In the interest of full-disclosure, I should mention that I’ve known Kevin Carter for about half a decade, and I’ve been attending his shows, reading his work, and thinking he’s just about the friendliest guy I’ve ever met for all of those five years. But, even if he wasn’t my friend, I’d still tell you that you should read his new book, Lives of the Saints.
I’ll let my interview with him speak for the topic and quality of the book, but I want to say this on behalf of all collaborators, internet-friendly writers, and renegade publishers: putting your work on the Creative Commons can be scary. You open yourself up to lots of different things, and while C&R believes most of those things are good, we know there’s a lot of hesitation about the free and open transfer of information now. We want to thank Kevin Carter for taking a brave step and publishing Lives of the Saints in this format, and making it available to so many readers. And, of course, for being kind of enough to give the following interview. Thanks, Kevin!
Tell us about Lives of the Saints. Where did the inspiration for the piece come from? What was your writing process like?
The inspiration for Lives of the Saints mostly came from my own need for some kind of emotional catharsis after growing up in the conservative Christian church. I’ve been using fiction and poetry as a solace from the church since I was a teenager, and I’ve found fictionalization of some of the events I experienced to be a really therapeutic way to cope with it. My experiences in the church were pretty terrifying overall, spanning from bizarre (a mandatory six-inch separation between boys and girls and a strict Footloose-esque ban on dancing) to crazy (“holy laughter” and the literal exorcism of demons). It was a simulacrum. The most horrifying thing was the hypocrisy I saw in my pastors, teachers, and friends. The idea that people around me would teach me God’s perfect will and then disobey it was completely absurd to me. Dealing with cognitive dissonance over illogical situations like this over and over again made me leave the church.
Ted Haggard, a former pastor close to where I grew up inColorado, is one of the best examples of the hypocrisy that the contemporary Christian church is rooted in. He preached holier-than-thou-art rhetoric in a megachurch until his congregation found out that he hooked up with a gay meth-dealing prostitute. Now he’s back in the pulpit. I think that there’s maybe nothing worse you can say to a person than telling them that you’re a messenger of God when you’re actually lying, brainwashing them, and taking their money. People have done this since the origin of religion, and somehow everyone acts like it’s no big deal. Satire is one of the only weapons we have against powerful people doing horrible things, which was one of the motivations behind writing the collection.
Christianity as a philosophy wasn’t responsible for my problems in the church, but Christendom was. I make that distinction because the book really is a condemnation of the hypocrisy of the church, not a condemnation of the teachings attributed to Jesus. I believe that attempting to follow Jesus’ moral teachings can be a really sincere and beautiful choice to make. The problem is that the contemporary church plainly doesn’t preach what Jesus actually taught, let alone practice the principles of the person they think is God.
The stories themselves were written during 2009 and 2010. As I read back through them, I started realizing that had basically written five anti-theodicies. A friend made a suggestion that I should make a collection out of them, so I decided to publish them as Lives of the Saints.
These are obviously all fiction, but “On Bread Alone” is based on the story of Alexandrina Maria da Costa, a woman during the early 20th century who attempted to live only on Communion at the end of her life. “Surd Evil” is inspired by its epigram, which comes from “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” by William L. Rowe. The story “Selah” is heavily influenced by The Way of a Pilgrim, the 19th century anonymous Russian work referenced in J.D. Salinger’s short stories “Franny” and “Zooey.” “Loft Party” is pretty much just my typical Friday night, and “The Gummi Worm Man” is based on a horrifying vision I had of a man who used to hand out gummi worms to kids in the parking lot at my church after service was over.
Though you are the sole author of this piece, it’s been published on your collaborative website, The Fiction Circus. Tell us a little bit about the experience of working on the Fiction Circus, and how that collaboration informed your writing of Lives of the Saints.
The Fiction Circus is this insanely fun project that I’ve been working on with my friends Miracle Jones, Stephen Future, and Xerxes Verdammt. It started inAustin, and when they moved to NYC in 2007, we started playing shows and then launched fictioncircus.com. We publish multimedia versions of short stories that include illustrations, music, recordings of the authors reading, and we also do both print runs and ebooks. Miracle Jones also writes a pretty incredible news feed about the literary world on the front page. We’ve published some incredibly talented authors so far, and I’ve had such fantastic experiences working with them.
We’ve been performing ridiculous multimedia shows around NYC for the last three and a half years, which has been a fantastic experience. It’s been unbelievably educational for me both as a writer and musician and has given me a greater appreciation for both fiction and reality. Reading the stories at our shows has helped me significantly in the editing process, and there’s nothing like having to read a story to an audience to encourage you to write new ones.
No one writes in a void. Did you have anyone look over and critique Lives of the Saints before you published it?
I’m part of a writing group that meets every few weeks in theEastVillagewhere we read what we’ve been working on, and the people in it are really the ones who sort of beta tested these stories. It helps having a feeling of accountability to other people for your writing, and I don’t know how people who don’t have some kind of support get any work done at all. There have been a lot of times where the idea of coming into a meeting empty-handed while everyone else has something that they’re working on has motivated me to actually get stuff done. Being able to bounce ideas off of friends throughout the entire writing and publishing process has been incredibly valuable and has changed the stories dramatically.
What reactions have you received from readers since it was published? Have people responded well to the controversial subject matter?
So far, I haven’t had any complaints about the controversial material in the book, but that’s probably because my family hasn’t read it yet. The nice part about writing books published by a small press is that the kind of people who read your books aren’t the kind of people who burn them. All the reactions have been positive so far, which is amazing considering the material. My artistic philosophy is sort of modeled after Robert Crumb, where you throw your brain at the wall to see if it sticks. Art is a place where we can actually contemplate everything from beauty to the complete lack of beauty without harming people, so I try to do that even if people are offended.
“The Gummi Worm Man” is a disturbing story, and it was really difficult for me to write. I re-read it during the publishing process and found passages where I thought, “Jesus, this is awful.” But I felt compelled to write it. There’s a laundry list of these kinds of people, pastors who aren’t just passive in the harm they do, but people who actively abuse their position to do horrible things. Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Benny Hinn, Peter Popoff, George Alan Rekers, Albert Odulele, Bob Moorehead, Eddie L. Long, Paul Barnes… the list goes on, and these people are not doing God’s work. What they do makes my fiction seem a lot more realistic than it should be.
The book is not a critique of Jesus of Nazareth. The Biblical Jesus articulated some of the greatest moral teachings we have. I wanted to write a critique of the discrepancy between what the Christian church should be and what the Christian church is.
How did you decide to publish the book under the Creative Commons?
I started geeking out on copyright mostly as a moral justification for my sins when I started to pirate MP3s as a teenager. Eventually I started reading about the concepts of open source and copyleft thanks to sites like Slashdot and Kuro5hin and ended up getting into open source software. I was pretty heavily influenced by Richard Stallman’s GNU project, Eric S. Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” and other work by open source advocates like Jamie Zawinski and Jim Munroe. It made sense to me in very basic terms that information should be free, especially information with no monetary cost to distribute, which is true now about ebooks. I wanted the book to be both free to modify and change (“free” as in “free speech”) and free to distribute (“free” as in “free beer”).
The history ofCreativeCommons and copyleft is really cool. Basically, copyleft is the subversion of copyright law to make sure the intention of the artist is preserved. It’s a way you can make sure a work is always free, as in speech or beer or both. At the end of the day, I decided to make this book completely free for reading and remixing mostly because I like free things. If you’re someone who prefers paper books, I also sell a paper version on the site for a few dollars to cover the costs of publishing and printing at readings and on the book’s website.
Are you hopeful that others will share and remix the work? Any ideas for future readers/participants?
I know that people have already shared the book with their friends, which is awesome, and I’m hoping that someone will remix it at some point. That can mean anything from adding illustrations to doing an audiobook to a different format altogether. I think the collaborative process is going to be fundamental to our generation’s artistic output, and the fewer restrictions we have to worry about, the better.
Is there anything else you’d like C&R readers to know about Lives of the Saints?
You can read it for free at http://fictioncircus.com/livesofthesaints. Read! Print! Copy! Remix! Share!