Faith engulfs the reader in its examination of religion and familial bonds. The fourth novel from Boston-based writer Jennifer Haigh delves into the personal fallout when a priest gets accused of a horrific act against a child. Questions arise, lines get drawn.
Jennifer Haigh kindly took the time to answer my questions.
Amy Steele: What interested you in writing about Boston’s Catholic Church scandal?
Jennifer Haigh: 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 raised in a Catholic family, spent twelve 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.
Amy Steele: You have great details about seminary life. How did you research the book?
Jennifer Haigh: Priests were a fixture of my childhood, and yet when I began writing Faith, I realized that I understood very little about what their daily lives were like. I read a terrific memoir, The Other Side of the Altar, written by a former priest named Paul Dinter. Later I contacted the writer and told him about the novel I was writing. He very generously agreed to answer my questions about life in the priesthood. Paul taught me a lot about the education and training seminarians receive as well as the day-to-day duties of an ordained priest.
Amy Steele: Why did you decide to narrate the story in the way you did—sort of first person/ kind of third person piecing everything together?
Jennifer Haigh: It was an accident, really. I’d never written a novel in the first person. It seemed unnecessarily limiting, since it’s rare for a single character to know all the interesting parts of any story. But as I read about priests accused of abusing children, I was struck by the difficulty of proving or disproving such charges. There are never any witnesses; the only people who know the truth of the story are the priest and the child, and often neither will talk about it. The rest of us can only speculate about what went on behind closed doors, and that’s exactly what the narrator does in Faith. The novel is Sheila’s attempt to arrive at the truth, not merely the facts of the case but the reasons behind them. In that sense, it mirrors the way we all try to parse these stories: with very little evidence one way or the other, it’s hard to know what to believe.
Amy Steele: I think a lot of people forget that priests have family. Why were you attracted to this aspect of a clergy’s life?
Jennifer Haigh: Priests have an unusual relationship to family: they live very isolated lives, and choose not to marry or have families of their own. And yet they are always somebody’s son, somebody’s brother. That interests me.
Amy Steele: All your novels have been about complex family dynamics. In Faith you focus on the three siblings. How did you decide on characters and how they’d interact?
Jennifer Haigh: There’s no good answer to this question. It’s a series of very small decisions made over several years. I’m a slow writer and discover the characters incrementally, one small bit at a time.
Amy Steele: When you come up with an idea, do characters come to you first or the story?
Jennifer Haigh: Characters always come first. Before I write a single chapter, I spend about six months ruminating about who these people are, where they came from, how they feel about each other. By the time I sit down to write, they are as real to me as anyone in my own life, and I have a real sense of how they’d react in any given situation.
Amy Steele: What is most important to you when writing a novel?
Jennifer Haigh: To use the language well, and to tell the truth as I see it. Though the characters and situations are invented, I think novels can be truer than journalism, tell larger truths about what it means to be human. At least, that’s the hope.
Amy Steele: What is your favorite thing about your novel Faith?
Jennifer Haigh: I am exceedingly fond of all these characters, and of the landscape of the South Shore.
Amy Steele: Having written three well-received books, did you feel pressure in writing this one?
Jennifer Haigh: No more or less than usual. As always, the first year was extraordinarily difficult. It’s hard to make something out of nothing, and I always wonder periodically if I’m fooling myself. In that respect, the fourth book isn’t any harder than the first one, or any easier.
Amy Steele: How has your writing process changed over the years?
Jennifer Haigh: It’s changed very little. I still work slowly and consistently, and am quite secretive about what I’m writing. I spend the first year or so drafting the story and a couple more years revising. The only significant difference is that I now work outside my home, at a little writing studio with no telephone, no internet access and absolutely no distractions. I can’t work in cafes or parks or on airplanes, because there’s simply too much too look at. I need the imaginary world in my head to be more vivid that the one in front of me.
Jennifer Haigh website
purchase at Amazon: Faith: A Novel