Elizabeth McCullough Interviews Gina Welch
A few years ago Gina Welch, a Jewish atheist from Berkeley, California with an MFA from the University of Virginia, decided she wanted to better understand the cultural and political divisions between Evangelical Americans and people like herself—from the inside. So she went undercover, posing as a believer in Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. The result is the engaging and uniquely insightful In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church.
In the book’s pages Gina undertakes many journeys, from California to Virginia, from Charlottesville to Lynchburg, from Lynchburg to the mission fields of Alaska, from the outer fringes of the congregation into the hearts of her friends and mentors there. As with any road story, the tension builds as Gina approaches her final destination: the completion of the book and the revelation of her cover story to the people she had deceived.
Under all these literal and metaphorical journeys lies another one, however, that I found just as intriguing: Gina’s journey as a writer, both personally and professionally. Here is our conversation on that subject:
Elizabeth McCullough: Perhaps every writer is a bit undercover—hanging back a little, observing, making mental notes—but not everyone has the emotional stamina or tolerance for risk-taking required for going undercover in a close-knit community. Did you know before you started this project that you had what it would take? If you could go back in time and talk to the younger Gina who’s just about to embark on this journey, what would you tell her?
Gina Welch: Oh man, I really like that idea—that all writers, in some sense, are undercover. Most writers I know, fiction and non-, poets too, have complicated feelings about using "material," about not composing from pure, white-light imagination. We all steal from the world we live in.
Of course my project had a very top-heavy ratio of theft to invention, and the ethical legacy of that issue wasn't something I was prepared for in the least when I began working on the book.
I don't think there's any such thing as being prepared for the universe of trouble you invite in setting out to write a book, but I was particularly naive. I had hubris, I had bulldog determination, I had curiosity. Those were the legs I thought would carry me through.
My attitude about the project was a little clinical. I didn't realize how awful it would be to lie to people in real life. I didn't understand how hard it would be to get a handle on something I had no foundation for culturally, theologically, politically. I didn't foresee how difficult it would be to button my lip when I overheard bigotry. I didn't predict how attached I'd become to my friends, to my pastors, to church. I wasn't prepared for the solitary haul of finishing the book, for the daily challenge in deciding to work.
I didn't understand the extent to which a book becomes your life. It's part best friend, part higher power, part flesh-eating bacteria.
And to have the book out in the world—well, that vulnerability brought a whole new set of issues I wasn't prepared for.
My experience of maturing as a writer has been the incremental realization that I'm really not prepared for anything, that each new frontier presents challenges for which I'll have to invent solutions.
The main thing I'd want to tell a younger me is to ask for advice from people older, wiser, more experienced. I never did that, and I rarely do now, but I believe it would've saved me from a lot of mistakes I made.
EM: In the book you acknowledge your editor at Metropolitan, Sara Bershtel, for setting “bars that seemed beyond reach” and then helping you reach them – what did you learn about writing and about yourself as a writer from this project?
GW: Both of my editors—Sara Bershtel and Riva Hocherman—are like hall-of-fame great editors for ferreting out the book's problems and making me figure out how to solve them myself. They often offered me broad, vexing comments like, "The pages turn, but the structure doesn't work," or, "There's a problem with the way time passes." And I would be like, Well isn't that the very nature of time? I wanted a prescription, or a pass. Neither of them were letting me get away with the impatience I felt about getting the book to print. I trusted them more than I trusted myself, so I had to figure out how to kind of inhabit what was bothering them and then how to make it go away.
I learned that structure does not come naturally to me. I learned that there's an art to deploying your draft-readers, and I blew some of my most important readers too early because I was desperate for validation and for someone to tell me to keep going. I learned that endings—of chapters, of the book itself—have to kind of alight themselves on the work. I can't manufacture that final flavor that feels like an end. It arrives on its own, spit out of whatever invisible circuitry I've built up in thinking about the matter of what's come before it.
There's a really silly, elaborate metaphor I dreamed up when I felt particularly out of control of this sprawling mess of a document that was supposed to end up dressed in a book jacket. Writing a book was like trying to choreograph a synchronized swimming routine from the bottom of the pool. You can't hear the music, you have to watch all these different bodies at once, and you're not seeing the vital picture—what the swimmers look like up at the surface. The only way to simulate the reader's experience is to forget your sentences. So that's an important thing I learned: make yourself put it away for a while before trying to revise it.
EM: How did you first envision In the Land of Believers, and what metamorphoses did it go through on the way to publication?
GW: One of my early models for the book was Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family, a gorgeously intimate, honest, respectful portrait of a Latino family in the Bronx. It took LeBlanc about ten years to write, and though it's clear from the way she zips you in with the characters that she must have grown very close to the people she wrote about, her fingerprints aren't all over their stories. The book isn't about her. I didn't want mine to be about me either.
I hadn't really accounted for how much the experience would change me. When I began the book I had this flinty certainty that I was fully formed, and that even though my sort of internal library of understanding would grow new shelves, I would emerge unaltered. I didn't see how deeply new understanding would change my character. It has to, right? Once you learn you've been wrong about so many things, or at least limited in your perception, it alters the very way you live.
The depth of that personal change made it a critical part of the book's architecture. Which meant I had to write a lot about myself--about my background, my perceptions, the identity crisis and moral struggle I wound up volunteering for. At first that was very uncomfortable. I worried about the solipsism in presenting my experience among evangelicals as a tool I used to produce a coming-of-age experience. But in the end I think my personal narrative serves as critical evidence supporting the book's suggestion that middle ground between people like me and evangelical Christians is possible.
EM: What audiences has In the Land of Believers found? Who seems to “get” it? What has most surprised you about the book’s reception?
GW: Judging from the mail I've been getting, the audience is kind of all over the map. I've heard from young people who respond to the book's call for cross-cultural understanding. I've heard from skeptics who express a sense of ease in retiring caricatures of conservative evangelical Christians. I hear from a lot of people who grew up in religious households and respond to a book that speaks to their past and their current reality. The book has getting some good traction among Evangelicals, which has been a happy surprise for me. Rick Warren tweeted a Q&A I did with Benyamin Cohen on The Huffington Post, and after that happened I started hearing from a number of evangelical pastors. Some of them have relieved my anxieties by telling me they think I got it. Some of them email to try to convince me to become a Christian. Some of them accept me as I am. Some of them tell me my book has become a kind of handbook to making nonbelievers feel less alienated at church, which feels pretty weird. But I recently read this thing Clint Eastwood said about his movies, that they're like children: you raise them up as best as you can, and then you let them go. That's how I've been trying to position myself toward the book's reception--enjoying the little surprises reader-reaction yields.
EM: What did you feel was missing from the cultural conversation before you wrote In the Land of Believers? What do you hope to accomplish with this book? With your writing career?
GW: Most books on evangelicals fall into one of two categories: roadtrip-reporting—where the writer visits lots of different churches and evangelical festivals and tries to evoke a kind of cultural panorama; and leadership reporting, where the writer fans out history or a sociological exploration from the perspective of the prominent figures in the world of evangelical Christians.
You could say that both of these models drink in more than my book does, that they're more comprehensive, but I don't think they really create space to look at the long-wave, diurnal realities of life for evangelical Christians, for that intimate, time-spanning understanding, and so there's something a little reductive, I think, about the conversation they inspire. What was missing for me was a portrait that represented the messy, complicated nature of real life.
As far as what I hope to accomplish with my writing career, I guess I just hope I find ways to keep at it. I'm working on another book now, and I'm not particularly interested in trying to see past its horizon.
Elizabeth McCullough lives with her family in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work has been published at Blogcritics.com, C-Ville Weekly, Home Education Magazine, and Internet Review of Books. Her current projects include CvilleWords.com, a local blog with a literary focus, and BookBalloon.com, a discussion forum for people who love books. She is a founding member of WriterHouse in Charlottesville.