A discussion on the news the other night made me realize that my novel, published in 2011, is already becoming obsolete– and I couldn’t be happier. A panel was discussing how quickly the dominoes were falling when it comes to U.S. states recognizing same sex marriage. I thought about a now obsolete passage in Angel in which the two protagonists joke about the comparative merits of getting married in Massachusetts or Iowa, the two states that allowed such a thing when the book was written. “The ocean is sexier than corn,” Ian said.
In only three years, the novel has become a period piece.
Writing the final version of the book in 2009 and 2010 I described a mainstream church with a congregation divided on the question of whether or not to accept a gay pastor. At this time, there was a widespread view that Christianity and homosexuality were simply in opposition. In my depiction, I wanted to make it clear that this was not the case and Christians held a wide range of views. At the time, I was trying to show, in essence, that churches were more progressive on this issue than many outsiders think they are. Two years after the book came out, reviews tell me that some readers are now seeing the church as more conservative than mainstream.
When I was writing, I drew on official church statements from the Methodist and Presbyterian churches. By the time the book was in print, the Presbyterians had already changed their stance and were ordaining gay ministers.
While there were those who talked about the “controversial” nature of my book when it came out (one web site refused to run ads for it), I never felt as though it was all that controversial. By now, I feel as though its point of view is entirely mainstream.
I discovered something recently while searching through an old journal. I have told the story many times of how I came to write Angel, how I was inspired by a trip to Mount Rainer and the question of why a man would leave the ministry for a career as a mountain tour guide. “Why did the minister go to the mountain?” was a regular writing prompt for years. I wanted to bring out all those themes of natural beauty, transcendence, and the impermanence of life in the shadow of a sleeping volcano. I knew what the heart of the conflict had to be– a minister had to fall out of step with his congregation. He would have some sort of change in his worldview. I kept going back to what that change might be. Over the years I tried a number of different plots and nothing quite worked until I saw an image of a beautiful man, and meditated on my aesthetic response to his beauty. That is when the idea hit me that my minister might do the same, and this might be the thing that would put him in conflict with his congregation. From that point the story flowed as if it had already been written and I just had to take dictation.
That is how I thought it had happened. But memory is not always a faithful recorder of events. Apparently my subconscious had been at work on the novel for some time when I had that eureka moment. When I looked back in my journal at my earliest ideas for the novel I was then calling “The Minister and the Mountain,” written in 2000 immediately after my return from Seattle, I discovered two things. There was a draft of what is now the final scene in the book. It is quite similar to the final version. There was also my first idea of what the plot of the book should be. My very first idea for the central conflict had been that the minister would fall in love with another man. Why did I abandon that promising plot line and put it so far out of my mind that I forgot I’d ever thought of it? I don’t remember, and the journal doesn’t really say. The most likely explanation is that the idea scared me. It seemed too incendiary and I was not yet brave enough to tackle it. I ran away.
That was only 14 years ago, but it seems a world away.