By: Adam al-Sirgany, M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the UA, Class of 2015
Fenton Johnson, a professor in the UA Department of English in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, will be appearing at the Tucson Festival of Books (Saturday, March 12th, 2016) where he will be discussing the history and development of LGBTQ literature and publishing (1:00 p.m. in the Social and Behavioral Sciences tent) and will be giving a reading from his novels (4:00 p.m. in the Integrated Learning Center, Room 137).
Johnson was born the youngest of nine children into a Kentucky whiskey-making family of storytellers. His latest books are The Man Who Loved Birds, whose writing was supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, and which will be published by the University Press of Kentucky in March 2016. In an unprecedented commitment to a Kentucky native, University Press of Kentucky will reissue his previous novels Crossing the River and Scissors, Paper, Rock in conjunction with the publication of The Man Who Loved Birds. Scissors was nominated for the San Francisco Bay Area Book Reviewers Award and the Boston Review Fisk Award for best fiction.
Johnson is also the author of Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks, which addresses what it means to a skeptic to have and to keep faith. Keeping Faith received a Lambda Literary Award for best gay/lesbian nonfiction as well as a Kentucky Literary Award for creative nonfiction / outstanding literary achievement.
His Geography of the Heart: A Memoir received the American Library Association and Lambda Literary Awards for best gay nonfiction. Harper’s Magazine featured Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude as its cover essay / Folio of the April 2015 issue. Going It Alone will be published in book-length form by W.W. Norton in 2018. He has published essays and literary journalism in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and a wide range of newspapers and magazines on issues involving social justice, faith and spirituality, environmentalism, and human rights. Sarabande Press will publish his New and Selected Essays in 2017.
Johnson has also received National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowships in fiction and creative nonfiction, an Arizona Arts Council award, a Stegner Fellowship in fiction from Stanford University, and a Michener Fellowship from the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Johnson has an active career in writing narration for independent media, including radio, documentaries, and personal films. He has contributed commentaries to National Public Radio and wrote the narration for award-winning documentaries, among them Lourdes Portillo’s La Ofrenda: Days of the Dead and the southeast Appalachian cultural center Appalshop’s Stranger with a Camera, recipient of a Columbia DuPont Award in journalism and best documentary at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.
Johnson has taught in the creative writing programs at San Francisco State University, Columbia University, New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of California-Davis. Currently he is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona and serves on the faculty of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA Program.
This is an exciting time for you—or if not for you, at least for fans of your work—your first two novels, Crossing the River and Scissors, Paper, Rock are being simultaneously reissued with the release of your third novel, The Man Who Loved Birds (all by the University Press of Kentucky). Silas House (Same Sun Here and Eli the Good) and Pam Houston (Contents May Have Shifted and Cowboys are My Weakness) write new introductions to the reprints that are very attentive and loving. Would you mind speaking a little bit about the place you’re in as a person and as a writer and how all this—I’d say—deserved and revitalized attention feels?
Well, a writer’s—every life is a mysterious journey. A writer’s life is a particularly mysterious journey. I like to believe that if somebody got a master’s in accounting you could sort of predict their career. But every writer’s story is different. It’s really surfing the wave.
Scissors was a book that ought to have gotten more attention when it came out. I’m probably not the right person to say that, but it’s generally agreed that that’s true. It’s a concatenation of circumstances, one of which was—and this will be true for The Man Who Loved Birds—the great reluctance of the current publishing moment to read about rural life in any way shape or form. It’s almost impossible to get fiction published these days that’s not set in Los Angeles or New York. And that bespeaks the larger question of the lack of imagination that’s afoot in the culture as a whole, I think, and our unwillingness to project ourselves into unfamiliar environments—as agribusiness has taken over, as there are fewer and fewer farmers, as we don’t want to know where our food is coming from and what happens to it on the way, as we relegate our vice to rural areas. One of the background stories of The Man Who Loved Birds is the way we relegate drug transportation to rural areas.
Having said all that, I’m not going to complain about being one of the luckiest people on the planet. I have always written what I’ve wanted to write when I wanted to write it. I have a small measure of prosperity, great students. Why this particular moment? I don’t know how interesting this is to the general reader, but interest in reading in general and interest in fiction in particular seems to me to be dropping off. It’s always been hard to publish fiction. I don’t want to pretend otherwise. But this particular moment, the Net is changing the landscape. It’s changing our whole notion of intellectual property, of writer’s rights, of artist’s rights. This is not the place to get in a long discussion of the minuses and pluses of that happening, but it’s a particularly hard time to publish fiction.
I think one thing that it invokes for me is that at the time of the publication of Scissors, which was the first novel to my knowledge to deal with AIDS in a rural setting and one of the first novels to deal with gay relationships in a rural setting, no one south of the Ohio would acknowledge that book. Well, it was acknowledged with some reluctance in Kentucky, which is the farthest north and the most urban, in a sense, of those states—Louisville, you know, and Lexington. But it’s gratifying to me to see that the home state press is publishing it and publishing this new book because I feel like I played some role in moving that agenda forward.
In your work as a whole and across your novels, places are iterated and reiterated. Time and again, we encounter San Francisco of the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, time and again your home country, the Kentucky Knobs. What is it about these places and these times that brings you back?
I’ve always been deeply affected by place. When I arrived in San Francisco at 17 years old, I did not know how to order from a menu, how to use a pay telephone, how to use a bus. I was really a country boy. I had almost never been outside of Nelson County, Kentucky, population 20,000. I was 17 and the country was in chaos. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a real sense that revolution was just around the corner and that anarchy was the other side of it. So it would make sense that I would be deeply affected by that landscape I hadn’t really been outside of until I was 17 years old.
And then I went to San Francisco, which was like ground zero for that revolution. That was enough for a lifetime. You know, Flannery O’Connor says anyone who survived adolescence has enough to write about for a lifetime.
I would like to write about Southern Arizona. It’s such an extraordinary landscape and culture, but so many people seem to be doing it so well, and I have my hands full with those two rich places. And one of my subjects is memory. The [Trappist] monks have a notion of formation: you’re formed by the decisions you make and the environments that you live in by a certain point. Well, those two places formed me—rural Kentucky, Northern California.
To take that thought into the forms of fiction, in your novels there are repetitions of names, families, places, and people. This latest book, The Man Who Loved Birds, as well as your first novel, Crossing the River, feature characters—shall we say—“betraying their vows” at the Miracle Inn. This extended relationship to an imagined community seems to me to be a trait not unique to but preferenced by Southern writers—I’m thinking of locations and families and in Eudora Welty and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. What do you think these extended fictional relationships do for Southern writers particularly? What do they do for you?
I was born with architecture. I was born within an architecture. It gives me a language and a genealogy in which to work.
It’s always really fun for a writer to encounter people who love the language, even if they may not know that they love the language. And those people are almost always people with accents. It doesn’t matter if they’re from the hollers in Eastern ‘tucky or the South Bronx. There are people who enjoy the process of shaping music with their mouths.
I grew up with that. It was a terrible burden when I came to Stanford on a whiskey scholarship. I was mercilessly mocked. I finally learned there was both a certain pleasure and advantage in it. I would open my mouth and people would think I was really stupid, and then I could take advantage of them. I had a friend, my debate partner in high school. I was interviewing her to get some background for the trial scene in The Man Who Loved Birds and she’s argued cases before the Supreme Court. She said, “You know, you walk into a court room and people see a woman who is fat and talks with an accent and they think you’re really stupid. I’ve won many cases through taking advantage of that prejudice.”
I think the main thing is that notion of a genealogy and a language, and I think every writer has to go somewhere to get their language—your tongue within the tongue.
There are a lot of variations on how language is used in The Man Who Loved Birds. One of the most distinguished accents you have going on is that of Johnny Faye, a young marijuana grower, whose story is based loosely on the 1971 murder of Charlie Stiles, a bootlegger from Marion County Kentucky. Johnny Faye is part Jesus, part James Dean. Not only for the connection to joint smoking, I think I read a hint of Ken Kesey in him. You say in another interview, he, like all your characters, is a version of yourself, and those who follow your publications will recognize similarities between you and your family and those people who populate your novels. Can you talk a little about the ways in which you form your characters? Do they come from language? Do they come from the facts of your genealogy?
In some sense I began [The Man Who Loved Birds] in 1971, but I literally began it around 2004. And isn’t it sad and interesting that immigration policy, draconian drug laws, and police violence, which are the three issues, the kind of milieu in which the book takes place, are all still with us. Not really much has changed. Drug laws have changed a little bit, but not much.
I was 17 in 1971 and about to set out on the great adventure of my life. September of ’71, the state police set up Charlie Stiles and shot him in a cornfield. The guy who shot Charlie Stiles was eventually promoted up to the head of the state’s drug agency and ultimately had to take a plea bargain when he was caught dealing coke. It’s so fantastically improbable. Everybody’s life is improbable. One of the great things about writing is that you get to stand back in silence and solitude and look at the improbability of your own life. You really realize what a miracle it is.
The town I grew up in hadn’t had a doctor for several years, and right about that time we got one. She was a Muslim immigrant. And I thought, What must it be like to be a female, Muslim, immigrant in rural Kentucky? My town had one Protestant family in it, and we “knew” the Protestants were Communists because they didn’t have kids. Ten kids was an average size family; my family had nine.
We all knew what had happened. That the police could take this man out and assassinate him, murder him, and that the community would acquiesce in silence was really, in my idealistic 17 year-old eyes, shocking. It’s still shocking to me. It’s just shocking in a different way.
I think that I decided in 1971 I was going to write a book about that. It just had to gestate all those years. I’m not going to compare my writing to E.M. Forster’s, but he’s an influence. In A Passage to India each of Forster’s primary characters comes from a different religious background—Christian, Muslim, Hindu. That book is, among other things, an exploration of those ways of being in the world. I grew up in a county that was 94% Catholic and across the river was a community that was 94% Protestant, and the two steadfastly didn’t acknowledge each other, except that the Protestants came across the river to buy booze because their county was dry. In my first novel, Crossing the River, I started exploring that and that ultimately led to my exploring it in a more sophisticated way in The Man Who Loved Birds, where you have a Christian monk and a Hindu immigrant doctor and a nonbeliever Vietnam vet who happens to be modeled on Jesus.
Joyce says all fiction is autobiographical. My first feature piece in The New York Times Magazine was on a marijuana growing ring that had sprung up in Southern Kentucky. It was a really tense time because in 1987 people would literally grow an acre of pot along the side of the road. They’d go into state court and get fined 500 dollars and the judge would say, “Next year put that acre a little farther back, close to the woods.” And then the draconian Reagan drug laws went into effect, and the next year that person would have his land confiscated, would get 21 years in prison without possibility of parole, would get ruined, you know, for life. I walked right into the middle of that. I didn’t know. I just started asking questions. Snatches of the dialogue in The Man Who Loved Birds come from the interviews I conducted for that article. The only reason I was allowed to talk to those people was that my father had made whiskey. If you start digging around, all of our lives have those stories. But if in that small world the connections are so close and so tight and so intimate and they almost always involve genealogy.
I’m glad you bring up Forster. Readers won’t see this—though if they come to the Tucson Festival of Books to meet you, it will be hard to miss—but you’re a very erudite presence: lean, handsome, well-kempt in a Southern gentleman meets science teacher kind of way. Your writing is now and from your first publications has always been very neatly structured—I think a lot of E.M. Forster when I read you. For all that formalism and erudition, I have to say, your novels, in particular this latest novel, can be surprisingly graphic and stunningly honest. We see moment by moment the details of growing marijuana, of sexual intercourse, of an abused asthmatic child’s bruises and his harrowing intubation procedure. We follow a female Bengali doctor’s struggle to fit into a rural Kentucky community and witness a monk’s revelation of his own homosexual desires. Can speak to the ways formalism and the informal facts of life operate for you and in your wok?
My father was a craftsman. Let’s go formally ostensibly as far as one could in the other direction, let’s say abstract painting. When I first encountered it, I didn’t get abstract painting, I mean really get abstract painting. I could look at a Kandinsky or a Pollock and I would say, “Oh those are pretty colors…” or whatever. And then I went to a retrospective of Pollock’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and it opened with a film, [Jackson Pollock by Hans Namuth]. The film was made shortly before Pollock died, and it was about ten minutes. In the film, the canvas is large and it’s laid out on the ground, and you see Pollock dancing around the canvas and throwing paint on the canvas, and I realized every step is choreographed, that he was a choreographer who carefully worked. He had made dozens, hundreds of those paintings in order to dance around that canvas and achieve an intersection—which I think is what every artist wants to achieve—between intuition and reason. Something that comes from the heart and something that comes from the head. He had chosen all the colors he was going to use, all that, but the dancing around the canvas is simultaneously random and orchestrated. And I got what he was doing. Each one of those paintings is a dance that is frozen in time.
One wants to achieve in one’s writing—and it’s really hard in writing: writing is such an abstract form—that intersection between what we choose and what chooses us. As I say, my father was a craftsman. We had an extremely difficult relationship: I was the youngest, gay son. He was a man of his time. Speaking of genealogical things, my great grandfather fought in the Civil War; he was on the Union side. I’m sort of like Allan Gurganus’ Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. I am far too young to have a great grandfather who fought in the Civil War, but I am the youngest of my generation, my father was the oldest of his generation, his father was the youngest of his generation, so there is this oldest-youngest rhythm that brings me to have had a great grandfather who was Union soldier. My grandfather, whom I never met, was the ninth of nine boys. Anyway, my father was a 19th-Century man, and of course I was far too young to understand that.
So we fought—a lot. He beat me. Not often, but I didn’t require it often to have it deeply affect me. You know, that’s where that scene [where the boy is intubated comes from]. I think it’s a challenge for that novel because it’s a very hard scene to read. For women in particular, who buy seventy-five percent of the fiction which is bought, because they have more imaginative power, they cultivate imagination, which is always true of the oppressed. They cultivate and live in their imaginations—thank God. I think it’s a hard scene, but, you know, these things happen.
I wanted a character who was androgynous. I wanted the main character to be a subversive force. As a gay man, not surprisingly, desire has been a subject of mine through all three novels. I wanted Johnny Faye to be someone who was fluidly bisexual. I love Don Giovanni. It’s a great opera. And I wanted Johnny Faye to be a kind of Don Juan. So he had to be named Johnny—Giovanni. And I was looking for an androgynous name. It’s not uncommon in that part of the world I grew up in. At first he was called Shirley. Then I came up with Faye—I’d known a man named Faye. I felt really stupid that it wasn’t until probably two years into choosing that name that I first realized it has a lot of wonderful implications—gay, effeminate. And it’s sort of my name. You know, John Fenton Johnson.
I’d like to take that a step further. For someone who sees his characters as versions of himself, there are not only a great many characters in your novels but you demonstrate a wide variety of ways of being, some of which are unpleasant. I’m thinking of Raphael from Scissors, Paper, Rock, which won both the Stonewall Book Award and the Lambda Prize for Gay Men’s Fiction. Raphael might be the character of yours who shares the most similarities to you personally—youngest of a large family from the Kentucky Knobs. Unlike you he acquires HIV/AIDS and dies from it in 1991. That’s a horrific space to put yourself into. I’m reminded too of a moment in your 2003 work of non-fiction Keeping Faith, also a Lambda Award winner, wherein a gay Catholic monk challenges your concern with being gay as the identity among the many identities a person has and could focus on. Could you speak to fiction’s role in exploring those questions?
I had to go back and reread Scissors, Paper, Rock. It was generated before computers, so the whole thing was reentered for the reprint. I had to copy edit and proofread very carefully. I hadn’t read the book in twenty years probably. I was really struck by how much death was in that novel. But, you know, I was living in San Francisco and everybody was dying. And the fact that I was not HIV-positive probably had a lot to do with my Catholicism. It’s part of my complicated relationship to Catholicism. I exercised a lot more sense about my sexual life than all of my friends who are dead.
There was a period of four or five years—’83-’87—when there was absolutely nothing to be done for the disease. At first there was no test for it. You didn’t know whether you were positive or negative. And I could have been positive. I had certainly engaged, though not to the extent of my friends, in behaviors that put me at risk. Then everybody was dying. I’ve got a collection of new and selected essays coming out next year on Sarabande Books [Notes from an Emigrant Son, May 2017], and I was revisiting that manuscript and realized I can’t assume younger people understand what that world was like. In ’82-’83, ’83-’84 everybody died pretty fast. People would go into the hospital and ten days later they’d be dead. Then doctors figured out how to keep people alive. What happened then were the opportunistic infections—the body became a vast petri dish. Things would crop up, really awful things: insanity, blindness, complete incontinence, of course, sores all over the body: that was ’86-’87, and still there was nothing to be done. Scissors was being written across those years.
I also grew up in a small town with large families and the two basic social engagements that you went to were weddings and funerals. And I went to a lot of them. I remember going to Stanford and discovering to my astonishment that not everyone had been to a funeral. It was one of those questions you asked when you were sitting around the hall of the dorm comparing lives, and I began to understand that my life was not exactly like very many people’s lives. Prior to that I thought, Of course everyone grew up with Trappist monks sitting at the dinner table. Of course everybody grew up visiting dead bodies routinely. I was one of only a handful of people in my freshman dorm room who had ever been to a funeral and I couldn’t count the number of funerals I had been to by the time I was sixteen years old. I don’t know—thirty, forty, fifty? It was just something you did.
Anyway, the late ‘80s, those were years. In the late ‘80s scientists told us that around 50% percent of the gay men of my generation would die and I would say, based on my experience, that that figure is accurate. In San Francisco the figure was much higher. It’s my version of war stories I suppose. Guys sit around and talk about war stories.
I did, once I figured out that I was HIV-negative, which happened in the middle of writing Scissors, give my partner who died of AIDS the long family chapter at the heart of the book. It was the last thing of mine he read. I said, I think the largest gap that exists—larger than race, larger than gender, larger than sexual identity, larger than religion—is the gap between the well and the sick. I asked him if he would read that chapter to see if I captured what it was like to live on the planet of the ill, the planet of the dying. And he read it and he said, “You got it.” So…
You say that San Francisco in the ‘80s is your version of war stories. Though they act often as mental backdrops, it’s hard to miss that your reissued novels both engage the late days of the Second World War, that your characters across your work are deeply influenced by the American war in Vietnam. It’s hard to think the Man Who Loved Birds’ placement in the Reagan era doesn’t relate to your writings on the political misappropriation of William James’ phrase “The War on Poverty.”
In The Man Who Loved Birds, all three of the main characters are where they are because of war. I didn’t realize that until I was two-thirds of the way into writing it. Johnny Faye is a Vietnam vet. Meena Chatterjee fled the 1971 war where Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan and established its independence, which was an incredibly brutal war about which we Americans know virtually nothing and which I learned about when I was in Calcutta doing research for this book. And Flavian is in the monastery because he was a draft dodger.
I was just back in Kentucky, and I spend a lot of time over at the Abbey [of Gethsemani] when I’m there. I was spending time with a monk friend of mine. He had gotten together these two guys, both of whom were ex-Marines: one of whom was a Vietnam vet and the other whom was an Iraq and Bosnia vet. And they got into war stories. I was interviewing them for a piece I’m doing for Harper’s on the subject of vows and considering the question of whether a Marine who had taken an oath had taken the same thing as a vow. That was how the interview began. Anyway, they got into war stories, and I began to think, Why can’t we have some peace stories?
You know [William] James says until we find a peace narrative that matches the romance of war we’re always going to be a belligerent people. That’s true of everybody. So how can we match the romance of war? I’d say that ritualized monasticism does a pretty good job. It has a ritual, it has beauty, it has a narrative line—all of which war, in one way or another in some way, has.
The Vietnam vet—he’d gone to Harvard on an ROTC scholarship, was a commander because he’d gone to Harvard, was in a battle one day where out of 256 of his men 158 were killed—witnessed a commander who had a man who wouldn’t fall in line. This other soldiersaid, “Fuck you.” And the commander pulled out a gun and shot him. He was never tried; there were no consequences for that murder. You know, that guy, the Vietnam vet with the ROTC scholarship, is wounded for life. You talk to him for a few minutes and you realize that it is impossible for him to transcend that experience.
You know all those stories, now, you don’t see that stuff on television because the television is so sanitized. In the late 1960s, all that stuff was coming right into the living room. The blood, the gore, the burning children, the horror was coming in your living room every night. The Army learned its lesson. It doesn’t allow that to happen anymore. But that was the source of the tension. I thought I would dedicate my life to telling peace stories. I don’t know whether I’ve been successful in that, but that was the shaping force.
You once told me something to the effect of, “To write a good sentence, pick a meaty verb and see how long you can sustain the sentence.” As a writer you clearly live by that creed. That speaks, I believe to the efficacy of action in your works, that you are concerned above all with what your characters do. Does that relate to this motivation to write peace stories?
I like that idea. It’s never occurred to me. If, indeed, what you say is true, that I have taught myself to find good verbs, then that is something I have taught myself by reading good writers and trying to do what they did.
I think every successful narrative work has to have movement in some way or another. One way I illustrate that point with my undergraduate students is by asking them, “Why is that the case?” And we talk about that for a bit. And I say, “One reason every successful narrative work needs movement is that at the end of reading your story I will be a half hour closer to my death than I was at the beginning.” They sit up and pay attention. Inarguably true: everything else has changed. Your story has to participate in that world of flux.
What’s interesting about writing is that it exists in this paradox. It’s the medium of permanency—famously so—especially in the 16th, 17th 18th century. Shakespeare writes a sonnet. Our love is going to last forever because I’m writing this sonnet. You’re going to live forever in this sonnet. Writing is our best effort at fixing our lives in time and memory, and yet, at the same time, it takes place within a world of constant flux. Quantum physics is telling us what writing taught me a long time ago: all moments are present to this moment.
Memory and desire. One of the things I write in this collection of essays I’m working on is that my writing is a lot smarter than I am. I’m constantly learning things, and one of the things I’ve learned is that we live at the intersection of desire and memory. Desire is the future and memory is the past.
I don’t know whether my writing is successful or not—it’s not for me to make that judgement. But it’s not an accident that the working metaphor for the relationship between the monk and the marijuana grower, the monk and the soldier in The Man Who Loved Birds is the monk teaching the soldier how to write. I want that book to be about and I have from the beginning wanted it to be about teaching and learning as the ultimate erotic act. Flavian teaches Johnny Faye how to write his name and Johnny Faye teaches Flavian how to make love.
Flannery O’Connor says that every work of fiction should have a surprise for the writer because if it doesn’t it isn’t going to have a surprise for the reader. I knew that the police were going to murder Johnny Faye. I want to believe that the reader knows that from the beginning. Where else can this go? At some point very early on I hope the reader knows that’s coming and waits for it with, I hope, a building sense of dread. I didn’t know the way this would come to pass. That was a total surprise to me. I thought, How are we gonna to do this? How are we gonna do this? Then I thought, Oh yeah, he’s going to write his name.
I told a friend the basic plot line once I’d figured it out. She’s an educator, and she told me, “You can’t write a book where the act of learning to read causes somebody’s death.” I understand that, but I thought, The first act of technology is someone putting a stick in the ground and putting a seed in the hole it made. Writing was close behind. A lot of what we’re doing right now is sorting through the dark side of technology. You know we wouldn’t have automobiles except for writing. And, of course, all this is on some level about the writer’s own complicated relationship to writing, the inevitable love-hate relationship that we have with this thing that we do.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Johnny Faye is a somewhat Christ-like figure. There is something beautiful and unnerving about a narrative that begins and ends with the Word, so to speak.
Well, it happened to Jesus. And it’s about betrayal. Betrayal can be unnerving. Henry James does the same thing in, of all places, The Golden Bowl. In it, you see a really wealthy woman betray her husband by kissing him on the cheek.
What happens to Meena and Flavian at the end and, most importantly, to Matthew Mark, I don’t know. I tried writing that. A reviewer, a good reviewer, wrote that she wanted three more chapters at the end of The Man Who Loved Birds. She wanted to know what happened after the end. But I don’t yet know what happens next.
I understand you’re working on expanding your Harper’s Magazine cover story “Going it Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude” into a book-length meditation on this topic, and I’ve been thinking about how the three main characters in The Man Who Loved Birds live and work in ways that are solitary. I wonder if you wouldn’t talk a little bit about solitude and what it is for you in your work and your practice.
All three characters—Meena Chatterjee, Brother Flavian, Johnny Faye—are solitaries in their ways. I say in that last Harper’s piece that I grew up in a kind of medieval environment. Chaucer wouldn’t have recognized the internal combustion engine, but he would have found in the town and in the monastery a lot of the characters that populate The Canterbury Tales. Of the four male children in my family, I am the one who has developed and maintained a close relationship with the monks. There are fewer and fewer monks these days. They are dying out, literally dying out. It concerns me a great deal. I’m pained at the thought.
This ancient mode of life will survive in one form or another, but it gives me great sorrow that this institution that was so formative for me seems to be really in decline. As I say at the opening of Keeping Faith, I was the youngest of four sons. The French even have a word for me, le donné. The French order: the first male child inherits the property, the second goes to the military, the third goes to the government, and the fourth goes to the Church. I was the fourth son, intellectual, gay. As I say in “Going it Alone,” I had religious orders all but engraved on my forehead.
I came of age in the ‘60s. So joining the monastery was just not really possible, but I’ve lived out the monastic vocation in a different way. The whole structure of the modern university grows out of 8th Century monasticism. We still use some of the terminology and practice. For example, the whole tenure process. If you go to [the Abbey of] Gethsemani and become a monk, you are reviewed: you have third year reviews, and, after six years, a vote is taken as to whether you can join the community or not. That’s 9th Century Benedictine monasticism. We still do the same thing here. The whole division of knowledge, the various categories of learning: all in place in the Abbey of Cluny in 9th Century, 10th Century France. Being an academic, I think of myself as living in a kind of secular monastery.
Solitude is getting to be a hot topic. Demographically, one of the fastest growing populations is people who are living alone. People want to live alone. That’s true in all developed countries and it’s trending true in developing countries. What’s that about? I really believe that epigraph from the Harper’s piece, the one from Pascal: “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
As much as anybody can on the outside—I grew up in a small town, family environment—I recognize that the challenges of raising children require more than one person. I don’t want to get in a riff about how our concept of marriage is only about three hundred years old and relates to the rise of industrial Capitalism, but I will say I think we’re moving beyond a conventional understanding of marriage. I was talking with one of the monks and we were discussing the decline of conventional monasticism, and I said, “As much as I love turning that corner on that old country road and love to see this chunk of Normandy improbably set down in Kentucky”—that is to say, the Abbey of Gethsemani—“as much as I love rounding that corner and seeing something so familiar to me, maybe the old brick and mortar monastery is going to go by the wayside and what’s going to take its place is a monastery of the heart, where we pursue these contemplative values individually.”
Forty or fifty years ago, if you wanted to pursue a contemplative practice, you really didn’t have any choice but to join a monastery. Now, just open the Tucson Weekly: there’s a Tucson Meditation Center, there are fifteen, twenty different opportunities to pursue some kind of contemplative practice out there on a daily basis. Maybe we’re just moving to a different kind of monasticism.
To close, I’m going to take a hard left turn. You are the youngest of nine children. Your mother is turning 100 this March. You’ll only be able to appear at the Tucson Festival of Books on Saturday, March 12th because you’re attending her centennial birthday party.
That’s true. She turns 100 on Monday the 14th, and when you’re going back east, the travel takes a whole day.
Tell me, is Mother excited for this new book? Has she read it?
Back when she read books—and she did read, she started a library in my town with books that the monks loaned her—she wouldn’t read my books until long after they came out so if someone said, “What’d you think of Fenton’s book?” she could honestly say she hadn’t read it yet, so she could still live inside that tiny community and yet not betray her son. At one point this bothered me a little bit, but then I realized it was a great act of wisdom on my mother’s part.
She did eventually read Crossing the River and Scissors. She might have read Geography of the Heart. But after that, her capacity to read went downhill. She’s remarkably put together for a woman who’s 100 years old, but reading is hard for her.
I think she likes having a son who’s a writer. She recognizes that it’s dangerous to have a writer in the family, dangerous for every family to have a writer in the family.