At this point you’re married, and you go home planning to write. Were you also interested in having children? No. I wasn’t thinking about kids. When I was growing up, I didn’t want to get married and I didn’t want to have children. The fact that it has happened to me is a marvel. I got married at 24 because my husband asked me to and he was really attractive. I thought, “OK, I guess I’ll get married.” It worked out. This year is our 25th anniversary. I wouldn’t have had kids except that my husband is such a nice person and he’s very principled. I thought, “He’s more patient than I am. Maybe this could work.” So I had a child, Sam, when I was 29.
You found you liked being a mother? I love being a mom, but it’s really humbling. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It makes novel writing look like a joke.
When you left corporate law, you had one income rather than two in New York City, a very expensive place to live, and then came financial problems involving relatives. Was the question “Where’s the money coming from?” going through your head? It’s still going through my head. I could’ve stayed being a lawyer and we’d have a lot more money, but the work I produce is important to me. I was really worried about it last year because my husband lost his job, but then he got a job, so we’re fine. We have health insurance again, which is huge, and the two fellowships, which shows that someone believes in my future.
Besides the financial problems you had health problems: You had only a couple of hours of energy a day, and you wanted to save those for Sam. I had cirrhosis of the liver. From the moment I delivered my son until he was about 3, my energy level was terrible. I had inflammation in both of my wrists, and if I was going up the stairs, my tendons really hurt. After different diagnoses I had surgery, and my doctor put me on an experimental treatment with interferon-b for six months. I became cured. It was like a miracle. Many people haven’t been cured.
You had cirrhosis of the liver without ever drinking. I still don’t drink.
‘You [write] because you love it, but don’t do it because you think it will deliver something in your life. Your book is not redemption. … If you don’t feel called to write that story, don’t write it. Do something else. Take up golf.’
So, financial problems, health problems, and writing problems. Your first novel was turned down. You wrote a second novel and decided it’s no good. It was terrible.
Were you starting to ask at this point, “Why me, Lord?” I’m the kind of gal who asks that all the time. I always feel whiny in my head, irritated at everything. I try hard not to share it with other people, but I have this “Ugh!” When I read the newspapers, I’m always angry because such horrible things are happening all the time and I know we’re all pretty horrible.
So you are Jacob wrestling with God. You wrestle a lot. Then what happens? I lose every time. If you believe it’s God, capital “G,” it’s not an equal relationship—but I do feel the sense of personal relationship. Most people think God is really angry. I think of God as very funny. I think God tolerates us like we look at puppies trying to move furniture: “Isn’t that cute? That puppy cannot move that sofa, and the puppy is really mad at the sofa.”
You still believe? Yeah, for me, this is it. I’m in it.
You don’t say “I quit” because God doesn’t quit on us. I am convinced. This is what I believe.
And you’re reading Hosea now? I’m always reading the Bible. Hosea is a book I really admire because it’s so troubling.
God tells Hosea, “Marry the prostitute.” God tells Hosea, a perfectly nice guy, go marry the town slut. That’s pretty much what it is. We shouldn’t use that word, but she’s very promiscuous. He knows she’s going to hurt his feelings, and God says, “I want you to do it, Hosea, so you’ll know what it’s like when you cheat on me.” What an interesting, very troubling idea.
God composes very interesting stories. I always think about God being a writer because the Word is so important, and whenever I’m in this whole publishing world, I think of God as a writer and a publisher.
When your health gets better and you’re able to write, you’re struggling. I’m still struggling. Writing is really hard. Fiction students or earnest fiction writers come to my readings and go, “What do I do? How do I get published?” I say, “Forget that it’s a career. It’s a vocation. It’s really, really difficult. Earn a living somewhere else.” I know very successful writers, and they don’t make money from selling their books. You do it because you love it, but don’t do it because you think it will deliver something in your life. Your book is not redemption. It will not redeem all the pain and suffering in your life. It’s something you feel called to write. If you don’t feel called to write that story, don’t write it. Do something else. Take up golf.
When you look back at your two published novels, do you think all the struggles were worth it? I’m proud of my work. It’s really cool in the Old Testament where Bezalel and others craft parts of the tabernacle. I like the idea of being a craftsperson. I don’t think of myself as this big intellectual or artist. I want to make something really beautiful. I want it to shimmer and to stand the test of time, but do I think it’s really worth all that? I’m really not sure. Last year was really not pretty—and that was considered my best year. So I don’t know.
You wrote a story in which your main character reads a chapter from the Bible every morning. In “Axis of Happiness,” one of my very few first-person stories, I had my main character do that because I thought it was so weird. In my world of New York writers nobody reads the Bible.
Did you decide to start your day that way? For a time I read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times every day. I would think inspiration will come. It did not come. I was writing every day, but it wasn’t really good. Then one day I read that Willa Cather, a fiction writer I love, read a chapter of the Bible every single day before she began work. I started to do that. Later on, my mother’s best friend from childhood gave me a study Bible at my wedding.
Great wedding gift. I didn’t think so at the time: Great, a Bible. I wasn’t a grateful person. I told you there’s something wrong with me. But I had time, I didn’t have a job, so I would read the chapter, then read the commentary, then read the chapter again. Then I’d pull a verse that sometimes consoled, but most likely troubled me: Why is that in there? I would write it down in a notebook. I’ve done that since 1995, read the Bible like that five or six times. It’s such a foundational, incredible, beautiful work of art. It has helped me to understand story better, and I feel very inspired by it. Now that I’m older and have cataracts, I even bought the large print.
Lots of Christian aspiring writers enter the Christian subculture: “Christian” fiction, “Christian” movies. You don’t live in that world. No, I don’t. Most people are really surprised when I tell them I go to church. They’re like, “You?” How many people read The Hobbit and refuse to believe Tolkien is Christian? That’s what’s interesting about art: Multiple audiences can perceive it. At the same time, I do know that the Christian publishing market is a very big one. It’s probably more lucrative than literary nonfiction, where you’re lucky if you sell 2,000 copies.