Up until recently, I have not garnered any Amazon reviews for the 4th installment of the Hard Cider series, which caused me some concern: Was it a flop? Did readers hate it? Was I beginning to fall down on the job? With any series, there is always the possibility that one or more books won’t measure up, and I worried about that, even though I put as much care and effort into Sins of the Father as with any of my other books. Well, a review finally rolled in this weekend, and it was, to my dismay, a one-star. But when I read the review, which was rather lengthy, I felt relieved at first—the review wasn’t really about my book at all, although it groused about the mystery not being quite up to snuff (fair enough; it’s more of a family-saga story). But I was greatly dismayed by the apparent purpose of the one-star: It was to punish me for daring to write about an allegedly transgender male, who, with an unmistakable calling and the best intentions possible, enters a monastic order.
“I’m not a transphobe,” the reviewer demurs, but then goes on to note that bothersome “hip, trendy, New Catholicism” seeping into everything, and my supposed motive being to force the Church into accepting something it apparently doesn’t wish to accept. Moreover, I’m not sure, but I think the review itself might be deeply offensive to transgender people in general, suggesting they are not “normal”; and that would be reason alone to ask Amazon to remove it. I will do that eventually. But first I’m going to put that review to use as a springboard.
I knew, when I chose to write about a religious order in this day and age, I was choosing a bumpy path. I’m literally damned if I do and damned if I don’t: Liberal Catholics will complain about my over-attention to ancient and traditional practices and esthetics; conservatives blast me for being irreverent. And since Amazon, whose bots are unable to classify me into any distinct mystery genre, put me in “Cozy” and “Christian” mystery categories, too many readers assume that my tales are sweet, head-in-the-sand mush that won’t require them to think or worry too much about a Church that seems mismanaged and in desperate need of change. And boy, are they mad when that turns out not to be the case. Sorry, but even as a Catholic in good standing, I cannot present an ideal and unchanging Church as the backdrop for my books.
I write fiction, but I also believe in telling the truth. Taking the advice of the great fiction mentor John Gardner, I try to allow my fiction to mirror real life—warts, controversies, difficulties and all—so that it can take on a life of its own, and provide an authentic sort of vision to the reader. The Church is in trouble, and as an author, I am simply trying to document it all in an honest way, without either excessive praise or condemnation. It’s a real tightrope, and I’m especially prone to falling off. I suppose I do lean a bit left in Brother Rattlesnake, but I was really outraged by the whole Archbishop McCarrick fiasco, especially since I actually met McCarrick once in his heyday and thought him a decent guy. Otherwise, I would have written Hard Cider as a period piece (I did consider that, and thought of placing it in the 1950s, before Vatican II).
I admit I was utterly intrigued by the idea of a person of uncertain gender entering religious life. How would that play out? And in Sins of the Father, I’m not pushing any kind of agenda or philosophy, I’m simply presenting a possible scenario. Gabriel, the character in question, isn’t really transgender; he is only claiming the true gender he feels he was born with, physically, but was taken from him shortly after birth. There have been true, documented cases of this sort of thing occurring, and it seemed to me a dreadful injustice. Would you add to that injustice by barring the person from a fulfilling religious life? My critic claims by creating this kind of character, I’m giving legitimacy to all transgender people (!!) Wait—didn’t the Pope himself say, if they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? Maybe the reviewer gave him a one-star review, too.
If you’ve read my series, you know I am all about inclusion. (Yes, I know, there should be more female characters, but the Church hasn’t created co-ed monastic institutions yet) And this is incredibly important to me, because many of my nearest and dearest—family and friends both—are not all white or straight. Or Catholic, or believers! The greatest commandment, as Paul says, is love, and that really the only thing I’m pushing in my books. Love, tolerance and truth.
This past weekend I got to travel down to almost-heaven West Virginia, and participate in the West Virginia Book Festival, which took place in the capitol city Charleston. I couldn’t have picked a better weekend to go, although it was quite warm for an autumn weekend (a toasty 98 degrees on Saturday). The famous friendliness of West Virginians was on display everywhere. I met plenty of avid readers, and was deeply impressed by the strong commitment to the arts and to literature in this Appalachian state. The stereotypes the state gets stuck with—poverty, ignorance, hillbillies making moonshine—really don’t reflect a rich and complicated culture of people with a unique take on the world. I can’t wait to return.
At the festival, I shared a table with fellow members of the Mystery Writers of America. But only two of us had any connection to West Virginia (a member of Wheeling joined us, but the rest of us were NYC area denizens) I was in a unique position to connect with the attendees, most of whom lived nearby, since I was not selling books, but giving away copies of my audio book. Next year I plan to have my own booth, devoted entirely to Hard Cider Abbey! I was also invited to join West Virginia Writers Inc, which I certainly plan to do: Anything to promote books and literacy in that wonderful part of the country.
On the way in, I had driven straight across Pennsylvania to the town of Newell, which sits at the very top of the northern Panhandle. I thought it would be interesting to follow the Ohio River all the way down to Parkersburg. And it surely was. In Newell, I stumbled upon, by chance, the Homer Laughlin Tent Sale—I had not realized the famous and colorful Fiesta potteryware was made here, and well…now I’m a big fan. I came away with a few pieces for my kitchen…Driving through Weirton and its vast post-industrial landscape was an eye-opener, as was the literally hundreds of coal barges and coal-filled railroad cars I saw, glittering black in the sun, as I drove along. I got lost in Wheeling, which otherwise looks like a seriously interesting city; and believe it or not there were spots where the Ohio looked quite blue and serene, amid a verdant mountain backdrop.
I took my time returning home, visiting the Charleston Farmer’s Market (where I got my Halloween pumpkin); then made my way into the heart of the state to breathtaking New River Gorge, where I drove over the famous bridge and did a bit of hiking around the other side of the river. It wasn’t quite autumn yet, and as I drove back, I was delighted to see the trees gradually brighten into shades of gold and red, the further north I drove. I spent my last night in West Virginia on the far eastern Panhandle, in the town of Hazelton, east of Morgantown; but in the morning, couldn’t resist one more country road adventure, instead of just jumping on I-68 east, and took a meandering curvy and hilly road up into the Youghiogheny area of Pennsylvania, and eventually onto the Turnpike and home.
Sometimes reviewers claim I’ve gotten it all wrong about West Virginia and that I don’t really know anything about it at all: But that’s only based on their experience of the state. And there are many different ways to experience West Virginia: Urban, suburban, rural, literate, illiterate… The thing is, despite its small population, WV is so diverse and changes so much in character from mile to mile, you can’t always get a specific handle on its character in general. I was comforted, however, at the things I got right. I actually saw a billboard, We Buy Ginseng! in the southern part of the state—you’ll remember I mention that herb in HCA. There are not many Amish or Mennonites in WV, I will confess (also portrayed in HCA), but they are quite abundant in the neighboring states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, so it’s not unlikely a few brave families would end up in the Mountain State as well. And a lofty mountaintop in central-middle-eastern West Virginia would be the perfect place to found a Cistercian-style monastery; I’m certain Thomas Merton would have thought so.