guys would carry these books around from village to village -- were novels and poetry, and that's what the women read. That's all they were allowed to read. Myla Goldberg's The Bee Season… that was a surprise bestseller. It was, I thought, terrific. We contacted her, and she was polite, but she just was not interested. She said, "No, I'm not a Jewish writer." Which was an odd response because we hadn't asked her to write as a Jewish writer, just as a writer thinking about these religious texts. I was more interested in the Hare Krishna presence in her.

Peter: What she said was actually she's an atheist.

Jeff: So is Melvin Bukiet. That's by no means an obstacle to writing about this.

Why did you subtitle the book, "A Heretic's Bible"?

Peter: On one hand, just to nod to our structure, I think. To nod to that we are killing the Buddha, but we're not ignoring tradition. We are grappling with it. But why the "heretic" part of it? We have a disagreement about this sometimes, but sometimes we wonder if we're not as Americans, most Americans are heretics, just by nature of the fact that there is some element of choice, which is what heresy is all about. It comes from a word that really just means "to choose." As we were traveling across the country, most of the stories that we found were people actively engaged with their traditions, and whether or not they're going out of their way to change them, they are changing them in subtle ways to deal with their life circumstances. On the one hand, they are heretics. On the other, our contributors are actively engaging with tradition and taking it apart and re-examining it in a way that heretics do.

Jeff: Every character that we met, even the Pentecostals in North Carolina, they seem pretty straight forward, but they're heretics. [A hermaphrodite brought a gun into a Pentecostal church in North Carolina and threatened people with it. Manseau and Sharlet met with both the gunman and the church members for a chapter in KtB.] First of all, Pentecostals are a fairly new mutation. Speaking in tongues is considered by many as a heresy in itself. Even in the surprising ways they responded, their concern with this person who attacked their church, was not the same kind of homophobia, they weren't "This some kind of transsexual faggot, we hate him," they didn't care one way or the other. They were much more concerned with the state of this person's soul which was obviously damaged if they're going around shooting people and bringing a gun into churches. And that put them outside of even their own breakaway tradition. It's true that the one bigotry that's pervasive throughout American religion -- and I don't just mean Christianity, I also mean Judaism and I certainly mean Buddhism to a very strong degree as well -- is homophobia. One of the very few groups that didn't care about that were the Pentecostals.

Likewise, the more traditional heretics in [Broward County] Florida who had the gospel service to pray for the electric chair. Those were scary people.

Did you find the people you met embraced you, or were they skeptical of you?

Jeff: Those people did not embrace us.

Peter: They did not embrace us, but they put up with us for different reasons.

Jeff: I don't know why. I think in Broward County, if they had had more time to think about it, they would not have put up with us.

Peter: Often times we were not really taken seriously. When we talked to the county prosecutor in Broward County…

Jeff: He thought we were reporters, he was taking us seriously. And he was taking us seriously as reporters who were writing about religion in this context, and because the state of journalism is so low, he was fairly confident for good reason that he could manipulate the interview. And when we got into this long conversation about theology and race, you could see him start to bristle. Here was a man with political ambitions, and this was not what he wanted to talk about.

Peter: That's one place where people were suspicious of us, but they would still talk to us. Other places people were suspicious of us so much they wouldn't even talk to us. Also in Florida we tried to find a story about anti-Castro Catholics, and all the Cuban Catholics in Miami are anti-Castro, but they wouldn't talk to us at all. It's a very closed off community. Other times we just told people what we were interested in talking about and you couldn't stop them talking. We had a hard time getting out of their house.

Jeff: People really like books in that particular sense. There was so much more respect for the act of book making than you encounter in normal sort of literary circles where people actually make books. So many people viewed book making in the way they viewed teaching, which is to say this is a service you're doing. In Texas they prayed for our book.

Peter: We didn't include this in there [the Mount Vernon, Texas chapter] but we could have. At the end of one of the prayer services, after George McVay had an altar call, meant specifically for us because there were a dozen people in the church, sixteen maybe, and George was calling, "If there's anyone out there now who wants to be saved, come on up, come on up now!" Everyone else was saved. It was just us in the fourth row who hadn't been saved. We just sat there. When the church service was over, we all joined hands and prayed for the book. "Lord, I want you to bless Peter and Jeff and bless their book. Make it a good book, God, one that serves you and tells your stories the way they should be told."

Jeff: The final chapter in the book which takes place near here in Geneva, Illinois… We wanted to do a book of Revelations so we went to a strip club. It's a little box out in the middle of nowhere, and we did not expect to find much. It's a strange place, we sit down, and they have to walk around and make you buy them drinks. They ask what you do, and I guess most people say, you know, "I'm an agricultural salesman," something like that. And we said, "We're making a book about religion." And each of these women had a story. This one woman whose stories we gave the most space to was called Dina and she was very intense. She wanted to be in a book. The sort of sad part of that was she wanted to be in a book, she wanted to tell us her story that we would put in a book. But we have no way of contacting her now.

Are you sending copies to these people you met along the way?

Peter: The ones we can get in touch with we will, but others were just chance meetings.

Jeff: We're sending one to George McVay in Texas. And the stormchaser.

Peter: There's no tracking down guys like James Simpson whose bus was parked along the side of the road. We could send to church whose bus he stole.

Jeff: But we won't send it to the prosecutor. That's the one I would not want him to see this book. The lawyers make sure you don't say anything you're not allowed to say, but in a way that's the only chapter… it's not explicit in our chapters, but that's the one that says this is a bad place, these are bad people, and this is a bad religion. It was only because it was so ugly, and at the same time, it swept you up. We always thought we were going to be saved, and the closest we got was at that church. But the music was so great. It's not just good music, but the very darkness of it, one, the fact that these people are having this very complicated service celebrating the conviction of this serial killer who had killed one of their own. Two, they thought that this would bring some sort of peace to her soul. Three, to pray for the death penalty, and four, to get below the surface to basically make a deal with this white prosecutor. This was a political alliance being built, this is where voting bases are made. That's what made it so tempting to be saved. A lot of times you go to a church service or a religious service and it's simple, it is very much what it appears to be. And there were so many levels to this that were seductive and could pull you in, but then you had to realize, most of these levels are in service of a kind of religious fascist.

Have you had people coming up to you on your book tour, wanting to tell you their stories?

Peter: Yeah. We had a great interview the other day when out of the blue… Again, to return to the Yiddish, one thing that forms our understanding of the book is the fact that Yiddish anarchists back in the teens and twenties used to have these things called Yom Kippur Balls. These Yiddish anarchists, their way of showing God how much they didn't believe in him, would have these great buffets and parties on Yom Kippur. We mentioned this on a radio show and the radio host told us his story about how when he was 15, after ten years of studying with his rabbi, he celebrated Yom Kippur by going to his rabbi's grave and eating a ham sandwich. He has since matured beyond that kind of rebellion, but people hear our stories and like to come up and tell us their own.

Jeff: The woman that came up at one of the chain bookstores when they had announced [the reading] over the speaker, and she came up to me. This middle aged woman said to me, "This is serendipity. I'm a Jehovah's Witness, but I'm not anymore. Then I was an Evangelical, but I'm not anymore. So now I'm nothing, but I want to be something and I came to the bookstore to look for answers. And then I heard this!" She said she wanted to talk more afterwards, but that particular bookstore manager was no good and didn't give us any time to talk, so we never did find out what she was about to become.

Were there specific stories you went out to look for, or did you go with a blank slate?

Peter: We had some things in mind. To make the book we had proposed, we had proposed a strawman of a book, "The book might look like this." Among the ones we thought we might use that we did use were the storm chasers, we thought it would be interesting to go out and meet someone who chased tornadoes as a religious act. And the tattoos, the story of gang members of tattooing God on their body. Those we knew we were looking for, but other than that, we just traveled and the stories came along.

Jeff: Some of them like Heartland, Kansas… We had heard that paganism is the fastest growing religion in the military, and so we went there and met the woman in that story, Elowen Graywolf, the matriarch. She had been in the air force. The story ended up having little to do with paganism in the military. It was almost like every time we thought, oh, here's a set story: paganism in the military, it didn't really pan out to be anything all that interesting.

Even the cowboy Christians. That story is ultimately not about cowboy Christians, it's about this man, George McVay, and this weird intimate moment with this calf. He didn't have to be a cowboy preacher for that to be an interesting moment. The larger story of cowboy Christianity we ended up pitching to other magazines to do the standard magazine piece, it would be a giggle at Americana. It's not nearly as interesting as, I think, this story which you could never sell to a magazine because they'd say, "Look, I need to know. Is this a movement, is this a trend? Tell me how this is shaping our lives?" George McVay is not shaping our lives.

How open was your publisher to your ideas for this book?

Jeff: It was the weirdest thing. We went around to ten publishers who were all super excited about the book, and each one had a very distinct idea of what they wanted it to be, which was usually not what we wanted it to be. A lot of them wanted it to be just two guys, doing their road trip across America. And that book is contained in this, but on its own that seems to me a bit of a cliché. They didn't want us to, you know, "How will these stories go together?" Then we found Free Press, and they accepted it. There was no sort of convincing.

Peter: I think the website had a lot to do with that. So many different kinds of stories work together on the website. They just said, well, this is kind of a strange idea, but maybe they can pull it off if they did it here. Let's see if they can do it again. I think they really took a chance, and they seem happy with it.

Jeff: The editor who acquired it had a background in university press publishing. I think that gave him a little bit more intellectual freedom to sort of imagine how you could take an essay like A.L. Kennedy's piece next to a journalistic piece with our thing and segue that into a short story and so on and have them work together. He ended up leaving, and we ended up with another editor, and she, weirdly enough, had been the other editor we had making the rounds with. This person was ready to make a big offer, but she didn't because her boss did not like it or get it, but that sounds kind of... Maybe he was right. We talked for a long time, this guy was…

Peter: We had this marathon week of going around to all these publishers, pitching the book. And our most high powered, what you'd expect from a New York publishing meeting, up 40 floors, looking over Times Square in these big leather chairs…

Jeff: The marketing department comes marching in.

Peter: Eight or 10 or 12 people in the room for the pitching and the top dog sits and listens to the whole thing.

Jeff: We thought he was really into it. He had a Jesuit education.

Peter: After our most exuberant pitch, he says, "Forgive me. But it seems to me you risk incoherence." What we should have said and we didn't was, "Yes." We didn't own it. We tried to talk our way out of it. They still would have said no, but we would have gone out with a bang.

Jeff: Killing the Buddha is also to constantly be on the verge of falling down. You take a story like A L Kennedy's piece, and to me it's incredibly persuasive, and hopefully the next chapter undercuts it. And then you get to Francine [Prose] and her "Exodus," and it's always undercutting what came before it. People would ask us, "How are these stories going to work together?"

Peter: They wanted the typical call and response. "Can I get an Amen?" "Amen!" Our book is, "Can I get an Amen?" "No!" Ultimately, I think what emerges from that kind of, not quite confrontation, but certainly not always in constant agreement call and response, is a much more interesting conversation. It's not just "I think this, don't you think this, too?" It's "I think this," and the response is, "But also this."

Jeff: [The structure] is also about killing the Buddha of stories that have beginnings and middles and ends without being unreadable. I think it is [readable], but we should think of new ways to make books. It's too easy to say, "Oh, the Internet changed everything." No, it changed some things. And we can keep making traditional novels, and we should, but we should also say, "What did we learn about how stories get laid together, and how can we make new kinds of books from what we learned?"

Peter: It's easy to say the Internet changed X, but it's always been the case that with any book that comes out, a hundred people have worked on that book. That's very interesting, and it's not really thought about, but stories are being told in that way. To bring that a bit more to the surface and recognize that books by their nature are collaborate projects, I think that's a little more interesting and honest.

Jeff: Any book is a collaboration as well between the writer and the reader. This makes it a little more evident, because not only is that happening between this book and the reader, but also here we are, reading the stories we asked other people to make for this book, and we tell stories about it and tell stories about other people's lives, so that collaboration is on display. It's also herky jerky in a sense. You can tell by the way we keep cutting each other off and disagreeing with each other, we don't really like collaborations where, well, we would make a terrible basketball team. He'd be like, "I think this basket." Well, I like this one.

Well, then how did the writing process go?

Peter: It was, um, difficult. It was a lot of fighting. I think we fight with each other like we don't fight with anyone else. I fight with Jeff like I've never fought with anyone in my life. And it might not be great for friendship, but it's good for writing it turns out. Every word we wrote together was hard fought and hard won.

Jeff: Part of why we were writing this together was we said all this stuff about collaboration, but it was also partly because we both owned the idea and neither of us was going to give it up. It's the proverbial two guys going down the road and they're chained together so they've got no choice. Well, how are we going to do these stories? For a while we thought, well, you could do this chapter and I can do this chapter. Originally we thought we'd each do one chapter.

Peter: We still thought we'd do the chorus with these thirteen other writers and we thought we'd do two others among that crowd.

Jeff: But that seemed arrogant in a way, because here's all these wonderful writers whom we love, so because that seemed arrogant we developed a system by which we got even more space. So how do we do this? Well, we write in the first person, but we don't have to say who that person is. Then we decided no, we'll write in the collective first person which is a weird voice. And it really will be that, not sitting there, "What will the next word be?" One person will write out the whole story, but then I give it to Peter, and when I get it back, I don't recognize it. And it's not a note from Peter, "What about if we did this here?" It's just a file, and it comes back…

Peter: "What did you do to my story?!" And then we fight about it, but eventually, obviously, we did agree. Eventually.

Jeff: In effect, it's like when you write something and put it aside… maybe it's not done, and you come back to it. And you think, "Well, I don't remember that at all." Or "Did I write that, that's horrible!" As it happens, I didn't, he did. Finally, we were out here in Wheaton, and we had this apartment -- I was doing research for another book -- and because I was only here for a little while doing research, I just got myself an inflatable mattress, a card table, and one chair, and Peter came out because I was on a really tight schedule on this other research, and we're here working, and only one person can sit down at once. The other person would be pacing, maybe reading it out loud… it's kind of a weird process, and I think other writers should try it, but I think other writers would say, "No, I have a very individual voice." We not only have individual voices, but we each could explain in great depth and detail what's wrong with the other's.

Peter: We had a rule while we were traveling, a no highway rule. We weren't going to find any stories if we stayed on the interstate. Every time we're given a choice between a highway and a back road, it was always the back road. The result of that is we would often get very, very lost. But ultimately we would find, if not what we were looking for, something. The process of writing together was the same way. There are certainly easier ways we could have done it, I think. But we wouldn't have ended up with what I think is an interesting collaboration.

Will you be writing together again?

Peter: We both have our own projects in the works. I don't think, um…

Both: [Laughter] No.