John Picard is the author of “At the Creation Museum,” an essay featured in North Dakota Quarterly Volume 80.1. In it, he talks about his experiences as a “heathen” in a family of fundamentalist Christians. Picard was kind enough to answer a few questions for NDQ’s series of author interviews.
In “At the Creation Museum” you talk about people being separated by ideas. What do you think is the fundamental difference between those who trust in the reality of supernatural or empirically “un-provable” phenomena and those who take a more scientific approach?
Putting aside the question of the God gene, I think the major difference is the ability to believe in something that defies rationality. In my case, I was desperate to believe. All I wanted was “the peace that passeth all understanding…through Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7) It didn’t happen. On the contrary, there was only anxiety and depression. I can hear a certain kind of Christian saying, “That’s because you didn’t turn your struggle with your faith over to the Lord.” I did, though, until I was forced to the conclusion that no one was listening. I could no longer ignore what my logical mind kept insisting wasn’t true. Giving up the struggle, embracing my agnosticism, was a relief, a relief I feel to this day.
Science tells us that the earth is a great deal older than 6,000 years. Why do you think there are still people who believe this to be untrue?
For fundamentalists, it’s part of the whole package, part of believing in other things that also have no basis in scientific fact. Like dinosaurs and humans co-existing. It becomes an article of faith. Not to believe the earth is 6000 years old is to cast doubt on everything else.
In your essay, when addressing the divide in your family, you hold yourself and your secularism just as accountable as your family and their fundamentalism. Do you think this is common, or do you believe most people take an us-versus-them view?
It’s hard not to take an us-versus-them view, especially when you’re outnumbered. I certainly took it, and still do sometimes. But I’ve also recognized that if my family and I are equally accountable for the divide, we’re equally innocent. We can’t help what we believe. (The God gene may be creeping in here.) I’m not at fault. They’re not at fault. We simply have different views and values.
What advice do you have for those who experience a similar divide?
Keep it to yourself. Have the good taste and the sense not to parade your beliefs before the people you love and care for. In my family we have a tacit agreement. I don’t challenge their religious views and they don’t challenge my secular ones. What’s sad is that so much wariness and inhibition put up a barrier to greater intimacy. Not being able to share each other’s most deeply held beliefs creates a palpable superficiality, a constant and sometimes painful reminder of what you’re missing. I will never be as close to my family as I am to my like-minded friends, and my family will never be as close to me as they are to their like-minded friends. The best we can do is to keep our differences to ourselves and try to enjoy one another’s company.
Can you describe your writing process?
Mostly trial and error, a paragraph here, a page there, over a long period. Incremental. Painstaking. I usually have more than one story going at a time, since I am constantly running into what feels like a dead end, then switching to another story that also felt like a dead end the last time I worked on it, but that I hope, thanks to the respite, will consent to advance another paragraph or two.
Which authors inspire you?
I was originally inspired by J.D. Salinger and Vladimir Nabokov. I did poor imitations of them for years. But they did their job; they got me to the typewriter. Like many prose writers of my generation I had a Raymond Carver period. Less typically, perhaps, I also had a Donald Barthelme phase. Since then I’ve been fairly free of influences, though Kakfa inspires me in a way I don’t understand, unless it’s how seriously he took his writing.
What are you reading now?
I just read Donald Antrim’s collection of short stories, Emerald Light in the Air. It includes “Another Manhattan,” the best story I’ve read by a contemporary writer in years. As for nonfiction, I recently read The Short and Tragic of Life of Robert Peace, a heartbreaker, and I’m very much enjoying Charles R. Cross’s Room Full of Mirrors: a biography of Jimi Hendrix.
John Picard is a native of Washington, D.C., living in North Carolina. He has an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, New England Review, Mid-American Review, Gettysburg Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and West Branch, among others. He is a recipient of a North Carolina Arts Council grant for fiction. A collection of his stories, Little Lives, was published by Mint Hill Books.