Good nonfiction may teach us what to believe, but fiction teaches us how

The author at work.

I once wrote a novel, The Cloud Atlas, about a priest who lived in Alaska, 390 roadless miles west of Anchorage, out on the tundra in a town named Bethel. It is a real place. The Jesuits have a parish there, Immaculate Conception.

I didn’t want any confusion that my protagonist in The Cloud Atlas was wholly fictional, so I decided he wouldn’t be a Jesuit and I didn’t name his parish. I did name him, though—Louis—because I had an elderly cousin who had been a Trappist monk at Gethsemani with Thomas Merton. My cousin’s monastic name was Kevin; Merton’s, of course, was Louis. The monastery bells rang bright and clear through my every memory of visiting Gethsemani, so I tried that as my character’s last name: Bell. But it was too sweet a name for a character who was not, and so I searched for a hard consonant to make the name more discordant. Bell became Belk.

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And Louis Belk, in my novel, became a man who, long before his ordination, spent World War II in the Army Air Corps, charged with cleaning up a specific type of bomb, one that the Japanese floated across the Pacific to North America using paper balloons. I did not invent the balloons, nor the fact that one of these balloons landed near Bethel, nor that at the crash site, investigators found something unusual in the wreckage: a postcard from a young boy to his father, written in Japanese. There was no record of the message.

Also true: At the time of writing this novel, I had just quit a career in corporate communications. In the wake of a personal tragedy, I had decided that I needed to pursue a writing life with more meaning.

And that meant I had to get this novel absolutely right. I interviewed historians. I interviewed veterans. I asked a bomb disposal expert to review my manuscript; he said I had gotten the bomb details mostly right but that I shouldn’t have my characters take the Lord’s name in vain.

I took his advice. I took everyone’s advice. But just days after the novel was published, I received an email from a man incredulous I had not consulted him. He, like my protagonist, was a World War II veteran. He, like my protagonist, had been in the Army Air Corps. Like my protagonist, had been around plenty of bombs.

And he, like my protagonist, was named Louis Belk.

A twitch upon the thread

He was startled to see his name come up in reviews of my book, a book that appeared to be about him, but was definitely not. He wasn’t mollified by my reply, which borrowed from the copyright page—“any resemblance to persons living or dead....”

Didn’t I want to know the truth?

I do not. And I do. And what I want to do in this essay is explore how and when and why writers choose fiction to find truth. It’s not that I don’t believe in nonfiction. Quite the opposite. Essays, articles, histories, discoveries: good nonfiction teaches us what to believe. But I believe fiction teaches us to believe.

Essays, articles, histories, discoveries: good nonfiction teaches us what to believe. But I believe fiction teaches us to believe.

I’m not the first down this path. It even has a name: Addison’s Walk. Eighty-six years ago, it was on this path outside Oxford’s Magdalen College that three men—Hugo Dyson, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis—discussed the nature and power of fiction, specifically myths. Lewis could not accept, let alone separate, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection from any of a dozen other myths that had a young god dying only to be reborn. “Myths are lies,” Lewis reportedly said, “even though breathed through silver.” Tolkien pressed on. Myths contained truths, he said, but Christ’s story is the truth. Lewis listened carefully. His friend had stirred something in him (and in the weather—most accounts of this evening cite a sudden breeze) and days later, after a motorcycle sidecar ride to a new zoo, Lewis realized he believed in Jesus.

This story fascinates me. I love that sudden breeze. That sidecar. And that Tolkien’s most celebrated biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, bases his retelling of this famous conversation not on a recording or a stenographer’s notes, but on a poem that Tolkien later wrote.

I believe every word of it. The poem. The biography. The story. Even Tolkien’s taxonomy of myth.

But what I believe in most is Tolkien’s focus on the power of story to reach people, move people, even, as was the case here, convert them. I teach creative writing. The first thing I disabuse students of is the notion that it is unserious work. It is work; it has consequences—the chief one being that, when done well, it connects two people, writer and reader, with truths that lie outside them both.

Fiction, when done well, connects two people, writer and reader, with truths that lie outside them both.

I want to be careful with this word truth. In part because the word feels more imperiled than ever, and in part because I want to avoid the trap Flannery O’Connor laid out in an essay, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” which appeared in America in 1957. She writes, “It is generally supposed, and not least by Catholics, that the Catholic who writes fiction is out to use fiction to prove the truth of his faith, or at least, to prove the existence of the supernatural.” But, she adds, “What the fiction writer will discover...is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth…. [F]iction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.”

With this in mind, I want to take a close look at how two contemporary authors transcend those limitations, and in doing so, find truths that are not abstract, but powerfully concrete.

The pursuit of grace

Winner of, among other prizes, the National Book Foundation’s 5-Under-35 award, Kirstin Valdez Quade published her first collection of stories, Night at the Fiestas, in 2015. I count O’Connor and Valdez Quade as kindred spirits; both write vivid, real, human stories—and because such reality is sometimes grotesque, both can disquiet readers as a result. Again, here is O’Connor in that 1957 essay: “[I]f we intend to encourage Catholic fiction writers, we must convince those coming along that the Church does not restrict their freedom to be artists but insures it...and to convince them of this requires, perhaps more than anything else, a body of Catholic readers who are equipped to recognize something in fiction besides passages they consider obscene.”

What I continually recognize in Valdez Quade’s work is the pursuit of grace. Grace is often out of reach of her characters—but only ever just out of reach. If only this cousin or that sister or the pregnant teenager who shows up during Lent at exactly the wrong time, if only they did the right thing, or had the right thing done for them—if only they could see, clearly, the truth, things might just work out, they might just be saved. It is a testament to Valdez Quade’s skill that engaged readers come to see the truth even as her characters do not. “I loved Christina, I did!” a character in one story says of her sister, “I see this now.” But what readers see is the overeager emphasis undermining the assertion.

Readers also see a remarkable work of fiction. The lines quoted come from a startling story, “Christina the Astonishing (1150-1224),” which Valdez Quade published in The New Yorker in July 2017 on the 793rd anniversary of the death of the actual Christina the Astonishing. Never formally canonized, Christina was celebrated as a folk saint for centuries. She led an enormously difficult life, and in doing so, made life enormously difficult for others.

Modern medicine might diagnose her with epilepsy, Tourette syndrome and anorexia, and Valdez Quade’s story offers ample evidence of all this and more. But the short story also makes room in the reader’s mind for the possibility that Christina’s life and works really were miraculous. It does so, daringly, by interrogating the nature of belief itself—starting with the believer who narrates the story. This is Mara, Christina’s older sister, the one who insisted that she “loved” her sister, that she “sees this now.” But she says this from the pews at Christina’s funeral, moments before the Agnus Dei is interrupted by the body of her dead sister rising into the rafters. Cowering below, Mara asks:

How to make sense of this? The young woman up there in the rafters is no apparition. Christina was dead, and now she’s alive, eyes shocked and glittering…. [Christina] grips the beam, her long fingers pressed so hard against the wood—splintered and rough with adze marks—that afterward they will be bloody.

What makes this account seem so real, so true, is not its emphasis on the supernatural—that flight to the rafters—but its relentless focus on the physical: those “bloody” fingers, the wood “rough with adze marks.” The result is that, even though Valdez Quade uses a 13th-century hagiographer’s interstitial titles in her own account, by the end of the story, it comes to feel as if the medieval author has borrowed from the 21st-century scribe and not the other way around. Discussing this story, Valdez Quade told an interviewer:

Human progress is the result of our need to understand and explain the mysteries of the world around us…. However, I wanted to complicate the flat narrative of her holiness without undercutting it. After all, who am I to say whether or not Christina talked to God? What do I know about the sources of insight and grace? In my story, Christina flies.

Saints and sinners

Ron Hansen, the novelist, deacon and Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. Professor in the Arts and Humanities at the University of Santa Clara, once had, like Valdez Quade, a difficult interview question put to him. The subject was not the metaphysics of flight, but something trickier: Catholic fiction. How to define it? Before concluding that the notion was “probably more functional in the classroom than it is in criticism,” Hansen observed:

[P]erhaps finally [what] distinguishes a Catholic fiction writer from all others is the Yes-And rather than the Yes-But approach to their subjects. Perhaps because of our experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we can see good and evil existing side by side and within the same person. We can see our tendencies toward meanness and sin just as tangents or interruptions to our striving for holiness and perfection….

I find Hansen’s take wise; I see this Yes-And in Valdez Quade and elsewhere. As Hansen later points out in that same interview, readers can see it in many authors, regardless of religion. And in fact, though it took some time and much reflection, I eventually saw it in me.

The supernatural and real

In 1986, I stood graveside in a strange cemetery I thought I’d never see again. The dead—many Irish, all Catholic—are familiar, but what they’re doing is not. Beneath the soil, one of the deceased smokes “roots of grass that died in the periodic droughts afflicting the cemetery.” Next to him, his wife weaves “crosses from the dead dandelions and other deep-rooted weeds.”

(CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
(CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Those words are not mine, but William Kennedy’s, and they come from his 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Ironweed, which opens in St. Agnes Cemetery in Albany, N.Y. It was his book that transported me, a high school senior in Ms. Sylvia Rousseve’s Advanced Placement English class at Loyola High School in late-1980s Los Angeles, to stand (to imagine I was standing) alongside Francis Phelan, in late-1930s Albany, as he peers down at the grave of his infant son Gerald, who died after Francis accidentally dropped him.

I am not really there. I am there. As we did for Christina the Astonishing, let’s hold both as true for now, because this is what fiction does, and sometimes not euphemistically. It moves you. Over the course of Kennedy’s novel, Francis will spend three days wandering Albany, enduring one misadventure after another among Albany’s down-and-out. The story is gritty and emphatically real—except when it is not, as in these opening pages, when Kennedy describes the dead in their graves as animated beings who can who smoke roots, weave crosses underground and witness the comings and goings of human flotsam like Francis Phelan.

This was like nothing I had ever read in English class. The supernatural and real, presented seamlessly, without pretense or pretext.

This was like nothing I had ever read in English class. The supernatural and real, presented seamlessly, without pretense or pretext. Kennedy was not the first author to do this, but he was the first to do it for me. His fiction, in short, made me believe: in Francis, in those fidgety dead parents and most significantly, in the novel’s claim that though Francis’s infant son Gerald had, in life, “only monosyllabic goos and gaahs in his vocabulary…[he] possessed the gift of tongues in death.” Lying in his grave, Gerald understands the “chattery squirrels” and “slithy semaphores of the slugs and worms.” And the infant tries, very hard, to communicate with his wayward father, attempting to impose on him “the pressing obligation to perform his final acts of expiation for abandoning the family. You will not know, the child silently said, what these acts are until you have performed them all….Then, when these final acts are complete, you will stop trying to die because of me.” Does Francis hear him? Kennedy doesn’t say.

I know I heard. I heard Gerald and Francis and William Kennedy besides, and I heard in those words what fiction could do, does: erase boundaries, marry minds, ignite feeling. In me was ignited the desire to do this for someone else, to conjure fictional lives that were really real. Then, there, I wanted to be a writer.

But I also wanted to know what happened at the end of the novel; it’s ambiguous. Though the novel has followed Francis on a roundabout journey of redemption, when the key moment arrives, Kennedy suddenly switches gears—and verb tenses—leaving a naïve 17-year-old like the one I was wondering about the truth of what lay ahead for Francis after the book’s last page. So I did what Sergeant Belk would do decades later. I wrote the author.

Sergeant Belk wondered why I wasn’t interested in the truth of his life, but that was just one more coincidence: Seeking the truth was what drove my protagonist, my Sergeant Belk, on his journey through my novel. What had really happened on the tundra so many years ago? How had that boy’s note to his father come to be found? Who was he, then? Where was he now? Idly googling his own name, Sergeant Belk had found me, but I wonder if he ever thought of it another way, that my book had found him, the way Kennedy’s had me. He didn’t say. I offered to send Belk a copy of my novel. It went unclaimed.

Fiction makes life

Ms. Rousseve was stunned, and so was I: William Kennedy had sent me a reply.

I still have it. It’s short, typed on personal stationery. He thanks me for my “good words” and politely declines my brazen invitation to visit our class, a mere 5,000 mile round trip for him.

And the truth about what happens to Francis Phelan? “I will say this,” Kennedy writes. “Francis Phelan’s future is impossible to predict, but the book is meant to record his condition at the end of his odyssey of redemption.” The emphasis is his, and so, too, the demurral: He couldn’t tell me how the story ultimately ends.

Thirty-one years later, I can. I can tell you a story of standing amid tombstones in an ancient Catholic cemetery, above an infant’s grave. This is no longer Kennedy’s story, but mine. We’re not in Albany, but Washington, D.C. The cemetery is not St. Agnes but Mount Olivet. The baby’s name is not Gerald, but Lucy. She died just before she was born, just days before she was due. No one ever dropped her. On the contrary, as afternoon darkened into night, we held her until we couldn’t any longer. And soon after, I changed my life, because I could no longer do the work I had been doing; I needed to write the truth.

What I know now is that the root of the word fiction means “to make,” and what fiction makes is life.

What I understood of William Kennedy, of fiction, when I was the age my students are, was that it was magic, fun. As for truth, I thought it best located in nonfiction. What I know now is that the root of the word fiction means “to make,” and what fiction makes is life. I have written about swimmers searching for a friend in a flooded town, about a hunter searching for a bear a scout wants to save, about 140 characters circling a convent someone needs to save, about a family searching for their father in Paris, about a real boy who attached a real postcard to a massive paper balloon 103 feet around at the end of World War II and sent it sailing because he knew of no other way to reach his long-lost father, only that words would take him there.

What I mean is this. I know that child. I know that father. Now you do, too.

The truth? Fiction moves us, engages us, finds for us truths we may not have recognized when first presented to us as fact. Fiction teaches us agility, the importance of leaping from word to meaning, and the pleasure that’s to be had in doing so. Fiction teaches us empathy—with characters whose lives lie far beyond our own, or are so eerily similar they seem identical; with a sister, ill or prophetic or both, clawing at the rafters; with an infant who never got a chance to speak in life, but in death now speaks with such eloquence a father thinks he can hear the words and will forever, though the voice itself is inaudible.

Listen, the voice says. Believe.

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