Do Religious “Mutts” Miss Out?

by Jessie Roberts

In an interview about his new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris suggests they do. He reflects on how an indistinct religious upbringing shaped his writing:

[G]rowing up I looked in on Catholicism as a non-Catholic, and I looked in on Judaism as a non-Jew. I was an outsider, this mutt-y white kid who had no tradition or belief. I wanted a religious community for myself, probably because I didn’t have one. If I’d had one, I probably would have spurned it.

To Rise Again At a Decent Hour starts from the question of whether there’s a kind of private language and intimacy to religion that the mutt-y white guys like me are missing out on. And to some extent, I’m also thinking about the question of whether as a writer there’s something I’ve missed out on. When you’re an American novelist in 2014, at a point when Philip Roth has had a kind of apotheosis—has ascended to heaven even though he’s still on earth—you realize the extraordinary richness he found in Judaism. I didn’t grow up within that richness. I simply didn’t have it. It cuts both ways, of course. There are writers who happen to be Jewish who get labeled as “Jewish writers” and would much rather be just writers. And here I am, lamenting the fact that I’m not a Jew! But religion offers a writer a tradition both to be nurtured in and to fight against, and that nurturing and that conflict can produce great literature. Roth was given a lifetime of material from the fights he picked with Judaism—with the generation of Jews that he raised him, with the generation that excoriated him, and finally with the generation that celebrated him. Whereas I got a few potluck dinners and some basement training in Noah.

In another interview, Ferris expands on his attitudes toward religion:

Is there a God-shaped hole in your own life?

Yes. The general impression of Americans is that we’re all believers. But there are quite a few of us, obviously, across the vast swath of this crazy country who don’t have a God. I think of myself, like my character in the book, as a “non-practising atheist”. At the witching hour there is a hell of lot to say for divine comfort. I feel excluded from that. There are some aspects of religion – its community, its certainty – that I long for.

Part of your plot takes the character back, through a faked online identity, to the Old Testament. What was the experience of immersing yourself in those verses?

Well, I gained a lot of respect for the Bible. I never knew it first-hand before. The best stories there remove all inessentials, and what you’re left with is something extremely efficient. It’s almost like a divinely inspired Hemingway writing in those parts.

Listen to another recent interview with Ferris here.