WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Patrick! I’ve enjoyed reading your novel so thoroughly, actually setting aside the time to read it multiple times. Something about your language, the story, the rhythm of it is changing. Before we being with questions about the novel, do you mind telling us how you found yourself in writing, how you pursued your career, and what being a writer has been like for you so far? What did your past projects, publications, and art lead to this novel?
Patrick Coleman: Thank you! You know, writing has been the one thing that’s always just made sense to me—maybe because it helps me make sense of things. (I have a bad memory and get easily confused.) So I’ve always done it. The career path hasn’t been linear, in part because life has a way of complicating things, so I ended up writing a book of prose poems and editing and writing for an exhibition catalogue before publishing a novel—but it’s all writing, and it has all be valuable. And the periods of not-writing, too—when there was too much work and there were too many life demands to write.
MT: Do you mind telling us what your writing habits are like? Are you a morning, noon, night writer? How much do you write a day? How and where do you enjoy writing? What is revision like for you?
PC: I’m generally an early morning writer. Having small children who like to get up very, very early has complicated that, so I try to be an anywhere writer now. When I’m writing a first draft, I don’t like having daily goals, so it can vary how much time I put in, and there are times when life (jobs, kids, etc.) makes a mockery of those goals. But you do what you can, and try to trust the process.
I’m obsessed with revision and love it in a way some people might call sadistic. It’s my favorite part: seeing what’s there, letting that seed new generative ideas and insights, and then chucking most of what you’ve done and starting over.
MT: What books and authors have inspired you in your journey not just to this book, but as a writer? What are your favorite crime novels and novelists? Do you have a book you return to when you’re feeling stuck writing, need inspiration, or just simply a good reread?
PC: That’s such a difficult question! I love everything, from the Star Wars novelizations as a kid that are responsible for me being anything of a reader or writer to Joyce’s Ulysses. I don’t come from a readerly family, and I wasn’t “schooled” as one when I was young—so, for example, when I headed off to college, my mom and I went to Costco and got the one-volume move tie-in edition of Lord of the Ringsbecause, in my head, I was thinking, “College: now I have to read the real heavyweight, capital L literature.” I’m glad for that now. Discovering a love for Jane Austen as a twenty-year-old man might be the ideal time, really.
For this book, Raymond Chandler is the obvious influence, but Walker Percy, Patricia Highsmith, Thomas Pynchon, Marilynne Robinson, Augustine, and Søren Kierkegaard hover over things, too, like a set of very odd ghosts. Whenever anxiety is getting the better of me or I need to be reminded of what writing can do, the poetry of Gary Young is a perfect prescription. For crime, the Cass Neary books by Elizabeth Hand are pretty unbeatable.
MT: Do you mind telling us whatever you’d feel comfortable telling readers about your history with Christianity, and how it affects your writing, and how it’s shaped this book? I was raised Southern Baptist, and while I don’t consider myself religion, and I’ve long since cut ties with the churches I was involved with, it involves my writing so immensely. I would love to hear the positive and negative impacts of religion on the book.
PC: I grew up in a Catholic family—not the most dedicatedly Catholic, but it was a strong enough presence. In high school I found myself drawn into a more Evangelical-style church—there was better music and more girls—and I somewhat uncomfortably identified with that for about six years. I’d always struggled with doubt, was always pushing and pulling, but I started to see more of what was harmful in these Christian communities, these Christian cultures—was learning to see more of what was wrong about the world at large—and whether or not I “believed in” God or not seemed to matter less and less. That simple binary of “on” or “off.” I believe in a lot of things, and belief can be a powerful force for good or ill in the world—but if it’s going to do good, belief can’t be easy. It’s going to need to force people to ask very hard questions about themselves, about the worlds they move through, about their gods. So while I miss that feeling of easy belief—of asking God to listen to my fourteen-year-old’s problems and to solve them—I know it’s a nostalgia for something that isn’t good. In that sense, it’s like reminiscing about the time you got wasted but were the hit of the party. Fine for the time. Bad to build your life around recapturing.
MT: When I think of noir I think of a lot of Southern literature, but rarely ever LA literature, or anywhere not related directly to the South. There’s everything from Flannery O’Connor to Lori Roy, especially her new novel Gone Too Long. How did you incorporate religion into your novel successfully, and how do you feel your novel can be compared to these other great writers?
PC: LA noir and California noir have a deep, rich history in literature and in film—think German Expressionist filmmakers relocating to Hollywood because of World War II, people like Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. In fiction, we have Hammett, Chandler, Cain—later Ross MacDonald, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, the future noir of Blade Runner, and all the exciting exploration of the genre being done today, writers like Steph Cha and Viet Thanh Nguyen, in film and television shows like Veronica Mars or Brick, and on and on. I was conscious of working within that tradition—I’m not sure how what I’ve done compares to their work—and yes, you’re right that the religious thread has more often been one pulled on by Southern writers. California, at least non-indigenous California, is very much composed of successive waves of immigrants, and a lot of the very powerful influence our state has had on American Christianity is through Southerners coming west and establishing massive, often national ministries—prototyping new forms of Christian culture here as much as we’re known for new social media startups. There’s just as much of a religious character to Californians as there to Mississippians—many characters, of course—even if it’s a bit more sun-bleached and a bit less explored in fiction.
MT: You write from the point-of-view of (in my eyes0 a very unlikable protagonist. But I love that, as I get bored with perfect protagonists, and I think avoiding complex (and therefore in my mind read) characters, we never actually touch on anything true. How did you craft the narrator, his voice, and what were the tough choices you had to make when developing him?
PC: I’m a very likeable person, which is to say: I’m boring. You want to read only likeable characters? That’s fine. Really. Lots to choose from. Great stories, ones I love, too. And there are stories that ask us to care about unlikeable characters that don’t earn that ask—absolutely. What bugs me, though, is when characters are complex and contradictory because they reveal more of themselves, and that’s why they’re labeled unlikeable. That critical impulse is often particularly nasty when a woman writes a complex woman as a protagonist—which is to say, truthfully and with interiority. That unlikeable label becomes a hammer to any thoughtful engagement or empathy that requires some work on the part of the reader.
I’m not saying any of that necessarily applies to Mark Haines (the protagonist of The Churchgoer). I didn’t think of him in terms of likeable or unlikeable. Hainesisan asshole. But so is Philip Marlowe, and he gets away with it because he makes some clever jokes, is sometimes right, and doesn’t reveal toomuch of himself—he knows how to play the game of likeability just well enough. So that’s was what I wanted to surface a bit more, by letting Haines run mouth and his mind on the page more than usual: the assholery inherent in so many male characters we have, culturally, deemed good and acceptable, role models even. (See the bad fanphenomenon.) And then, in Haines, I was interested, too, in where his particular kind of assholery comes from, and what might emerge from it.
MT: Depending on whether you judge noir as a mode, style, or genre (I took too many classes on the subject in undergrad so I’m still stuck in this debate) there’s this idea for some people on how noir is the collection of evidence, the display, the truth there for you to window shop even if you never buy. Yet, if this is true, what does it mean for a religious, or formerly religious, character who’s participating in this mode/style/genre? How do we walk any sort of dialectic between the narrator’s present and past and the story he’s telling, given all of the conflicting natures inside him (which is part of what makes this book great)?
PC: It all comes back to a relationship to knowledge. There’s an irony in being a believer, which is that you don’t “believe” in the existence of a good God, a savior personally invested in your life—you knowit. You experience that as knowledge. Haines, when he breaks with God, flips that the other direction. He doesn’t believe the world is an amoral pointless shitshow. He knows it is one. Noir, or at least the kind of noir I love, disrupts both of those points of view. It leaves you in suspended complexity, to sort out your own salvation. That’s a good place to be, as a reader and as a person.
MT: The book is set in the early ‘00ss. I constantly am forgetting while reading the book that it’s not set in 2019, even if we have no indication that the book should take place in modern day America. Do you mind telling us a bit about why you chose the time period, how it plays in with the book, and if there’s a major reason or idea behind the time period? (It’s strange to think that, in ways, the ‘00s—everything set then is historical fiction.)
PC: It’s set in 2000–2001. It was important to me to represent that time, which was a unique moment in American culture and in American Christian culture. We’re seeing the fallout of a lot of that today. The cultures have evolved—in some ways for the better, but in others for the worse. Chris Pratt and Ellen Page fighting over whether or not Hillsong is an anti-LGBTQ church wouldn’t have happened in 2000. (Also: it is.) Kanye West and Justin Bieber being the pop faces of Evangelicalism would lead to a very different noir in that milieu. Even Oceanside, where a lot of the book is set, has changed massively from 2001. It’s all flux, right? But in art we’re trying to arrest that, just for a moment, and look more closely. There’s more drama and more magic in the specific.
MT: The book is a great example of steadily building tension and sometimes dread in a novel without piling on dead bodies for thrills (although I’m not necessarily opposed to this sort of book either). Do you feel you took a risk easing into the novel and introducing it as a crime story, even if the true mysteries in the novel don’t begin to unravel until a few chapters in. Although we do get some hints from Mark here and there.
PC: Was it a risk? I don’t know—you tell me! It was the only way to tell the story, from where I sat. A murder on page one wasn’t right for what I wanted to do. Chandler’s books don’t always zip into the action like a Lee Child novel, either. Simenon’s roman dursor Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books can take their time—and when they take their time is when they often do the most interesting things for me, as a reader. And I knew I couldn’t do a bang, bang, rape, rape, bludgeon, bludgeon kind of book. It’s not in my wheelhouse. I don’t have the stomach for it. You write what only you can write, in the end. And ultimately, one question I was interested in was the conflict between whodunnit puzzle-solving—that drive and impulse—and those harder to quantify mysteries and tensions and dreads. So the form has to fit the content.
MT: The country is in a lot of turmoil and there’s fear and hatred clashing in dangerous ways. With a book like The Churchgoer, given the chance to have everyone in the country read this book, what would you hope they take away from the reading experience? Is there an idea, message, or issue you would love for readers to examine and understand better through your work?
PC: It’s all there in reading the book, I hope: looking at anger and its limits, men and masculinity, our religious cultures and their entanglement with capitalism and politics, sexuality and gender. Evangelicalism has carried us, culturally, to some very disturbing places—and not only through its support for Donald Trump and Mike Pence. I’m wary of saying all that, though, because I want Christians of all stripes—Evangelicals and exvangelicals—to read the book, people of other faiths and no faith. I’m not by nature a polemicist, but Mark Haines is. As I’ve been saying to people: he’s not wrong, exactly, but he’s not right, either. I wanted that to be a useful and enjoyable tension for the reader.
But ultimately, I think The Churchgoeris about finding acertain measure of openness to mystery, to difference, to sitting with discomfort and being curious about our own knee-jerk responses—a willingness to contend with not-knowing, in all its forms—and that would go a long way for us these days.
MT: Mark meets a young woman named Cindy at the beginning of the novel, and she works as a catalyst in so many ways. His view of Cindy, his thoughts, his yearnings in the beginning of the novel are uncomfortable for readers to say the least. His relationship with Cindy is not clearly defined, but I suppose that’s the beauty of it—the idea that a relationship can be unique and stand firm in its own ground without being defined by the black-and-white idea of what a relationship “should” be. When going through every part of the development of this novel, how was Cindy first introduced, how did she become a real person and an important person, and how do you feel she drives Mark?
PC: Cindy is, for me, the center of the book. She’s very important to me; I started with her, actually. I’ve written the story out from her point of view. But for a number of reasons, I decided that it made more sense for me to write this entirely from Haines’ point of view. The tension, for this to be a story that it made sense for me to write, was more in how Haines could interrogate the kind of authority Evangelical Christian churches wield against women (among others), which is a part of Cindy’s story, but also his post-Christian white male hero complex, his drive to see conspiracy, to be the only one able to perceive the truth—which isn’t all that different from when he was a pastor. It’s hard to talk about this with spoiler-alerting, but how Mark sees her at the beginning—the kind of story he puts her in—is at war with her own independent life and choices, mostly happening off stage.
MT: How do you explain abandoning a religion and a family at the same time? Do you think the two are closely connected, or—without spoilers—would you say this desertion was inevitable given Mark’s character and personality, or is this change in Mark a greater than what can be explained in an interview? Why might you say the loss of faith a great (and in your hands this case becomes very nuanced) way of approaching crime and loss in a secular world?
PC: Crime fiction is often about finding meaning in a chaotic world: seeing connections and invisible trails of causality, making sense. It’s also very often unrealistic—as much fantasy as The Hobbit—but that’s great, that’s what storytelling and art are all about. Faith works in a similar way. They both give you a story that makes sense, and that can include a story for your personal life—a heterosexual marriage, two kids, the whole plan. When the bottom drops out of one story—when you see that the story you’d considered truth was a fantasy—it’s easy to think all stories are lies. Grief can cause that. Trauma. And it’s probably true, in a sense—but it’s also the best place to build a life from. The two aspects of Mark’s backstory, going from a pastor who believed in the divine creation of the world to a hermit convinced that everything is meaningless, are alternate sides of the same coin.
MT: What’s up for you next? A novel, story collection, some sort of nonfiction? How do you feel this book in particular has shaped, and may continue to shape, your journey thought the literary world? If you can, what might our readers expect from you in months and years to come?
PC: I’m working on the next big fiction project, another genre-bending kind of a thing, but that’s probably all I can say about it for now. And writing new poems, though that’s a part of trying to stay alive and present. But everything is oriented toward the future in a different way, whereas The Churchgoerwas more toward the past—trying to see how we find a way through all of the very scary realities we’re facing down, climate change and political insanity and all the rest.
MT: Patrick, it’s been such a pleasure being able to present these questions to you in an interview, and I hope you’ve enjoyed answering some of them. I hope our readers are able to find copies of The Churchgoerand embrace the novel as an experience—sometimes delightful, more often than not sinister and dread-filled. Thank you again for being interviewed for Writers Tell All. We can’t wait to see what’s next.
PC: Thank you, Matthew! It has be great to talk about all of this with you.