Q: What sort of sins?
Off the top of my head: pride, ambition, lust, anger, and greed, plus offenses against faith, hope, and charity. (The latter are less exciting on the face of them but, ultimately, more grievous.) I'm not trying to convince anyone of my holiness. Maybe of my interest in being holier than I am.
Q: That's what you're getting at with True Confessions Of A Young Catholic?
Not just that. Happily, I was allowed to turn my gaze outward as well as inward. I got to write about things that affected my spiritual life — books, movies, events in the Church and in the general culture. And I got to write about the ways in which my spiritual life led me to interact with the world. Hopefully, that helped keep things interesting. There's a wonderful moment in the animated version of Watership Down where Bigwig says to Fiver, "It's 'Me, me, me,' all the time. Frakah! I'm finished with you. And what's more, I'm going to make sure everyone else is." The scorn in Bigwig's voice has stayed with me. It's a memoir, but it's not all about me.
Q: The book is published under your own name. Why abandon the pseudonym?
Because I'm sure that no one I know will read the thing. I'm kidding — well, mostly. I do think that most of the people who read it won't know me, and it's always easier to tell your secrets to a stranger. But the main reason was that the column was me musing on stuff, while the book is my life story. It seemed silly to put someone else's name on it.
Q: So, back to the circumstances that led to its publication.
Judith Moore, who usually writes this column, interviewed Paul Elie about his book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own. It was a sort of literary biography of four Catholic writers: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy. The latter two are great favorites of mine. Growing up, I had no notion that there were authors who had addressed being an American Catholic in the 20th Century, or any kind of Catholic in any century. Then, during my freshman year at college, a friend of mine introduced me to Percy's Love in the Ruins. Regarding the novel, Percy once wrote to his friend Shelby Foote, "What's it about? Screwing and God (which all Catholic novels since Augustine have been about)." I found the book hilarious and wonderful — the intersection of screwing and God makes for fertile fictional territory. Plus, it was remarkable to see someone being funny and wry about Catholicism without simply attacking it. My appreciation of O'Connor came much later. I needed a little more age to understand the violence of grace that she depicts — like the screeching of bent metal being unbent. I still take her in small doses.
Elie gave a good interview about The Life You Save May Be Your Own, and I was curious about the book, but I also noticed that Elie's day job was as a senior editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Here was this young guy working high up in the publishing world and writing about these Catholic authors. If he was interested in them, I thought he might be interested in the columns, in part because I was interested in those authors as well. And FSG was my dream publisher. They had published Catholics like O'Connor and Percy, but their reputation was built on literary excellence, not religious piety. I wanted my book to engage the world — ahem, delusions of grandeur, ahem -- and FSG seemed the perfect way to do that.
Q: Delusions of grandeur aside, how were you hoping to engage the world?
I was hoping it would show that there were in fact young people — I'm 31 — who took the faith seriously but who also took the world seriously and who were aware of the difficulties that each presented the other. I'm acutely aware that a number of my beliefs — that bit about contraception, for example — will seem outdated, quaint, or downright insane to a modern-minded audience. I was hoping that that awareness would make me — and my beliefs — a little more approachable — "I think he's a loon, but at least he knows I think he's a loon."
I also wanted to show there were young, hopefully thoughtful Catholics who still believed in the old things — the devil, confession, the Eucharist, the saints, chastity. In some cases, it was enough that these things had been handed down to me. Twenty centuries of tradition is not something you cast off lightly; neither is the faith of your parents, especially when you see that faith make a serious difference in their lives. Other things I accepted, or accepted more completely, because I had investigated them for myself and found them worthwhile. My formal religious education was spotty — I don't think I went to confession between the ages of 13 and 18, though I certainly needed it. It wasn't until I left home and went to college that I started to really appreciate the sacrament.
Q: So you sent the manuscript along to FSG, and...
Elie passed on it. "Passed" is a gentle euphemism for "rejected." But he did offer encouragement and some kind words about the writing. He suggested I try a Catholic publisher.
Q: Did you?
No. I had this foolish pride that made me determined to get published through a secular house or not at all. First, I thought that the stamp of approval from a secular press would validate me as a writer more thoroughly — I would be getting published purely on the strength of the work and not partly because the work fit the publisher's mission. Second, I imagined that publication by a Catholic press would mean that only Catholics would read it, and I was hung up on engaging the world. I didn't want to preach to the choir.