A Conversation with David Guterson
Q: How did you come to write a novel about marian apparitions?
A: Hope, faith, desperation, doubt, and greed all coalesce quickly around marian events, and those were all things I felt compelled to write about. More, when I started to read the historical narratives—the stories that unfolded in places like Lourdes and Fatima—I saw that these stories had predictable conventions, and this interested me, because I love to work in existing forms, and I began to feel enthusiastic about the artistic challenge of telling an apparition story in a modern context. In sum, it was just a matter of giving more thought than I previously had to a phenomenon I was already aware of and always interested in.
Q: Always interested? Why?
A: Because like most people I’m psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually dissatisfied with the notion of the divine offered up to us in the west, which is divinity devoid of the feminine. We all know at some level of deep disturbance that the God put before us by Judaism and Christianity—the image of Jehovah as a wrathful male, the image of the son of God as a merciful presence, the notion of the Holy Spirit, which feels genderless—doesn’t square with what we sense at the level of the unconscious, which is that no conception of the divine can be complete without a feminine component, and probably not without a major feminine component. The Gnostics knew this, and that’s one reason the early church squashed them. For the Gnostics, or at least for some of the Gnostics, Jehovah was a sub-deity; at the center of the universe was the Divine Mother, the embodiment of wisdom. The worldwide and enormously popular cult of the Virgin Mary exists because at a grassroots level human beings yearn to give expression to the feminine divine, and to worship it, and this explains why to this day we have cult-like apparition events, even in modern countries.
Q: Are you Catholic?
A: I’m not. I was born to Jewish parents and grew up in an atmosphere of secular humanism and general agnosticism. I remain to this day agnostic myself and am not a member of any organized religious group and don’t attend a house of worship. So in this book I do what novelists do. I get outside myself, away from my own experience, and write about people who are not like me—in this case, I write about Catholics.
Q: You mentioned that historical apparition narratives, such as the story of Bernadette at Lourdes, have conventions.
A: That’s right, and they’re as follows: First, the apparition usually unfolds in a time and place where there is a particular travail at work, such as famine, economic hardship, or upheaval in the established church. Second, the seer is generally a young person, often a girl, or a group of girls, or a group of children, generally of very modest means, humble, incidental, maybe even illiterate—barefoot children. Third, the seer is doubted, and doubts herself, and is inclined not to speak of what she has witnessed, but Fourth, is compelled to speak of it by Mary herself. Fifth, there is grassroots interest and support, Sixth, there is official church doubt and official church investigation. Seventh, there is a message and sometimes a miracle, such as the discovery of holy water, and Eighth, the church is finally forced to come to grips with popular support for the seer and make some accommodation to reality.
Q: Is there any connection between your novel and the scandal in the Catholic Church involving pedophile priests?
A: None. It may be in the news, it may be about Catholics, but it has nothing to do with my book whatsoever, which I started writing years before these stories about priests emerged in the press. Just a coincidence, I suppose.
Q: What reaction do you expect from the Catholic Church or from Catholics generally?
A: Some people may be aghast to find that the priest in my novel, Father Collins, is a human being who doubts his vocation and experiences sexual desire. There are plenty of people who would prefer the priest they’ve learned to expect from television and the movies—a priest who isn’t really a human being, in the end, someone flawed and conflicted. There are probably people who will be aghast to find that the seer in this novel is a 16 year old drug-addled runaway, a girl who has had an abortion, a thief and in her own mind a whore, a rape victim addicted to antihistamines—people were aghast about Bernadette too, at first, people were aghast at Saint Francis of Assisi, many were aghast about Jesus himself—and maybe some of the people who will object to the portrayals in this book would have scoffed at Jesus if they’d met him.
Q: Your story is set in a depressed logging town in Washington State.
A: Yes. I lived temporarily in a very small logging town and took a lot of mental notes. And what I found was a lot of unhappiness, a lot of physical and emotional abuse, a lot of self-abuse, alcoholism, violence, masochism, irrationality, political extremism, a general brutality of the spirit that was very disturbing. Put that together with rain, gray skies, federal policy conspiring against you, unemployment, and the presence nearby of many flourishing high tech liberals with coffee cups—it all makes for something very bizarre and for me, tragic, captivating, and finally ironic—ironic in the sense that such a horrifically depressing community sits in the middle of an exquisitely beautiful rain forest. Ann’s apparitions unfold in this forest, which is appropriately moss-hung, dense, and mysterious.
Q: Church officials in your novel undertake an investigation into the authenticity of Ann Holmes’ apparitions, and there is much discussion of a protocol for this. Does the church indeed have formal guidelines for investigating marian apparitions?
A: It does. There is an official process known as “discernment” which informs every significant report of a marian apparition. It is the church’s position that the entire body of divine revelation is offered to us in the person of Christ, and that nothing new can follow, so instances of private revelation, such as marian apparitions, are either false or, at best, visitations that only confirm his teachings. The seminal texts on the discernment process are Father Augustin Poulain’s The Graces of Interior Prayer, published in 1901, and more recently, Father Benedict Groeschel’s A Still, Small Voice. These texts guide the process of discernment and give a sense of structure and definition to priests and diocesan committees charged with determining whether an apparition has any validity. They are in character conservative and rigorous but they do not close the door altogether on the possibility of valid apparitions and they remind us that the church has to some extent sanctioned prior apparitions, such as Bernadette’s apparition at Lourdes.
Q: Has the church sanctioned any of the marian apparitions reported in this country?
A: None. And we’ve had our share. It’s interesting to note the peculiarly American Nature of apparition events here, the tackiness and commercialism, the strange Polaroids people exchange, the videotapes, motels, campgrounds, muddy parking lots, the rosaries and chaplets for sale—I tried to bring this element of it into my story, and I enjoyed the nexus of spirituality and contemporary culture as I wrote. But the church has sanctioned apparitions elsewhere—most notably at Lourdes, but at places like Fatima and Garabandal, too. Fatima is interesting because it generated a set of secrets—information from Mary which was to be held by the church until such time as it could properly be released—possibly an apocalyptic message. There is often something apocalyptic about marian apparitions, the sense that we are being warned by Mary that God is angry and that she can only intercede for so much longer before His wrath descends.
Q: This is a common role for Mary—Mary as intermediary. Standing between us and the wrath of God.
A: That’s just one of her myriad roles. Over the centuries she has been manifested in a variety of female permutations. As the subservient handmaid of the Lord often, but also as a mediator, as the Queen of Heaven, as the Mother of God, and also as divine in her own right and not merely human. It took centuries of pressure from ordinary people who insisted on it by their very worship, but finally the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception, her divine birth, became church doctrine, and then, after more centuries, the Church finally affirmed, in 1950, what millions of Catholics already believed—that Mary had ascended, body and soul, into Heaven, like her son before her.
Q: In an era when religious zeal has become central to global politics, your story seems perhaps pertinent to the moment. Is that what you intended?
A: No. I wrote 90% of this prior to 9/11. I didn’t conceive or develop OUR LADY OF THE FOREST in the post 9/11 context, and I didn’t revise or re-think it in light of 9/11. Although I must add that the events of 9/11 produced in me an excruciating period of inactivity as a writer. And during that time, I did note that what I’d been doing in OUR LADY OF THE FOREST might be relevant to where we find ourselves. We feel, as a nation, that peculiar and unsettling sensation of the lost, and like the seekers in the forest who inhabited this story in droves, we’re inundated by both desire and fear.
Q: SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS is a mystery. OUR LADY OF THE FOREST is a mystery too of sorts. It asks if miracles really do happen, or if they are the product of real life ingredients (antihistamines, pot, etc.) as they come up against the human condition, all propelled by the only thing we have to hold on to—hope. Does it matter if the miracle is real or imagined? Your novel doesn't direct the reader to believe one way or another. Why did you choose to remain open ended about this question? Talk about our "need to believe."
A: Whether the Virgin is literally present is irrelevant. What matters is that people believe she is, and because they believe it, their lives are altered. The fact that passionate belief can generate this kind of transformation constitutes a kind of miracle. We don’t believe because there are miracles; on the contrary, there are “miracles”—complex, gradual, nuanced changes in our lives — because we believe. And as you say, I don’t direct readers to believe anything one way or the other. That, of course, is not the novelist’s role. I’m not a preacher, a priest, or a rabbi. And stories aren’t sermons. They exist to prompt in readers a confrontation with the human condition. They raise questions, but they don’t answer them. They entertain, and in so doing, they create a context for reflection. Reading, we pause in the course of our lives to ponder insoluble questions.