Your story in thisÂ weekâ€™s issue, â€œGodâ€™s Work,â€ opens as a teen-age boy and his motherâ€”Sander and Annaâ€”are going door-to-door handing out religious leaflets. Anna is a committed proselytizer for her faith, while Sander is starting to chafe at his life within the church. When did you start thinking about the story? Did you always know that Sander would be the focus?
This story started out, as all of mine do, with a tidbit from lifeâ€”in this case a mother and son pamphleteering on a hot summer day. The son in question was eight or nine. I turned them down but thought about it for a while and came to appreciate the effort to save me, though I didnâ€™t want to be saved. It seemed generous to me, more like a gift and less like a nuisance.
It also seemed more interesting to me to be inside this world looking out than outside looking in. What did the fallen world look like? And from there to Sander was a pretty short path. Heâ€™s the one with the decisions to make. The things that are unsettled to him were decided long ago for Anna.
The church to which Sander and his mother belong follows Christian teachings but does not believe in the existence of Hell. It shares this theological tenet with the Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses. Do you want the reader to assume that Sander and Anna are Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses? Have you written much about religion in the past?
To the extent that the religious longings in here are real, they belong to the twelve-year-old Catholic version of myself. Some of the theological trappings here are taken from the Jehovahâ€™s Witness tradition, but I tried to change enough about them so that they would not be mistaken for a description of that faith. I donâ€™t know enough about that life to really write about it. So the clothes are slightly Amish, and the meeting hall is borrowed from one used by a splinter Evangelical group here in Missoula.
This is the only story of mine that has religion as a central preoccupation, but it does crop up in other stories from time to time. If itâ€™s present in the life of the character, Iâ€™ll write about it. Kitchen, bedroom, church, Iâ€™ll follow a character wherever they go.
At one of the houses, Sander meets a student from his school, Clara, â€œshe of the ripped T-shirt, raccoon eyes, pierced anything, the next grade up from his, this girl who looks and dresses the way every teen girl would if there was nobody to tell her she couldnâ€™t.â€ To Sanderâ€™s surprise, Clara shows up at one of the Fellowship meetings. What draws her to the church?
The most honest answer would probably be that I donâ€™t have a story if she doesnâ€™t go to church. It doesnâ€™t seem implausible to me, though; her dadâ€™s kind of a mess, her mom doesnâ€™t seem to be around, she seems like somebody whoâ€™s been through a lot and doesnâ€™t have the equipment yet to understand it. I can see her trying out different ways of living, different ways of seeing the world, the way she might try on clothes to see what suits her. I feel like sheâ€™s searching for a way to organize herself and is looking outside herself because she doesnâ€™t yet have the resources inside.
Sander is at an age where heâ€™s interested in just about any girl or woman who crosses his path, but heâ€™s used his faith to â€œpray and puzzle, working toward the light and out of the morass of sin.â€ Clara, however, represents a temptation that Sander doesnâ€™t want to resist. Did you always know how their encounter would play out? Or did you imagine any other scenarios, in which Sander might get closer to the outcome he believes he desires?
This always sounds deranged, but I had no idea what would happen when I set these two in motion. The sense of discovery only comes when Iâ€™m making discoveries alongside the reader. It feels crucial for me to not know too much about how things will turn out. So I try to develop strong characters with recognizable desires and put them together with other characters and see what happens. I canâ€™t know the outcome in advance without the life just draining out of a scene.
Have you thought about what might happen to Sander and Clara after the final events of this story?
These two are such puppies at this point in their lives, so unformedâ€”I feel like almost anything could happen with them. I have my theories about where they might end up but itâ€™s probably best to keep them to myself. I want the reader to have his or her own version of that future.