A brief confession: my parents managed to drag the family to church maybe ten times during my entire childhood, and yet they were superstitious enough to ensure that, through a series of loopholes, I was confirmed Catholic. Having grown up in Miami in the ’80s and ’90s, more or less avoiding religion, I nonetheless found Teresa Carmody’s Christ-haunted debut novel, set in 1980s rural western Michigan, to be completely engrossing.
Split between adolescent journal entries and later-in-life reflections, The Reconception of Marie follows the eponymous Marie through a world of ideas. In her youth, she’s surrounded by Christian dogma, and in adulthood she becomes an intellectual immersed in history, art, literature, psychology, anthropology, and the like. A twist on the traditional Bildungsroman, the older Marie doesn’t have all the answers; rather, she is in a perpetual state of growth. And unlike most stories of growing up indoctrinated, Carmody creates an intellectually generous narrator who resists the religion/reason binary and instead digs into the gray area that binds the two. The portrayal of Marie’s journey is powerful for readers of all faiths, including the faithless.
Teresa Carmody’s writing includes fiction, creative nonfiction, inter-arts collaborations, and hybrid forms. She is the author of three books and four chapbooks, including Maison Femme: a fiction (2015) and The Reconception of Marie (2020). Her work has appeared in The Collagist, LitHub, WHR, Two Serious Ladies, Diagram, St. Petersburg Review, Faultline, and was selected for the &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing and by Entropy for its Best Online Articles and Essays list of 2019. Carmody is co-founding editor of Les Figues Press, an imprint of LARB Books in Los Angeles, and director of Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas.
I spoke to Teresa regarding Michigan’s “Bible Belt,” subverting the traditional Bildungsroman structure, and sharing knowledge as an inherently feminist gesture.
The Rumpus: A large part of the book is told through Marie’s adolescent journal entries. She’s precocious and funny and direct. Like in the opening scene, when she matter-of-factly tells her friends they are going to hell if they don’t become born-again Christians. How did you arrive at this voice? How did you sustain it?
Teresa Carmody: I initially set out to write memoir about my religious childhood in Western Michigan; I really wanted to capture the immediacy of my felt experiences, from middle-school drama to being filled with the Spirit at church. After reading Lynda Barry’s Cruddy, I experimented with rewriting the manuscript as a first-person, present-tense diary entries. That’s when Marie’s thirteen-year-old voice first emerged. I heard her so distinctly, and she was saying these things that, quite frankly, were scary and upsetting. Things about demons, abortion, missionaries, and American exceptionalism. I was horrified and fascinated; the more she spoke, the more I remembered, and I began to see how the past was still very much present. And that the issues I wanted to explore would be better served in fiction than in memoir, because fiction let me lean into Marie’s emotional truth—about what it feels like to be a young, smart, sexually curious female in a culture that teaches girls to become selfless, submissive helpmates to men. I worked on this novel for years, through so many pass throughs and revisions. I used looseleaf lined notebook paper at the beginning of each writing session. I needed to move from my body, my handwriting, into the computer, as a way to conjure her voice from within.
Rumpus: Being a heathen myself, I was surprised when Marie’s mother (who is born again) takes Marie to all the different churches, apparently for fun? Could you paint a brief picture of the 1980s western Michigan religious culture that much of the novel is steeped in?
Carmody: Western Michigan is sometimes referred to as Michigan’s “Bible Belt.” There are a lot of churches and Christian colleges in the area. Grand Rapids is home to the Christian publisher, Zondervan, and the headquarters for the Christian Reformed Church. Amway (think: DeVos family) is based there. I grew up north of Grand Rapids, in a rural, mostly white community, where family and/or church is the main social activity. People marry young and have children. (By the time I turned twenty-two, I was noticeably “single” in the area.) Growing up, it was totally normal to borrow a cup of sugar or egg from the neighbor, and people still bring casseroles to their ailing friends and family, even as conversations about feelings and emotional well-being are generally avoided.
I’m speaking here of my experience of this place, which is the basis for Marie’s fictional world. Like Marie, my extended family is Catholic, but my mom, and later my dad, became born again, and left the Catholic church and school. Marie’s mother is especially promiscuous in her church attendance. Like Marie, she has this wondering, wandering spirit; she wants to check out different places and church scenes, even as she’s internalized a rigid binary of right and wrong. If it’s Christian, by which she means real-Christian, it is okay. In the 1980s, Christian media subcultures were still in their early phases—there were Christian rock and metal bands and Christian music festivals. Now, there are whole Christian media empires, like Pure Flix, where you can stream Evangelical-themed movies and television shows. I’m glad there weren’t Christian skate nights at the roller rink when I was growing up. Roller skating to Def Leppard, or better yet, Joan Jett, was thrilling, and provided a glimpse into a different way of being.
Rumpus: Unlike a typical Bildungsroman, there’s not really one pivotal scene of change, or a single epiphany; young Marie, through her questioning, experiences several micro-epiphanies. You also throw a wrench in the overall structure by splicing in scenes of adult Marie (narrated from a more distant voice). The structure reminds me of what Jane Alison calls “wavelets.” Can you talk about these structural choices, and how the structure informs the content?
Carmody: I was thinking a lot about embodiment—how does it feel to be thirteen, seventeen, eight years old. How does time seem different, more or less episodic, stretched or compressed, depending on the degree of presence, or disassociation, one is experiencing? At one point, I remember thinking: oh, adolescence is a place we can go to, and that shifted the writing, too. To me, thirteen feels the longest and most excruciating, which is why the reader experiences Marie’s thirteen-year-old voice longer than her seventeen- or eight-year-old voice. Thirteen is rough, the constant anxiety of puberty, especially when you have no idea what’s happening because there isn’t good (or any) sex education. The micro-epiphanies (love that term) of a changing body!
By seventeen, Marie is more fully caught in her mental narratives, including a romance story, which is why that section moves as it does. The adult voice came later, an innovation made because my agent at the time suggested making the book more experimental and slipstream. By that point, I had been working on the book for a long time, and knew that readers didn’t always know what to make of Marie. She’s fervent, judgmental, and funny (can I say that?), even as she parrots toxic theological messages. Weaving in her adult voice from the beginning allowed space for a broader perspective from the gate. In writing that voice, I thought a lot about how we hold our younger selves within us. Our inner children.
Rumpus: Adult Marie changes a lot, but she doesn’t stop questioning, learning, and growing. There’s change, but no finality, always room for the possibility of more change. Can you talk more about the role of questioning and not-knowing in the novel?
Carmody: To me, your question gets at the very act of writing, which generally happens in a space of not knowing—writing as a means to find things out which also means keeping oneself open. Holding uncertainty is part of the creative process; every time I’ve tried to write with an answer in mind, the writing feels boring and one-dimensional. Unfortunately, this is how many people approach god or spirit or source. In the Evangelical church of Marie’s youth, she’s given a one-note answer to questions about why she’s alive and what happens when we die. Yet as she begins reciting the now cliché story she’s learned at church, she notices contradictions and logical fallacies, which lead to other questions. Sometimes, Marie seems to reason herself into a whole different space, or political viewpoint. She takes the literalism of the Evangelical faith, beginning with the idea of the Bible as the absolute word of god, and begins applying that literalism as a methodology, reaching conclusions that fall apart, or land in new questions. In the end, she reaches not only an expanded notion of the Bible as a co-authored, collaborative text, but a new idea of herself.
Rumpus: And not only does adult Marie continue to question and learn, but her learning is part of the narration. In a recent lecture you gave for Stetson’s MFA program, you spoke about how sharing what we know is a feminist act. Your novel seems to put that idea into practice. Can you elaborate on that thought and how it relates to your intentions for the novel?
Carmody: Here’s the [full] quote: “I like to admit not knowing things, because then I get to share how I learned them, and to me, this is a deeply feminist gesture, in that it grounds my authority (which is different than knowledge) within relationships that actively make space for vulnerability and intimacy.” There are a few things here, and I’m going to speak very broadly, so of course there will be countless specific examples that contradict me or offer another interpretation or meaning, and isn’t it wonderful how something can be more than one thing at the same time?
So much of what we think and do is learned behavior. All of culture, for example, from what’s “real” or “good’ art to what utensils, if any, we use while eating. In US English, we learn that a sentence is a complete thought and that success should be measured by the degree of wealth or celebrity the project or person generates. Issues arise when we begin to treat these learned behaviors and beliefs as if they are natural. As if there isn’t a whole system and structure that shapes and reinforces them. No one, for example, writes a novel on their own. Even if they write every word alone in their room, and never share the manuscript with anyone before they self-publish online, there was a lot of labor and care that went into raising that person up to the point where they know how to read, write and teach themselves whatever software they’ll be using. Not to mention the other books and media they’ve undoubtedly engaged with in order to internalize genre conventions and narrative patterning techniques. So often, this labor of raising another up is done by female, femme, or female-identified care givers, whose very existence disrupts the myth of the lone, often male, genius. In this way, acknowledging both the fact of our learning, and from whom we’ve learned, brings this network of support, care, and nourishment into the conversation.
I’ve found that many feminist organizations and projects counter such destructive individualism by emphasizing collectivity, inclusivity, and accessibility—making space for as many voices as possible, while actively dismantling barriers that would prevent or limit participation. Or at least that’s the ideal, for as we know, many feminist projects end up replicating the very power structures they’re critiquing (think white feminism; think Bourdieu’s notion of habitus or Yancy’s work on the distorted white gaze; think about the egoic investment in “rigor” or being the “real deal”; think about poverty consciousness). I’m interested in the aftermath of a feminist project’s failure. How is that experience taken in as learning? How does one listen beyond their own defensiveness? And what is that defensiveness trying to protect?
Here’s where we get into issues of authority, vulnerability, intimacy. To admit not knowing risks both judgement and the possibility for genuine connection. But it takes a certain amount of integrity and personal authority to do that.
Rumpus: One thread that binds the adult Marie scenes is Fra Angelico’s fresco, The Annunciation, which features the Virgin Mary being visited by the Angel Gabriel. There’s also references in both parts of the book to Catholic saints. Why are these references important to Marie and to the novel? Would it give too much away to talk about the parallels between Marie and the virgin Mary?
Carmody: In reading saints’ biographies and autobiographies, Marie finds models of other highly fervent females. Remember, her mother’s Evangelicalism turns the saints into forbidden idols, making these ecstatic ladies that much more tantalizing. Which brings us to Marie’s queerness, and to the convent which is, literally, a place where a group of women get to live together. Sounds fun, yes?
There are a number of reasons I was drawn to Fra Angelico’s work, including his use of framing and perspective, and the contemplative nature of his work. As you mention, the book lingers for a long time on one of his most famous frescos, The Annunciation, which features what would have been a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girl. In literary circles, adolescent voices, and especially adolescent female voices, are often side-lined into YA, which, like other genre writing, is too often not considered as important or significant as literary fiction. In fact, it took me a long time to find a publisher for this work because people said the adolescent voice made it “too YA,” but didn’t have a YA plot structure. To me, this minimization—of teenagers, of teenage girls, of “minor” genres—is part and parcel of patriarchal thinking. Look: we wouldn’t have Jesus if it weren’t for a thirteen-year-old girl.
Rumpus: The novel manages to be socially conscious without being pedantic or didactic. Maybe a part of this is its humility. Or the quality in young Marie that John Keene calls (in his blurb of the book) “cannily naive,” which functions as both a character trait and a rhetorical strategy. What do you think about this?
Carmody: In this, and in my writing in general, I often strive for a readability and seeming plainness in the story or language, as a way to welcome the reader. But it’s like a faux easy going—a surface of calm over a deep body of ancestral patterns, social conditioning, and personal trauma. Because that’s what we’re all carrying around inside of us, and I’m interested in creating that same level of embodied complexity in my characters. I love John Keene’s observation. I think he’s picking up on the way these qualities, or sociological and traumatic undercurrents, are only present if the reader periodically glimpses them, obliquely or directly. So I had to create moments when the reader perceives beyond Marie even as I stayed within her voice. This was definitely one of the technical challenges of writing this book.
Another challenge was really grappling with the kind of harm done by Evangelical proselytizing, including mission work. The fact that I was terrified by stories of hell didn’t make it okay for me to turn around and terrorize others, even if I thought I was “saving” them. I’m saying “I,” but I’m also talking about Marie. Authoritarian structures thrive on binary thinking, and I needed to write Marie to the other side of that, where she allows others the same moral autonomy she finds for herself. This extends to readers. I think about that creative writing workshop adage, “trust your reader,” which I take to mean: recognize the reader as an intelligent, thoughtful being in her own right.
Rumpus: What do you hope religious people will take away from the novel? People who’ve left a religion? People who were never religious?
Carmody: I don’t know about a single “take away,” especially for such large categories of people. There are so many ways to be religious or not religious, not to mention all the metaphysical and spiritual practices that thrive on the outer walls of religious institutions. That said, each of those categories does engage in a relationship between skepticism and faith, and this is something Marie really presses on. She constantly asking herself: How do you know what you know? What is “proof”? She comes to understand that skepticism makes her faith stronger, even as her faith, meaning intuition and inner-knowing, offers a joyful and wondrous way of being in the world.
Photograph of Teresa Carmody by Teresa Carmody.