An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Cara Wall
The Dearly Beloved: A Novel (Simon & Schuster; Paperback; 2 June 2020)
In The Dearly Beloved, we follow two couples through decades of love and friendship, jealousy and understanding, forgiveness and commitment. Against the backdrop of turbulent changes facing the city and the church’s congregation, these four forge improbable paths through their evolving relationships, each struggling with uncertainty, heartbreak, and joy. A poignant meditation on faith and reason, marriage and children, and the ways we find meaning in our lives.
“A moving portrait of love and friendship set against a backdrop of social change.” —The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Wall, thank you for joining us here at Authorlink to discuss your exquisite book, The Dearly Beloved. You grew up attending the First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village in New York City, which was a very liberal, community-based church at the time. While you did not set out to write a book about ministers or about God, and even though your childhood parish was the touchstone of the main characters in The Dearly Beloved, you were more inspired “by your own thoughts and convictions about faith and relationships and how these manifest in a spiritual setting”. Is that right?
“The lesson I took away from my childhood was: think hard, be kind, do good.”
WALL: The wonderful thing about the church in which I grew up was that its mission – as I understood it – was to inspire everyone to explore their personal faith, to think deeply about their convictions and to actively manifest them in every setting, spiritual or otherwise. The lesson I took away from my childhood was: think hard, be kind, do good.
Those exhortations have preoccupied me throughout my life because they are so much more complex than they sound. Thinking hard is easy for me (as it is for Charles), but life often gets in the way of my efforts to be kind and do good (as it does for Lily). I’m fascinated by why that happens. Why is our instinct often to push people away? Why do we refuse help when we need it? And conversely, why do we long for connection with people who obviously don’t want us around? How can we actually connect with other people, let our guard down, decide to trust and love? How do friendships and marriages come about and how do they survive under the pressure of differing opinions, diametrically opposed goals, and the challenge of children?
I really wanted to explore the concept of faith in those forms – not necessarily religious faith, rather the faith we choose to have in each other, in ourselves, and our friends, and in our communities. I wanted to write a book that was a sort of owner’s manual for commitment, a primer of all the tiny steps it takes to get to a place of acceptance and sustainable love.
AUTHORLINK: And you did it so well! The Dearly Beloved is about Charles Barrett and James MacNally, two friends and ministers with very different preaching styles, who are asked to co-minster the congregation at the recently destabilized Third Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village. Charles is the only son of a Harvard classics professor, who strays from his intended academic path when he enrolls in a course on “Martyrs and Their Murderers” and suddenly finds his vocation. He meets his future wife, Lily, in the library while she is studying at Radcliffe. Having suffered immeasurable tragedy and loss, Lily doesn’t believe in God.
The second minister, James, is the youngest of six children in a lapsed Catholic family, who escapes poverty and his father’s alcoholism when a generous uncle pays for his tuition at the University of Chicago and then King’s College, London. He meets his future wife, Nan, an affluent and influential minister’s daughter from Mississippi, at a music recital, while she was studying at the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, at the time.
These rich and detailed backstories color the canvas with which you describe the lives of these four characters from the early 50s to the 70s, granting them equal voice as they attend college, get married, navigate parenthood, question their faith, and live through conflicts.
You said once, “I often feel like I have to make up my mind about faith and religion, but while writing this book I was allowed to embrace my indecision.” (Shelf Awareness, 22 May 2019). Do these couples give you the freedom to mine the depths of your own ‘Christian’ beliefs? Do you think that questioning faith and religion keeps them alive?
WALL: I’m not comfortable with calling my beliefs “Christian beliefs”. Certainly, I was raised in the Christian tradition, and that is my cultural background. But I have spent just as much, if not more, time exploring Buddhism, yoga, meditation, and kinds of spirituality that many would consider woo-woo.
“For me, the writing of this book wasn’t a questioning of faith or religion – it was a radical stretching into each character’s belief system…”
That said, I did give each of the characters one aspect of my own complicated spiritual journey, and through them I was able to see which parts of myself harmonize, which clash, and how they might be woven together. For me, the writing of this book wasn’t a questioning of faith or religion – it was a radical stretching into each character’s belief system, a huge expansion into their hearts and minds. I didn’t come out of the experience with any clear answers, but I did finish the book with a deep feeling of acceptance that I found very comforting.
I don’t know if questioning faith and religion keeps them alive. I suppose it hangs on the difference between faith and religion and/or depends on the tenor of the questioning. I’m acutely aware that many aspects of organized religion desperately need some hard questioning and extensive revision because there are rules and prejudices that keep people from freely practicing their faiths. I hope more and more of those are laid to rest. But I think questioning our personal faith does keep it alive. In order to write meaningfully about these characters, I had to sit inside their faiths, care about every nuance of them, even the parts in which I did not believe. It was a very heart-opening experience that helped me become more supportive of other people, deepened my connections, and made me feel more alive.
AUTHORLINK: That is such an interesting answer, thank you. And in relation to the above question, do you think this might be the reason that most people who read The Dearly Beloved, feel like one of the characters is more important than the other, even though there is no main character between them? In fact, and in relation to the wives, we understand you have found that most of your fans are either in Team Lily or in Team Nan, with no markers to predict what kind of person would favour who. Why do think that is?
WALL: I ponder that often. I was SO surprised when people started telling me how much they hated Lily or Nan. I definitely gave each of those women an aspect of myself that I don’t like, so I felt the sting of every criticism.
In general, New Yorkers really understand Lily. They get that she just wants to be left alone, and her cynicism doesn’t bother them. I’ve talked to quite a few men who really don’t like Lily – they think she gives Charles much too hard a time. People don’t hate Nan with the same venom – but many find her exhaustingly timid and insipid.
I think Lily and Nan tap into archetypes that create strong reactions – if you relate to Nan, you feel the cut of Lily’s derision; if you, like Lily, long for independence, you feel strangled by Nan’s need for attention. It feels very revealing to discover which woman a person identifies with – but I’m not sure what to do with that information.
AUTHORLINK: This next question is in two parts.
(a) You are a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and Stanford University. While at Iowa, you taught fiction in the undergraduate creative writing department, as well as at the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio in your capacity of founder and inaugural director. How did both these positions come about?
WALL: One of the greatest things about the Writers’ Workshop was that they worked hard to find every student a job so that we were all eligible for in-state tuition. Most of the M.F.A. students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop taught writing to undergraduates either Rhetoric, Creative Writing, or extension classes. I also worked as the administrative assistant for the International Writing Program at the university. With those salaries and reduced tuition, my M.F.A. cost a fraction of what I thought it would, which was a great gift.
I found the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio job because I decided to stay in Iowa an extra year after graduation, while my boyfriend finished his M.F.A. at the Workshop. The university was looking for someone to determine the feasibility of running a summer writing program for high school students. Within a month, I had determined that it was feasible – and was given the go-ahead to spend the rest of the year making it a reality. I created a curriculum, hired instructors, devised the application, organized housing, and recruited the students. I was amazed that it came together so easily, and I’m so glad it still exists. I just recently met a high schooler who spent her summer there and loved it!
(b) How gratifying. Good for you! You went on to teach middle school English and History, and have been published by Glamour, Salon, and The San Francisco Chronicle. Around the time of the birth of your daughter, around fifteen years ago, you started to write The Dearly Beloved.
Not that this is a criticism in any way, but why did it take you so long to write your book? Was it because you were trying to juggle your writing work, with raising a child? Or was it because you felt your writing was still evolving? Or both? Have you written any other books during this time or published any other works and if so, what are they?
“All in all, I think I wrote seven drafts and worked intently on it for four out of those 15 years.”
WALL: I didn’t work on the book all day, every day for 15 years! I started writing the book one summer when I was still teaching, and for a few years I only had time to work on it during school vacations. Three or so years into writing it, I went through a divorce – and it is impossible to write elegantly about marriage in the middle of that process, even though mine was incredibly amicable. I went back to work after that and started two businesses, which took up much of my time and energy.
When my daughter was in third grade, I decided I had to finish the book – just for me, just so I knew I could do it. I wrote every school day for two years or so and then put it away until I met my agent at a mom’s night out. All in all, I think I wrote seven drafts and worked intently on it for four out of those 15 years. It was the only piece of writing I worked on in that time period – I’m working on a new one now, and it feels very strange to be starting from the beginning, as I’ve been revising for more than a decade.
AUTHORLINK: That’s fascinating. You once said, “I think what I learned from writing this book is that to really be empathetic, to really be a loving human being, you have to work on yourself…It’s a process of shedding the things inside of yourself that keep you from loving other people.” (Today, 26 September 2019) We agree. Would you kindly elaborate on this?
“I now know for certain that anxiety is the opposite of acceptance, and acceptance is a prerequisite for love.”
WALL: That idea of love comes directly from motherhood. When an adorable baby exasperates you past the point of affection, it’s definitely you – not her. I now know for certain that anxiety is the opposite of acceptance, and acceptance is a prerequisite for love.
AUTHORLINK: What a lovely canon to go by. Which review of The Dearly Beloved did you love the most and felt that it truly encapsulated your intention for this book?
WALL: I have been so impressed by the way almost every reviewer describes the plot and premise of the book! Every single one has managed to do it more eloquently than I can. I don’t have a specific favorite, but I do love that the majority of reviews are some version of “I really didn’t think I was going to like this book…but I did!” That always gives me a big rush of relief.
AUTHORLINK: We bet! Who was your first reader of The Dearly Beloved? How many times did you edit the manuscript before you submitted it for representation? Do you proofread and edit all your own book(s), or do you get someone to do that for you? How many times did your agent edit your novel and then, how many times did your editor edit it?
WALL: My earliest readers were women in my book club – we’ve been reading together for almost two decades. I did most of the proofreading for this one – I thought I did a fantastic job until my excellent copy editor came along. My agent didn’t edit my novel – she felt that it was strong enough to send out as it was. We both knew that whoever bought it would want to make their own edits to it. I’m so glad we proceeded that way because my editor’s comments were fantastically insightful. She and I did three rounds of revision together. The biggest ones were to make Charles and Lily’s relationship clearer, to give Nan more time on the page, and to write the epilogue.
AUTHORLINK: That’s wonderful. When did you first start writing?
WALL: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was fifteen. In my first Creative Writing class, we read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I was reading it in a white pleather beanbag, in the corner of a classroom, when another girl came by and said, “That’s a weird name for a book.”
I gaped at her because it was the truest thing I’d ever read – it was so obvious to me that truth lived in bones, and that’s where I had to go to create magic. It was the first moment I understood that I was different and that some people would find the things I love bizarre.
That girl went on to become a doctor, which I find weird, so we’re even.
AUTHORLINK: Ha ha ha. We understand that before The Dearly Beloved was published, it was not often you would have conversations with your church friends about whether they, in fact, believed in God. Since the publishing of your novel, you have had long over-due discussions about various belief systems. Is that right? What are your thoughts on people who are in fact atheists deep in their hearts, but still like going to church?
WALL: I’ve had some really interesting conversations about belief, yes. And I’m actually good friends with people who are atheists but go to church – I totally get it. Church is as much about community as it is about worship. It’s hard to find community, especially if you don’t have children or work a nine-five job. Church is a great place to find opportunities to do good work with a group, and those projects can foster wonderful friendships. We need all the connection we can get.
AUTHORLINK: These questions might be a bit personal and you don’t have to answer them if you don’t feel comfortable, but do you believe there is life after death? Do you believe in miracles? Do you believe the power of prayer can shift energy?
“I believe there is much more to learn about life than we can possibly imagine…”
WALL: I believe there is much more to learn about life than we can possibly imagine, and humankind will discover innumerable things that will feel like miracles. And I do believe in the power of thought and energy to change circumstances, though I don’t think that process only has to be called “prayer”. I also believe in life after death, but I have no idea what form it will take.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you. We understand you’re currently working on a book about a painting that’s left of the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Provenance. Can you tell us a bit about it? When did you first start writing this book? When is it due for publication?
WALL: I actually had the idea for this book before I wrote The Dearly Beloved. It was part of my application for Iowa!
“…the central question so far is: to whom do the lost things of the world belong?”
I pitched it to my editor like this:
In the early hours of a late fall morning, a painting is left on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. It is a medieval Annunciata: a depiction of Gabriel telling Mary she will be the mother of the son of God. It is found by a curator on the last legs of his career and researched by a young woman whose job is to return looted works of art to their rightful owners. To say anything else is a spoiler, but the central question so far is: to whom do the lost things of the world belong?
Very optimistically, it might be out in 2022.
AUTHORLINK: That sounds intriguing! We can’t wait to read it. And just a few lighthearted questions to finish off which we respectfully request you answer in a few words …
- Who are your three favorite authors? Ann Patchett, Anne Carson, Anne Lamott
- Which three people alive or dead, famous or unknown, would you invite over to dinner? My kid and her best friends.
- What is your favorite pastime? How do you relax? I try to walk 4-5 miles by a river, lake, or ocean every day.
- What one piece of advice would you give to a struggling author about the way to express themselves? If you ask my friends from high school or college what they remember about my writing process, they will say that I used to kneel on my dorm room floor, surrounded by notecards, fingers in my ears, rocking back and forth and whispering, “What am I trying to say, here? What am I REALLY trying to say?” I think that’s a crucial question, always. What do you really want to say, and how can you best say it?
AUTHORLINK: Ha! That’s fantastic. Ms. Wall, it was such a real pleasure having the opportunity to talk to you about The Dearly Beloved, a gorgeously written book. We wish you continued success and look forward to reading the Provenance and any more of your work in the future.
WALL: Thank you!
About the Author: Cara Wall is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and Stanford University. While at Iowa, Cara taught fiction writing in the undergraduate creative writing department as well as at the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio in her capacity of founder and inaugural director. She went on to teach middle school English and History and has been published by Glamour, Salon, and The San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in New York City with her family.
You can find out more about Cara Wall at https://www.carawall.com/ and on Instagram @carawallauthor