An Interview with Mary Rakow

An Interview with Mary Rakow

Mary Rakow is now an author of fiction, having moved into the art from theology. She has a Masters from Harvard Divinity School and a PhD from Boston College. This Is Why I Came is her second novel. In it, our oneiric guide Bernadette is returning to the Church for her first confession in thirty years. She comes, she says, to join her story to the story again, to be pulled forward by a faith that once had carried her. She slips into sleep, holding her handmade book of reinvented tales from the Bible. She dreams for us these stories, and the conceit frames This Is Why I Came as both a personal quest and a second millennium book of catholic creation. Mary and I corresponded by e-mail.

I must appropriately begin with a confession. The only book of the Bible I’ve read in its entirety is Job. Certainly I’m familiar with many of the other books via a variety of means, but that’s the one I remember reading directly in connection with Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B. This was, of course, his humanist reinvention of the tale. While This Is Why I Came has its humanist — even atheistic — moments, as an adult convert to Catholicism and a theologian, you come to the project with, I would imagine, very different aims. What were those aims?

I came to “the project” as I do in everything I write, which is to try to think through and if not resolve, to at least lay out in as truthful a way as possible, issues about which I could not stop thinking. And not just thinking in an intellectual way but in a deeply emotional, plagued way. That is the only reason I write at all. To think carefully about things that are deeply, deeply both troubling to me and inescapably compelling in an urgent, existential way. My issues, my problems, my suffering, my anger, my hope, my occasional dream of the resolution of such matters. 

In The Memory Room, my first novel, I attempted to put my world, which had blown apart, onto the page so that something would exist in the world that I wanted desperately to see. Something I could not find there. The sort of label for that chaos I suppose was the question, What do we have as human beings, and what would my character Barbara have that would be strong enough for her to pit over against her very personal experience of moral atrocity. I felt if I could not assemble such forces, I would simply, as a person, obliterate. That sounds very dramatic but, sadly, it is not hyperbole.

With This is Why I Came, the life-and-deathness of it was less pronounced and instead I was throwing onto biblical characters with whom I have, since childhood felt immensely connected, the basic issues I was wrestling with in the 10 years since The Memory Room. That novel draft failed year after year, for over 10 years. I write almost full time, and had a fundamentally new draft about every 12 months, and each time it failed. This became so deeply frustrating that in 2012 I was sort of at a point of despair. And it did fail. But one of my closest readers, Garth Greenwell, while admitting that it failed, loved the 14 pages I’d written about Zaccheus, a biblical character. He could see a whole book, a slim volume of such monologues. I was very depressed, but in a few days remembered how free I felt writing that sort of random fragment. Zaccheus encountered Jesus one afternoon and from that encounter changed his life. I’d wondered what happened in all the years after that afternoon. I sulked and then thought, okay, I can do this. I set the huge manuscript in a drawer, closed down my computer, bought a black journal and black micro tipped pens, my favorite, sat on a picnic bench and started to write.

I wrote about Adam. Not because he comes early in the Bible but because I imagined him totally unable to make what he wanted to make. I imagined his frustration driving him to suicide and then his failing at that too. I loved writing it. It came straight out in a few hours that afternoon and I felt real peace afterward. I never revised it. I felt so close to Adam. I’d changed the biblical story but I didn’t care. And the story had this sort of lift at the end, where I give to Adam the creation of the word “God.” And that surprised me, and pleased me. That sort of rotation and uplift. That from all this suffering, Adam made something very beautiful, this first theological word.

Only one reader has commented on this creation of words that runs through the novel. That made me happy. It wasn’t intentional really either. It just felt right. Words that didn’t always exist but came into human thought and speech at some particular time. I just gave them to my Bible characters. It’s totally a fictive move, but so what? So I have this creation of vocabulary. Words like human and death and mercy and synagogue and the invention of color, which I give to the Noah fragment.

And I think by doing this I was sort of wooing myself back to that love of theology I felt years ago when I first encountered it at Harvard, and when I converted. I wasn’t aware of this wooing, but today I’m thinking of it. To say that this rigorous vocabulary didn’t always exist. That it is an achievement. To give it to Bible characters because it feels right, etc. To give to Cain the job of saying, of the brother he’d killed, This is “death” and we are “human.” Those insights which we take for granted now. That fastening of words onto experiences of the most fundamental kind.

It wasn’t until after Counterpoint purchased the manuscript that I realized not only was Adam me, but that I’d thrown onto these Bible characters whom I’d forgotten I loved, my own life issues. Those haunting things I’d wrestled with for over a decade.

To realize that was a surprise and humbling, but, of course, this is how art making works when it is working. When we make art and not just stuff, we are leaning into that very thing that is larger than we are. That larger thing that our work will fail. That we know our work will fail. That larger enterprise which possesses us to such an extent that we don’t care if we fail to it. We want to lean into it deeply rather than doing anything else because everything else, almost everything else, by comparison, feels trivial.

It can be a fine and subjective line between “stuff” and that larger thing of art. In working through personal existential questions one may have in one’s own life, I think of journaling and therapy. Not “stuff” per se, but perhaps in this context, yes. The difference between the made thing, the constructed artifice, and the journal entry seems like it affords the maker something other than solely throwing outside oneself what is within. As you say of The Memory Room, you were able to make of your world that which did not exist.

In the chapter “Adam the Maker,” he is attempting, if failing, to “make the form that will tell him who he is.” Is that something of what, if unconsciously, you were after with This Is Why I Came? To find the form to tell you who you are? If so, what did these stories help you find?

I don’t think of the “made thing” as artifice, in the sense of artificial or any less natural than feelings themselves. As a species, we “make” and when we make texts, for example, we are making objects of meaning. Like skyscrapers are objects of meaning. And this is as natural to us as the hive to the bee.

But there is also your word “solely” in your description of the journal entry as “solely throwing outside oneself what is within.” And I like your distinction. We have feelings and thoughts and inclinations and obsessions but then there is the shaping of those into a form, an object. And art is the two coming together. I think of Motherwell. The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 when he was only 21 years old. But he spent the rest of his life trying to give form to his feelings about it, painting over 200 canvases titled Elegy to the Spanish Republic. There were his feelings and then the depth and tenacity of his desire to give them form. And that takes as long as it takes. And we may not get there. He wasn’t sure he’d succeeded at all.

What I am after, and I think all art is after, though this word is out of favor now, is “truth.” That is the pursuit. That was Motherwell’s pursuit. He said near the end of his life, he’d made paintings that had failed. But he thought he had not made a painting that lied. This is crucial. Work that does not attempt this is of no interest to me.

What the stories helped me “find” was something true that I was looking for without really knowing. That’s when I knew they were finished. They gave me back to myself; they gave and give me a mirror in which I found myself with more clarity than before they were made. This happens when I read them today. I see myself in them. My deepest self. And now that the stories are in the world, my hope is that others will too.

Motherwell may well have been after some of the same truth which I feel you’re seeking in This Is Why I Came — a yearning for mercy, redemption, and an understanding of fallibility, among other things. His work, however, centers on a specific historical moment that has an immediate political reading. The reinvention of the Biblical stories in your work are less pinned to time. They pull up, of course, not only the period in which the Bible is said to take place but also the historical document that it is. But there are a few objects or moments that evoke the contemporary. This slippage in time and the focus on the personal and relational threw me into the individual more than the political. Do you think there’s a politics to your work?

That’s an interesting observation. However, though the event was political, it was his feelings about the event, that it not be forgotten (among other feelings), that caused him to work on the blank canvas in its honor.

There isn’t anything consciously political in my work. But once This is Why I Came started getting reactions in the world I realized that it was part of a larger conversation about belief and doubt, and a conversation about religion and violence, particularly perhaps the invoking of violence in the name of religion — all of which is exceedingly political and for the most part grievous in my thinking.

I dedicated my first Los Angeles reading to three victims of violence — Paul Celan, my brother, and Farkhunda Maliksada — and read, in their honor, the Abraham and Isaac sequence. For me the ties are exceedingly deep. So I do now see these deep resonances with the larger world.

I had imagined the Jonah story as a prophet who eventually quits because he “wanted a better God,” and this has found resonance with new atheists and agnostics — which pleases me greatly. On Good Friday it was part of the podcast in London about Evangelical Atheists, the death of God movement in theology and this pleases me. The response to the book is showing me that it is like a large family table around which people of good will who disagree can gather. It makes me very, very happy that devout Catholics, nonobservant Jews, alienated Mormons, spiritual but not religious folks, secular humanists, etc. are finding it a safe place to land. This is now my dream for this novel. To offer a locus for conversation. To model a method of freedom.

Jonah quit being a prophet, but ultimately takes the role of the modern-day confessor — the one who grounds the religion in our present. Many people who today struggle with Catholicism are struggling against an interpretation of the practice of atoning for sin as something that perpetuates self-abnegation. My mother was raised what was called “very strict Roman Catholic,” complete with nuns using rulers for knuckle rapping and other forms of punishment that were fairly severe. To read Jonah’s words here that offer quite a different opportunity for a relationship with God and to hear that devout Catholics are responding well makes me happy, too. His line, “It’s not a sin to refuse to believe in a God who’s too small,” is a door opening for modern supplicants. For yourself, were you struggling with your own faith? If so, did the writing of this book strengthen it?

This is such a loaded and real issue, I’m glad you’ve mentioned it. First, credit where it is due, the lovely line which I put into the mouth of Jonah in the twenty-first century is from Christopher Bollen’s interview with Joshua Ferris about To Rise Again at a Decent Hour in Interview magazine, May 2014. When I read that line it crystallized exactly my sense of the biblical Jonah, my sense of Bernadette, my main character who makes up all these biblical stories and is coming back to the Catholic Church after a 30-year absence, and in a sense, myself. This is an example of how writing the book gave and gives to me things I didn’t engineer. All artists know this dynamic. The work, if it is good and when it is finished, is much larger than oneself. And you encounter it as an other. And it speaks to you, as to a stranger, its good news.

The dignity, honor and the necessity of questioning has always been a true part of every major world religion. We see the grotesque when religion becomes something like pornography is to real sex. You know, unmoored from its ground, flashing around in all its hideous abuse of power, lack of compassion, lack of love, all the mess of it. The hideousness of religion becoming pornographic is even more disturbing than sex taking that turn. But this line pierced through many of the layers of real, and really creepy, unforgivable “sin” in the Church, to use a Christian word.

So in that Jonah sequence, the twenty-first-century Jonah is saying this same affirmation to his ancient biblical counterpart, to Bernadette, to me, and to any person genuinely trying to live a moral life and to reject what is not moral, and to cleave to the good. 

The first group of people I thank in the Acknowledgments are “scientists and rationalists of all persuasions who, […] by their example, show that it is more honorable to abandon an idea of a god that is too small than to honor it.” This has always been true, I think. It is in the history of the Church, though it can be eclipsed. We all know that. But it has never been denied or revoked. In other words, it is not a religious act to worship hideousness. It is not a religious act to deny the promptings of reason or of conscience. Individual moral conscience, regardless of the tidal wave of bad yet true things we see everywhere in religious institutions in our current world, is still the supreme authority. No matter what we hear or experience to the contrary, rulers slamming on knuckles of children and all the rest of the pageant of hideousness this affirmation holds. It is ancient. It is real and true and absolute and noble. It alone is a great human achievement. And many, many people across all modes of understanding have given their lives for this principle. In the Catholic Christian tradition, we call them martyrs. We give them one of the liturgical colors. When we honor them, the altar and the celebrant wear red, their color, the color of their blood.

Do you feel that there is a sacrificial aspect to the work of the writer?

There is a sacrificial aspect to the work of a writer, definitely. One can work for years with nothing to show. One works in solitude in this invisible world, trying to fasten words to it. You resist doing tons of things that are practical and charitable so that you have this discipline that the writing life requires, but you always know that if you worked in the soup kitchen in the Tenderloin every day, you’d for sure be helping another person and maybe many. And you never ever know that about writing. This is true of many fields, this not knowing. Mathematicians live in that space, all the theoretical scientists do, all real artists do, composers. But if you finally find the kind of work toward which you are most deeply drawn then you can sacrifice without resentment most or all of the time. Sacrifice is part of the prayerfulness of doing the work whether one is raising a child or building boats, or working toward a mathematical result, or working with the mentally ill, designing opera houses or working in a liquor store. It’s all the same.

But the more personal thing I want to share is this experience: I was walking along the Venice lagoon in the bright sun when, to my right, about 100 yards away, I noticed a woman sitting on the ground, her back against the wall of the Doge’s Palace. St. Mark’s Square was crowded. It was Holy Week, lots of tourists, but no one walked anywhere near her, which was odd. Then I noticed that, though she was white, half her face was black. I was struck how the sun’s shadow ran exactly down her face, vertically dividing it in half, left and right. I walked toward her to put money in her cup when I realized that there were no shadows anywhere else. It was the middle of the day. The sun directly overhead. I kept walking and thought the one side of her face must then be a very severe birthmark. A horrible deformity. This made me nervous but I kept walking. Then, closer, I stopped because it wasn’t a birthmark at all. It was hair. And it didn’t even look like hair. It looked like fur. It was coarse and straight and black all running down her face, each hair pointing toward her chin, so dense her skin couldn’t be seen at all. And I realized that was why no one approached her. It was really, really scary to me. But I kept walking, shaking, holding the euros in my hand. I decided I would make myself touch her. I would put the money in her hand not her cup. I would remember that she was a woman just like me. I was inches away. I thought of the fur of a bear. It was scarier than anything I’d ever seen in real life. I bent down. She looked up. Her right eye was barely visible through the curtain of black hairs. There was a very small piece of time. I put the euros in her hand. She looked down at them. I turned and walked away. I’d taken a few steps when I heard words I did not say to myself. Yet they rose up inside myself. A voice inside me but also addressing me, saying, “You have just seen the face of God.”

I was glad for my sunglasses. Tears came anyway. I wanted to be alone. It was like a piercing, the truth of it. The crowds, cafe tables, pigeons, kids running around, St. Mark’s, the water, the bright sun, all of it just hushed, just background. Because something had flung itself open in me. Something profound and authoritative and unnameable.

As writers, many things help. Friends, solitude, health, a vocabulary, a desire. But the most important thing is courage. So that we move, step by step, toward what frightens us. Toward that moment or relationship or betrayal or failing that is the pain we alone carry. We must move toward it and we must touch it. We must do our work there. And when we do, and when that time comes when we can turn and walk away with the manuscript pages in our arms, we might have made something that can touch another person. We won’t know. We might even have made something that is holy. Because the sacred is found in the ordinary. If we are brave enough to move toward it. If we are brave enough to move toward it even when it seems most absent.

Cara Benson is a writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, Boston Review, Best American Poetry, and The Brooklyn Rail. She is at work on her second book.