Skeletons in the closet
Jennifer Haigh’s fourth novel focuses on a complicated Boston family struggling to come to terms with secrets they would rather not face. The Irish-American McGann clan have always been close, but when oldest brother Art, a priest, is accused of improper behavior by a parishioner, their mother and his two siblings find their close relationships torn apart. Combining a ripped-from-the-headlines plot with Haigh’s trademark emotionally elegant writing, Faith is a gripping and honest novel that will keep readers turning pages.
The word “faith” means a lot of different things to different people. What exactly does “faith” mean to you? Why did you choose it as the title of your book?
The novel deals with religious faith, of course—the story revolves around a priest accused of sexual abuse, and many of the characters are observant Catholics. In a broader sense, the events of the story make all the characters reevaluate what they believe about themselves and each other.
Many authors take inspiration from their own lives—your second novel, Baker Towers, was set in a western Pennsylvania coal town much like the place where you were born. Where did the idea for Faith come from?
When I moved to Boston from Iowa in 2002, the city was reeling from revelations that Catholic priests had molested children, and that the Archdiocese had covered up the abuse. I was reeling too: I was raised in a Catholic family, spent 12 years in parochial schools and had extremely fond memories of my interactions with Catholic clergy. It’s no exaggeration to say that nuns and priests were the heroes of my childhood. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened in Boston—and, as later became clear, in Catholic dioceses across the country. Faith was my attempt to explain the inexplicable, to understand what I couldn’t make sense of in any other way.
What is it about family dynamics that makes them such a literary touchstone for you?
You know, I wouldn’t say I have a particular interest in writing about families. In fact I’m just trying to write complex, realistic, well-developed characters—and to do that, I need to consider where my characters came from, what their early years were like, what sorts of people brought them into the world.
Faith revolves around what happens when a young priest is accused of sexual misconduct with a young boy. Was it difficult for you to tackle such a sensitive subject?
Starting any book is difficult. I approached Faith the way I have approached all my novels: by thinking my way into the characters, and knowing them from the inside.
One of the things that is so impressive about your novels is how atmospheric they are. Faith takes place in Boston, which is where you currently live—if you could travel and settle anywhere with the intention of some day setting a book there, where would you choose to go?
Hm. Is someone else buying my plane ticket?
Your novels are very emotionally investing for readers, so they must demand a lot from you as a writer. What do you do when you need to unwind from all the drama you create on the page?!
I like to take a walk, or maybe cook something.
You graduated with an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 2002—what is the most important thing that you learned during your time there?
Iowa was a formative experience for me. I grew a great deal as a writer, and learned values and habits I use every day of my writing life. It’s hard to single out one particular lesson. I will say that Frank Conroy was a man who honored the sentence, and I try to do that too.
Along with novels you also write short stories—do you find one format more rewarding or challenging than the other?
Different rewards, different challenges. I enjoy both and struggle with both. If pressed I’d say I prefer the novel, mostly because I hate starting and finishing. Breaking ground on a new project terrifies me, and finishing one is profoundly depressing, if only because I know I’ll soon have to start all over again. My favorite part is the long, boring middle stage of writing a novel, when the end is still distant, and the next beginning even more so.
Recently there has been a lot of attention devoted to gender bias in the publishing industry. Your previous works have won some rather prestigious awards, but as a female author, do you feel like you have a harder time reaching a broad readership?
No—in fact, just the opposite. Reaching a broad audience isn’t the problem. If anything, female writers have an edge in that regard, since the vast majority of fiction readers are women. The real issue is that female writers are far less likely to be reviewed, which creates the impression that their work is less serious. This is a persistent and vexing problem, but because I can’t do anything about it, I try to put it out of my mind.
With so many other modern innovations and ways to spend our time, why is it important for people to still read books?
I can only respond with the reasons I still read books: It’s the most powerful way I know to augment the experience of living. Reading a great novel opens an entire world to me; it lets me inhabit another person’s skin. Of course, movies tell stories too; but as a viewer you’re a passive recipient of the experience; your own imagination has no hand in creating it.