In co-ordination with the good folks over at EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing—and as a small part of their online event 18 Days of Tesseracts (September 18 to October 7, more information here)—I hereby present Part Two of my new interview series Writing Gods, featuring email chats with a number of the many authors who’ve contributed to EDGE’s newest (and eighteenth[!]) Tesseracts anthology Wrestling with Gods.
Today’s interviewee: Mary Pletsch
Mary Pletsch is a glider pilot, toy collector and graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada. She attended Superstars Writing Seminars in 2010 and has since published multiple short stories in a variety of genres including science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Mary lives in New Brunswick with Dylan Blacquiere and their four cats.
Visit Mary online at www.fictorians.com.
How did your story “Burnt Offerings” come about?
When I heard the anthology title, I knew I wanted to write about a character struggling to come to terms with his faith. Pretty much every religious person I know (and many of the non-religious ones) have admitted to struggling with questions like: is God real? Is S/He the way I/my faith imagine, or are we getting it wrong? Has one of the other religions got it right? If there is no God, what’s the meaning in what I’m doing? Can we ever know what God wants from us? Does God care about us?
Many people look to clergy for guidance when they struggle, but clergy aren’t immune from these questions. That was my hook: a clergyman having a crisis of faith, who isn’t sure if he really believes in the God he worships. But walking away isn’t an option either, because his career is very literally his livelihood: sacrifice for a cause is all well and good, but he’s not ready to sacrifice for an “I’m not sure.” And because of his position, he doesn’t have a lot of options for people to talk it over with—he can’t admit to doubt. I contrasted him with a young woman so devout she’s willing to risk her life for her belief, and a church official who, although nominally a believer, is more motivated by his own desires than his religion.
What is it about “genre” that makes it such an effective avenue for theological discussions?
Speculative fiction gives us fertile ground to ask “what-if.” On one hand, it’s entertaining to imagine things that are impossible or unlikely in our present reality; on the other hand, it makes it easier, I think, to ask questions and grapple with possible answers when we’re not so firmly tied to real-world opinions, perceptions and prejudices.
When writing about theological subjects, do you ever worry about upsetting someone?
I don’t believe that it’s right to muzzle yourself because somebody might be angry or feel badly because of what you’ve written, but I do believe that it’s important to be honest and balanced, because fictional portrayals often inform how people think about the reality around them. It’s very easy to write stereotypes or to try to make your own belief system look good in comparison with others. That’s not a fair depiction; while there may be a market for regurgitating preconceived ideas to an audience who wants its own ideas confirmed and justified by its fiction, I think it’s more important to challenge people to think about issues and ask hard questions.
I’m not denying that there are wonderful people who are practicing Christians and also people who do awful things despite the faith they profess to follow. But there are other kinds of Christians I rarely hear about in fiction.Many representations of Christians in media are either written with an intent to portray the faith and its practitioners solely in a desirable light (in some cases the story is deliberately written with proselytization in mind, in others the narrative implies that Christians are automatic “good guys”) or else to show how hypocritical and foolish they are (villains such as corrupt televangelists, abusive priests, pillar-of-society with a dark secret). I’m not denying that there are wonderful people who are practicing Christians, and people who do awful things despite the faith they profess to follow. But there are other kinds of Christians I rarely hear about in fiction.
There are places in this world today where Christians are genuinely persecuted for their beliefs. There are people who struggle to reconcile their faith and their fear for themselves and their families. So when I needed a character from a minority faith, I decided I wanted to write someone from a Christian minority, and take Christianity out of the cultural dominance that many of us are familiar with.
Conversely, when I wrote about a corrupt clergyman, I was aware that I didn’t want to demonize any real-world faith. I made up the Kin and based them most closely on my own faith. I asked myself what the dark side of an institutionalized Paganism would look like and this became the antagonist, Pater Donner. All faiths have people who use religion for negative or selfish ends, and it was illuminating to me to see my own belief system that way.
Not every follower of a particular faith is a villain, and not everyone is devout. Groups of people aren’t monolithic like that. My protagonist is someone who’s wrestling with how to reconcile his persistent agnosticism with the cultural, financial, and class obligations that bind him to his profession as a Shaman.
What’s the best novel/story you’ve read with theological over/undertones?
I’d have to say Meredith Ann Pierce’s excellent Firebringer Trilogy. This is a series about unicorns, and their culture is central to the story. The main character, Jan, struggles with his relation to his family, his people, and, yes, his faith. I appreciated the way Jan was able to reject a form of religious expression that used faith as a means of punishment and control without rejecting his Goddess or his faith in her.