Saturday, July 17, 2010

Interview with Mary Eberstadt, author of "The Loser Letters"

I had the opportunity to e-interview Mary Eberstadt, the author of The Loser Letters.  I hope you'll enjoy the conversation as much as I did, and it will inspire you to read the book even more.

Thanks, Mary, for your willingness to take the time and answer my questions.  

First of all, well done!  I consider The Loser Letters an instant classic, no easy feat.  How did The Screwtape Letters shape your writing of this book and your idea for it?

Thank you kindly for that! The Screwtape Letters obviously did inspire the book, though only loosely. Like millions of other admirers of C.S. Lewis, I was knocked out by his success in delivering orthodox apologetics under the cloak of humor. In writing The Loser Letters, I was aiming for a similarly unexpected combination of satire and religious seriousness -- especially for the newer generations of readers who may not have seen that combination before. That said, the influence ends there; they’re very different books from head to toe.

The humor in The Loser Letters is a key element. What was your goal in using humor the way you did, and was it difficult to get right?

The new atheism itself practically invites satire. After all, this movement has grown fat and happy by painting religious people as grim and humorless and self-righteous — all while exhibiting plenty of humorlessness and self-righteousness itself, as the book’s protagonist A. F. Christian enjoys pointing out.

As for the particular humor of A.F., I actually found it pretty easy to enter into her voice. Like many young adults in the electronic age, she bubbles constantly with an indiscriminate brew of the high and the low, the sublime and the ridiculous, the irreverent and the deadly serious — everything from the Bravo Channel to rehab patter to St. Augustine all rolled into one. Once I got used to her particular mix, the story pretty much wrote itself.

Another question regarding humor:   In my review of your book, I write about how my previous reactions to hearing atheists interviewed would go one of two unhelpful ways: either eye-rolling annoyance (not exactly charitable), or a profound sadness for the person and the state of the world.

But after reading The Loser Letters, I now laugh; not in a mocking way, but in a human way, and with a protective kindness that I felt for the fictional Letters protagonist.  I’m so grateful for that, and I also wonder if writing the book changed you.  Did writing the book change your views of those who are influenced by or even lead the atheist charge?

It hasn’t changed my view of the movement’s celebrity leaders, because my main impression of their work remains the same as it was before. It’s a view based not on anything personal, but rather just on close inspection of their books. Those books almost without exception are astonishingly angry, belligerent – and contemptuous of religious believers. Even by the debased standards of publishing today, their genre stands out for those negative characteristics. In quoting so liberally from their work, I’m trying to make readers think along with A.F. about where all that anger comes from and what it says about the new atheist movement.

That said, I’m taking aim at those leaders and their arguments – not at ordinary unbelievers or other secular folk. I think our modern world is a rough world for some of them, too, including in ways they don’t always understand. It certainly was hard on A.F. Christian – and of course I adore A.F.!

Have you met or had any response from the atheists you write about?   What would you say to them if you could?

No response as yet from the celebrities – though I did receive a gratifying e-mail, my favorite so far, from a man saying he’s been an atheist all his adult life, and that he’s now re-thinking that because of The Loser Letters. As for the leaders of the atheist movement, I think A.F. Christian has already said plenty to them in her letters! I don’t really have anything more to add.

I read a few of the “letters” online, but I found the physical book a much more satisfying way to read the story.  What are you hearing from readers?  Is there a generational difference?

This seems to be a case where the book form has certain advantages over online installments (before Ignatius Press put them out in printed form, the letters were serialized weekly at National Review Online). The Loser Letters is in part a mystery story – the slowly revealed tale of what happens to a particular girl – and the plot details and clues are definitely easier to follow if you can flip back and forth for them in a book. Also, believe it or not, that book cover Ignatius gave it seems to have acquired a cult following of its own! So while it’s great to have the book out in both forms, I think there was and always will be something special about a book, especially one with a plot.

How do you think The Loser Letters would be helpful for college students or young adults in facing classes or professors or fellow students who are atheists?

I think it will help college students to know that the atheist movement doesn’t have the market cornered on confidence. Believers can be pro-active too, including in ways that are fun, as I hope this book is. Beyond that, I do hope that college students especially will find in this book some useful refutations of certain atheist arguments making the rounds these days, especially on campus. In a way, this book is intended as a gift to those students— some fighting words about religion for the Facebook generation, delivered by a character they can feel for.

I gave the book to one of our teenage babysitters, and she was astounded by how much she “heard” other young people she knows in the narrator’s voice.  How did you accomplish that?

I’m privileged to spend a lot of time around teenagers and young adults, both our own and others. Their cadences, their stories and dramas, and the way they live now are all part of what inspired A. F. Christian.

Do you think The Loser Letters can serve as a platform for dialogue between and atheist and a believer?  How?

Definitely – if you can get any atheists actually to read the book! I can tell by the few atheist reviews I’ve seen that most either aren’t finishing it, or aren’t understanding what they’ve read. Even so, I hope what they do read of it percolates down somewhere.

In recent weeks Christopher Hitchens has been in the news because he announced he is suffering from cancer, and commentators and others are reflecting on his legacy. Do you have any thoughts on this?

I’m a great admirer of Christopher Hitchens’ prose. He’s preternaturally gifted, one of the best essayists in the English language. He’s also inadvertently done religious believers a favor, I think, because his particularly sharp writing has forced many take a closer look at their own arguments. I wish him well.

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