Rudy & Shirley Nelson and Paula Huston

Gods, Guns, and Guatemala

A conversation between novelists.

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RUDY: Along the same line, both of our stories are dependent in part on how the characters deal with religious issues. So again there's the question of how much overt theologizing to include. In certain drafts we included references to Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and various representatives of liberation theology, which would have been totally relevant in the story. But we chose finally to not assume any particular theological lens. At one point Ted claims, half-joking, to be an "unreconstructed post-modern skeptic," but he hears himself inserting quotes from Scripture into ordinary conversation, and in the course of a few weeks he tangles with Mayan spirituality, as well as classical and radical Catholicism, and his mother's fundamentalist tendencies. He gets his best political advice from a savvy Mennonite.

SHIRLEY: And throughout the book there's a certain character who keeps popping into Ted's life, someone he facetiously views as godlike, since he repeatedly comes to Ted's aid. But the guy is actually hapless himself. He can't finish the dissertation he's been working on for years, because he can't nail down the thesis. I admit to delighting in that idea, a lovable god who can't finish his dissertation.

RUDY: Yet all that is just part of the story. A Land Without Sin, in contrast, takes a more overt theological position. Can you tell us what sat behind that?

PAULA: I'm glad you asked this question, which has been on my mind for some time. How much can a literary audience handle in regard to novels that take Christianity seriously? I once paid a painful price for misplaced optimism on this score. I originally wrote this novel in the mid-Nineties under contract to Random House. When they decided not to publish it, I was so disheartened—and so convinced that it was the religious content that had turned them off—that I stopped writing fiction for years. And so I've been following with great interest the ongoing debate regarding the alleged demise of the Catholic novel. One side contends that its golden era is long since past, the other that we live in different circumstances now, a reality to which writers must adjust if they are ever to be heard. Though I love the prophetic fervor of those who call for bolder novelists, I am inclined to take the second, more pragmatic view. My years of university teaching convinced me that the literary audience is generally wary of faith. My problem in this book was how to tell the story of a missing priest without triggering an automatic recoil in the very readers I was trying to attract. One technique was to give Stefan a background much like any other Sixties kid: he grows out his hair, smokes pot, gets kicked out of the house, and winds up on the hippie trail to Kathmandu. Another strategy was to make his internal wranglings about the nature of evil personal and emotional rather than intellectual. The most important choice I made, however, was to designate Eva first-person narrator of the story. Brave, tough, and cynical, she is actively hostile to the Christianity he finally comes to embrace. Diffusing my audience's worries by creating characters who did not seem threatening to them then allowed me to include quite a lot of theological material and get away with it … Or at least I hope I did.

RUDY: What I found interesting was your narrative device for including most of the theological material: Stefan's letters, nine of them. I found that going back and re-reading those in succession was a gratifying study in the development of Stefan's ideas, especially his growing commitment to the thought of René Girard.

PAULA: I have to admit, I took a bit of a chance with that strategy. The epistolary novel went out with the Victorians, after all. But because Stefan is a missing person, we have no way to hear from him except through the letters, so the device seemed justifiable. And since he is such an intense young man, the theologizing follows quite naturally. And now a question for you. What fascinates me about The Risk of Returning is the fact that you wrote it together. I find that absolutely stunning. And I certainly can't imagine ever trying it myself—especially with my spouse! Can you talk a little about your collaborative process?

SHIRLEY: Well, first of all, you have to agree to yell a lot.

RUDY: Hey, wait a minute. You yelled. I didn't.

SHIRLEY: Not true! I can think of two specific times when you really, really yelled. I was worried about the neighbors.

RUDY: I did not!

SHIRLEY: You did so!

RUDY: See? There's the answer to the question. We're still talking to each other, sort of.

SHIRLEY: The point is that collaboration can't work without a built-in trust. You've got to know you can say what you think without ruining a relationship.

RUDY: Actually, we've never been competitive. It's a left-brain/right-brain thing. I'm Apollonian to a fault and Shirley has a Dionysian streak.

SHIRLEY: And Paula, you seem to be blessed with an equal amount of each.

PAULA: Maybe the conversation should end here.

1. Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis, edited by Robert M. Carmack (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, rev. ed., 1992).

2. Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, translated by William Weaver (Harcourt, 1981).

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