Sarah Krasnostein is a lawyer and the author of two books, The Trauma Cleaner (St. Martin Press, 2018) and The Believer, out next month from Tin House. The Believer explores the power of belief by weaving together six profiles of people who believe in ghosts and gods and flying saucers, people with whom Krasnostein has very little in common.
Krasnostein and I have a lot in common. We’re both named Sarah (with an “h”), both writers, both white, both women, both Jewish, and, while we talk, both of us have a baby in the next room, babies who, as Krasnostein puts it, might break out in a “bleating donkey-like sound.” We both laugh: a sign that we’re in on the same joke.
But, of course, there are awkward moments, too, our discussion replete with the messy stuff, just what Krasnostein is after in her narrative nonfiction that looks beneath and beyond obvious narratives to build bridges across the divide of our differences. It’s not clear if she succeeds in her goal; moments that verge on real connection seem doomed to fall just short. But maybe she’s found phenomena more cohesive than agreement, more accurate than difference, somewhere between harmony and discord.
Krasnostein credits Mennonite choral music for inspiring this framework, music I’m listening to now as I write. It’s pretty in a feeble sort of way, the individual voices shaking beneath the fervor of their singers. The resultant harmony is imperfect, the tenor of what I imagine Kierkegaard was after when he said the truest faith is the one that trembles. It makes me think of something Krasnostein said, a gem from one of the messy bits of our conversation: “It’s unexpectedly moving. Who knew?” Such a little phrase that cuts to the core of this, her project of belief. It’s what we don’t know that moves us. And Oh! How wonderful it is to be so moved.
The Rumpus: Was it always obvious to you that “belief” was the word or concept that you were investigating here? It seems to me that there were some behind-the-scene investigations of faith, religion, and even skepticism.
Sarah Krasnostein: The short answer is no. It was not always obvious.
The long answer is that I wish there was something as tidy as a process. With both of my books, I became interested in the stories and then, because I prefer an immersive interview process over time, what I think I’m getting and what I’m actually getting turn out to be quite different. It’s a little frustrating for a Type A personality who likes to control the process, but I also think that, if what you produce at the end of four years is what you thought you were doing at the start of the process, you’re probably doing something wrong.
I always knew there was something that connected these stories for me, that they all were making the same sound even though they didn’t share the details, I knew they were connected by what was underneath the words. I didn’t settle on “belief” until quite late in the process.
Rumpus: What does that word “belief” mean to you, then?
Krasnostein: The most succinct way I’ve put it, which I think is in the book, is certainty in the absence of knowledge. Underneath those words is the need to have something make sense, and belief provides an answer or a reason or a certainty in answer to all of the questions inside us. It’s less where we land and more the searching or seeking.
Rumpus: I’m reminded of contemporary literary ideals, little idioms like: to proceed through the dark to find the light, or to begin with a small question and end with a bigger one. Our literary ideas of truth seem connected to the motion of questioning, not the stillness of fact.
Krasnostein: The most truthful we can be in a factual genre is to doubt the attainability of fact at all.
Rumpus: I’d love to hear more about how you wrestle with that as a nonfiction writer, how your work with belief challenges the genre.
Krasnostein: That’s something that’s always kind of haunting. In my previous life I was a lawyer and an academic where the goal was to find the answer through a rigorous process, to account for your time, to do all the research, to type it all up, tidy and neat. Whereas if you’re doing creative nonfiction correctly you are always going to be burdened by an inherent subjectivity and partiality. The same impulses that draw you to factual writing are going to screw you in the end because you are going to be struggling with the platonic ideal of the story you wish you had.
But that complication is also the glory of writing in the first person. Of course, you’re always susceptible to the opinion that you ought to decentralize yourself in writing about the lives of others, that there’s something inherently narcissistic about it. But I think the true narcissism would be in pretending to be the all-seeing eye of God, an impartial passive third voice. At least by putting yourself in the story there you’re acknowledging the filter through which all the information is going, take it or leave it.
I know about that now from my professional writing life, but I think I knew about it for decades before as a reader, seeking out stories in which the writer is grappling with what counts as truth, the fact of their life versus what can be factually verified, how does it matter and how are we going to rank those truths? I’m thinking about In Cold Blood, how it would be so much more interesting if you had a sense of Capote wandering around Kansas grappling with questions of access, truth, and fact.
Rumpus: You’re so firmly rooted in the tradition of New Journalism, of which Capote is arguably the progenitor. And like him, you’re working with the profile as your mode of interacting with the truth. Why does that method of journalism attract you?
Krasnostein: Immersive profile was the process that I started with, and I really haven’t deviated from that initial impulse which is basically, to just hang out. If I am doing it correctly, I will hang around, so long as you kind of forget you’re a writer. I’m not actually being deceptive of course, my notebook is always out, my recording is always on, and I look like a fish out of water, but the process is less about getting through a list of prepared questions and more . . . well, it looks like I haven’t done my homework. I’m asking silly questions, watching, and participating. And that’s because what I want is the stuff that doesn’t make it into the secondary sources and even the stuff that’s not captured in the questions or the answer, but what exists in the duration, the change over time, the aspect of writing that is character development, in relation to the world in a very natural time scale.
Rumpus: You’ve structured the book in such a way as to minimize the rigidity.
The book is neatly separated into two sections, “Below” and “Above,” but then each separation is further divided into three profiles which are chopped up. Presented in fragments, they seem to either interrupt or overlap with each other. There’s work to do as a reader here. How did you arrive at this construction?
Krasnostein: I remember Draft No. 4, John McPhee’s book on writing process, where he has this whole chapter on writing according to these visual representations, like this structure is a shell that contains the golden ratio.
Rumpus: I never understood all that. I felt like such a failure reading Draft No. 4.
Krasnostein: Me too! Does anybody understand it? But formally, I did want to do something, I think because I’m a nerd and I’m always seeking to use craft to mirror the content. That’s fun for me and keeps it fresh, stops me from reiterating the same exact story just because it was useful the first time. So everything reveals itself to you, which takes time and patience—and it is frustrating.
So, no, I didn’t know I was going to be alternating in those short, chopped chapters. I did know that I wanted all of these things to sit alongside each other in a way that wasn’t sequential.
It all started with the Mennonites, as I write about in the prologue. I saw them singing in the subway station. The more time I spent with them, they were always singing in harmony. I didn’t stop, I mean, I still listen to it. It’s the most jarring thing. You wouldn’t think that in my study while I’m working I’m listening to Mennonite choral music, but I do. I find it incredibly moving. So, the structure that revealed itself was a question: Could a book mirror that kind of choral structure where all stories make sense and all voices belong and the imperfection is part of the message which is a spaciousness and a polyphonic reality?
The result is not tidy, and it is going to require readers who are enthusiastic about active meaning making, and in that sense, that dialogue mirrors the structure which mirrors the content which mirrors the process of reading.
Rumpus: For me, the greatest success of the book might be that I don’t totally understand it.
Krasnostein: Thank you!
Rumpus: I’m glad that’s coming across as a compliment. I admire the book’s ability to get me to a place where I’m pretty comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”
Krasnostein: If you consider the art of writing, the relationship of the reader to what’s written, their complicity in building the story and making their own meaning, that is very much the story of our beliefs. So we take disparate information and knit it together into whatever we need it to be. We chose to not see what disconfirms that and we will see what does confirm it. This is what we are wired to do. We are wired to make those meanings.
So if I could take these six stories of people trying to encase themselves and reassure themselves within their own narratives and I could put all the commonalities there for people to do the same thing as well in their readings, actively, then that’s what I would hope it does. Or not. Haha.
Rumpus: Of course, as you say, where there’s harmony, there’s also discord. I’m curious about the way the disparate believers in your book seem united in feeling outcast. For example: A UFOlogist who says: “We are racing against the undertaker, and we are also racing against the ridicule factor.”
A Creationist who takes the Bible as scientific fact says:,“The world mocks the ark, many say it’s just a story.”
Annie, a death doula, suggests she’s “operating against a socialized silence of death.”
Krasnostein: It’s all really real for them, this feeling of being devalued, probably as a matter of first principle, inwardly, as they’re addressing their own doubts. But also externally, all of them repeatedly being called to defend, whether it’s being routinely mocked on the anniversary of Fred Valentich’s disappearance [which they believe has something to do with UFOs], or, I don’t know, the exploitative shows that mock UFOlogists on TV. It’s a very real experience for them, and a very real tendency to self-defense.
But I think the need to defend ourselves is just the flip side of our need to assert our own correctness. To believe in what we do tends to be accompanied by the need to take down other people’s beliefs. It’s all the same thing.
It doesn’t fit super tidily, but I’m thinking of Carl Jung’s “all fanaticism is a sign of repressed doubt.” Inwardly, but also in the vigor with which we need to take other people down when we just couldn’t have it all exist side-by-side. Having a threat response is integral to the architecture of the belief, and what is required to hold a belief.
Rumpus: But doesn’t that exist in literature too? For example, I was just listening to a podcast on the passing of Joan Didion in which she is quoted as saying, “I am bothered that other people don’t bother to see.” And I even saw a little glimpse of that same impulse in you at the end of the book, when you’re on a plane looking out the window and marveling at how wild it is that you’re flying through the air, but everyone else is on their phone playing Candy Crush, or so you assume.
As someone straddling art and belief: Is the need to be different than everyone else just as necessary to art as belief?
Krasnostein: So interesting. You’d think that in the middle of the global pandemic that we would all just be on the same page, that it would be a unifier in the way that climate science has not been, or racial justice has not been. But no.
So yes, I think that sense of singular insight is the necessary precondition for creating anything, that belief that there is something here that only I see, but also that it’s of sufficient universal relevance that it’s worth putting time into it in order to get it out. But you also have to have some self-awareness, some humility, to be able to admit that not everyone is going to see, or not everyone is going to be ready to see, or that, even if they do, that they are not going to see in the same way.
Rumpus: I want to read a quote to you from one of the Kingdom of Heaven chapters, when you’re standing in a prayer circle with the Mennonite women:
I want to marvel with them at that intuitive sense of oneness. And how artificial the distance is between us, given our like atoms and the fact that we are each women, each mothers, tiny and enormous, fleeting and enduring, on this grain briefly populated in time everlasting.
But tragically you decide that, “such a conversation is not possible. Because they believe I am going to Hell and I believe they may already be living in one, and it is 1:00 PM, which means it is time for us to return to our homes.”
I can’t quite tell where you end up, is it hope or despair?
Krasnostein: The “believer” of the title is also me, thinking that, by proximity to other believers, I am going to solve the big riddles of life and that, if only I can get closer, I will find the answers, or if not the answers, that at least I’ll understand. It’s the impulse of any writer or reader of nonfiction. It is a kind of faith, in cognitive solutions to things that can’t be solved. But even when they can’t be solved, when they think, “I’m going to Hell, and I think they’re already in one,” still there is the miracle that we are even talking. Maybe that is enough, even if we inevitably flee back to our homes, back to safety. Not to silver-line it, but I do think that the ability to get close enough to bitch about the traffic or the weather, is its own quiet miracle. We aren’t going to agree on these bigger questions. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe, if a few people are willing to look through the fire of not having the answers they want, not having the preferred self-concept they want, not having the ideal family they want, or the resolutions they want, then maybe. Or maybe we’re just doomed to throw ourselves off the perch.
I don’t know. In the end, I guess I’m a believer as much as they are because I am still throwing myself into these situations and still seeking these people out and I still really enjoy spending time with them.
Rumpus: Your prologue is about distances, “between notes in a chord, strings of computing code, points in outer space and the magnitudes of removal between ourselves and Kevin Bacon,” as if distance is the default ground of knowledge. So if distance remains, what overcomes? Love?
Krasnostein: Yeah. Right. And maybe that is a true meeting, although it might not look like agreement, or solution. Maybe it could just be those moments where everything hits the same note. Proximity. Harmony.
Author photo by Gina Milicia