The Interview Question I Couldn’t Answer

When you publish a book, especially a novel, you learn to predict what the questions will be. You can predict them so well that your media kit can have a Q&A to answer just about all of them.

But after the book had been out for a while, I began to hope I’d get a question I’d never heard before. An original, unusual question. A question I couldn’t answer.

When Skip Jennings interviewed me, I got my wish.*

Skip hosts an internet radio show called The Shift, where he interviews people who have something interesting to say about transformation. Skip’s vocation is as a “transformational coach,” whose approach to fitness brings other and deeper changes in its wake. He was funny and gracious and he put me at my ease. Before we went on the air, he told me that his own family had a close connection to one of the great transformations of the 20th century, the Civil Rights Movement. He hails from Selma, Alabama, and his grandparents and parents marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in March of 1965.

Skip asked me, “What was your spiritual journey in writing this book?”

The notion of the spiritual journey, the road from before the after and the transformation along the way, is a story that entrances Americans. We never get tired of it. We love all of its secular forms—the struggle to lose weight; the surprise of the makeover; the way that decluttering our houses or remodeling our rooms changes our lives. It comes from a book that sank deep into our national consciousness early in our national life: John Bunyan’s allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. The Pilgrim makes a journey both real and metaphorical, past the worldly enticements of Vanity Fair and through the darkness of the Slough of Despond to reach the glory of the City Upon the Hill.

But I hadn’t gone there. I hadn’t made that kind of journey. I was pretty much the same person after I wrote the novel as before—tireder, but not transformed. I didn’t want to disappoint Skip and his listeners by saying so.

But I’ve had a long time to think about the answer, and there is a transformative journey that every writer of fiction undertakes. It is the journey undertaken by the characters in a story, which start out as the haziest of images or the merest whispers of words. Who take shape as the story unfolds. Who start to propel the story of their own accord. Who—every writer of fiction has experienced this—take possession of the writer’s mind, and of the hand that holds the pen or taps the keyboard, and start to write the story themselves. The characters become real. The word becomes flesh.

That’s the journey.

*If you’re interested, you can listen to the entire interview here.