Inside hearts and heads
A conversation on fiction, faith, and character-writing with novelist Sarah Hulse
My hardest task as a reviewer is recommending fiction to WORLD readers. Some novels are formulaic, and many that are more complex have anti-Christian worldviews. So I’m glad to recommend strongly 36-year-old Sarah Hulse’s two novels, Black River (2015) and Eden Mine (2020). At 232 and 259 pages they’re beach-carriable, but they’re not theologically light. Here’s our edited and tightened interview—and please read to the end of the interview before ordering the books, if you’re so inclined, because some readers may object to the occasional curse words that Hulse includes.
Your two novels seem God-haunted. Your characters, and I suspect you as well, wrestle with basic and crucial questions of meaning.
Yes, I’m interested in ways that some seemingly simple things about faith and Christianity are difficult for some people in practice. I enjoy writing fiction that engages with the messier and more difficult side of belief.
I suspect you tell your students at University of Nevada, Reno, what I tell journalism students—writing is 10 percent writing and 90 percent rewriting.
Yes. I use those exact percentages.
Your rewriting has made me conclude there’s nothing accidental in your books—they’re interwoven—so I’d like you to do what I haven’t asked any of my 200-plus previous interviewees to do: Read a few paragraphs and tell me why they are there. I suspect you have copies of your novels close at hand.
Yep, I’ll just grab them from the other room. … All right, got them.
In Black River, your central character is a 60-year-old prison guard whose father was also a prison guard. Please read the paragraph at the bottom of page 52.
“When Wes was 14, his father switched from evening watch to day watch at the prison. It was a change he had waited years for, but it meant he was now inside the gate Sunday mornings. They began attending evening service, and it was a habit Wes held to as an adult; he was sorry to see it had been done away with. At evening service, the sanctuary was peopled mostly by men who sat alone, wide gaps between them in the pews. The pastor’s voice was tired but unyielding, and the hymns took on an appealing strangeness when sung only in low men’s voices. It was during that spare, solemn hour, in the largely empty sanctuary, the bright candy windows dark, that Wes came closest to believing.”
Why would Wes then come closest to believing?
Wes yearns for faith but struggles, at least in his own mind, to have it. Some of that comes back to him being a character who believes very strongly in rules and is impatient with other people who don’t follow them. Wes almost doesn’t allow himself to believe, doesn’t feel himself worthy of it. He feels belief comes easily to other people and not to himself, and doesn’t really understand why. This stripped-down service, populated mostly by other people who at least partly understand his experiences as a corrections officer, allows him in that moment to feel more of a connection than he does in a more traditional service.
Why does he never take communion?
He feels inauthentic. He doesn’t allow himself to belong fully.
Wes is, or was, a wonderful fiddler. His wife Claire is not a believer. Could you read the sentences at the bottom of page 62? After a rigid practice, he plays …
“… a hymn. These are for her. She’s Claire the heathen, Claire the agnostic, and she loves hymns. Her favorite is ‘Blest Be the Tie That Binds.’ She thinks Wesley’s must be ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ because he plays it almost as often, though she’s never asked him to.”
Does Claire just love her husband’s playing, or does she love the hymns themselves—and if so, why?
Wes is loath to think about his own feelings or even acknowledge that he has them. Claire recognizes that Wes is more faithful than he would say he is, and his faith is more important to him than he even recognizes. And, even though Claire insists she’s not a believer, she really sees something special and unique in this music.
Top of page 64, please.
“Though Claire does not believe in God, she loves her husband’s efforts at faith. He keeps a Bible on their bedside table and reads from it most nights before turning out the light; he told her once, while they were lying beside each other in the dark, that the stories in its pages never seem quite the way he remembers them from church.”
Assuming that nothing is haphazard in your writing, why that last sentence?
This draws an early distinction between the more performative elements of faith and practice, and the more personal elements. Wes, even if he doesn’t realize it fully at this point, internalizes some of these stories and processes them in ways that go beyond simply being receptive to what someone else, like a pastor, tells him about them.
That seems very much like the classic Western hero who knows more than he may think he knows, and in a crisis comes through in a way he’s not sure he will. How much of that character reflects you in some ways?
I have certain personality traits that I understand about him. His tendency to want a rule book: I could empathize with that a lot—and many people can. I was in graduate school at the University of Oregon when I drafted Black River, and then worked on it for about a year after graduating. I was attending church part of the time and wasn’t sure why. I became a Christian while writing the novel, so I can understand the experience of having a journey as an adult.
How did you become a Christian as you were writing the novel?
I grew up in a nominally Christian family and went to a mainline church for a few years with one of my parents. It wasn’t a big part of our lives, but it was always something that fascinated me. As I got older, I attended a lot of different kinds of churches and met pastors who introduced me to some of the richness of Christian thought over the millennia. I saw there’s a lot more to this than I realized, and it became very, very important to me.
Your character Wes can no longer fiddle, but on page 104 he’s listening to a decades-old tape of when he could play, his wife was alive, and his stepson was small.
“There were other sounds on the tape, too, beneath the music. A mischievous little boy’s giggle, a steady thumping. … Claire’s voice: sweet, gentle, a little huskier than he’d expected the first time he heard her speak. ‘Denny, must you always be such a whirling dervish? He’s going to bring this house crashing down, Wesley. Something a little slower this time, please.’
“He stopped the tape player, pressed the rewind button. A little slower this time, please. … These things that had been his, these voices, so close. Rewind, again. This time, please. Again. Time please. Please. Please.”
How did you, in your 20s, understand a 60-year-old’s perspective of wanting to revisit the past?
It’s getting to know the character, imagining what it’s like to be someone else. I haven’t been married, but I have observed other people’s marriages. I have had close relationships of varying kinds, and I can take some of those experiences and emotions and apply them to a different situation for a different person. You take things from your own life that might have some parallels, even if they’re not the exact same thing. You say, “How would this character feel?” That’s one of the things I love most about fiction: learning—and hopefully conveying to other people—what it’s like to be someone who is not like you.
A key theme throughout this book involves the possibility of personal change. Can Wes change? On page 135 he speculates with his friend, Farmer, about whether a convict can change.
“For a few, religion seemed like a hobby, the way weightlifting or watching the soaps were hobbies for other inmates. And maybe—maybe—it was more for some. ‘Farmer, you don’t think he could have really changed?’ ‘Do I think a man can come to religion and be the better for it? Yes, I do.’ He glanced back at the mountains suddenly, at the sun hovering above. ‘But do I think Robert Williams can be that man? That I just don’t know.’”
Have you seen Christianity radically change people?
That is a central promise of Christianity, and that is a key part of Wes’ own faith transformation and his own efforts to change. I write about very flawed characters in very difficult situations, and the possibility of redemption is central. I do see the stories ultimately as ones of hope—and the reason for that is the possibility of change.
Please read from page 223, starting with “Help me.”
“‘Help me,’ Wes had whispered, ‘survive this.’ The blade pulled tight below his jaw, arching his face up. He closed his eyes. ‘And if I can’t—’ he said ‘—survive—’ the words coming faster, without thought, coming without his calling them, the way his music always had and never would again ‘—then ease my way home to You.’ Eyes open now, sight blurred by tears that wouldn’t fall. ‘And please, God, above all else, watch over my wife and my son. Shelter them in Your love.’ No more. The blade was still there at his throat, his life moments—millimeters—from ending. If there were ever a moment in which to find faith, to be struck with the certainty of God’s presence, Wes was enduring it, but he felt no comfort, no peace.”
You don’t tie up everything nicely with a bow.
Like a lot of people I sometimes resist the tendency that exists in some contemporary American churches to have a veneer of optimism, focusing on the verses that show things are OK. That’s an incredibly important message, but human experience is messy and difficult. One of the amazing things about faith is that people can become even stronger, sometimes, through suffering. I think it’s important for there to be fiction that engages with Christian themes and believes in the importance of forgiveness and redemption, but doesn’t look away from the challenges that come with living in a very messy world.
Let’s turn to your second novel, Eden Mine. I assume you chose the title, not accidentally.
So many towns out west have names like Eden or Paradise. Eden Mine is set in a declining town where the silver mines have closed. No one who comes through the town would call it Eden, but for the protagonist, Jo, it’s home, “mine.” She wrestles throughout the novel with whether she can love something that’s damaged—and Jo reckons with the fact that her beloved brother Samuel has done something truly terrible.
Another main character is a pastor with what I suspect is a carefully chosen Old Testament name, Asa Truth. He wants to know the truth about prayer. Please read his musings on page 69.
“I have prayed. I have prayed with words. With any words that come to my lips, with eloquent words and words so jumbled they scarcely make sense. With words that say exactly what I mean and words that can’t come close. I have prayed with my eyes shut and my hands clenched so tightly they ache for hours afterward.”
How do you understand prayer?
Gratitude and praise and worship are key parts of prayer, but we see in Scripture that you can express despair or confusion or dissatisfaction, and those are things that God can handle. Early in the novel Asa is mostly pulling out the verses that support the comforting aspect of prayer. Later he embraces on a personal level that expressing some darker emotions doesn’t make him less faithful.
Asa is faithful even though he had a pastor-dad who was a liar. Jo tells him, “You were raised by a man putting on these fake faith healing tent shows. Yet here you are, an actual preacher with an actual congregation. Do you believe it all?” What’s his answer?
“‘I do.’ Clears his throat. ‘I try.’ … My father taught me my scripture, my hymns, my prayers, the tools of his trade. I didn’t know he didn’t believe in any of it, not then. He told me later it was because a kid couldn’t be trusted not to give away the game. Maybe that was all it was. I wonder sometimes.’ He looks at me. ‘He and I used to drive from town to town in this old RV, just the two of us. We’d park in fields or pastures or fairgrounds or empty lots on the outskirts of towns, wherever they’d let us set up the tent. I slept in that little bunk over the cab. There was a window by my pillow, and if it was warm enough I’d crack it open after I went to bed. My father would sit outside in a lawn chair, and some nights I’d hear him praying the psalms. And he was praying them, not just reading them.”
Asa sees and experiences many different types of faith.
Yeah, I had hoped with his character in this book not to do a simplistic narrative of faith as a thing you either have or don’t have, full stop. Asa is faithful throughout the novel, but the nature of his faith and how he experiences and expresses it changes pretty dramatically. That’s not a narrative we see a lot of in contemporary fiction, which tends to be mainly conversion or deconversion stories. I wanted a character who remains faithful, but in a way new to him—to have his faith tested and come through that, but not in a way that leaves him unchanged.
Asa Truth asks the theodicy question: Why, when we have an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God, do bad things happen? Are you trying to help readers grapple with that?
Yes, sometimes as Christians we seem a bit afraid to ask the hard questions. As someone who came to faith as an adult, I worry sometimes that if we’re not aware of the deep body of work and thought and writing that engages with that question, people turn away. Asa has been very seriously harmed, and it’s realistic he struggles in the moment. He wrestles, feels lost at times, but he doesn’t abandon his faith.
Is one of your underlying questions how much we rely on our own personal experience as opposed to relying on the Bible?
That’s definitely something I explore through Asa’s character. There’s a moment when he’s reading his Bible and he doesn’t want to look at some parts right now: They’re not resonating with him. As a pastor he knows how he’s supposed to read it and what the theological lessons are supposed to be, but he understood some things in an intellectual way, and now has to apply it in new ways.
We’re almost out of time, but I want to ask about the way you occasionally have a character use obscenity or profanity, and have another character comment on it. For example, Wes in Black River swears during a miserable moment, and his wife comments that this is the first time she’s heard him swear in 30 years of marriage. Give us the benefit of your thinking of when bad language is appropriate.
Sure. I get letters with three sentences of praise followed by, “I didn’t like the swearing.”
I haven’t asked you to read any of those passages.
Yeah, I don’t read them at public readings, even though I wrote them. It’s certainly not language I want to use in my own life. In Black River, it’s there to be uncomfortable. It’s part of Wes’ overall character arc. This kind of language is not something to encourage, but there are times when characters like his stepson are really hurting, and Wes—instead of caring and showing empathy—retreats and thinks, “Look at this guy saying these words.” I hope the reader might see that while these words are offensive, and it would be better if people didn’t use them, Wes fixates on them when he should be focusing on something else.
Finally, a rude question—is a third novel coming?
I certainly have an idea, and am making notes and doing research. I’m not the swiftest of writers, but it’s on the way.
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