The Rumpus Interview with Scott Cheshire

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For a long time, American fiction has tended to avoid the kind of questions found in Scott Cheshire’s High As the Horses’ BridlesAs a 2012 Paul Elie essay in the New York Times Book Review asked, “Has Fiction Lost it’s Faith?” Elie, who’d written a quadruple biography of the Catholic writers Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy, had surveyed American fiction about faith and found it wanting. “Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time,” he claimed, “as something between a dead language and a hangover.”

Depending on how you read it, High As the Horses’ Bridles could be considered the proof for or the refutation of Elie’s point. On the one hand, Cheshire is not a believer. Raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, where he used to give sermons as a child, Scott left the church in early adulthood—a trait he shares with his narrator. On the other hand, this is rare book of modern fiction that treats questions of faith with the same kind of passion brought by the serious, thoughtful, religious adherent. Its opening is a tour de force in which a twelve-year-old child, Josiah Laudermilk, delivers an apocalyptic sermon to a crowd of thousands in 1980s New York. The excitement of the apocalyptic sermon comes across with all the power any believer could wish for. But the novel’s contemplative middle, in which Josiah returns years later to see his father, and its feverishly intense end, set in a tent revival in the 1800s, give a layered richness and depth to our understanding of what has happened to our narrator, to his faith, and to his family over generations. The character of Josiah Laudermilk, a divorced non-believer trying to both care for and relate to a father whose intensely ascetic religious practice is threatening his health—is a challenging, moving, and provocative addition to the tradition of American religious writing.

I’ve been arguing with Scott about religion for a long time. The conversation below, which took place at Housing Works bookstore, where Scott wrote much of the novel, is a continuation of many conversations we’ve had over the years about religion, about faith, and about the American canon of religious literature.

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The Rumpus: The novel begins with a quote from James Berger: “Apocalypse is our history.”

Scott Cheshire: I love that line. That comes from a really fantastic introductory essay to a literary journal. But the really great thing about that is, look at the date of it.

Rumpus: Winter, 2000.

Cheshire: The whole thing is about how America has lost its sense of what apocalypse is, and then a year later, we become obsessed with it. Or, at the very least, we certainly think of 9/11 as the beginning of something, a transition—we’re now living in special times.

Rumpus: A notion you are very familiar with, having grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness. Why did you leave the church?

Cheshire: It’s definitely the fault of books. You know how in the back of a Bible there’s a large appendix with commentaries—the word in Greek is this, in Hebrew is this. And I found myself pouring over that in church. It was more interesting to me somehow, because nobody was paying attention to it. It looked more exotic and strange. And that led me to commentaries on the Bible, and then histories, and I kept rising higher and higher, and my perspective shifted, and then all of a sudden I’m reading Moby Dick.

Rumpus: Was that a turning point for you?

Cheshire: It scared the hell out of me. I was maybe 20, and I probably didn’t understand a word of it, but I knew the references. I know who the Biblical Ishmael is. In a way it was like when I first found Whitman. There was something Biblical about it. It made a convenient threshold.

Rumpus: There’s a tradition of American religious fiction—Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor…

Cheshire: Walker Percy.

Rumpus: Of course.

Cheshire: I love all those books. With Percy, it really is The Moviegoer, for me. I’ve read all his stuff but that book…

Rumpus: Do you see yourself in a conversation with that American canon? Or in argument with them?

Cheshire: Well, when I first read people like Robinson or O’Connor they scared me, but in a good way. In a completely overwhelming way. Because they were using my own tools against me. I was frightened that they were able to make something so beautiful—to me Gilead is so gorgeous—that I could fundamentally disagree with. So my reading and my writing became a conversation with those books. For example—in Wise Blood, which I love, I was on his side. The Church of Christ Without Christ, go for it. But that’s the product of an angry young man, and eventually that goes away.

Rumpus: Your book doesn’t read angry…

Cheshire: No.

Rumpus: Though early drafts did.

Cheshire: You know what happened? Two things. Alex Gilvarry, at one point, said to me, “You know you’re funny. How come your writing isn’t funny?” And someone else, it might have even been you, said, “You know you’re a nice guy. Some of this is not very nice.” And that was a big epiphany for me.

But the second thing that happened, and the much more profound thing that guides me now, started when I was reading Paul Tillich, who talks about a God above God. And while he is making a Christian argument, I was more sympathetic to that idea. Everybody, especially Americans, are very proprietary when they talk about God. But now, when I ‘m reading those books, I’m thinking of that.

Rumpus: Something much more abstract?

Cheshire: For instance, take Walker Percy. He talks about a vertical search and a horizontal search and at one point he leaves the vertical search and just does the horizontal search. It’s his time of wandering. And I find that him just literally wandering the world, truly trying to see what’s around him and what it makes him feel, it reads holy to me. The same thing with Gilead. It’s a book about the land. And I really enjoy abstract stuff, too, but I rarely get a holy feeling from it.

Rumpus: So the sense of place…do you find it particularly American?

Cheshire: Sure. If you look at it from the very begininning, it’s all about literally moving the border. Manifest Destiny—it’s definitely about land. I know now that I’m very moved by writing that’s about place. There really is a different perspective when you grow up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses—neither bad nor good, but it is different. I used to be angry and I’d say it’s bad, but no, there are lots of different ways to live, to see and experience or guess what the world is. But that particular way is very death-focused—this is all going away and we can’t wait for it. Come soon, come soon, come soon. There’s something very unstable about that.

So I know when I read about place, I really like it, it makes me feel at home, it’s very comfortable. But the stuff that works best—I’m usually hesitant to use words like holy or sanctified, but around you I tend to—it’s when it defies the physical, in a way, by means of the attention paid to it.

Rumpus: One of my favorite sections of the book is just the taxi ride to Josie’s father, when Josie wants the driver to take a long route through his old neighborhood, and there’s this rich description of Queens that gets invested with all the emotionally complicated feelings he has about it.

Cheshire: I lived in California for a little while, and when I moved there that physical culture is really what allowed me to leave the Witnesses, actually physically changing my landscape. I found myself walking around the beaches a lot, and through towns, and I looked at the trees and the plants. It was completely different. And I felt like, I’m in a totally different place, now I can be a different person.

Rumpus: Eventually you moved back to the East Coast, you met your wife, Kate, and she’s the one who convinced you to go to college, right?

Cheshire: Totally. At age 33.

Rumpus: The age of Christ crucified.

Cheshire: Don’t think I didn’t milk that for all it was worth. I think I wrote a thing in the college newspaper called “My Jesus Year.” College was the best thing that ever happened to me, aside from Kate. Because I’d been reading like crazy, but…imagine you’re a book lover but you’ve never been in an English class before. And all of a sudden, at this age, at this level of focus and curiosity, you sit down in an English class. It’s like Heaven.

Rumpus: You’ve talked before about the importance of the community, particularly in a tight-knit group like the Witnesses. But in your book the father has withdrawn from the church into this absolutely individual, absolutely death-focused variant of religion. There’s this tension between the vibrancy and life that a community gives and the intense death-centered focus of what that character represents. Why?

Cheshire: Well, first off, my instinct told me to do it, so I did it. But also, again, there’s a bit in James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience…he tells his audience that if you want to understand something, you should look at its perversions, what it’s capable of in its more extreme variations. And there’s something in that I found myself applying to Josie’s dad. I took the elements of Christian ritual and exploded them, and depleted them.

Rumpus: By separating him from the community that gives rituals life?

Cheshire: The idea of nostalgia is very interesting to me. The Witnesses have a very different attitude toward history than your average evangelical. They are entirely nostalgic. They believe there was only one church in the first century, and we have to get back to that. And every denomination of American Protestantism makes that claim, in one way or another. No you don’t have it, we have it. So I applied that to Josie’s father, and in his attempt to be completely religiously authentic, it ironically requires him to remove himself from his community, making him more like an Old Testament prophet.

Rumpus: And of course, that withdrawal it not simply about religion, but about the death of Josie’s mother, a subject you treat in another way in the last section of the book, where there’s this sense of what the apocalyptic tradition can solve for the child who goes to the tent revival.

Cheshire: There’s a line from Harold Bloom’s The American Religion, “When death becomes the center, religion begins.” When I first read that, I thought to my self, “You see. You’re all crazy. You’re all death nuts. You worship death.” And now, I read that differently. It makes sense. You could also say, “When death becomes the center, literature begins.” There’s a great line from Delillo in an interview once, when he’s asked what’s the new book about he says, “Death. What else is there?” So the book, for me, was about death in a way. But death is no thing at all, to the best of our knowledge, if we’re not going to make a religious leap. So then I realized I had to write about a nothing. So I realized that the absence of something was, for me, a good way to talk about death. So, the child who goes missing…

Rumpus: Or what happens to the house when the mother is gone.

Cheshire: I wanted the book to have that absence, a void, somehow. But also, I was writing about his whole loss of faith, which is never actually dramatized because there’s no single day it happens.

Rumpus: There’s no epiphany moment. It’s just a sort of slow process.

Cheshire: And that, for me, was the whole point. But then, as happens in a novel, things conflate, and are drawn to each other. And those two things moved together.

Rumpus: Your parents are still in the Witnesses, right?

Cheshire: Yes.

Rumpus: Have they read the book?

Cheshire: Yes. Before I gave it to them I wrote them a three-page letter basically saying, here’s what this is. I told them, friends of mine have written first books and had problems with their families because their families understandably assume it is them. This is not you. Mom, you’re alive and well. Dad, you’re alive and well. Josie is not me. And then I ended it with the Scripture about Jacob wrestling an angel. This book is me wrestling with an angel. And then my Dad called me when he’d read about half of the novel, and I think it was the first time we’d acknowledged to each other that I wasn’t doing this. But I think mostly they really appreciate that all of the questions they grapple with as believers, I grapple with seriously as well.

Rumpus: As an adult, non-believer?

Cheshire: Yes. And in a book. And without being condescending or being cheap.

Rumpus: I remember talking to you before the book came out and you were worried people might have interest in the religious elements of the book as a sort of freak show. Like a TV program going, Look at these snake handlers. That the emphasis might be on the externalities that are considered strange rather than taking these people seriously.

Cheshire: Absolutely.

Rumpus: What have you found in the reception?

Cheshire: Well, one thing that has helped in stemming that off is my increasing comfort with my own religious background. William James actually says there are two kinds of people in the world, the religious and the non-religious. Both are defined by their relationship to the world. The religious agree with it. The non-religious agree to it. It sounds so succinct, and too pithy, but the more I think about it…it’s pretty good. It’s a pretty good definition. And it means they’re concurrent. It’s just the endpoint where they differ. So the more I became comfortable with saying, Here’s the religious way, and here’s my way…

Rumpus: You thought you were going at cross purposes to the religious path but you’re actually going parallel.

Cheshire: And I would go so far as to say that anybody who takes this stuff seriously…

Rumpus: God?

Cheshire: God. Life. Existence. How we got here, where we’re going. If you’re taking it seriously, you and the religious temperament are right up alongside each other. And I was uncomfortable with that for a long time, but now I embrace that. My ex-Witness friends have all read it, and I’m happy to say all were shocked that I didn’t write a book that demonized anybody.

Rumpus: Did the process of writing the book teach you not to demonize them?

Cheshire: Absolutely. And that really happened when I started reading the histories of the American religious movements—the Pentacostals, the Millerites, the Mormons, Scientologists. And two things happened that were very important, not just for the book but for me as a person. The first is that I felt, which I’d never felt in my whole life, I felt American.

Rumpus: In the Witnesses you’re totally neutral.

Cheshire: You don’t vote. You don’t go to war. You’re raised to cast your vote for Christ and that’s it. And there’s something to be said for that. There’s something admirable about that. But I had no sense of place. No sense of who I was. And also because, in some ways, your blood line, your family, is supplanted by the church. So reading this stuff, all of a sudden I felt, Holy Shit, I’m not just American. I’m really, really American. Because this is the product of America. There was no personal Jesus before America. It was invented here.

Rumpus: It goes with that individualistic strain.

Cheshire: Absolutely. And all of a sudden I felt very American. I started reading Emerson, and I realized, Shit, I know this language. I know this convoluted, beautiful, yearning language. I get that. So that happened. And the second thing that happened was that I saw, among all these strains with many similarities there’s one thing that goes through all of them, and that goes into Emerson, and goes into Whitman, and goes into Melville, is transcendence. Or the longing for transcendence. And when I realized that, I got very sad for a long time. Because I realized, Oh that’s what makes us human, and that is what my religious bent boils down to. And that’s why I’m drawn to certain books which make me feel I’m reaching for something, but I can’t get it. I probably have condescended, or thought ill, in the past, to certain types of believers. But now I don’t look at them with anything other than the sense that, I get it. You’re looking for something. I am too.

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Featured image © Beowulf Sheehan.


Phil Klay is a Marine Corps veteran and a graduate of the MFA program at Hunter College. He is the author of the short story collection Redeployment. More from this author →