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
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.
You're known as a best-selling social historian. Why did you
decide to use fiction to tell this very political and extremely
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
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?
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
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
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
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.
You are a university professor with a doctorate in history
The Devil and Daniel Silverman is a delectably accessible, emotional,
sensual and humorous. Is there some kind of contradiction
Even Ivy League Ph.Ds can be sensual,
emotional, and humorous. But perhaps it helped that
I got my BA at UCLA.
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
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."
Danny Silverman's hilarious experiences with the New
York Times Best Seller List and
screen writers leads me to believe you've been around the
block in these areas. Do any of Silverman's experiences mimic
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.
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
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.
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
The Devil and Daniel Silverman
PUB DATE: January, 2003
TRIM: 6 x 9
PRICE: $15.95/ Trade Paperback Original