When she was a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, Val Brelinski, who had run out of short stories to hand in for workshop, sat down one afternoon thinking about her rather unorthodox childhood and, as if compelled, furiously wrote 100 pages of what would later become "The Girl Who Slept With God" (Viking), her powerfully affecting debut novel. Growing up in rural Idaho, Brelinski, the daughter of devout evangelical Christians, spent much of her time reading the Bible, attending services and “witnessing” to unbelievers. She and her two sisters were not permitted to read magazines, play cards, listen to rock 'n’ roll, or visit bowling alleys, movie theaters, even restaurants that served alcohol. Even reading novels was considered sinful. These experiences and their profound effects, sometimes for the worse, became the emotional impetus of "The Girl Who Slept With God."
"The Girl Who Slept with God" is your first published book, at the age of 58. What was your journey to becoming a full-time writer?
I didn’t begin to write fiction until the age of 42, which is obviously amazingly late to be starting a writing career. Much of the reason for this delay was my extreme evangelical upbringing, which told me that novels were frivolous, sinful things written by dissolute and worldly people who lived in New York City and smoked lots of cigarettes. Growing up in rural Idaho, I had never met a novelist and certainly didn’t know how to become one, even if I had wanted to. Although I was a serious and devoted reader, and had been since early childhood, the authorial world was simply not open to me. By the time I was 32, I was a single mother whose main goal was paying my rent. I managed this by teaching English at an enormous public high school, a job that demanded unending patience and stamina. After several years, I asked my principal if I could teach creative writing, something that sounded potentially more fun than attempting yet again to stuff "The Scarlet Letter" down hundreds of unwilling adolescent throats. My principal wanted to know what fiction I had written, and I hemmed and hawed, and then went home and wrote a short story, which I submitted (with utter naiveté) to a contest. The contest’s judge was the author George Garrett, and he not only awarded me first place, but later offered me a spot in the MFA program at the University of Virginia, as well. Without hesitation, but with plenty of admonitions from my family, I packed up my entire life and headed off to Charlottesville. After I received my MFA, I was awarded a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford, and thanks to these two incredible writing programs and their fantastic teachers, here I am now.
Chronicling the Quanbecks, a devoutly religious family living in a small town in rural Idaho, "The Girl Who Slept With God" is very much a work of autobiographical fiction. What were your experiences growing up in a strict evangelical household?
Like Jory, the protagonist in my novel, I was the middle daughter in a family of extremely conservative evangelical Christians. My parents (like hers) took the notions of holiness and God-likeness very seriously, and the list of things we were not allowed to do or own or wear was lengthy, to say the least. We couldn’t attend circuses or movies or dances or pool parties, and we couldn’t eat at any restaurants that served alcohol or allowed smoking. Our clothing had to be extremely modest and we weren’t allowed to wear makeup or have pierced ears. We went to church at least three times a week, and attended private, fundamentalist schools where we watched films about the hoax of dinosaur bones and carbon dating, and the imminence of the Rapture. In the summer we went to Bible camp and Vacation Bible School and outdoor camp meetings where people wailed and wept and ran down to the altar to get saved. This environment made up my entire world, since I was not allowed to associate closely with anyone who was not a fellow evangelical.
Unfortunately, I was a stubborn, naturally rebellious child, who got kicked out of high school for arguing with my Bible teacher about whether Jesus had a crew cut or not, and put on probation because my skirt was 2 inches above my knee (the latter was determined by having me kneel on the floor of the principal’s office while he measured my skirt with a ruler). My childhood and adolescence were marked by frequent acts of sin for which the price was public humiliation and emotional abasement. And just like Jory and Grace in my novel, I was banished from my home. My familial expulsion, however, happened repeatedly. Whenever I did something my mother disapproved of, I would come home to find the door locked and a grocery bag full of my clothes waiting on the front porch. I then had the option of ringing the bell and facing my furious mother, or knocking on my sister’s window and begging her to let me in. After a certain number of these evictions, I finally had enough, and at age 17, I moved out of my home and began living with two other teenagers in a tiny house that we rented with waitressing money. My father would occasionally come visit me at this little house, asking me when I was going to come home, and I would always reply, “When Mom asks me to,” an event I knew was highly unlikely. I lived in this house for the next year and a half, awaiting an invitation home that never came.
Was there one particular event in your childhood that became the impetus for the novel? Are there any personal memories that you chose to include in the book?
At the age of 8, my older sister announced to our parents that she had been saved and was now going to become a missionary to foreign lands. She began studying Spanish and reading a Spanish Bible, and indeed, she went on her first mission to Mexico when she was just 16. From then on, she spent her summers in South or Central America, testifying and ministering to the “heathen.” When she came home, she would work as a youth minister in our church and then put the paycheck she had just been handed directly into the offering plate during morning service. She essentially outdid my parents at their own religiosity, an act that seemed to me like a reverse form of teenage rebellion. One summer, though, she came home early from a mission and no one would explain why. Years later, in a moment of confessional weakness, my father said that it was because of “something that had happened with a man.” My imagination concerning this strange event grew and expanded, and the end result was my first novel.
So much of Grace, Jory and Frances’ evangelical upbringing in rural Idaho in 1970 seems foreign to many readers today. What elements of their childhood do you think readers will be able to relate to?
While the specifics of the Quanbeck sisters’ struggles with their parents center around religious strictures, the general conflict is the age-old, universal battle for independence and autonomy. Like adolescents everywhere, Jory and Grace want to be loved by their parents, but also want the power to choose their own individual paths, to form identities that may run counter to those imagined for them by their parents. Anyone who has been an adolescent will surely relate to the struggles, dangers and bittersweet thrills involved in experiencing a taste of grown-up freedom for the very first time.
In my novel, much is left unsaid between the parents and their daughters, although the dramatic actions that each group takes render speech practically moot. The Quanbecks' communication gap is never really bridged, and what remains unexpressed provides some of the novel’s most interesting conflicts. A lack of communication between parents and children has always been an issue. Whether it is the ‘70s or today, parents always downplay the scariness and random nature of life so that their children won’t be afraid, while children and teenagers hide the realities of their own new experiences so that their parents won’t be shocked or dismayed. Each thinks it is protecting the other, often to the detriment of both.
I also think that every child imagines a life without his or her parents, and every parent fears the type of behavior that would merit genuinely serious punishment. In my novel, I create a nightmarish situation that makes real this subconscious wish for a familial separation, and then I let this situation play out, for better and worse.
The novel explores many themes, perhaps none more fascinating than the relationship between science and religion. Oren Quanbeck, the family’s patriarch, seems to embody this conflict both as an astronomy professor with a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard and as a father deeply devoted to his evangelical Christian beliefs. Was your own father the inspiration for the character of Oren? What did you come to understand while examining the relationship between science and religion?
Oren is nearly an exact representation of my real-life father, especially in his life philosophy, which somehow found no friction between rationality and religion. My father was raised as an evangelical and when he later discovered the world of science (while working on the Manhattan Project and studying physics in grad school), he worked hard to come up with a personal theology that could accommodate both. The church talk that Oren delivers in the novel is a paraphrased version of a speech I heard my father give at various religious and academic functions, and the ideas are ones with which I am extremely familiar. As a teenager, I questioned him constantly about his ideology. My father revered science and logic and theoretical physics, but he also valued caution and restraint and personal stability. For him, the Christian lifestyle promised both an earthly and eternal safety from drama, shame and embarrassment, and it provided him a template for his own behavior. He was a man who lived by his convictions, and my admiration for him knows no bounds, even though I cannot share his religious ideals. His effect on me was enormous, and my love of knowledge, education and logic is a direct result of his incredible impact on my life.
How did you decide to draw from your own family and childhood experiences for this novel? Do you have a sense of how the book will be received by your family?
I had many doubts about the creation of this book, primarily because I did not want its publication to hurt my parents. My actions brought them all kinds of trauma when I was an adolescent and young adult, and I was worried that this book, with its many autobiographical elements, might produce more of the same. My family is also a very private one, and personal laundry-airing is something we shy away from. Because of this, the novel originally had a very different second half. After my father and mother died within four months of each other, and after a period of grief, I rewrote the latter portion of the novel, giving it the more complex and realistic ending that I had subconsciously envisioned, but hadn’t originally dared to include.
No one in my family has read the book yet. My younger sister is a writer herself and will have no problems with the novel’s contents, but I can’t entirely predict how my older sister will respond. She still lives in our home town and is a devoted Christian. She is also highly supportive of all my endeavors and is the most loving person possible, but privately she may be somewhat appalled or dismayed by her role in the book. If so, I will certainly understand.
Marilynne Robinson once said of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction: “There’s a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a living heart.” The opposite seems to ring true in "The Girl Who Slept With God," a story written with deep compassion for not only Christianity but the people with unwavering faith. What’s your relationship with religion now and how has it informed your writing?
I am no longer a follower of any type of religion, although I have nothing but respect for those believers who actually reveal a Christ-like kindness and forgiveness in their daily behavior. I continue to be fascinated by writers (Marilynne Robinson, Andre Dubus and Miriam Toews, to name just a few) who address the notions of faith without resorting to stereotypes or satire. The struggle to be devoted to one’s own belief system without forcing its dictates on others is another interest; so too is the story of “the good person doing good” whose actions result in near or complete disaster. I never was a very good evangelical, even though I was immersed in its lifestyle and surrounded by its tenets every day for 40 years. I was too much of a doubter; I simply couldn’t believe in a judgmental god who had set the sin game in motion and then folded his arms and stepped back and waited for humans to mess up. Also, I couldn’t imagine a better god than the one I already had: my father. His love for me and his endless forgiveness of my personal failings gave me the sensation that I was already saved, and safe. And for that I am eternally grateful.
What do you hope readers will take away from "The Girl Who Slept with God"?
I would love to think that readers of my novel will be given a fairly accurate depiction of conservative Idaho during the early 1970s, and an insider’s view of the even stranger environment of my deeply devout, painfully private and clannish family—a perspective I didn’t possess myself until I left this unusual world at age 42. I would also be happy if readers found the book’s characters deeply flawed and yet entirely worth caring about. And I would be delighted if they understood that these characters’ actions, although not always wise, and sometimes severely misguided, spring from the same reservoir that all our actions do: the muddled minds and hearts of complicated human beings.
Oren and Esther Quanbeck are reminders to the reader that parents are god-like creatures and need to be aware of the power they wield, so that they may exercise benevolence, rather than judgment and revenge. However, every character in the novel, including the protagonist, is less than understanding of those who differ from him or her, and it is only after each of them loses something unreclaimable that any change or acceptance of the “other” begins to occur. This is a painful lesson that, like most, only comes after the fact.
As even adolescents like Jory know, love comes with a price that sometimes seems too terrible to bear, and yet, in life and in this novel, that is all there is. I hope that readers of my novel will see that even in the most contentious and complex of relationships, like Jory’s with Grace, and Oren’s with each of his daughters, while there is life, there is always the possibility of further understanding, and even more important, there remains the possibility of true and loving forgiveness.