An Interview with Brendan Kiely, by Celia Johnson
March 24, 2014
New York Times bestselling author Colum McCann describes The Gospel of Winter as “both unflinching and redemptive.” Unflinching is a word that often came to my mind as I read Brendan Kiely’s debut novel. His protagonist, Aidan Donovan, is the victim of sexual abuse. And there are other problems. He dabbles in drugs and is, like most teens, clumsily trying to figure out his own sexuality. Donovan isn’t the only flawed character in Kiely’s book. In fact, none are simply heroes. But therein lies the beauty, at those points when some of his most troubled characters commit truly heroic acts. The Gospel of Winter was published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, a Young Adult imprint at Simon & Schuster, but as I discussed with Kiely, among other things, this book, in its unflinching sophistication, is clearly for adults, too.
In your novel, you explore child abuse within the Catholic Church. What drew you to write this particular story? And were you nervous about tackling such a difficult subject?
The story of the worldwide abuse and the cover up of that abuse within the Catholic Church seemed to me a broken promise of the worst magnitude, and while the news media had done an excellent job exposing the scandal and investigating the institutional problems, I wanted to write a novel that moved beyond the news stories and honored the young people who had to experience that broken promise firsthand.
Many people, and many people I knew, felt betrayed when journalists revealed the enormity of the problem—I felt betrayed. I’d grown up “culturally Catholic,” as my brother and I call it: our extended family was mostly Catholic, most of our friends and their families were Catholic, and we both went to Catholic school. We’d learned that the cornerstone of the Catholic faith was love and compassion. After the scandal broke, the degree to which priests and church officials had corrupted those fundamental values sickened me. And worse, the victims had had to speak up themselves in order for this reality to come to light.
The Gospel of Winter is not a memoir, but I wanted to add another voice to this cultural conversation—to write a novel that highlighted the struggle of the kids who were brave enough to speak up and tell friends and family that they had been abused. I admired the strength of those young people and I wanted to write a novel that honored them and all those still searching for the strength to find their own voice—they are all survivors.
I wasn’t nervous about tackling the subject, but I did want to do my best to honor a reality not my own. I teach high school, and one of the most interesting questions I’ve been asked about the book came from one of my students, who asked if I thought I had a right to write someone else’s story. Aidan’s story is not drawn from one particular case, nor is he pulled from a collection of cases, but he is the subject of a story that rings true for many people, so she asks an important question. I believe in the imagination, and I very much believe in empathy, and in fact I think the two go hand-in-hand for any character-driven story. It requires some level of empathy to get into the sensibility of real people—as my friend and fellow writer Chris Ross often reminds me, “you have to love all your characters, faults and all,” and I try to do that when I write. But, and this is a serious but, I don’t believe we can truly know what it is like to fully experience what another person experiences. That rings false to me. At the same time, I don’t think we should languish in a world in which the only acceptable writing is memoir. So, as I told my student, if we are going to write stories that are not our own, we have to listen and do the emotional research (not just the technical research) necessary to be accountable to those people whose lives are close to the fiction we write. In that sense, I was nervous, and I’m still nervous—I think that’s a good thing and I want to continue to write in ways that force me to remain nervous and uncomfortable, so that I’m always compelled to try to do a better job.
Your teen protagonist and narrator, Aidan Donovan, is fully realized and complex, from his heroic potential to his tragic flaws. Were any aspects of this character more difficult to capture than others?
Aidan’s a tough kid. He’s cynical and depressive. He’s world-weary and he doesn’t trust adults and their lies. And all this is compounded with his coming to terms with the realization that he has had an abusive relationship with his priest. He’s also funny and witty and trying to figure out what it really means to love someone, despite his traumatic experiences. Keeping all of this in the balance was difficult, especially in the scenes in which Aidan is trying to engage in sex with his actual peers. I sometimes think it sounds strange when a writer says, “I just let the character take me where he wanted to go,” but in truth, that’s often what happens. I did have plot points in mind, and I even had a sense of how I wanted things to end, but I didn’t know what Aidan was going to be like in these scenes, or who he’d be with, and in some sense, because I tried my best to stay as true to his voice as I could, he did lead me. In this way, when Aidan made some of the choices I disliked the most in the book (on a gut level), the scenes in which he makes those choices were the hardest to write, but the most necessary for the narrative.
Are there any tools you must have at your desk? A brand of pen or a lucky keepsake, for example.
Usually my desk is a mess, and I clear off just enough space to work, but that doesn’t last very long, and then I find myself working at the kitchen table for days on end before I go back to the desk, and repeat the cycle. Usually it is the same kind of mess: stacks of books that I hold dear and need nearby to reread for inspiration; loose pieces of paper that have a line or two about some information that may or may not relate to what I’m working on but when I found it, I thought, “Oh, my God, this is perfect for the story!”; scattered receipts that I intend to organize but will eventually throw out; a half consumed package of Halls or two—I’m addicted to those things. The mess is usually worse on my desk at home. My desk has always been a mess—it was habit and now it just feels cozier this way. (At least I don’t leave dirty dishes around (usually).) I do try to keep the rest of the space organized, however. The bookshelves are arranged by category, and alphabetically by author within each category, and once I’m deep enough into a project, I hang a pushpin board on the wall and construct little organizing charts and graphs with series of differently colored notecards. All of this is probably a distraction from doing the real work, but I find it helps! Right now I’m looking for a giant road map of the United States that I can hang on the wall that will double as a map for the novel I’m working on now.
Your prose, in its sophistication, will impress adult readers, and yet it is accessible enough for the target audience, young adults. What is your impression of YA/adult crossover trends in today’s marketplace?
Thanks! I’m thrilled The Gospel of Winter has attracted both YA and adult readers. It is published by the awesome team at Margaret K. McElderry Books of S&S, and John Corey Whaley kindly praised the book, so it is first and foremost a YA book, but Colum McCann, A.M. Homes and Frederick Tuten all generously endorsed the book as well and, like them, I believe the book is also very satisfying for adults. I appreciate that you locate this line between the two markets in a question about the prose. I go to readings at bars in New York after which people stand around for hours talking about the writers’ prose; I also sit in my classroom and listen to 15-year olds discuss why they appreciate Edwidge Danticat’s prose in her story “Seven” more than Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” According to CNN, 16 to 29-year-olds are the largest group checking out books from their local libraries. And I believe that even while these younger people are hungry to use art and entertainment as windows into new experiences and ideas, they also want to see something of themselves reflected in a text, so it makes sense to me that most YA books feature a teen as the main character and/or narrator.
But what then makes a book “adult,” if it features a teen narrator or main character? I know there is a lot of discussion these days about what constitutes a YA vs. an adult book. Is there something inherent in a text that drives it one way or another? Why was The Lovely Bones, for example, an adult book (a book, by the way, that had a huge influence on my own writing process for The Gospel of Winter) and there are over 100 books on a Goodreads list that is specifically devoted to YA books that discuss and/or depict rape?
Would Catcher in the Rye be considered YA today?
Here’s a short list of books many of the kids read where I teach high school: Crime and Punishment, Native Sun, Moby Dick, Frankenstein, As I Lay Dying, Sula, Rabbit Redux, The Joy Luck Club, The Things They Carried, and in my classes, I have my students read what I consider to be some contemporary classics like Ceremony, Salvage the Bones, and Open City. Yes they have the advantage of reading these texts with a teacher and their peers, but as I look at the online forums like Goodreads, or Library Thing, and the hundreds of other blogs dedicated to pop culture which create a space for literary discussion, I think teens who read speak to each other about books all the time, and I think teens are excited to talk about psychologically/emotionally difficult subject matter, or conceptually difficult subject matter, and that they are willing to tackle it in texts that require concentration. Like these teens, I enjoy gathering with my friends (but more so in person, and preferably at a bar), to talk about what we are reading.
I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the chatter from teens and readers under thirty as they’ve read my book, and I’ve been lucky enough to hear feedback from older readers, too, all of whom have appreciated the book for different reasons. I’m honored that people have read it and connected with it and I’m hopeful that readers of all ages will engage with the book more in the future.
In your acknowledgments, you mention the camaraderie of your fellow MFA students at The City College of New York. How crucial was the MFA to launching your career?
Getting an MFA and pursuing it at CCNY in particular were essential to me. I’d be nowhere without the patient and wise advice from professors like Linsey Abrams, Felicia Bonaparte, Fred Reynolds and David Groff. They rekindled my love of literature, and writing, and ideas, and reminded me why I was writing, why I was writing this novel, and how I might think more carefully about my writing life professionally, when it came time to do so.
In addition, I met friends, and after class we’d go the bar and continue our discussion about each other’s work, or about other books we loved, authors we wished we’d read, and I filtered all of that, distilled it into something I could use as I worked on my fiction—I’m grateful to all of those friends and classmates for inspiring me and introducing me to new ideas and keeping me relatively sane in an otherwise fairly insane pursuit. I mean, really? Wouldn’t it be healthier for me to spend all the time I write going to the gym, instead? What sane person puts the free time between sleep and the job for over six years into a project, and just says, “fingers crossed somebody else will think it is worth her time?”
Also, (and most importantly to me!) I met my wife, Jessie Chaffee, at CCNY. We fell in love with each other’s writing, and then each other, or, maybe it all happened at the same time—a rush of possibility and connection—and I’m grateful our lives are now bound together with books and ideas and each other.
Has anything surprised you about the publishing process?
I’m lucky that in my first five years in New York I worked in book publishing and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the folks who work in publishing, from the editors to the designers and production team to the copywriters to the sales, marketing and publicity folks—all of whom put in more hours than many might imagine. Publishing a book is a collaborative process, and I feel grateful to be part of the team and family at McElderry. Ruta Rimas, my editor, was fearless from the get-go, and I’m thrilled we’re working together on this book and another one. And even before the book got to S&S, I was one hell of a lucky guy to have Rob Weisbach as my agent. He believed in Gospel from our very first meeting, and together we haven’t looked back.
Are you at work on another book?
I am. It’s a road trip novel that’s about trying to salvage the hope of impossible love. It’s called The Last True Love Story. A beautiful, depressed boy partners with his elusive crush, the love-weary rock-girl next door to spring his Alzheimer’s afflicted grandfather from the assisted living facility. In a quixotic race against time, they speed across the country from a small town in California to New York City to track down the boy’s father’s mistress, learn the truth about his death, and take the grandfather to the church in which he got married one last time before his memories of it and his wife slip away forever.
Author photo by Gary Joseph Cohen
Brendan Kiely received an MFA in creative writing from The City College of New York. His writing has appeared in Fiction, Guernica, The AWP Writer’s Chronicle, and other publications. Originally from the Boston area, he now teaches at an independent high school and lives with his wife in Greenwich Village. Find Brendan on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/BrendanKielyAuthor
Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice. She is also a writer, most recently of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway. Find her on Twitter at @celia_blue.