July 2007

Sarah Woehler Michaud

features

An Interview with Ron Currie Jr

After years working as a cook in various restaurants and writing when he was not in the kitchen, Ron Currie began his career publishing short stories in such magazines as Glimmer Train, InPosse Review, The Sun, The Southeast Review, Night Train, and Harpour Palate

His first novel-in-stories, God Is Dead, will be released by Viking in early July 2007.  With a book so aptly named, God appears in the African desert as a Dinka woman and dies, only to later be eaten by a pack of wild dogs.  The novel-in-stories is a fictional presentation of various experiences of individuals and their new-found life without God.

There is a naiveté on behalf of the author that is both refreshing and shocking, in part because he has attempted to do what many other writers are afraid to do – take on a highly controversial concept which catapults into other smaller but equally brazen themes, and rig them into a series of tightly spun stories that are all but trite, tame, and modest.  

Ron Currie and I met at a dingy bar in his home town of Waterville, Maine where we dined on beer and rum and pizza. 


What compelled you to write a book such as God Is Dead?  If I can recall, there is a very famous philosopher who coined the term.

The simple and probably most honest answer is that it was what I needed to be writing at the time. Which sounds sort of mystical, and consequently a little suspect, but it’s true. I was at a point in my growth as a writer where I was really exulting in the absolute freedom that fiction (as opposed to reportage or creative nonfiction) allows. My brain was popping with all these crazy, improbable ideas, and I had a blast trying to string them all together in the same book. I wanted to recreate the experience of wanting to read a book over and over. And of course Nietzsche said famously “God is dead,” but my book is much more in the spirit of a line from The Brothers Karamazov: “If God is dead, then everything is permitted.” Now that’s a fun premise to work from.

How has the path you’ve taken led you to where you stand today?

Completely by accident. Okay, no, that’s not entirely true. But there were definitely substantial detours. After high school I spent only a semester in undergrad studies, then came home and floundered about for a while, drinking a lot and not thinking too much about anything, least of all my future. It’s easy to do in your early twenties, I guess, with your life stretching to the horizon and beyond. 

I worked and traveled a bit. At first I worked crap jobs because I was sort of lazy and without much ambition. As I got more serious about writing I continued working crap jobs to protect my writing time and energy. Though I never believed I’d have a chance to call my writing a career, in the sense of making a living from writing fiction. I think I had some vague idea of parlaying good publishing credits into a teaching job somewhere, kind of circumventing my lack of credentials.   

How easy was it to begin writing God Is Dead as opposed to the quasi-erotic piece,“If Natalie Portman Were My Girlfriend”?

I can’t really say that either was more or less difficult. It’s all about whatever gets me excited at the time. I couldn’t write either “Natalie Portman” or God is Dead now, because they’re not where I am as a writer at the moment. And this is part of the fun -- I don’t know what I’ll be interested in writing from day to day. Which makes sustaining a full-length project difficult, sometimes, but I’m learning how to deal with that, too. I hope.

In her book The Forest for the Trees, former editor Betsy Lerner alleges that “[f]or most people the first book is about the family, if only metaphorically, and it must be conquered as surely as the walls at Jericho.” Do you find this to be true of God Is Dead?

Frankly, no. There are parts of the book that take on familial relationships, especially those between parents and children, but that doesn’t to my mind make it “about” the family. Not even metaphorically. That said, “the family” is an element of the big topics that the book is about: God. War. Morality both within and without the concept of a watchful Creator. Our capacity as human beings for tremendous love, tremendous evil, tremendous hypocrisy. Our shitty track record as stewards of this planet.  These themes play themselves out within families every day all over the world. But I’m not sure I’ve answered your question. Let me try again: to make sweeping generalizations like “for most people the first book is about the family” probably isn’t wise, even if long experience has shown you that it’s true. And in my case, it’s the second book that is about the family. Among other things.

Given your traditional Catholic upbringing, do you feel you’ve been granted a certain license to write so controversially about God and religion? Philip Roth takes a similar, though more autobiographical route, in his book, The Facts. How have you prepared yourself for the kind of flack you will likely receive from Catholics, Evangelicals, and possibly Muslims?

I think the only license one needs to write about anything is simply the courage to do it, along with probably a good dose of ignorance regarding the way that others will react to what you’ve written. It never occurred to me that anyone would be upset by God Is Dead until some trusted draft-readers brought it up in one way or another. Even now, a couple months out from publication, I find it hard to believe that anyone will be pissed off about my little book. If they are, though, all the better -- both because I’ve hit my target, and because the book is getting attention. I think as writers we’re like maladjusted children in the sense that we don’t care if the attention is positive or negative, so long as it’s pointed in our direction.

The answer to the second question is, I haven’t prepared myself. I’m not sure you can. It strikes me as something one learns on the fly, so to speak.    

What is your personal take on religion now?

I’m not exactly sure how to answer that. I am not myself religious in any sense. I’m an atheist. Despite these things, though, I still experience strong spiritual yearnings, like most people, I think. I haven’t figured out how to satisfy them, and I doubt that I will unless I decide at some point that there is, after all, a God. I just hope I don’t end up one of those late-life foxhole converts. I want quite desperately to have the courage of my convictions, for once. 

Despite the fact that the book may seem to many an anti-religious piece of work, it contains an ironic glimmer of spirituality, not necessarily God-driven, but there is a weight in the narrative that has a rippling effect, a shiver-crawling-up-your-spine feeling. Was that your intent?

I don’t know if you’d call it intent. Maybe the inevitable consequence of the spiritual yearnings I mentioned a moment ago. And really, even though I aimed to be funny, I certainly didn’t want the book to be a 200-page punchline. This is a serious story, I hope. And one of its serious themes is the daily spiritual struggle that most people, the faithful and faithless alike, work through and try to make sense of.   

Your book takes the reader all around the world and it seems so effortless on your part, almost as if you’ve been a habitant of the regions of Sudan, Mexico, Maine, Hawaii, and London.  What made you want to take that risk?

It seemed necessary to the success of the book. America doesn’t have a monopoly on God, though we and plenty of others often behave as if we do. So a book about the death of God is by its nature, and at the very least, global in scope. But I should say also that creating settings in far-flung places I’m either barely acquainted with or else have never seen at all is just another part of the fun, for me. It’s another way to open things up, make everything possible.

Are you concerned about how readers, and possibly the man himself, will react to your portrayal of Colin Powell? There is no pseudo-mask shielding his identity, rather it’s Colin Powell in the richness of a fiction setting.

Well it’s not really Colin Powell, of course. It’s a fictional character named Colin Powell who shares a lot in common with the real-life person, including, in this case, being Secretary of State. That sounds like bullshit, probably, but it’s very true. Think of it this way: I don’t believe for a second that in private Powell speaks like a street pimp, and, sadly, during his time as Secretary he never openly defied the administrationIn God Is Dead “Colin Powell” does both these things. But having said that, yeah, I am a little concerned. Though to me Powell is portrayed in what ultimately is a very positive light.   

There is a chapter in your book that is based on child worship. The narrator suggests that before God died, “America was already teetering on the verge of child worship.” Do you find that to be true in the nonfiction version of America?

Oh, sure. There are times when I think I’m probably not allowed to comment on this, at least not directly, because I don’t have kids of my own, and who knows, if I did I’d probably be the most indulgent, pushover Dad in the history of dads. Wouldn’t surprise me at all.

But yeah, we do seem obsessed with our children, sometimes to the point of insanity. All this obsessive concern for their safety: Kids riding bikes in full-body Kevlar; everything coated with antibacterial chemicals. The tremendous web of structured activity that has effectively eliminated the hours of unsupervised play we got every day between when school let out and when dinner was served. The sudden conviction that the country’s been overrun with unprecedented numbers of child molesters. 

As a writer, what impels you more: ideas, plot, or characters?

I’m an idea guy. Ideas are what excite me. I’ve usually got an eye turned to the necessity of plot, insofar as it serves what I’m trying to accomplish. As far as characters, I think I read somewhere that Nabokov referred to his as galley slaves. 

Do you think God Is Dead will in some minute way make the world a better place?

I’d like to think that’s the case, because it would make me feel better about my general lack of anything resembling political or social activism. Apathy, I think is the word. But I’m not foolish enough to believe that my little book will have any effect on the world. The only effect I’d like for it to have (and this is no modest hope, either) is to duplicate for others the immersion I get when reading the best fiction, the ah-ha moment, the feeling of being improved by something I’ve read.