Editor’s note: Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers recently interviewed Doug Walrath of Strong about his first work of fiction, Naked Believer. Walrath will be at the bookstore for a reading and book signing session 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 15.
It would not be going too far to call Doug Walrath Franklin County’s foremost religious scholar. Apart from a distinguished academic career at the Bangor Theological Seminary he is the author or co-author of 10 books, including Displacing the Divine: The Minister in the Mirror of American Fiction. What would happen, you may be wondering, if Doug tried his hand at writing fiction? Hmmn. The answer lies in the pages of his just released novel, Naked Believer. To find out more we caged him into this Daily Bulldog interview.
Kenny: Naked Believer is set up to have two people, both intellectuals, friends arcing into a love relationship, represent a conflict of perspectives, secular atheism versus religious faith. They are people that represent ideals, but the fact of their humanity, their individuality, comes across as more important to the secular Mary than it is to Walter. Is that intrinsic to the ideals or personal to the two of them?
Doug: I suspect Mary’s humanity and individuality may come across stronger to some readers than Walter’s because that’s part of the nature of being a disbeliever. Believers like Walter tend to have a group identity; they are often affiliated and identified by some organized religion they affirm.
Disbelievers often stand alone. What disbelievers don’t support is more evident than what they do: they don’t affirm traditional faith—that’s clear, but then they have to tell us what, if anything, they do believe. That need to describe gives them more individuality. Mary not only doesn’t believe, she is very clear about why she doesn’t believe it. She has to explain that both to Walter and the reader—which gives her more individuality.
Walter is a surprisingly gentle Calvinist who affirms the standard Calvinist package of beliefs. Because he’s a minister most of us assume we already know what he stands for. So, most of the time Walter doesn’t have to define what he believes; he just has to defend it against Mary’s challenges. And that turns out to be surprisingly more difficult than he anticipates.
Kenny: In that same vein could the story have had a different ending with different protagonists who shared the same differences as Walter and Mary?
Doug: I’m not going to be a spoiler and give the ending away! But I will say that it could have ended differently. It ends the way it does because that’s the way I think it had to end for Walter and Mary. But the way it ends for them is not the way it would have to end for everyone. Part of the fun of reading the novel is trying to imagine a different outcome than the one I wrote.
Lots of people these days find themselves in an intimate relationship with someone who holds beliefs that contradict or oppose theirs. How people who care about each other but who also hold conflicting worldviews get along with each other depends more on their personal characteristics than what they do or don’t believe. In most novels published by religious publishing houses the believer is a heroic and morally superior character who wins; at the end of the book the unbeliever capitulates and sees the light and becomes a believer. That plot line seems naïve to me; in my experience it’s not the most common outcome in the real world.
Kenny: Tell us a bit about the, umm, genesis of your book. How did you come to write it, and do you feel about it as you expected to?
Doug: I wrote Naked Believer because I wanted to and because I could. When I was working as a church executive and then seminary professor I was expected both to keep up in my field (practical theology) and contribute to it. Over the years I wrote 10 books that could be termed “professional books.” The last book I published, Displacing the Divine: the Minister in the Mirror of American Fiction, is a 200-year history of the portrayal of Protestant ministers in American novels. It took me almost 10 years after I retired to complete the research and write this book.
When I finished that huge project I was both free of the burden of writing it and also retired. I realized I could write anything I wanted to. I’ve always loved to tell stories; over the years people told me they bought my professional books partly because they enjoyed stories I used in them to make my points. So, I decided to write fiction.
The switch from non-fiction to fiction involved a much bigger learning curve than I saw at the beginning. People read non-fiction mostly for the ideas embodied in it; people read fiction for the people embodied in it. We enjoy a novel when the people in the novel engage us. We may learn something from them along the way, but that’s secondary. Most of all they have to move us emotionally. They have to be credible humans.
Many of us had imaginary friends when we were children. My fictional characters are like that to me. I get to know them as I create them. They come alive inside my head and I listen to them talk and I write down what they say. Sometimes I wake up at night and they are talking so loudly that I have to get up and listen to them and write down their conversation on the 4 x 6 cards I always keep on the night table beside my bed. I just wish they would organize their conversations into chapters and plot lines, but they leave that to me to do!
How do I feel about the novel? I like the people in my book. They have gifts and foibles, like we all do. I feel with them as they struggle to make their way. I hope others who read about them will as well.
Kenny: Thanks Doug! And we are looking forward to your reading at the bookstore.
That reading will take place 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 15 at the bookstore.