Theodore Roszak Answers Some Questions

 

1. This book is about intolerance, racism, the most narrow-minded of religious evangelical zealots, indeed some might call them the "American Taliban," and yet, it's a lively comedy. Did you actually set out to write something funny about these people? 

The Devil and Daniel Silverman has a simple moral theme: intolerance is a bad way for people to relate to people.  At of the close of the twentieth century, you might hope we had all learned that much about living together on a small planet.   But instead, we see the market for self-righteous political movements growing by the day.  Meanwhile, good, old, warm-hearted liberalism has to fight to keep itself from being driven into extinction.  I wanted to remind Americans that we have our own, home-grown forms of fanaticism, people whose patriarchal, puritanical, theocratic, dictatorial view of life is not very different from the Taliban and other Muslim fundamentalists.  That's a heavy message, but there's a comic side to such narrow-mindedness.  Smug narrow-mindedness makes a great target.  It just asks to be hit in the face with a custard pie.  Satire, if it is successful, can be both hilariously comic and deadly serious at the same time.  Laughter can be the most damning kind of put-downs.

 2. You're known as a best-selling social historian. Why did you decide to use fiction to tell this very political and extremely topical story?

As every historian knows, fiction has ways of telling the truth more effectively than non-fiction.  Fiction lets you show how ideas live in the words and actions and feelings of people.  It embodies abstractions in flesh and blood. From Moll Flanders and Tom Jones on down, think how many periods of history we understand better through memorable fictitious characters than impersonal narratives?  Holden Caulfield tells us more about America of the 1950s than any social history can.  I wanted Daniel Silverman to be that kind of emblematic figure for the current generation: the nice-guy, bicoastal liberal up against the ultra-right-wing orthodoxy of the past decade.  The Devil and Daniel Silverman was my chance to talk back to all those on America's religious right who seem to place no value on pluralism and have no idea why the separation of church and state is a basic requirement of democracy.

 3. Did you have any particular church in mind when you invented the Free Reformed Evangelical Brethren in Christ?

 The FREBC is a composite of any number of conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist congregations I have come across.  These churches go out of their way to advertise their teachings on television, in magazines, in mass mailings.  I made a collage of their beliefs.  Every moral position and theological doctrine mentioned in The Devil and Daniel Silverman is represented by a conservative Christian congregation somewhere.   I actually took some of the formulations I use in the book from sermons, treatises, and catechisms you can find on the World Wide Web.

 4. Professor Oxenstern's basement chamber of tortures; the neo-Nazi-like snow mobile team; the faculty that pay Silverman an exorbitant lecture fee and then snub him; the missionaries who were eaten by ants and the college janitor who threatens Silverman's life: I know a well-known author visits a lot of colleges, but have you ever visited anything like this one?

 Satire requires exaggeration, so there are elements in the story that are exaggerated but not, I hope, in ways that are incredible or unfair. Professor Oxenstern's black museum is based on real Christian doctrines about hell and damnation.  There are people who believe what Oxenstern teaches.  The illustrations in his collection are based on real depictions of sadistic human suffering.   Remember: we live in a country where Planned Parenthood Clinics have been fire-bombed and doctors have been killed for performing abortions.  There are churches that resort to aversion therapy to deal with homosexuality and others that would like to take over the entire curriculum in our schools.  There are many evangelical congregations that pray for the conversion of the Jews because they think God doesn't listen to anything but their prayers and many that believe AIDS is God's judgment upon homosexuals.   Against that background, I felt free in taking a certain dramatic license. At the same time, I was careful never to make the fundamentalists come across as stupid.  In my mind there's a difference between stupidity and intolerance.  The major evangelical figures in The Devil and Daniel Silverman are presented as articulate, educated people who certainly know the Bible inside out and who are quite capable of outsmarting Silverman from time to time.   (That checkers game between Oxenstern and Silverman is meant to show how crafty Silverman's opponents can be.)  Moreover, I granted the Faith College folk that a great deal of contemporary culture is vile and demeaning. Silverman doesn't win every argument.  In fact, he's forced to think hard about his values.

 5. Faith College could be in the deep South or really anywhere in the country. Is there some reason you placed it in the frigid north country? 

Highly conservative evangelical congregations exist throughout the country. They thrive all over California where I live, even in affluent suburban communities.  I placed Faith College in backwoods Minnesota because I needed a setting that allowed Silverman to be trapped by a blizzard for several days.  But I also wanted the background symbolism of frigid cold as a contrast with his “warm and cuddly” humanism.

 6. You are a university professor with a doctorate in history from Princeton. The Devil and Daniel Silverman is a delectably accessible, emotional, sensual and humorous. Is there some kind of contradiction here?

Even Ivy League Ph.D’s can be sensual, emotional, and humorous.  But perhaps it helped that I got my BA at UCLA. 

7. In spite of the fact that there are obvious 'good guys' and 'bad guys' in the book, some of the religious fundamentalists are portrayed as very real people who try hard to lead just lives in a confusing world. What is your take on the role of organized religion in society today?

Speaking from my own experience (I was raised as a rigid Catholic), I believe religious orthodoxy, even when it is sincerely intended, stifles the soul and crucifies the intellect.  That certainly puts me at odds with all forms of fundamentalism.  The evangelicals at Faith College are pretty evenly divided between those who are fighting to get free of their church and those who have surrendered to it and become obedient robots.  The character of Syl, for example, is my idea of an authentic Christian: compassionate, spontaneously friendly, and un-judging.  As Silverman puts it:, "Syl is a mensch."

 8. Danny Silverman's hilarious experiences with the New York Times Best Seller List and Hollywood screen writers leads me to believe you've been around the block in these areas. Do any of Silverman's experiences mimic your own?

A great many of Silverman's adventures are based on my own experience as a writer, especially those sections about agents, critics, marketing, and screenwriters.  The commercial side of writing is pretty soul-destroying. I've been through this mill a number of times. 

9. The very committed partnership between Danny and Martin; the touching but ultimately doomed relationship between young Danny and his Orthodox "zadeh," Grandpa Zvi, would leads most readers to believe you're Gay and Jewish. Is there any autobiographical connection?

I've already mentioned that I was raised as a true-believing Catholic. That's as much as I'll admit.  Why?  Because one of the most rewarding things about writing is discovering how you show up in the readers' imagination.  I'd prefer to have people guess how gay I might be in real life.   I'm sure my wife would be interested in the conclusions they draw.

10. If not, how were you able to so convincingly enter the inner lives of not only Danny and Martin but all the Fundamentalists whom you describe so convincingly?

Listening with a willingness to learn is probably the most essential virtue of every novelist.  There are a lot of my friends, neighbors, students, colleagues, and relatives in The Devil and Daniel Silverman or at least parts of them.  I had more help on this book than any other I've written: lots of readers, lots of advisors.  Oddly enough, what I needed to learn the most about was ... snow.

11. Danny literally goes to the inner circle of hell in this book (which, according to Dante was frozen); yet he re-emerges with a new understanding. What is your hope that readers will take away from Danny's story?

The image of John Bunyan's Vanity Fair haunts Silverman more and more as the story unfolds.  Ultimately he realizes that Vanity Fair is a pretty accurate image of modern life: brawling, chaotic, wicked, salacious, irreverent, depraved, obsessed with fame and fashion.  Silverman realizes he is a spiritual resident of Vanity Fair, but he's not sure he wants to lead cheers about that.   He learns that all orthodoxies -- including those of secular humanists -- can suffocate the spirit.  I hope readers notice how often he (and I) agree with Silverman's fundamentalist opponents that our popular culture has become a pretty tawdry, tasteless, commercial, and obnoxious affair.  But he finishes -- as I do -- believing that the vulgarity of Vanity Fair may be the price we have to pay for living in a truly pluralistic society.

back to:
The Devil and Daniel Silverman
PUB DATE: January, 2003
CATEGORY: Fiction
PAGES: 347
TRIM: 6 x 9
ISBN: 0-9679520-7-7
PRICE: $15.95/ Trade Paperback Original 

 


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