Your story “An Accounting” traces the accidental foundation of a new religion in the American Midwest. How did your own religious beliefs inform the story?
I grew up Mormon in Utah, so I was part of a fairly intensive religion in a state where it was the dominant cultural influence. It thought of itself as a day-to-day religion more than a Sunday religion, and so infected a good part of one’s other activities. Now I’m an excommunicated Mormon and am fairly far outside of it, but am still fascinated not only with religion but with the ways community forms around religious belief. Mormonism purports to have started in a very unlikely way: with a revelation from God given to a 14-year-old boy. That a religion might spring up from the situation in “An Accounting” strikes me as just as likely . . . I like, too, the idea of the reluctant prophet, which is something that had a huge impact on me when I was a kid. Things like Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, to name the one that’s probably struck with me the most. (But also things like the Thomas Covenant series, which I haven’t reread recently.)
Do you agree with the narrator’s statement that, “What takes place beyond the borders of the known world is not to be judged against the standards of this world”?
Well, yes and no. I don’t think you can help but judge things according to your situation, and that that’s necessary if only to establish the grounds for the distance that needs to be crossed by empathy. Having said that, there’s also the implication in the story that the narrator has very specific, even selfish, reasons for saying what he does, that he has an audience he wants to convince, and may in fact be lying. How reliable he is or is not is a question the story revolves around.
I very much enjoyed the dark humor in your story. “[Finger] tasted, I must reluctantly admit, not unlike chicken” was unexpected in the writings of an (admittedly accidental) savior. What do you think is the role of humor in religion? Is there a place for it?
I think there’s a huge role for humor in fiction, even in dark and/or dramatic fiction—that it can give an interesting texture to what might otherwise be relentless. I see my own fiction as twining strands of darkness and humor that never quite blend into one another and that leave both the darkness and the humor in a position where they can occasionally shock or surprise the reader.
In terms of the role of humor in religion, I think that religion tends generally to use humor pretty badly—to enforce a message or to reassert a hierarchical arrangement. It’s generally safe and sanitized. Very rarely (except for maybe in Buddhism) is humor allowed to move in a direction that’s anarchic or chaotic or really surprising—which is what I find delightful about humor. I do think that religion would be much richer as a cultural activity if humor was more actively a part of it.
You said in an interview with raintaxi.com that, “Hopefully the reader’s relationship to [“An Accounting”] is very complicated by the end, his or her allegiances unsettled.” In your own reading, do you prefer stories that have that effect? If so, can you recommend your favorites?
Yes, I genuinely do prefer stories that leave me unsettled, that keep me thinking long after they’re gone. There are lots of stories or novels that do this, but I’ll just mention two or three. In SF, probably my very favorite is Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, in which each of the three novellas seems to partially erase what you think you learned from the novella that came before, so that by the end you’re left in a very interesting place. I’d say something similar about Brian Conn’s novel The Fixed Stars, which is also excellent, though that does it by weaving together different strands through the course of a whole novel rather than doing it consecutively. In (so-called literary) fiction my favorite is probably William Trevor’s story “Miss Smith,” which makes you have to switch your allegiances halfway through the story, and then leaves you at the end not sure what to think. It’s an intense experience, and one I’d like to try to replicate in my own work.
What’s next for you?
Good question. I’ve got an idea for a sequel to my novel Immobility and I might work on that. Or I might go back to a project I’ve been working on about a schizophrenic and the strange relationship he has with his uncle. I’m always working on stories as well . . .