The Clarion e-Bulletin caught up with Jerome Stueart (Clarion 2007), who is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Dayton. He joined Tiffany Davis, e-Bulletin co-editor, via Skype to discuss his current and upcoming books, his Clarion experience, Christian werewolves, and Sister Act, among other things. Due to the length of the interview, we are publishing it in parts.
Catch up on Part 1 of the interview here.
Interview with Jerome Stueart (continued):
Tiffany Davis (TD): Given the current political climate–because part of how everything has evolved, there has been a lack of faith–how timely are your stories, now that you are addressing people wrestling with that faith, and faith vs. the greater good, like with the werewolf and the bluegrass band?
Jerome Stueart (JS): The faith question in this last election is so muddy. At least 80% of Evangelical Christians voted for this president, and what he stands for is against everything they believe in. There’s something wonky in Evangelicalism if you believe you hate the other side so much that you’d rather make a deal with someone who doesn’t represent you at all. It scares me to think that people could be so blinded, and I’m not sure it’s blinded by their faith. I’m not sure it’s a lack of faith, but it’s certainly a lack of being able to interpret the real message of Jesus. If you think that the president is anything like you were going for in your mission statement, you’ve got that all wrong.
I know my upcoming novel (One Nation Under Gods) will really touch on this a lot. I didn’t plan on it being so timely, but it is the American landscape redefined by a religious fervor that. When the book comes out, I have a feeling that the book will feel very nonfiction. I mean, there will be gods in my book but the way that we worship the ideas–of patriotism, of nationalism; how we interpret freedom as “I get to do what I want to do but no one else gets to do what they want to do”–that definition just floors me, because freedom should be so much broader than that. And Christian freedom, especially. I’ve grown up in the panhandle of West Texas and I know the government and the history, and everything around there was so melded with religion, that it was very difficult to pull them apart, or even reason with people who wanted to put them together. I agree that you should be a moral person in a political office. But we have a country that is multi-faith and if you can’t be the president or ruler of everybody, of every faith equally, then it’s not a job for you.
There are so many people who use Christianity to hurt other people, that it hurts me because it’s a faith I believe in, but in some ways, it’s not being practiced in a way that I could ever support. I don’t know —but certainly, I would love to be a bridge between people who still want to believe in the morality of humanity, in faith, and those who want to believe in the freedom and expression and inclusion of bringing everyone into the tent, regardless of background or race or sexuality or anything. There are lots of churches that represent that–I joined the United Church of Canada, and they are very open to that type of Christianity—they are a successful bridge. I’d like to be a bridge.
Science fiction and fantasy can sometimes tiptoe around religion, or make it look really bad by simply showing the bad sides of it. I think there are some good parts to it, and good people in it, and I want to save them and still talk about them. That’s why my werewolf story is from the point of view of someone who has been hurt by religion. One of the band members, he’s an alcoholic and they don’t trust him anymore. Even though he’s dry, he’s still not trustworthy in their eyes; yet they are willing to trust the werewolf in their group who’s killed people. He can’t understand why there’s a huge difference, and he’s there sort of analyzing the story as it goes along to show the problems within the faith and the problems within those points of view.
TD: I keep laughing about the gorilla in the story, “Et Tu, Brute?” Like the part where he was like, “Why don’t you just smear some feces on it, for love?” I was like, “Wow…” *laughing*
JS: You know, that was such a fun exercise. There are three flash fiction pieces in the book and, I have to say, those three flash fiction pieces have gotten more feedback when people read the book, because they seem to hit people very hard. I always thought lengthier ones were those that would stay with you but people are really saying that the short ones are punching them in a wonderful way that they remember. Writing 500-750-word short stories is hard. Really hard. I love those three little pieces, and I’m really happy they’re in there, but those three pieces were such a great challenge to do and to have work. So I’m really happy when they work. So, thank you, for your thoughts on “Et Tu, Brute”.
TD: That, and the line where–the character was writing Pete [another character], and said, “If I wanted you back, did you really think I would say ‘The gorilla made me do it’? Like, come on!” *laughs*
JS: *laughs* Yeah, she’s such a great character. She doesn’t want to do what she has to do, but she’s trying to save her job. At the same time, she’s…yeah. She’s fun.
TD: It’s interesting that you said she was female, because I didn’t get that.
JS: You know, I have to actually tell people…there is one line in the story, they’re asking her permission, and they name her.
TD: Shelly. But Shelly can be a…I’ve known men, where Shelly was short for Sheldon or a last name…
JS: Ohhh! That’s a variance!
TD: Yeah, so when you said “Shelly”, it never occurred to me that the character was female. I just rolled with it.
JS: It’s funny. When I read it out loud, I actually have to preface, “Now I’m reading aloud as a woman.” It’s oddly awkward, but…I mean, it does work if it’s a guy, too, but I had not thought about it at all that people might assume that because I’m a gay author, that people would assume that’s my default. That all of my narrators, instead of being women, would be men talking.
TD: It wasn’t obvious; it’s not like they were wrapping themselves in the rainbow flag, but to me, when I saw “Shelly” I was like, “Well…but that could go either way.” I have a friend whose last name is Kellibrew, and we always call him “Kelly”. Kelly is one of those androgynous names.
JS: I tried to pick a name that thought was very female, that would give it away.
TD: No, you would have to go complete female, like Monica, Samantha…
JS: Yeah. But what’s funny is when you’re doing first person, you rarely get a chance to speak, to say something that describes you as a man or a woman, unless your narrator specifically says “I’m a man/woman who …” I thought that calling her Shelly would give it away and that would be okay. That’s funny; not just you, but the fact that I have to preface it each time I read it [saying it’s a woman] means that people assume it’s a guy. And that’s okay.
TD: It goes either way, depending on wherever you sit. If you’re hardwired heterosexual, you’re going to think Shelly’s a woman. I’m, as ,they say, straight, but not narrow, so to me–and understanding that you’re gay–I paused when I saw Shelly and like, “Wait a minute…but this could go either way.” It’s the story, not the character’s sexuality, that drives it. If it was a man and Pete was the ex…the story was universal, so I didn’t think anything of it.
JS: I think that, in some ways, her as a woman– the team that she’s working on, they don’t care that she’s gone through a difficult relationship. They don’t care about how much this means to her, not to have to do this. They just care about not losing this gorilla that they’ve spent millions of dollars on, so she’s secondary. And I thought, that’s a big statement about women in science, in some ways, having to ignore that people can’t see the importance of a relationship unless it means something to their money. The money–or the gorilla–is more important than anything else. I thought that was ironic.
TD: But that circles back to what you said about the werewolf story. It’s almost something similar; the currency is souls, as opposed to cash, but it’s the same thing. You’re sacrificing other people to the werewolf for the greater good.
JS: Exactly, the idea of what’s more important here: the souls or their lives? [The characters in the bluegrass band] get letters from fans, telling us of the changes that have occurred in their lives and that they’re happy, . Are we going to give up that, to stop a possible murder? It will become more probable as the story goes on, but where do we find ourselves? What’s our role?
TD: It reminds me of the show Army Wives, which I was bingeing on Netflix. There was an episode where one of the main characters, a general, had a diplomat visit from a make-believe Latin American country, and they were trying to get some sort of governmental land deal. The guy tried to rape the general’s wife and, of course, the general was upset, the guy was arrested, blah blah blah. Someone from the State Department came to the general and told him that the Army needed this land and the diplomat wouldn’t do the deal unless the general was present at the ceremony. The general was stunned; the diplomat had immunity, so he wouldn’t get prosecuted, and the general was just sitting there in shock. And the State Department representative was like, it’s not a suggestion, he had to be there. They’re ignoring the fact that this guy just tried to rape his wife; they needed the deal to happen, so suck it up. You’re just like, “Wooooooowwww.”
JS: Oh that’s awful. Those kinds of stories move us, or upset us, because they happen so often in our lives, where we have to make difficult choices despite how we’ve been hurt. We have to find some way to get beyond that to save our jobs or, we can stand up and make a stand, but what’s the greater good in this situation? Not necessarily in the Army Wives episode you named, but can we do something to help the greater good despite our own personal pain? Those kind of characters, when you watch them on television or read them in fiction, are so powerful because you hurt for them because they’re not allowed to feel the pain publicly, so you feel for them–oh, my gosh!–as they carry that pain.
TD: Yes, especially when you see it played out in the microcosm of life. Think of the person who works at a job that he or she hates, maybe for a company that is against what they believe in, but they need the health insurance; they need the salary to feed their kids. Like you said, you can stand up and make a stand, but that’s not really gonna help when your kids need to eat.
JS: And then, you see the opposite: the greed of people who are willing to hurt others to get money. We’re witnessing that every day. Is there an end to the selfishness and lack of self-sacrifice that our government officials will do, to hurt us, to gain? I do not want to watch that happen in fiction, unless I have characters who are going to fight that, who want to be people who personally sacrifice for something good—who make a moral choice because it’s right; who sacrifice their own desires for a better outcome.
Continue reading part 3 of this interview here.