In a quiet bar in Brooklyn I sat down with one of my favorite authors. Kyle Minor, the author of Praying Drunk, had written a semi-fictional book about death, religion and life. I wanted to know his thoughts on darkness, faith and the human condition. It was dark and beautiful, with characters based on his life. I admired him for being honest and presenting his opinions and stories in a way anyone who read it could relate to. Whether they agreed or not, Kyle, wrote a book so eloquent that I knew more people had to know about it.
Photo by Jennifer Percy
In a quiet bar in Brooklyn, I sat down with one of my favorite authors. Kyle Minor, the author of Praying Drunk, had written a semi-fictional book about death, religion and life. So far, the thing has received the kind of critical acclaim that would be too dense to list here, but if you must know … it's currently on just about everyone's "most anticipated books" list, from Buzzfeed to Flavorwire to The Millions. I wanted to know his thoughts on darkness, faith and the human condition. It was dark and beautiful, with characters based on his life. I admired him for being honest and presenting his opinions and stories in a way anyone who read it could relate to. Whether they agreed or not, Kyle, wrote a book so eloquent that I knew more people had to know about it.
So, we sat in a dimly lit bar while I sipped a whisky and tried to find out what made him tick.
What are you drinking?
When you called on the phone and asked what I wanted to drink and I said a Coke, that probably messed you up for 35 seconds. I said let's meet and a bar and then didn't drink and you did. I broke the ritual. I told you to meet in a bar instead of a coffee shop. I threw off the transaction.
When did you lose religion?
I don't think it was any specific point in time. I studied to be a pastor for a few years when I was very young, but I think what did me in was I went to school and studied philosophy and formal logic and I learned what an appeal to authority was and what circular reasoning was and I saw those were what I believed in was built upon. I studied the history of Christianity and saw how people throughout time had used it as a means to get what they wanted.
So it wasn't a moment?
No, it was a lot of things. I saw the way the Bible was abused by people in authority that I had known in my life. It was a slow process. I didn't magically lose faith the way I thought I had gained it. It was a slow reckoning with information. When I decided to leave the church, some people immediately stopped talking to me and got angry. It was a kind of shunning, and it was seen as an expression of love. The idea is that correction is the price of love. Love would be willing to do the most terrible thing to you to save you from eternal damnation.
Talk about a silly moment in religion?
When I was a kid, these traveling preachers used to come to town and talk about the Great White Throne Judgment. They said everyone who ever existed would gather in the largest stadium ever built, and the largest 16 mm projection screen would come down from the sky. When we watched 16mm films at the church, they were always projected on a bed sheet, so I imagined the world’s largest bed sheet. Also, 16mm film is grainy already–can you imagine how grainy those images would be when projected on a bed sheet that big? They’d show everyone’s deeds, good and bad, all the secret sins. I got to thinking, if each person’s film was shown in chronological order of birth or death, you’d probably be all right. Your masturbation scene wouldn’t seem so bad after Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler. You’d know, by then, that everybody through history had been doing the same things.
That's a whole lot of grainy masturbation.
Then the preachers said that if you make it to heaven, you sing the same songs you sang all those years in church, and you get a crown for your good deeds, but then you give it back because it belongs to the redeemer who sits on the throne. You do that for eternity, and I got to thinking, I didn’t like those songs to begin with. Eventually, no doubt, I'd find a cubicle in some sad corner of heaven, and do the same thing I did on earth, which is write stories, circle around and around the same preoccupations from the days when people were alive and we still had some skin in the game. I realized: That’s what this book is. That’s its form, that sad writer stuck forever in boring heaven, telling the same stories over and over again in different ways, trying to get it right but never quite getting it right.
Your book is very dark, has anyone tried to make you lighten it?
The first person to complain that it was too dark was the book reviewer at the New York Times. I tried to imagine a reviewer at a leading newspaper in France complaining that a work that aspired to literature was too dark. It's a pretty American response, the anti-intellectual thing. I think stories ought to be about trying to see clearly into the things we wish to avoid, rather than devolving into some deceitful wish-fulfillment fantasy that makes readers feel better about their lives. Margaret Atwood has this great story, “Happy Endings,” where every version of a story about John and Mary ends: “John and Mary die, John and Mary die, John and Mary die.” I think that is something books and movies don’t often enough reckon with.
What is it about darkness that resonates with people?
I think we're all heading towards death and the universe is expanding towards nothingness. I think every experience shows us people do terrible things to each other and destruction happens unexpectedly to people you know. It’s like love or anything we aspire to, we either to reckon with it or push it down. Either way, it has great power.
[Right here the woman and man at the table next to us get louder and start in with some strange bargaining. It's clear she is married and he is pursuing her. Kyle listens.]
Should I get through these questions faster?
No, this happens in bars when you're with friends. The conversation the next table over is way darker than ours, and maybe more interesting. It’s fascinating, what’s happening at that table. There is some sort of sexual negotiation going on. Which speaks to the question you asked about our fascination with dark things. We’re trying to imagine what’s going on with these people. The way we imagine their story is probably worse than what is actually happening. When people pass judgment out of the kind of half-knowledge we have right now, say things like “That's so terrible,” what they're really saying is “I'm interested in this dark thing, or I’m interested in the way that makes me feel”. Passing judgment is like saying “I don't want to muck around in that too much and lose myself, but I do want to muck around in it a little, get a little of that white heat.”
What makes a good story?
We don't want to hear about the day the same old thing happened. We want to hear about the day the thing that never happens happened. But the thing that never happens always happens. If you follow someone around and write what happened then write it as fiction, people will say there is no way that ever happened, it’s implausible.
In the book, you often tell competing versions of the same stories from several different perspectives. Can two people ever experience the same thing the same way?
No. There is no pristine objective truth in the world. There is a person, a teller, making all the choices about what goes in and what stays out and what it all means or doesn’t mean. There is everything a person has lived through, what they do know, what they don't know, all the people who saw it and all the people who didn't and all they ways they're missing each other, and all that contributes to the story. So many of the problems in the world are just disagreements about what the story was. That's what wars are. That's what conflicts with parents are. The kids saw it one way, and the parents saw it the other. It's so hard to live if you think you have an absolute objective truth and you're the only one with access to it.
There is a story about a pastor making biscuits at a funeral time and time again. Do you hate ritual?
I love ritual. The people at the table to the left are engaged in a weird ritual. What I hate is the lies people tell in the name of comfort. I briefly worked at a church and more than once had the experience of going to a funeral of a teenage suicide where hundreds of distraught kids were. Then, somebody removed from the situation tries to manipulate it to proselytize or provide false comfort. You want to say: No! Just let people be sad and let them feel shitty. There is nothing good about death.
Why should people read your book?
Oh, I don't care. They don't have to.
Check out Kyle's website for more about Praying Drunk and his other works, and information on his upcoming book tour.
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