54. On Writing with Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

January 24, 2024 - Roger W. Lowther

Many of you have been writing me about this earthquake that hit Japan just a couple of weeks ago on January 1st. Wow, what a way to begin the new year, right? As you know, it was a pretty big one. In Tokyo, it wasn't that big, definitely felt, but mostly just a lot of big swaying. But actually, I wasn't in Tokyo at the time when the earthquake hit. I was in Nagano, not far from the epicenter of the earthquake. We were up in the mountains of Japan on a ski vacation with the family. And let me tell you, where we were, it was big! It definitely brought back memories of 2011. The ground was jolting so hard that it was impossible to walk.

We were staying in a cabin with foundations that were nothing more than a bunch of stones piled on top of each other, not a very solid foundation at all, so we were really worried the whole thing was going to topple over and collapse on to the ground. And it’s built on the side of a cliff, so there was this worry that it would slide down the mountain in a landslide like happened in so many places in Ishikawa. Fortunately, neither of those things happened. But the aftershocks, they just kept hitting, one after the other, and not little ones either, so we took shelter outside for a little while and built a snowman.

The aftershocks were at first, like every 15 minutes or so, and then about every 30 minutes, then every 45 minutes, then every hour. And by the end of those first few days, we had, I don’t know, like 30 earthquakes, maybe more…a lot of earthquakes! I wasn't keeping count. But they were definitely felt and memorable.

Inside the cabin, we had this big kerosene heater to keep the cabin warm. But it also dries out the air, so on top of it we had this huge pot of water, and let me tell you that didn’t fair so well in the earthquake. All that water was just swishing around and went over the side and went down to the floor, and so we had a very wet floor for a couple of days there. And of course, everything else in the cabin fell down as well. There was a quite a mess that we had to clean up, but there really wasn't any damage where I was.

But, of course, as you know, it’s a much different story in Ishikawa. You’ve probably seen the news reports. A lot of homes fell down. A lot of roads are impassable. Through the church network, we heard about the needs in the area, and my friends in Nagoya, Japan, were able to take a number of large vans full of supplies right after the earthquake, and then my friends from Chiba did that as well. I haven’t been there yet, but we are in conversation with contacts about what the needs are and what we can do. They're telling us not to come right now because there's a bottleneck of supplies at the base of the peninsula, and they're simply not able to get the supplies where they need to go because of damage to the roads and they’re so narrow going through the roads there. But the current plan is to take a team next month with artists to give concerts in shelters, so I'll definitely keep you posted about that.

Well, today I'm excited to introduce you to Sarah Hinlicky Wilson. She is a phenomenal person and a phenomenal writer here in Tokyo, and good friends of our family along with her husband and son, who is in the same class as my son. We recorded this podcast just before an Art, Life, Faith event that was being held that evening on writing in Japan along with another writer as well. Anyway, without further ado, here is Sarah Hinlicky Wilson.

Hey, Sarah. I am so thankful to have you on the show today.

Sarah

I am delighted to be here. I've been looking forward to this for a while.

Roger

Tonight, you're going to be sharing with a group of people in our living room here about writing. Over the past, we've had musicians come, we've had painters, dancers, filmmakers. But it's been a while since we've had a writer come, so I'm really looking forward to this.

Sarah

Cool. I'm excited to be a part of it. I'm just excited to talk about writing because that's... I mean, wow, filmmakers and dancers, that blows my mind. I feel like writing is the easy thing because all you have to do is type.

Roger

I don't know about that. It's a tough process, that's for sure, and it feels like it's never done. Well, let me ask you. This morning, I finished your book of short stories called Pearly Gates, and I found it to be a really moving collection of stories. Can you tell us a little bit about this book?

Sarah

Sure. It's a strange little collection, honestly, of 30 very short stories, and the premise—is that each one features a person, a human being, never named, man or woman, usually adults, sometimes children, sometimes more than one person or even a crowd—and they come to the Pearly Gates of Heaven. We most often hear about Pearly Gates in connection with either jokes or New Yorker cartoons featuring Saint Peter standing guard, but the imagery is drawn from the Book of Revelation so there's a lot of Revelation imagery scattered throughout this book. And the idea is basically when you get to the Pearly Gates, you are at the final zone of no BS, no more lying or pretending. There is something about that place that repels anything but truthfulness. It's a story of how a bunch of different people in a bunch of different ways and for their own different reasons, either pass through the gates, some happily, some pass through even unhappily, but they still pass through. There are others who do not like what they find there and turn and walk around the other way.

Roger

Yeah, I really appreciated the vivid imagery of these stories. I mean, I could easily imagine myself right there listening to the story, even animating it in my head visually. Just so many different things connected to life on earth here.

Sarah

The truth is, even though this is “afterlife fiction,” it really is about our life now. Like all spiritual speculation about the life to come, it's reflecting back to us where we are now. But the nice thing about the Pearly Gates is you can't lie anymore. You're confronted with truth in a way that we can always dodge it in this life. Right.

Roger

Right. There's a sense, I think a lot of people think of heaven in this abstract manner that it's a place where God is, but it's somewhere other. It's not here at all, but there's an earthiness to the way that you've written these stories.

Sarah

Yeah. Well, as I wrote more and more, I realized that to make them actually meaningful, something you can connect to, they had to be anchored in vivid reality. Because, I mean, they're very short and there are no names. I'm not developing a plot, so it has to happen right then. What came to me is that we believe in the resurrection of the body. And so, a great deal of the emotional and spiritual drama is bodily enacted through the people's own bodies. What happens to them. What they do with them. How they interact with objects that they might bring there with them. I'm glad that spoke to you that concreteness because it was really meant to be testimony to the resurrection of the body and the centrality to spirituality.

Roger

I could really feel that the heaviness or the lightness of the burdens. I remember, especially there was that one scene where the woman is scratching her skin, and then she's like, “Oh, I'm so clean now.” You can feel that cleanness. You can feel the physicality of this encounter they're having with heaven.

Sarah

Yeah. One of my favorites is when the man is furious at finding out that the Lord is the Lord. He had spent his whole life dedicated to denouncing the name of the Lord. Finally, in rage, he just attacks him and plunges through his heart and pops out on the other side covered in the blood of Jesus. But the blood is what brought him in. It brings everybody in. But the experience, even at that final moment of going through the blood of Jesus, is what changes him as well. They're not all quite that gory. That’s an exceptionally…

Roger

No, it was... I could imagine there being an animated series of these stories because they were just so visual. For you listening, I can recommend these. They're just perfect bedtime reading because it's maybe two pages or six pages for a story, it's easy to pick up and read one or a lot of them in one sitting.

Sarah

Yeah, great. Oh, I'm just thrilled to hear this. I've gotten probably more meaningful feedback from people for this book than anything else I've written. It seems to have…which is funny because it started out as a bizarre experiment. I would not have expected this to touch as many people as it has.

Roger

Yeah, I was inspired. Let me move on to another book that you've written. A Tumblin’ Down is one that I read six months ago, and I have trouble ever forgetting that book because it hit me so strongly because of the things that I was going through in my own life. How would you introduce this book to a listening audience?

Sarah

Right. Well, less inspirational than Pearly Gates. This one is much more anchored on earth. A Tumblin’ Down is a novel about a Lutheran pastor's family in upstate New York in the late 1980s. I grew up in a Lutheran pastor's family in upstate New York in the late 1980s, but other than that, it's drawn from our experience and location, but it's not our family story. It's not autobiographical in that respect. But basically, parents in their late 30s trying to struggle on with career and vocation. They have an oldest daughter getting close to adolescence. Two little boys born within a year of each other who are very close. It has all the usual growing up, growing older challenges, a lot of time developing what the life of a congregation feels like. I have never read a book that really I felt satisfied me either on what it's really like to be a pastor in a church with a family or what it's like to be in a congregation. So that's one thing I wanted to capture. But that by itself was a little bit too vaguely literary for me. I wanted some action. And so, about a quarter of the way into the book, a really horrific tragedy befalls the family. And so, the rest of the book is about the aftermath of the tragedy and then, unfortunately, how it leads to a faction in the congregation, turning on the pastor's family, exploiting the tragedy, trying to drive him out, and then the aftermath of that.

Roger

Yeah. Again, it impacted me so deeply because it so reflected what we were going through in our own church with a family tragedy with the pastor, and then division in the church. And I was like, “Is this a true story?” I even asked you, “Is this a true story?” It's the most true fiction story I have ever read, I swear.

Sarah

Yeah, I'm related to tons of pastors. I have tons of pastor friends. I am a pastor myself, fortunately in a very happy congregation now. Not like this at all. But I have just seen...Well, here this is another thing that may be a little slight polemical subtext here, but in popular American depictions of pastors and pastor’s families, you either have the totally sanitized, happy, unchallenged, the Lord is good and life is good and everything's fine and isn't it all sweet and all wrapped up. Or you have the pastor is a villain, and he's having an affair, and he's embezzling money, and he's lost his faith, and it's all dark and horrible. Just neither of those felt true to life to me. And those things…well, the second thing happens, I'm not sure about the first. But one thing I had never really seen depicted either, besides just really what it feels like to be in a congregation, is that a congregational faction turning on a pastor. In news reports, too, it's always the pastor's fault. I don't doubt there are a lot of times it's the pastor's fault, but it's not only the pastor's fault. That story needed to be told about what it's like for these… It can be a very small number of people who just decide to take down the pastor. Then how do you live with that?

Roger

A very vocal minority.

Sarah

Yeah, exactly. The way that well-meaning nice church folks are unequipped to deal with that, and they can get sucked into the system without even realizing it's happening.

Roger

Yeah. Because it was such a painful book for me to read, I'm like, Should I recommend this book to others or not? Because it was so painful, but it was so true and so helpful. I do recommend it to as many people as I can because it was just... There was wisdom in there that I think we all need to hear through the pain how God is still... How God is working and how he can redeem such situations. That's really something you can do in literature, in a novel, that's harder to do in real life, right? Because you're like, “Oh, I can't mention that person…” You'll get in trouble, right?

Sarah

I think actually it's a hopeful book in the real sense of hope. It's not naïve, and it's not optimistic. But where the characters end at the end is a willingness to carry on based on reality. Having come through the pain, which was awful and they never would have chosen to go through it, but having gone through it, it gives them a fresh start in its own way. I also think there's a lot of funny in it. I mean, it's leavened with some comedy. I have had many pastors tell me that my scenes depicting the annual church conference is the most hilariously scathing satire they have ever come across of those church events. If you just need a takedown of a ridiculous, ineffective bishop, this book is for you.

Roger

It was coming to mind, too, about the organist in this story.

Sarah

As an organist, that probably was painful for you.

Roger

Yeah, because I'm an organist, I'm like, Oh, my goodness. I hope I haven't been like that. Or the organist is like, “I'm going to save this church.” It's like, that's not really your job. But okay…

Sarah

Yeah, the church family that has deep historical roots, lots of money and never, ever attends, but still thinks they own the place. If you guys know that part of church life, you'll find that here too.

Roger

Yeah. Gosh, there are so many characters that so stood out, likable or not likable, depending upon the person. Tell me, this idea, you've written many books, and this idea of writing books. There are issues you can bring up. By writing this novel, you were able to talk about things that you couldn't really in any other way, not in this way for certain. Tell me a little bit about that. Why do you write? What is your... What do you want people to really get out of your books?

Sarah

Wow, deep questions. Well, the first answer is I write because I can't not. I think a lot of writers are like that. But I got my... Well, I was always writing stories from the time I was small, but when I was old enough to actually try to do it in a more professional way, I actually got my start in non-fiction. It just was where the audience and the money was. Then I went on academically, so I'm a trained theologically. I've written lots of academic articles and books, as well as taking that and putting it in more popular form and zillions of sermons as well. But I think that as much as I really enjoy the discipline of theology, and I know theology gets a bad rap with lots of people, but it's just loving God with your mind. It's devoting the best of your intellectual capacities. It is not...I mean, theology, like everything else, has good and bad in it and better and worse. I don't need to defend the bad stuff. But there are things it can't do. One thing I realized at some point is that almost all theology is written in the key of Romans, which is fabulous of course. I'm a Lutheran. Of course, I love Romans, but it is a very particular form or genre of communication. And theologians never write in the key of the gospels, for example, or Esther, or Nehemiah, which is a memoir, and rarely in the form of poetry, which is a hugely important biblical genre. Which is not to say you can only write in biblical genres, but I think the fact that there are so many genres in Scripture as well as in subsequent church tradition shows that not all truth is accessed the same way or expressed the same way.

Roger

As an artist, I definitely agree with that.

Sarah

Of course, right. Music tells us things that the written word cannot, and visual arts tells us things that dance cannot. All these things. If you're actually really passionately committed to truth, as I aspire to be, then you have to look at all the avenues towards truth and not artificially cut them off. So I think for me, something like this novel, A Tumblin’ Down, was a way to relate the experience of being a believer and a member, a part of a church community that I actually couldn't write in a non-fiction format. It would always be abstracted, and it would always attempt at being universal. But in fact, one key thing you learn as a fiction writer is the more specific you are, the more universal the message becomes. Everybody writes out trying to write the story that is for everybody and about everybody, and no one is interested in that story. But people who have no connection to Lutheran pastors’ families can read this and feel intimately what it is like to be these people and draw something very human and personal out of it, even if they can't draw the faith lesson out of it. But I wanted to give more the texture of what it's like to believe and wrestle emotionally with all the things you wrestle with in life.

Roger

Yeah, Pearly Gates had that as well, right? The physicality, the humanity of heaven. Here you are doing it with A Tumblin’ Down and through this story.

Sarah

Yeah. I don't know if you've ever seen schemas of the steps of salvation. Like first this, and then that, and then you have to go through this. It might be only two steps, or it might be, I've seen more like 18-20, and they have to unfold in the right order. I just think, if there are more fiction writers who were involved in theology, no one would come up with anything this stupid because every life is different, everyone's experience is different. Of course, you find commonalities and similarities because we're human, but we actually get the commonalities by looking at the specific cases and not the other way around.

Roger

Right. Yeah, definitely. Recently, I've been talking a lot about that. How when you go and visit different countries around the world, you enter different cultures. We are so much a product of our surroundings and environments and the stories that we are entrenched in. You can't separate our humanity from that and certainly our theology as well.

Sarah

Yeah, right. You don't go to a restaurant and say, I don't need the menu, just bring me good food. Or you don't say, play some good music. There's lots of things that's good music. That doesn't specify it enough. Bach’s good music is not The Beatle's good music.

Roger

Yeah. Before we started recording, you were telling me a little bit about your thoughts about wonder. Tell me a little more about that.

Sarah

Yeah, maybe this is where I am very much as a 21st century person and someone who's done academic training in theology and just tried to live in our very weird hyper-modern, hyper-novel worlds. I guess there's two things on either side I'm trying to navigate between. One is the response of people of faith who are really deeply frightened and alarmed by the world and by discoveries that might call the faith into question. Whether that's like, challenges to the origins of the biblical documents with historic criticism or archeology or scientific findings. There's a need to just bracket out all of that or maybe more perniciously pine for a different century. If only I'd lived then, if I wasn't stuck. I was born in the 20th century. Now I live in the 21st. It's so awful now. If this is God's creation, then now and everything we have unleashed, looking out your windows at downtown Tokyo and the high rises, this is still part of God's project. God doesn't love absolutely everything we've done, of course, but this is ultimately all within the realm of what God made good. So either bracketing out stuff or just wishing not to be here seems deeply unfaithful to me.

But on the other hand, there are, of course, tons of voices, we often call them secular or rationalistic or materialistic, that want everything or assume and infer everything is reductionistically explained, mechanistic, deterministic. Everything happens just as a matter of course, there is no freedom. There is no God, of course. I find that those people live in the same level of denial as the believers who are frightened by reality because they can't allow the emotions they feel towards their beloved or their children or their parents to be real. They can't allow their reactions to art or music to be real. They have to somehow tamp down any suspicion of wonder that cannot be analyzed and controlled by this engineering approach to reality. I think probably finding both of those wrong, and I'm stumbling because I'm trying to figure out how to articulate it. I think what I'm trying to do in all my writing is to figure out a way to talk about what it's like to be really real, these bodies in this time, but that God is really real, but not in an easily accessible way, obviously, or there would be no question of doubt or pain.

But at the same time, every time I try to run the thought experiments of this is all just religion as a projection of the brain that was evolutionarily helpful. I can talk myself into that. At the end of the day, it still doesn't change my mind about thinking God is real. I think for me, this concept of wonder, which I'm sure was very much formed by writers like George McDonald and Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, all those greats, there's something that's really true about wonder, but doing it in a way that's not fakely miraculous or just strip down the bad titling of Shusaku Endo's book, Silence. He didn't want it to be called Silence because Jesus does speak to him at the end, but only at the end. To me, that is closer, I think, in spirit to what I'm trying to get at. God is real, but he so often hides himself. Just trying to... Yeah, that's what I think. If I try to analyze what I'm doing both theologically and artistically, it's mapping out the real experience of wonder, not overblown, but not reduced to the atoms moving in my brain.

Roger

Yeah, I see that in your books as I think through them, this sense of... As we live through our lives, we end up having a narrow perspective of the situation that we're in. But the idea of wonder, as you're describing, it gives us a renewing sense of where we are rather than some other mystery thing. It's like, no, actually just wonder in the situation that we're in, being able to see it in a new way, a new perspective. It's really exciting, actually, and necessary. Life can get... Well, life is hard. Life is hard, and we can get so caught up and busy. What's the next thing? What's the next thing? It's like we're missing the journey. Your writing really helps us see the journey of where we are, not just where we're going, but where we are right now.

Sarah

Thanks for that reflection. That's great. I just want to point out, it's so interesting, when I talk to other believers in the same space about this novel, they never bring up the non-realistic elements in it, I think, because it doesn't seem unrealistic to them. In the book, the pastor, dad, Donald, he regularly has conversations with his dead grandfather. What that even means is never explained. I never try to give an account. I just knew Donald talks to his grandfather. His grandfather talks back. Carmichael, his wife, has alternate versions of herself, different lives she could have had come up and confront and annoy her. Kitty, the daughter, has her council, which she obviously got from her dad's church council, but it's all populated with characters from her beloved books. I'll leave the ones for the little boys for the reader to discover. But this is just... It's unfolded narratively as completely realistic, even though clearly it doesn't... What? Clearly? I don't know. It doesn't not happen in that way? I've had a lot of people say, This seems actually what life is like to me. This is what it actually feels like.

Roger

Yeah. No, it's very effective. We're almost out of time. But before we end, is there any other... Would you like to talk, introduce any of your other books to our listeners?

Sarah

Can I tell about an upcoming one?

Roger

Sure.

Sarah

Okay, so right now I am writing a book about the transfiguration of Jesus because as a preacher, it comes up in my cycle of readings every year. After three or four years, I was like, I don't have anything left to say about this, but surely there's more to it than I've thought up. I started reading and became completely obsessed and fascinated with the transfiguration of Jesus, and probably because it is this wondrous moment in the life of Jesus. Obviously, Jesus does cool things like miracles. But other than the resurrection, this is the big one in the middle of Jesus, earthly life. I just started going into it and I was like, I bet there are more preachers who need help preaching on this every year. I found out Catholics and Anglicans have to preach on it twice a year. That's a whole other story. But also for anyone, any believer who's come across this and like, I have no idea what to do with this story. Anyway, so I'm working on it right now. I'm going to have a Kickstarter for it in January 2024, if anyone wants to be involved in this.

It's actually called Seven Ways of Looking at the Transfiguration, because even for this very short story, there is so much happening, and it's drawing in so many aspects of scripture and spiritual life and devotion. But to me, it's given me a new way to look at and think about Christ and what he's doing. I hope some of that excitement will be communicated.

Roger

Yeah, I can't wait. I'll definitely include a link in the show notes so people can get involved with the Kickstarter. How can people listen to you? I know you have a podcast. There are other things they can follow.

Sarah

Sure. Actually, I have two podcasts. If you want the more non-fiction traditional theology stream, it's called Queen of the Sciences: Conversations Between a Theologian and Her Dad. And guess what? My co-host is my dad, Paul Hinlicky, a theologian as well. He probably has better claim to it than I do. We are just about to wrap up our fifth year together, and next year we'll be starting our sixth. But also this year, I realized that I was ready to be more out there and official with my passion for combining good fiction and good theology at the same time. I've just started a second podcast with the very boring but accurate title, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson Stories. In fact, the first season is all the 30 stories of Pearly Gates, each with a little introduction from me. You can find either of those on your podcast app or wherever you are listening to this one.

Roger

Awesome. Okay, I'll include links for that as well. Anything else you want to share before we sign off?

Sarah

I think we've more than adequately supplied listeners with things to follow up on. But thank you, Roger, for this conversation.

Roger

Yeah, and we're looking forward to tonight. We're planning to have quite a few people come to dinner, and it's going to be a really good night. Thank you so much for doing this.

Sarah

Oh, you're welcome. Thank you for the invitation to be here.

Roger

That was perfect timing.

So, that really was perfect timing, right? I had to leave that last part in because I thought it was just so funny. I was watching the clock as we were talking and thinking, “Oh, people are going to start ringing that doorbell.” And sure enough, that’s what happened. So, now you know what a Japanese doorbell sounds like!

The event was so cool. A lot of people came, and we had another author speak as well, Ellen McGinty about her book, The Water Child, where she tells the story of a teenage girl who is trying to find healing in her family when the 2011 earthquake and tsunami strike. I read this book when it first came out in 2021 and was really struck not only by the power of the storytelling but the accuracy of the events, the way she is able to vividly describe the scene surrounding the disaster, because Ellen herself, the author, was involved in the relief movement after the earthquake and so was able to write from personal experience and the experiences of people she worked with. So, anyway, I highly recommend her book as well and will include a link in the show notes to this podcast.

We also had two people share who attended a writer’s conference in Nagoya, Japan, a city about two hours south of us here in Tokyo. They shared some of the things they learned, especially interesting were some of the trends going on right now about what audiences are looking for, and especially what publishers are looking for. And there were a lot of writers in attendance, and so we had a really good discussion time together.

We do Art Life Faith events like this once a month, and I started this podcast during COVID in order to be able to share some of this content with all of you, the conversations we’re having and the people we’re talking with. Most of those events are in Japanese, but it’s especially great when the speakers speak English so that you all can participate in them.

So, as we sign off, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson has her Kickstarter campaign she mentioned happening right now through January 31, and I encourage y’all to check it out and back her project. And I’m going to include the links to that in the show notes for this podcast.

Thank you so much for listening. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne! See you next time.”


Links:

Queen of the Sciences Podcast
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson Stories Podcast
"7 Ways of Looking at the Transfiguration" Kickstarter Campaign
Thornbush Press

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