This is Why I Came

Belief and Disbelief Tangle in Expanded Lives of Biblical Characters

An exclusive Authorlink interview

By Diane Slocum

March, 2016

This is Why I Came
by Mary Rakow
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This is Why I Came, Mary Rakow, Counterpoint – A woman waits to go into confessional after decades of being away. She carries a small volume of Bible stories as she has embellished them, filling in the blanks.

” I was depressed that the novel I wanted to write had failed again . . .”

AUTHORLINK: How did you get the idea to retell these Biblical stories? How did you develop the added details?

RAKOW: I had been working on the second novel, full time, for over 10 years and each draft failed. Then Garth Greenwell, my close friend, said he loved the 14 pages I’d written on Zaccheus and could imagine a slim book of such monologues by biblical characters. I was depressed that the novel I wanted to write had failed again, but then I tried his advice and instantly it came like water blasting out of a faucet (to use a cliche).

I’m not so much retelling as taking each story, imagining that the people are just like us, then looking at the things I don’t understand and eventually imagining something that would make it make sense. Like why don’t we hear anything about Joseph after Jesus is 12 years old? Why wasn’t he at any of the miracles? Why wasn’t he there when Jesus was executed? Why does he disappear from the Gospels entirely? And if he was a lot older than Mary, as some people surmise, why don’t we hear about his death? Why is he nowhere quoted in the New Testament?

I have degrees in theology. But I am not here interested in the critical analysis of these stories. I just take them at face value. As stories. And try to think into what I don’t understand.

“All of the stories in the Bible are like flash fiction. Very modern.”

AUTHORLINK: How would you describe this book?

RAKOW: It is a meditation on the parts of biblical stories where something is missing, like what Zaccheus did for the rest of his life. He was short. He wanted to see this prophet who was new in town. He climbs the sycamore tree. Then Jesus looks up, notices him, invites himself into Zaccheus’ home, and at the end of that afternoon, Zaccheus who was despised by the locals because he was a tax collector and cheated everybody—he repays them more than he owes. But what brought about that change? And then what? We never hear of him again. He was not a disciple. So what happened? All of the stories in the Bible are like flash fiction. Very modern. The Bible is mostly emptiness. Mozart is mostly emptiness. Brahms. Picasso. Matisse. So you go in and what you fill that emptiness with is yourself.

“. . . my hope is that the book can function like a large family table around which all people of good will can come . . . “

AUTHORLINK: How have readers reacted?

RAKOW: Great! The author Janet Fitch is a close friend and when she read the manuscript she loved it. I was at the dentist reading emails on my phone, waiting for x-rays to develop. Her email made me cry right there in the chair. Because she is a deeply moral person but not a practicing religious person and I thought, wow, if Janet likes it, maybe others will too. And this has been the case. Atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, devout Catholics, Protestants, young people, older readers. I think what people like is the method. The novel implies that any person can read the Bible and think about what they read. This makes me very happy, because my hope is that the book can function like a large family table around which all people of good will can come, gather and listen to each other, and learn from each other. To cross all these gaps. To open up this discourse.

AUTHORLINK: Some of your notes reference The Memory Room, your first novel. How are the two books related?

RAKOW: The wonderful visual artist, Jeremy Foss pointed out to me that the two books are deeply related. I’ve been thinking that he is totally right. In The Memory Room, Barbara, the main character is trying to find what can go up against the violence that she has experienced. She turns to therapy, art, music and friends. It’s a very long journey but she makes it and doesn’t go nuts. In This Is Why I Came Bernadette is seeing in biblical characters other people who struggled with that abrasion between belief and disbelief. Even God himself struggles.

“I am most interested in visual art that is not afraid to ask big questions about being here, about being human.”

AUTHORLINK: You’ve also written Martinez Celaya Working Methods. What is your interest in visual art?

RAKOW: I am most interested in visual art that is not afraid to ask big questions about being here, about being human. Art that would rather ask a big question and fail in answering than to ask stupid small questions or to say that life has no meaning. Like Jeremy Foss, Martinez Celaya is such an artist He has a global career but we are friends, primarily because we think about similar questions. We share the assumption that our work will always fail our ambition. We’ve never said this out loud. But we feel it in each other’s work, as you do. He and Ediciones Poligrafa, the Barcelona based art book publisher, invited me to do this book. It was a commissioned work.

I am very aware of the flow of energy across art forms. I write novels but am inspired by poems and works of art and music. Recently I made many trips to the DeYoung here in San Francisco to see one of Motherwell’s “Elegy for the Spanish Republic” works. I just stood for a few hours, staring at it. It is a miraculous work.

AUTHORLINK: How did your experience writing and publishing this novel differ from your first?

RAKOW: When I published The Memory Room the internet barely existed, or social media, but now I am posting chapters from the novel on my website where I can also post the art that I so carefully curated for each chapter. Counterpoint was not in a position to publish the novel with the art, but I love the art, so this is a new possibility. Readers can comment or suggest alternative art for the chapter, etc. I am also hoping to find a fine press book publisher to offer a signed and limited edition of the novel with the images, where the book, as an object, is art.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

RAKOW: I don’t want to say too much, but I have three projects that I’ve started. I look forward to living again in the world of the new work, that dream, listening to that, entering again into deep silence.

About the Author:

Rakow’s first novel was a finalist in fiction for the PEN/USA/West award and listed as one of the Best Books of the West by the Los Angeles Times. She received her Master’s from Harvard Divinity Schools and PhD from Boston College.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.