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Too nice for vice?

Hard-boiled mystery writer Andrew Klavan on becoming a Christian and "seeing the world more clearly as it is"

Too nice for vice?

Andrew Klavan is an unusual combination: He writes detective novels filled with depictions of human depravity, and he's now a Christian. It shouldn't be an unusual combination, because an understanding of man's sinfulness, along with a glimpse of God's holiness, often makes us realize our desperate need for Christ. And yet Christian fiction has a reputation for being too nice to take on vice.

Klavan has written 10 novels, two of which have been made into movies: True Crime, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, and Don't Say a Word, with Michael Douglas. Klavan, a former reporter who has lived on the East Coast and in London but now lives in California, has twice won an Edgar (named after Edgar Allen Poe) for top mystery writing. On his website, andrewklavan.com, he wrote last year, "I became a Christian after some 35 years of thinking and reading everything I could get my hands on from Augustine to Zoroaster."

WORLD: In your latest novel, Damnation Street (2006), you have a sympathetic young Christian saying about her atheistic dad, "The fact that all of these deep convictions of his turned out to be just false made me wonder about the other thing, the God thing. Well, it's a long story." Could you tell our readers something about your starting point and your long path to acceptance of the God thing?

KLAVAN: Well, the thing is, some guys are born where they want to be—Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, whatever. My life has been more like one of those Outward Bound programs where they drop you far from home and you have to make your way back with a piece of string and a matchbook. I was born and raised a Jew and came up in that wonderful secular intellectual tradition that teaches you to analyze everything. God kept coming into my life and I kept disproving Him—I was very good at it!

Fortunately, I could also disprove the foundations of my disproof. Eventually I saw that the pillars of the secular consensus—scientism, materialism, rationalism—were all made of sand. Whereas the deeper I went into the experience of God, the more I found, you know, life in abundance.

WORLD: Life in abundance—and you wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2004 that "what tipped the scales" for Christianity in your own thinking "was that the presumption of atheism proceeds without respect for the human experience of God's presence." What did you mean by that?

KLAVAN: Right, I think I was writing about scientific materialism. And I love science. It's our great tool for understanding the material world. I think some Christians make a mistake by placing God in opposition to science—it's like pitting Him against His own creation. But by the same token, the greatness of science—the purity of its materialism—is also its limitation. Science assumes that the experience of God is an illusion of the brain, because the physical world is literally all it can see—that's what science is for. But to think that spiritual experience is a mere outgrowth of the body is like thinking an idea is a mere outgrowth of the words that express it. The assumption is patently unjustified.

WORLD: As you moved toward Christianity it seems that you were developing characters—Lonnie Blake and Howard Roth in Hunting Down Amanda (1999) and Peter Blue in Man and Wife (2001)—who sacrifice themselves to save others. Did your creation of Christ figures help you to embrace Christ—and how did your movement toward Christianity affect the nature of your heroes?

KLAVAN: The simple answer to the first question is: yeah, absolutely. I only had to read my own stories to see my view of life was increasingly a Christian one. But here's the funny part. Becoming a Christian actually made me less likely to use Christian symbolism and structures in my work because now I see Christ's presence underlying all of life—I don't have to place Him there artistically. Baptism made me more of a realist, more willing to let each character go his own way and tell his own story as he would. I'm a novelist, remember, not a preacher. I trust reality to express Christ's presence, because I think that's what it actually does.

WORLD: Hunting Down Amanda also has Edmund Winter, who shows his nature in this scene: "His tongue snaked over the top of her ear. . . . 'I'm going to teach you who's the master of creation.'" Then in Dynamite Road (2003) you introduce the devilish Shadowman, with his ability to remain unnoticed and his heart set on pure evil. How did your growing Christian belief affect the development of these satanic characters?

KLAVAN: There again, I think what you're seeing is more realism, less theory, less nonsensical psychological overlay. I think a lot of modern novelists think they're going to explain evil to you, really get to the heart of it. And what you get instead is pathologizing rhetoric, characters forced to behave according to the latest fad psychological theory. The more I trust to God's reality, the more I let evil characters just act the way they do in real life. Self-rationalizing, radically egocentric, relishing the anonymity of their power—"satanic" is a good word.

WORLD: Damnation Street depicts Christians in the hostile territory of the University of California, Berkeley, meeting privately and quietly for worship in an unmarked house. The narrator, peeking in from a back window, is shocked: "They were praying. They were Christians. Emma too. Emma was a Christian. I could not have been more shocked if I had looked in and seen her [expletive]. . . . What was she thinking? How could she be possibly be a Christian?" Is that the reaction you get among those who knew you prior to your becoming a Christian several years ago, and how do you think your change will affect your reputation?

KLAVAN: You know, I suspect everyone who sets sail on the sea of faith is a little bit like Christopher Columbus. There are all these people on shore saying, "Are you crazy? You're going to fall off the edge of reality!" And instead, you discover a new world. That said, in my personal life, God has showered me with so many people who love and accept me that the transition was easy. Professionally, in Hollywood and New York, there are still some moments of discomfort. But I'm a hard case—I can handle it.

WORLD: The narrator in Shotgun Alley (2004) criticizes "those ideologues who thought marriage was oppression and sex was rape and men and women should be exactly the same. . . . They were bullies and liars. They lied about history and human nature and statistics." Did your understanding of human nature lead you to a Christian worldview, did your growing religious understanding lead you to oppose the bullies, or both?

KLAVAN: Well, if becoming a Christian meant you understood human nature less, the evidence would be all against it. But, in fact, what you get is a deep, sorrowing, almost unbearable insight yet without anger and without despair. Remember Jesus and the Samaritan woman by the well? That wry, kindly acceptance of her messy sex life that doesn't abandon morality yet doesn't descend into finger-wagging moralism—to me, that's the essence of tough guy fiction—of all good fiction. As for the bullies, feminist and otherwise, I always knew what they were, I've just become less willing to shut up about it.

WORLD: And what about literature professors? Damnation Street has a great riff on academic novels; it concludes, "there were all the usual passages where the languid acerbic eloquence suddenly gives way to a more heartfelt but still acceptably ironic eloquence with which the professor affirms the beauty of this meaningless spark of a meaningless flame that was the life of the imagined soul in the accidental universe, which was really only the novel he was writing, which was this novel, which was this universe and so on." Why do reviewers tend to praise such stuff?

KLAVAN: Because it's like dropping into a warm bath for them. It confirms all their otherwise indefensible ideas. Whenever you hear a reviewer call a novel "Shocking!" or "Disturbing!" or "Radical!" they don't mean it's shocking or disturbing or radical to them! They mean it's going to shock or disturb some conservative evangelical they've invented in their own minds. What it really does is stroke their egos, tell them how wise they are, how perfectly their silly theories reflect life and plumb the depths of art. Something that actually shocked or disturbed them—well, take The Passion of the Christ, for instance—not my favorite movie for purely cinematic reasons—but that really shocked them, and you saw the ugly result.

WORLD: Does the dominance of literary fiction among teachers hurt educational efforts as well? The San Diego Union Tribune in 2004 quoted you as saying, "They tell me you can't get boys to read. But what are they giving them to read? I wanted to bring back hard guys." Do you find middle-school and high-school kids reading your books? What's their reaction?

KLAVAN: Well, of course it hurts education; of course it does. Kids are the first to know when you're lying to them with some politically correct malarky. They may not have the courage or the confidence to oppose it. But they'll just turn away, go somewhere else, play video games where men fight dragons and don't have to be so sensitive and girly. As for their reactions to my work, it's hard to say because the kids who write to me tend to be fans. Whether other kids are reading me and hate me, I don't know. What I hear is always very flattering.

WORLD: Thinking about flattery: A reviewer in the Calgary Herald wrote about Don't Say a Word (1991), "Klavan is no stylist and his characters are far from unforgettable." Recently, Associated Press reviewer Bruce DeSilva stated, "Klavan's writing is masterful, and his characters superbly drawn." Was the initial reviewer wrong, or have you become a better writer over the past 15 years? If so, what do you count as major improvements, and how did you achieve them?

KLAVAN: Clearly the reviewer who attacked me was blinded by sin and possibly on mind-altering drugs as well. I'm joking, of course. I'm a little torn about how to answer because on the one hand, sure, you get better as you go along. You learn how to create emotional effects, when to leave things out, when to spell them out. On the other hand, I've always prided myself on two things: my style and my characters, which I think are both unique in the genre. But when you do something different, there are going to be people like the Calgary guy who don't like it and you have to live with that.

WORLD: One pastor suggests that Christians should be able to say what they're doing because of Christ that they otherwise would not do, and what they're not doing that they otherwise would do. Applying that to writing: What do you think you might do differently in future novels?

KLAVAN: All I can tell you is this. I'm writing a book now—the first novel I've written from beginning to end as a baptized man—and it's so different from anything I've ever done and yet so completely and naturally the product of my personal vision that I can only watch it unfold with a sort of helpless fascination. I believe the reason for that is this: As a Christian, I'm more myself and I see the world more clearly as it is. And the reason for that is, in the immortal words of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol: "It's all right. It's all true. It all happened."

—Reader advisory: Klavan novels realistically depict violence, unbiblical sexual activities, and characters unable to put together a sentence that does not include an obscenity.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.