The Sacred Act of Art-Making: A Conversation with Patrick Coleman
I first met Patrick Coleman in graduate school. Though he was a year ahead of me, we ended up in a few classes together, including a small seminar on novel-writing taught by the warm and irreverent novelist Samrat Upadhyay. It was in this class that we ended up reading each other’s very first novel drafts.
The novel—well, the novella, really—that I wrote for that class is buried so far back in the proverbial drawer that it will probably never see the light of day. I wrote it, I submitted it to the class, I got (some very wise and valuable) feedback on it, and I put it away—if not indefinitely, then forever. That novella was set in the Midwest; half its characters were Creationists. Me, I was a Jewish liberal from New York who’d lived in the Midwest not even two years. What did I know of my subject matter? The best lesson I learned in that seminar was, “Write what you know.” Ever the obedient student, I started researching the neighborhood I grew up in. That research eventually grew into Self-Portrait with Boy.
“Write what you know” was not a lesson that Patrick Coleman needed to learn. Nothing came more easily to him than those excellent passages wherein his descriptions of San Diego seemed to bristle, to breathe. His prose evoked—cleverly, humbly, lyrically—his hometown’s heat and its mystery, its beauty and its hypocrisy, its dark underbelly and its relentless sunshine. The way it feels both superficial and deep, like a prayer circle at a hair salon at the end of the world. That even back then, as a student, Patrick knew instinctively to follow the perverse obscure path that this project revealed for him, speaks to his writerly wisdom, I think.
So it goes without saying that I have a great deal of admiration for Patrick, for his process, and for the stunning debut novel that The Churchgoer has become. It was a great pleasure to talk with him about all of it for The Rumpus.
The Rumpus: There is something noir-like about this novel. Like other readers and reviewers, I was reminded while reading it of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Of course you are writing about San Diego, and Chandler’s setting was Los Angeles, but it seems to me that, what with the eerie SoCal mystery, and the ugliness that lurks behind the blue skies and great weather, you are kind of his spiritual heir. And yet The Churchgoer does not fall neatly into any genre or category. To what extent were you toying with the tropes of the noir and/or mystery genres? Do you find it useful to consider genre—structurally, process-wise, or otherwise?
Patrick Coleman: Thank you! I was very much thinking about Chandler, particularly The Long Goodbye. He wrote that book in La Jolla, while his wife, Cissy, was slowly dying. It’s his most elegiac book, the one in which he bends the rules of pulp detective fiction the most. A reviewer at the time said, “Marlowe is less a detective than a disturbed man of forty-two on a quest for some evidence of truth and humanity.” And that’s one of the things I loved: that this thoroughly compelling detective story painted a surprising, sharp, almost George Grosz-ian portrait of so many aspects of Los Angeles at the time. I was angry about the California I’d grown up in, about the America I was living in. I wanted to tease some of that out and push and pull against that form.
I was especially frustrated with the usual way you don’t get to know much about the detective/protagonist, and thinking about the almost mythical place that figure occupies. Typically male, right about everything, quick to violence but with a handle on good-vs-bad in a way that most of us can’t manage in daily life. Everything else came out of that—the choices with other characters and the plot and the style of the narration as it evolves through the book.
I never thought of myself as a genre-oriented or genre-bending writer before this. But it turns out it’s really deep in my DNA. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I first became a reader and a writer, which was thanks to Star Wars novelizations, then the Expanded Universe, and pre-Internet online storytelling RPGs set in that world on services like Prodigy. I used to feel really ashamed to admit that, but I’ve been back reading in that world and around it, and at least as of right now this kind of thinking about genre is very much a part of the next book I’m working on. I like thinking about formal expectations, and then screwing with them. For example, I desperately want to write a stand-alone novel about Chewbacca that’s deeply sad and existential and nearly plotless. I don’t think Disney would be into it.
Rumpus: Oh my God, I love that idea. Disney might not be into it, but I bet a lot of people would be!
I want to ask you about your protagonist. Mark Haines is a lapsed Evangelical pastor, a man who’s lost his faith, and the mystery he finds himself attempting to solve is woven into the fabric of this megachurch community. If you don’t mind my asking, do you have personal experience with that world? How did your own history and character inform Haines’s?
Coleman: Religion has always been important to me, and complicated. I grew up in a family of loose Catholics. We were semi-regular churchgoers. I made it through first communion but not confirmation, and still got those classic inheritances of a Catholic upbringing.
In high school, I found myself through the usual forces (friends, girls) drawn into an Evangelical community. I’d say I identified with that (with complications) for five or six years. Then I pulled away. There’s a line in a Bill Callahan song called “I Feel like the Mother of the World” where he sings, “God is a word, and the argument ends there.” It became clear that what I meant by the word “god” and what they meant were different; we weren’t speaking the same language anymore. The questions that they’d deemed worthy of asking and the ones they’d made forbidden, those started to come together into a picture of the world that didn’t match the world I saw. And I could see how much damage that view could do.
So where I am now is complicated—kind of inarticulable by design. I’m not being coy, and it isn’t atheism or agnosticism per se. But I miss that feeling of pure belief, the comfort of it when it’s clear. Even as I recognize its limits. As I recognize, of course, its tremendous power in both the lives of individuals and how our societies function. I’m critical of it, but I suspect religion still has some good and important roles to play.
Rumpus: The central mystery of your book has to do with the disappearance of a girl Haines meets by chance. Haines seems to struggle with his role not just as a former pastor, but as a man, a hero, and a sort of savior, himself. I found it a thought-provoking look at a certain kind of white, cishet masculinity, particularly given our current climate, in literature and in America. Was an interrogation of masculinity a conscious part of your project here? And do you have broader thoughts on the political responsibilities of the white, cishet male writer today?
Coleman: Absolutely. Especially in revising the novel, that was one of the bones I wanted to gnaw at more and more: how that white male hero complex had transferred from cowboys to detectives to pastors to presidents. I don’t know what larger thoughts I have about the responsibilities of white, cishet male writers today, beyond that those writers need to think about it, and seriously. I think about how much I’ve learned from listening to and reading writers different from me—in the last year, in the last five years, in the last twenty years. So I mostly want to keep listening, and seeing how that filters into my compulsion to write, to tell stories. Because I love to write and to tell stories. It’s the only way I make sense of the world.
It’s something I love getting into conversation about, because I don’t think there’s one answer here. The closest I get to a solid answer is on the business side: we need more editors of color, more queer editors, more editors with disabilities, etc. More marketing managers, book buyers, etc., of the same. So that the right publishing teams can buy and know how to promote the best books by a more representative sampling of writers from around the United States and the world. It’s changing, but slowly. I saw this statistic the other day that only five percent of children’s books represent Latinx characters. Latinx writers are writing those books! The five percent is on the publishing side, right? And in the pipeline, too, that helps emerging writers find a path toward success—MFA programs, community workshops, etc.
But for the writers, I don’t know. I think we need white writers writing about whiteness. Men writing about masculinity. Artists interrogating what it means to be alive at this time and in this place, in whatever formulations that takes… What do you think? Does this come into play for you in your writing, or in the conversations you’re having? How do you think the place for white women writers has changed?
Rumpus: I don’t know. This definitely comes into play for me. One thing I’ve been feeling is a lot of humility about my role in the world. A sense that my voice may not be the most important voice to listen to right now. That maybe my role at the moment is not to take up space so much as to make space. One thing I’m going to be in a position to do as Editor-in-Chief of Epiphany is to publish more writers of color, more queer writers, more marginalized voices. I’m very excited about that.
It feels like an important time for all of us, particularly white people, to be listening. Intelligent listening includes examining and reexamining the power dynamics we all engage in, and holding ourselves responsible. In my view, fiction is a unique medium with which to examine the power dynamics in which we all participate. With fiction we can interrogate violence—from small, banal, everyday violences and microaggressions like slander, gossip, manipulation, undermining people, and making unchecked assumptions—to great, big, operatic violences like rape and murder—and we can interrogate love, in all its forms, too.
Coleman: Agreed. Listening connected to action, to changing behaviors, and a kind of ego-check about not needing to talk up all the space. Lu Rile [protagonist of Lyon’s Self-Portrait with Boy] is one of the most memorable characters I’ve read recently, and kind of darkly inspiring in that regard: cunning and yet a little naïve, empathetic and ambitious, lonely and looking but bracingly self-serving (not in a pejorative sense). She needs to take up space. How did you find your way into her head? Were there women artists or photographers (or writers, for that matter) who you looked to for inspiration?
Rumpus: Having majored in art history as an undergrad, and having grown up with an artist mother and art-writer father, I came to the novel with a reasonably extensive knowledge of women artists of the twentieth century. I read and thought about Diane Arbus a lot. (Lu Rile is an absolute kitten compared to Arbus!) But the majority of Lu’s character came from within me. That’s not a brag; to a lot of readers, Lu is pretty unlikable. In order to write her I had to write things I found a little abhorrent. I had to investigate some unpleasant parts of myself.
One big difference between Lu Rile and myself, during the years I spent writing her, was that I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my work. Lu is referred to as “ruthless” and “single-minded,” and she barely understands what people mean when they refer to her that way. She says something to the effect of, “Of course I’m single-minded. After all, I have only the one mind.” She never questions her creative approach. Me, on the other hand? I spent years working on this novel, but the work was sporadic and halting, often discouraging. I had very little faith, at times, that the novel would ever be published. I would never have referred to myself as ruthless or single-minded.
There are other differences, of course. Lu is a disloyal friend, a negligent neighbor, an irresponsible employee, and a mean, ungrateful daughter. As a loner who prioritizes her creative work above all her personal relationships—and a fictional character, of course, for whom the consequences of those character defects are fictional, too!—emotionally, she can more or less afford to be all of those things. I meanwhile—I, who am not fictional, who live in the real world—try to be a good person in all the ways she isn’t. I value my human relationships. I have a sense of responsibility. Still, sometimes, I wish I were more like her. I wish I had the chutzpah to consistently put my own creative work ahead of everything else in my life. In retrospect I suspect I invented Lu because I needed a radical creative role model.
Coleman: I can see how necessary and useful that could be, creating your own fictive creative role model—someone to believe in! I found myself wishing I could be a little more like Lu, too. WWLRD bracelets?
Rumpus: Love it! I’ll put you in touch with my publicist.
Coleman: Now, we’ve both written about the art world in some capacity, and it is its own kind of cult, its own religion. Like Evangelicalism, there’s a power structure, a system for establishing personal worth and achieving earthly glory through a central vehicle that purports to be about Higher Powers—god, truth, beauty, whatever. They both have deep histories of sexism, racism, and abuse that inform contemporary biases. Tell me about your approach to representing the New York art world of the 1990s. Did that change the way you view the intermingling of art and business around us today? And what about those higher callings—where do you see them finding space, or being of value?
Rumpus: There is a section in my novel where Lu goes to the Cloisters, which is essentially a castle full of Medieval treasures in uptown Manhattan, with a student of hers. They spend some time looking at stained glass windows, Jesus on the cross, relics and illuminated manuscripts, and so on. In the novel it’s just kind of there. I don’t elaborate or editorialize on its meaning. But I was certainly thinking about the way that visual art became disentangled, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from religion. The art world that Lu navigates in her own practice is a closed circuit economy. It has very little to do with any kind of spiritual connection; it is a maddening and impulsive capitalist economy based on the whims of the “free” market. And yet, historically, in a majority of global cultures, visual art has been a means to a spiritual end: an opening of a channel between the material world and some world beyond.
I am not a religious person myself but I do have a certain feeling for the world beyond, I do have a kind of breezy, super-personal, spiritual practice, and I feel pretty strongly that the part of me that writes fiction is the same part that meditates, say, or (rarely) prays. There is something sacred, in other words, about the act of making art. Do you agree?
Coleman: I do. I really think there’s something required of you to get into that space to make art—a kind of openness and humility and playfulness and outward searching, a comfort with contradiction and not-knowing—that I’ve experienced in meditation, in moments of insight that I’d have to call spiritual, or that I remember from prayer. And I do think, as a culture, we’re desperately looking for new forms of the sacred. Not always doing a good job of it, but the drive is there, the need.
It’s funny. I have moments of thinking, “I could go for some prayer.” I don’t know what form it would take, or how it’d be addressed. But then I start writing, and that feeling goes away. It must do the same kind of work on the mind or the soul or whatever other word you’d want to use.
If there’s room for one last quick question: what’s your non-bible Bible, if you had to pick one? Your sacred text?
Rumpus: All texts are sacred! Ha. Just kidding; I don’t believe that at all. Lots of texts are disingenuous or stupid or short-sighted or just plain crap.
Sincerely, though, that’s a great question. My real answer is: it changes all the time. At the moment the book I keep returning to for mysterious messages and creative inspiration is Joy Williams’s story collection The Visiting Privilege. When I was in college I relied heavily on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In high school it was Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Ada, or Ardor by Nabokov. One summer between semesters in grad school the text I needed most was E.B. White’s essay collection The Points of My Compass. Ross Gay’s new essay collection, The Book of Delights, makes a really great sacred text, too. What about you?
Coleman: I didn’t plan this, but I had to take my car to the shop this morning and then walk a half hour to the closest coffee shop. I have this tradition of using that time to read poems, very quietly but out loud, while I walk. And I was thinking: this is sacred, too. It gets me into that same sacred space. Today it was re-reading Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem, and there it was—a weird echo of that biblical claim, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them,” but through books.
Photograph of Patrick Coleman by Vernon Ng.