Christopher Beha, On Faith And Its Discontents
In the novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder, writer Charlie Blakeman runs into his former college love after 10 years and finds out that she has converted to Catholicism. Charlie can't make sense of her conversion, but as he finds out more about Sophie's past, he sees her life is more complicated than he previously thought. When Sophie once again disappears, Charlie sets out to discover what has happened to her.
Author Christopher Beha "was interested in writing about a person of faith," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "while also writing about the attempt of someone who does not have that capacity for faith to try to understand it."
A former Catholic himself, Beha says, "I'm someone who was raised Catholic and was indeed a believing Catholic, not just a cultural Catholic by upbringing, who then lost his faith. And in lots of ways, faith became much more interesting to me once I didn't have it."
Beha is an associate editor at Harper's magazine. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and the London Review of Books. He is the author of The Whole Five Feet, a memoir about reading the 22,000 pages of the Harvard Classics 100 years after their original publication. What Happened to Sophie Wilder is his first novel.
"One of the things that I find dissatisfying about a lot of modern or contemporary versions of religion is the extent to which they're geared toward the therapeutic. If you look at, say, the Prosperity Gospel, religion is supposed to make you feel good about the things you naturally want already. And I'm interested in religion as a challenge. The Jesus bringing us 'not peace but the sword.' So I had an idea of having a character who is converted, but that conversion doesn't necessarily lead to peace, doesn't end her struggle — but rather leads to a new struggle."
"I read a lot of David Foster Wallace in college. People who are familiar with his work will know that [irony] is something he thought a lot about — the way that irony, which had once been a subversive gesture, had basically been co-opted. So it is very common to see what used to be corrosive literary irony used in television commercials, for example. And what once had a good purpose — to break down old, outdated norms — was not very good for building something back up in their stead and perhaps, had outlived its usefulness. This is all very broadly speaking. And then the struggle is: What comes next?"
On an author's responsibility
"There is a tendency for a lot of writers to think that the world, up to and including other people's suffering, exists to be their material. Now that's not to say that anytime you want to draw something from life, you need to get permission from the people involved, even if you intend to fictionalize it. But what I do think you need to do is you need to earn it on the page; you need to do something with it that makes meaning out of the experience, otherwise you're just being a scavenger."
"I don't want to oversell the therapeutic values of literature, because I don't necessarily think that's what's most powerful about them. But certainly, to know that the problem of mortality is something that people have been struggling with for as long as they've been capable of speaking and thinking and writing down words, and to know that a huge portion of the output of the people struggling with that — the finest minds in human history — is available to us, that that's our heritage, is incredibly comforting to me, despite the fact that what they have to say on the topic is not particularly comforting as such."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Christopher Beha, has written a new novel about those who have the capacity for faith and those who don't. It's also about parents' responsibility to their children and children to their parents and the risks of trying to save someone's soul when that person doesn't want to be saved.
Beha also writes about the urge to write and to tell stories. The novel, "What Happened to Sophie Wilder," begins with Charlie, a 28-year-old writer living in Greenwich Village whose recently published first novel got a big advance but no readers. At a party, he reconnects with Sophie, who he fell in love with in freshman writing class.
She's given up writing, she's married, has become a devout Catholic and is caring for her dying father-in-law, who's estranged from her husband. Christopher Beha is an associate editor at Harper's. His previous book, "The Whole Five Feet," is a memoir about reading all the Harvard Classics. It's a set of great books compiled by Harvard's president in 1909. The memoir reflects on reading those books, on his life and on caring for his dying aunt.
Christopher Beha, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CHRISTOPHER BEHA: Thank you very much, I'm thrilled to be here.
GROSS: So let's start with a reading from "What Happened to Sophie Wilder," and this is from the middle of the book, and it has to do with religion. Would you introduce the reading for us?
BEHA: Sure, the speaker in this passage is a young writer named Charlie Blakeman, and he is talking about the title character, Sophie Wilder, who was his love in college and he fell out with, and she subsequently converted to Catholicism, which is a decision that he's trying to make some sense of.
And at this point in the novel, Sophie has gone to take care of her father-in-law, Bill Crane, who is dying.
(Reading) I'd almost laughed when she told me that she'd gone to save his soul. I couldn't quite take it seriously. I'd been raised more or less Catholic myself, gone to Catholic school my whole life before arriving at New Hampton, but I don't think I knew a single person who would have spoken in that way about saving someone's soul.
(Reading) The religious people I knew talked about their faith apologetically. It was an embarrassment to their own reason and intelligence, but somehow a necessary one. Their justifications often suggested something vaguely therapeutic. They needed a sense of meaning in their lives. They wanted to believe that things happened for a reason.
(Reading) To speak of souls and damnation, to speak of intervening in another life for the sake of salvation was beyond all this. I didn't ask questions about her religion since her answers would only mark out the distance between us. Mostly, it didn't seem real to me. I still pictured Sophie as I'd always known her, and I couldn't imagine that person turning to God at a time of need.
GROSS: Thank you for reading that. Why did you want to write about the inability to imagine someone you know turning to God in their time of need? Why did you want that to be a central part of the novel?
BEHA: Well, I suppose that in a lot of ways, both Charlie and Sophie are parts of myself, and I am someone who was raised Catholic and was indeed a believing Catholic - not just sort of a cultural Catholic by upbringing - who then lost his faith. And in a lot of ways, faith became much more interesting to me once I didn't have it. I'd sort of taken it for granted when I did.
And so I was interested in writing about a person of faith while also writing about the attempt of someone who does not have that capacity for faith to try to understand it.
GROSS: I like the expression that you use, the capacity for faith or the capacity to experience God. Is that how you think of it, as an innate capacity that some people have and some people don't?
BEHA: I do. I often think that intellectual arguments for or against the existence of God tend to be fruitless for the reason that most people come to an intuitive conclusion on these matters and then build up whatever rationale they're going to have. If you speak about it from the standpoint of faith, I think you would talk about grace; that God has gifted some people with the ability to feel his presence in the world and has, for whatever reason, withheld that gift from others.
GROSS: So you have a great quote in the question-and-answer piece in the interview that you did for your publisher, which is actually included in the promotional packet with novel, which I hesitate to quote from, but this quote is so good, I'm going to anyways.
GROSS: And here's what you said. You said: One of the many things that religion offers is a framework for talking about big questions that isn't considered pretentious or embarrassing. Both Charlie and Sophie in the novel are looking for such a framework. It's Charlie's tragedy that he has not found one, it is Sophie's tragedy that she has, and it is my own tragedy that even as I write those words, I anticipate undermining them with a wink or a joke.
BEHA: That's right.
GROSS: So it's Sophie's tragedy that she finds religion, and I don't want to give away too much of the story, but it does become tragic, and the things that should make her feel saintly make her feel damned. Why did you set her up that way?
BEHA: Well, one of the things that I find dissatisfying about a lot of modern or contemporary versions of religion is the extent to which they're geared toward the therapeutic, the extent to which - if you look at something like The Prosperity Gospel, religion is supposed to make you feel good about the things you naturally want already, particularly material success.
And I'm interested in religion as a challenge and, you know, Jesus bringing, as he says, not peace but the sword. And so I had an idea of having a character who is converted, but that conversion doesn't necessarily lead to peace, doesn't end her struggle but rather leads to a new struggle.
GROSS: So in that quote that I read, you write, referring to yourself: It is my own tragedy that even as I write those words about religion, I anticipate undermining them with a wink or a joke.
GROSS: That's so - do you think part of the condition of living in your own personal Godless world is irony?
BEHA: I think so. So when these characters, Sophie and Charlie, meet each other, they're in college. And as I experienced it, at least, and I think others do, college is the first time that you are in an environment that is really based around the intellect. There is obviously a lot of other extracurriculars going on, but you're given an environment where it makes sense to ask a lot of questions, big questions, and to seek out complicated answers for them.
And you maybe start to think if you - you know, having come from high school to a college campus, that this is what adulthood is like. And then when you get out of college and into the working world, you get a kind of rude awakening, and you discover that most people ask fairly practical questions about their day-to-day existence, and if you spend a lot of time wanting to think or talk about sort of larger abstract questions, people are going to think you're a little bit pretentious, basically.
And so you have to find ways to be sort of self-knowing about it or to ironize your own interest in these questions.
GROSS: But your book is not ironic.
BEHA: No. Not at all, really, and in fact, you know, there are - at certain points it depicts, particularly in the beginning, Charlie's lifestyle, living in this kind of ironized, literary world. But my effort was even for the depiction of this ironized world to be an earnest depiction, if that makes sense.
GROSS: Yeah, so at what point did you feel like you left the world of irony? And like how much of a participant in ironizing everything were you when you were in college?
BEHA: Well, I read a lot of David Foster Wallace in college, and people who are familiar with his work will know that this is something that he thought a lot about, was the way that irony, which had once been a kind of subversive gesture, had basically been co-opted so that it is very common to see what used to be kind of corrosive literary irony used in television commercials, for example.
And what once had a good purpose, to break down kind of old, outdated norms, was not very good for building something back up in their stead and perhaps had outlived its usefulness. This is all very broadly speaking, of course.
And then the struggle was what comes next. It's - it may not be the case that you can simply retreat back to an old kind of earnestness. Irony is one of those things that once it creeps into the way you talk and think about the world, it's very difficult to snuff out, and you can't sort of go back to the garden.
So what do you do next? Is there some way to push through? This was a question that occupied me a lot in those years and continues to occupy me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Beha. He's the author of the new novel "What Happened to Sophie Wilder. He's also an associate editor at Harper's magazine. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Beha. He's the author of the new novel "What Happened to Sophie Wilder." You have two different tones in your book, the sometimes ironic tone that Charlie the narrator has, and the more straightforward tone that the chapters about Sophie - which are told in the third person - have. The Charlie stuff is in first person.
I want you to read the first chapter of the book, and this is in the first person, this is Charlie writing about his own life, and this is when he's explaining how, in his 20s, he really wanted, you know, to be all about ideas, like a life of ideas and a literary life, he and his cousin Max.
BEHA: His cousin Max is mentioned in this passage, and the two of them are living together on Washington Square in Greenwich Village in Manhattan.
(Reading) No one had read my novel when it came out a few months before, but this wasn't by virtue of any aesthetic stratagem. I would have been more than happy with an audience. My publisher had paid me well and put its energy, as they call it, behind the book.
(Reading) I'd been reviewed where one hopes to be reviewed; some of the notices had even been good. Max and I share the same last name - our fathers are brothers, or were while mine was still alive - and there had been brief talk, much of it generated by Max himself, about the Blakemans representing some new cultural moment.
(Reading) That had all passed after my book sank quietly from view. Outside the world of mean-spirited media blogs no one had any idea who we were. Max secretly faulted me for this, though in truth people were simply tired of comfortable young white guys from New York. I couldn't blame them; I was tired of us, too.
GROSS: Well, that puts you at a real disadvantage of a writer if you're empathizing with Charlie at all, if you're a white guy from New York, and you feel like everybody's bored reading about the little problems of white guys from New York. So was that an issue for you as a writer?
BEHA: Yeah, well, I suppose what - that's what I wanted to write through, which is why part of the story of the book is Sophie's return and the way that it breaks up this kind of solipsistic life that Charlie is in and forces him out into the world and forces him into other people's problems and forces him into considering other people's problems in a way that is not always seeing it through the lens of how it makes him feel, or what kind of writerly or appropriately stylized response he can have to it.
But I'm certainly aware of the risks, yes, and there have been, I'll admit, a couple of critics who have read this as a comfortable-young-white-guy-from-New-York novel and been appropriately frustrated by it.
GROSS: You've been appropriately frustrated by it?
BEHA: Oh, no, I think - I mean to say that the reviewers have been frustrated by the - by another comfortable-young-white-guy novel. And for me to say, no, it's really a critique of or a deconstruction of the comfortable-young-white-guy novel is, you know, not an acceptable response in their eyes, although it is to me.
GROSS: So have you read a lot of contemporary fiction by people in their 20s and felt - well, what have you felt about it? I'm sure you have read a lot of fiction by people in their 20s.
BEHA: Yeah, I mean, some of it's very good. Some of it's very good while being very personal, in fact, and in a lot of ways, I think the fiction by younger writers that bothers me is the fiction that is very self-consciously quirky, rather than the fiction that seems too obviously autobiographical.
But I didn't - you know, I didn't have a particular novel in mind that I wanted to respond to. It - what I wanted to respond to was just the tenor of the culture at large and the tendency to - that we all have, I think, to roll our eyes a little bit when certain kinds of questions come up, to at least in certain, you know, corridors of the Northeast or the West Coast, roll our eyes a little bit when people speak earnestly about the feeling of religious devotion or when people speak about the search for meaning in the world.
So the tendency I'm talking about is, as I see it, a lot more pervasive than merely being present in a certain brand of literary novel written by a writer of a certain age.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Beha. He's the author of the new novel "What Happened to Sophie Wilder." In the acknowledgements, you write: Much of this book was conceived while I sat beside Mimi Escot(ph) in her final months - she's your aunt. She gave me not just her permission but her encouragement to make use of the time we spent together in whatever way my imagination saw fit. This was a gift she hardly owed me, but it pales beside the gift of having known her for 27 years. So when your Aunt Mimi was dying of melanoma, which had metastasized to her brain, what exactly did you ask her permission for?
BEHA: Well, she actually in a way volunteered it before I ever asked. She said: You're going to write about this. And I did write about it in straight nonfiction in my first book, "The Whole Five Feet." But then I began speaking with her about it, and I said, well, would it be all right if I did do that? Then she said yes, and I spoke with her about changing things, and she said you can do with this what you want.
Now, I would say that despite her having said that to me, I still felt a real responsibility to do justice to her experience. I didn't take that as total license.
GROSS: Why did you feel you needed her permission in the first place to write about her experience - or your experience of her experience - in a fictionalized form, so fictionalized one might not even have made the connection? I mean, it's not an aunt who's dying, it's a father-in-law, the father-in-law is estranged from the - you know, it's Sophie's father-in-law, who is estranged from Sophie's husband who is the person who is dying in this.
BEHA: Sure. Yeah, I mean, I think there is just - there is a tendency for a lot of writers to think that the world, up to and including other people's suffering, exists to be their material. Now, that's not to say that any time you want to draw something from life, you need to get permission from the people involved, even if you intend to fictionalize it.
What I do think you need to do is you need to earn it on the page. You need to do something with it that makes meaning out of the experience. Otherwise you'd just sort of being a scavenger.
GROSS: Are there other people in your life besides your aunt who you've asked permission to write about before writing about them?
BEHA: I haven't, but I - well, I take that back. When I wrote my memoir, I gave a copy before it was published to basically all my entire family and allowed them to not exercise veto power but to tell me about anything that was in it that they weren't comfortable with.
And in fact, whether out of politeness or for other reasons, nobody suggested any changes on that basis. I come from a family of readers, and in fact there are other writers in the family. And so I did have people making aesthetic suggestions about the book, but - and people essentially doing edit work. But I didn't have anyone fact-checking, and I didn't have anyone say to me I'm not comfortable with the way I'm being depicted in this scene, or that's not really how it was or anything like that. But I did give them that opportunity.
GROSS: Did you have to point you hadn't asked them to edit the book?
BEHA: Yes, but that's - that's a problem that I often have.
GROSS: Christopher Beha will be back in the second half of the show. He's the author of the new novel "What Happened to Sophie Wilder." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Christopher Beha, author of the new novel "What Happened to Sophie Wilder." He is an associate editor at Harper's Magazine. His previous book, "The Whole Five Feet," is a memoir about reading all the Harvard Classics.
Your novel is in part about religion, about a character named Sophie who finds faith in Catholicism and that kind of changes the course of her life and the course of some other people's lives as well. And, you know, we've talked a little earlier about how you think some people have the capacity for faith and other people don't have that capacity. Apparently, when you were young you had the capacity for faith and when you got older you lost that capacity. Correct me if you don't like the language that I've been using to describe that.
BEHA: No. I think that's a fair characterization.
GROSS: So, like, how did that change? Like let's start with when you had the capacity. You were an altar boy with your twin brother.
BEHA: I was. My twin brother and I were altar boys.
GROSS: And did it feel, make you feel like particularly connected to religion to be like of the ceremonial part?
BEHA: Yeah. You feel like you're actually participating in an intimate way in the ceremony, rather than - now, I mean the Mass is designed, you know, it is a communion and everybody is participating. It's not as if there are the performers and spectators. But when you're on the...
GROSS: But they have cameos and you have a co-starring role.
BEHA: Right. Exactly. Exactly. So that yeah, there was a real feeling of intimacy with the ceremonies of the faith.
GROSS: And what kind of Catholics were your parents at the time?
BEHA: Oh, well, basically, my entire family are, you know, practicing, go to church every Sunday and say grace before meals and say a prayer before going to bed at night Catholics. And believing, I would say - I don't want to speak for other people's beliefs, even my own family members. But not just cultural Catholics, people for whom the church is an integral part of their day-to-day existence.
GROSS: When did you stop being one of those people?
BEHA: You know, I would say having put it in those terms, I would say that I didn't stop being someone for whom the church is a part of my daily existence and that I still spend an awful lot of time thinking about Catholicism and writing about it. But it was in college when I stopped - toward the end of high school, the beginning of college when I stopped believing. And I was going to a Jesuit school in Manhattan, Jesuit high school called Loyola, and I went to one of the priests and talked with him about it. And I continued to go to Mass when I was in college although, you know, I didn't have the family there pressuring me to do so necessarily. And then I just decided that it didn't mean for me what it used to mean and I stopped doing it, basically. But I continued to go with my family when I was home for a time, continued to go up and take Communion. Then I decided I was not going to do that, which was, you know, a matter of some familial controversy. But ultimately I think again, without speaking for them too much, my family has been supportive of my decision because they understand that it was something that was done with thought and that these are issues that I continue to struggle with and it was not a simple matter of a kid who decided to rebel against his parents when he got a little older, or someone who decided that he was too lazy to get out of bed go to Mass on Sunday morning once he got to college and no one was there to make him do it.
GROSS: How did you experience the absence of the faith that you once had?
BEHA: Well, it's a funny thing about experiencing absence, right. If I had never had in the first place I would not have experienced it as an absence. I just, there was something that had been there in my life, which was a fundamental belief about the metaphysical groundings of existence, basically, that had helped me order and think about my life that was no longer there. And at that point, when you realize that, you've got to go about reordering things entirely. It's not, you can't sort of take that card out from the bottom of the house of cards and stick something else in its place. You know, the whole thing that you built around it is going to collapse, at least as I experienced it and you're just going to have to start over.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Beha. We're talking about his new novel "What Happened to Sophie Wilder." He's also the author of a book called, an earlier book called "The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death and Pretty Much Everything Else."
You're previous book, "The Whole Five Feet," was basically an exercise you gave yourself of reading all of the Harvard Classics and these are the books, five feet worth on a bookshelf, of classics as chosen by the president of Harvard in 1909, Charles Elliott.
GROSS: I mean that's a really - how many books were there?
BEHA: So there were 52 volumes. Some of the, many of the volumes contained multiple books. And some of them in some cases it was, you know, a set of plays or essays. So it's tough to pin down the number of individual works. But basically it's 52 volumes, all of them between, you know, four and 500 pages.
GROSS: Why did you decide to do that?
BEHA: These books were on my shelves when I was growing up - on my family's shelves - and I came to learn that they had belonged to my grandmother and I came to learn that she had bought them in her own young adulthood and read in them, having left school during the Great Depression to help support her family. She then found herself in - living up near Columbia University and in something of an intellectual milieu and she decided that she needed to do, to educate herself. I wanted to do this thing that this woman who died when I was still quite young had done when she was roughly the age that I then was when I was picking the books up.
Once I started the project I would pick certain things out and talk with my mother and my aunts about them and they would remember hearing stories from my grandmother about them.
GROSS: In your book "The Whole Five Feet," about reading all the Harvard Classics, you also write about how five years earlier you were diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma which is, you know, happily, a treatable form of cancer.
GROSS: But it connected you with mortality in a way that you'd never felt quite connected before. Did like reading the great texts help you deal with, you know, thinking about your mortality?
BEHA: Absolutely. I don't want to oversell the therapeutic values of literature because I don't necessarily think that that's what's most powerful about them. But certainly to know that the problem of mortality, for example, is something that people have been struggling with for as long as they have been capable of speaking and thinking and writing down words. And to know that a huge portion of the output of the people struggling with that, of really the finest minds in human history is available to us, that that's our heritage, is incredibly comforting to me. Despite the fact that very often what they have to say on the topic is not particularly comforting as such.
GROSS: You left the world of faith at a time when it's acceptable to do that in a way that it wasn't always historically acceptable...
GROSS: ...to be secular. And I think a lot of people have left the world of books, your world...
GROSS: ...you know?
GROSS: And they've left it for, you know, movies and television and video games and, you know, and the Internet and the blogosphere and Twitter, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So do you feel like OK, so you found like some, you know, some world for yourself in literature, not to equate it with religion but it gives you, you know, it gives you that sense of like a narrative in the world and...
GROSS: ...a connection to the past and, you know, like metaphors for like understanding your own reality and so on.
GROSS: And it's at a time when a lot of people have like left that world.
BEHA: Yeah. I don't do a ton of hand wringing over that stuff because, you know, maybe this is naive of me but in my day-to-day life I am surrounded by people who are great readers and who love books, and from whom books are deeply important. When I write something and it gets published, I get emails from people who have read it, who have thought very carefully about it, and have very interesting responses that I find illuminating. And, you know, I did live through the period where it was the dominant cultural force, so I'm not comparing my experience to the experience of, you know, novelists writing in the, maybe in the '50s or '60s, where you could be a cultural hero by being a novelist, nor is that something that is particularly an ambition of mine, you know. I'm interested in telling the stories that I feel need telling, and my experience has been that when I do that and they go out into the world, they're not getting the kind of responses that a television show gets, needless to say. They're not even getting the kind of responses that many novels do. But the people who do respond are engaging with them thoughtfully and it's meaningful for them. So I don't, as I said, do this to the level of hand wringing or, you know, Cassandering that some people do about what's happening to the world of books.
GROSS: So one final question. Is there a priest in your life was going to be calling you if they hear this interview and saying, you know, Christopher, come back to the church?
BEHA: You know, there are priests in my life I have - and there are priests who have read the book and spoken with me about it. But they - I don't think that what I'm saying in this interview will be news to them.
BEHA: If they were going to make those overtures to me they would've done it some time ago.
GROSS: OK. Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
BEHA: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Christopher Beha is the author of the new novel "What Happened to Sophie Wilder." He's an associate editor at Harper's magazine.
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by hip-hop artist Frank Ocean who has written songs for Beyonce, Justin Bieber and John Legend.
This is FRESH AIR.
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