Last summer, I burnt out on books. In June, I’d taken the preliminary examinations for my doctoral degree in English—a battery of tests requiring me to read and study thousands upon thousands of pages across a spectrum of genre and periods. Despite the richness of the material, the process itself was such a godawful drag that after I was done, I recoiled at the thought of the written word. Every few weeks, I’d flirt with a return. I’d pick up a book. I’d read a few pages. Then I’d set it down and go do something else. Anything else. I worried that my lifelong love of reading had been dealt its deathblow.
It was A Window on the Door, the debut novel from Texas writer James Watson and his Green Gate Press, that delivered me from my doldrums. Described by Kirkus as “a haunting and beautiful tale of friendship, forgiveness, and forgetting,” A Window on the Door tells the story of Jonathan, a high school senior who moves from Portland, Oregon to the Devil’s Backbone of Texas in search of meaning and manual labor. There, he crosses paths with a host of life-lorn misfits, including Donald, a priest laboring under the weight of past tragedy, and Tom, a successful businessman facing down his final days. As each man toils in his own way beneath the Texas sky, he confronts some of the hardest realities of life under the sun: love, loss, mortality, tragedy, the longing for mercy and the difficulty of forgiveness.
It’s the best novel I read this year. Heck, it may well be one of the best books I’ve ever read. In a season of life when reading fiction felt less appealing than watching paint dry, I found myself snubbing family and friends alike so that I could win an hour alone with this beautiful, bountiful book.
And, more importantly, it changed me. Watson’s prose, sometimes lush and vibrant, sometimes terse and punchy, gives life to a story that wrenched my heart out and reminded me of all the reasons why good books can be really, really, existentially good.
A Window on the Door is available free this month to Christ and Pop Culture members. To mark the occasion, I sat down with James to talk about (among other things) Texas, motorcyles, the pleasure of working with one’s hands, Flannery O’Conner, and the benefits of self-publishing. Here’s what he had to say:
Christ and Pop Culture: First off, a belated congratulations on the novel’s release, and on the positive review from Kirkus—it’s well deserved. How have the months since publication been for you?
James Watson: They’ve been great…like people meeting your child for the first time and having a really good impression. It’s not pride, exactly, I don’t think. In the process of writing something that takes a couple years and blood and sweat, it’s easy to lose sight of the real beauty, which is hearing from lovely readers—especially ones that I didn’t know beforehand who decided to track me down, write me, and ask questions. Since I did a Kickstarter and didn’t bring the novel out in a traditional way, it didn’t have the initial huge splash…especially since I’m only one person with about a dollop’s worth of social media presence. So I love that the interest has actually accelerated.
CaPC: Let’s talk about the novel. A Window on the Door focuses on the relationships between a handful of characters, two of whom seem particularly central. One, Jonathan, is a young man who moves from Oregon to Texas in search of—well, it seems like he’s searching for a lot of things. The other, Donald, is a Catholic priest who’s got a bit of the world about him. What drew you to these characters initially? What made you want to tell their stories?
JW: I’d say it’s actually a story of three characters—three men, in particular, the third one being Tom Liddell. He honestly was the first vision I had: I pictured him standing outside of the lighted-up window of his house, with all his family and friends inside, and him knowing that he’s created a universe in which they all are a-light while he stands out in the darkness. That character, Tom, was a way for me to explore the generation—maybe our parents’ age or a little older—that sort of mid-century, steely-eyed, architect generation that built dams and did things in the world, but then maybe in some ways lost a sense of themselves in it.
So that was the first vision. Then Jonathan was always kind of the observer. I mean, he’s obviously seeking—but he’s also somebody who doesn’t talk much, really, although we’re getting a lot of his perspective.
And then the priest, he came out of nowhere, and then grew larger-than-life. I knew that there would be a priest, and that he would be a workman in his own right…but then I woke up one night at three in the morning and, for whatever reason, I was imagining torture. I wondered what would be an insurmountable torture, and I thought it’d be not just having your child suffer in front of your face, but also being unable to reach that child in that moment. I’ll save some of the ending for those who will read it, but being unable to communicate to that child that one knows and cares—that would be agony, and it’s part of what Donald faces.
CaPC: What about the choice of Texas as the setting? What drew you to that place as the backdrop for the novel?
JW: Well, as with Jonathan, I would say it’s the freedom. Now, that’s a loaded word these days… and I don’t mean it like it’s bandied about. But it partakes of the imagined blank slate that America has always been to visionaries. Jonathan imagines that he can go down there and carve out life—and it’s true to a large degree. You can do whatever the hell you want in Texas.
When I moved here, for instance, I remember the first job I took working four nights a week at a Mexican restaurant, and the stark difference from up North and in bigger cities. The rules don’t matter too much; it’s much more important that things get done. The fear of inspection from whatever government agency that makes sure that you’re not poisoning your guests, those sorts of things, doesn’t hang over the heads of workers here. There’s a certain freedom. That space and the rawness of Texas seemed like a good canvas.
CaPC: One of the things that prompts Jonathan to relocate is his desire to pursue meaningful, manual labor. He seems to idealize it a bit, but I suspect this is something that you value as well. What was it that made you want to make labor such a central value in the novel?
JW: Work in the novel is central, although I think the overriding theme, what draws Jonathan—what I think his generation is looking for—is reality. And he senses somehow that labor is a route to that. He leaves his job at a smoothie shop in Oregon where, like almost all jobs in our economy, he’s working at several removes from the reality of what he’s doing. There’re no mangoes growing in Oregon. For example. It’s like he’s working through a gauze, this sort of translucent film through which the world is mediated to him. And so for him, work is a channel to get at reality. The whole book, in fact, is kind of about getting at reality in a number of ways.
CaPC: Since you mentioned this idea of reality, let me speculate wildly for a second: One of the things I felt again and again as I read the novel was that it was keenly interested in celebrating materiality—or, maybe to put it in theological terms, incarnation. The sensory descriptions throughout are positively beautiful, and they seem to really cherish things as things, if that makes sense—not just as, say, symbols or metaphors. (I’m thinking particularly of this moment when Jonathan goes to church but has trouble connecting with what’s going on around him.) Was that feeling, that celebration of embodiment, something you were aiming for?
JW: So, I assume a lot of your readers are aware of the fairly recent Evangelical “moment of conversion” that’s instantiated in, for instance, the sinner’s prayer. It takes on this huge significance—something that’s, of course, not present in the Bible, this prayer. And even though he wouldn’t necessarily put it into these words, Jonathan is searching for reality, so he’s open to going to this church service you mentioned. But he gets there, and at the sacramental pinnacle of the service, there’s this almost-physical aura of profundity. And then there’s this decision point, this prayer, in words—this sort of abstract conception: “Yes, I transfer my belief-allegiance from x to y.” And he’s open to that. He prays it. He prays it twice.
But in that passage, there’s also the image of him feeling like he’s trying to throw an anchor hook onto a whale, and the whale evaporates into smoke. It’s not clinging to anything, this hook and this rope. The second time he goes to church in the book, though, there’s a very different image: He’s trying to understand what’s going on, and he feels as if he’s swimming out into the lake as he’s often done…and there’s this object, a whale. It’s so huge, it’s almost like a flat surface on its side. He tries to beat against it and make it move, and somehow affect it, and it is unaffected. It’s realer than him; its reality is not dependent upon his thought processes, or that transference of allegiance of belief from one thing to another. It’s real whatever he’s feeling at that moment.
I do think that I’m entering into this idea of physicality there, and elsewhere too. Take the motorcycle that Jonathan ends up adopting, for instance: For those who have ever worked on an engine, they know it’s very frustrating. It’s very rewarding, of course, but it brings you up against hard limits that are outside the circuit of your own mind. You can’t make, by willing it to be so, the timing on your bike be correct. If something’s 1/32-inch turned one way or the other, it doesn’t run very well, or not at all. It’s a very physical thing. And that’s also why it’s an old bike that Jonathan finds in the book: There is no electronic brain in there. It’s 100% little physical parts.
That’s also why the priest is a workman. He’s a mechanic, and as he says in his final homily, Jesus is also a mechanic. I’m not just making that up—the carpentry that one would do in Galilee isn’t so much building log houses, but repairing mechanical things of all sorts, especially yokes. There wasn’t some excess of wood. Really, what Jesus would be doing would be much more akin to a modern day mechanic.
When it comes down to it, though, I’m reminded of Flannery O’Conner on two points. First: In her last novel, The Violent Bear it Away, the theme of the whole thing is the reality of the divine, the concrete reality as found in baptism. You’ve got young Tarwater’s uncle, the psychiatrist who lives in his mind, and then the old prophet, his great uncle Tarwater, who doesn’t. And when the elder Tarwater is telling this boy why the uncle didn’t take him back, he says—and I might not get this verbatim—but he says, “he wanted to have it all in his head, and you can’t change a child’s pants in your head.” He’s right—you can’t change a diaper in your head. In the physical world, you come up against things that are real, but not you. They’re Other, with a capital O—and I think that’s preparation for encountering God.
And then, to end with Flannery O’Conner—there’s this anecdote where Flannery’s at a party being thrown by, I believe, Mary McCarthy, a Catholic who had renounced her faith. I might be wrong on the details. But there are a lot of fashionable literary people there, of whom Flannery O’Conner decidedly was not one, and Mary is talking about how she finds beauty in the symbolism of the liturgy, the Eucharist, how she still finds meaning there, or whatever. So they turn to Flannery, who’s remained pretty much silent the whole evening, and ask her, “What do you think about that?” And Flannery says, “Well, if it’s a symbol, then to hell with it.”
I think that the Christian religion has always been that way. And maybe we’ve gotten away from that since the Enlightenment… If it’s not real, then to hell with it.
CaPC: One of the things I love about my copy of A Window on the Door is how beautiful the book itself is, just as a physical object. You chose to produce it yourself, which seems fitting, given what we talked about before. So I’m wondering: Can you talk about what inspired you to self-publish this book in a hands-on sort of way instead of making use of more mainstream or traditional publishing avenues?
JW: The choice to do it was a complicated one, some of which came down to circumstances outside of my control. But all along I had been imagining that the time is as ripe as it could ever be for a return to the self-publishing tradition in literature. Now, “self-publishing” has such a bad ring to it these days…but you take Virginia Woolf, who owned her own press, or William Blake producing his own books, etc. etc. Walt Whitman financed the first edition of Leaves of Grass, I believe. There were others. And especially with the Modernists in the early 20th century, you see this emphasis on the physical object—that we don’t receive a work of literature disembodied. No matter how we do it, no matter if somebody reads it to us or we read it on Kindle or whatever, we don’t receive it disembodied.
Now, I don’t think it’s absolutely essential. I’ll admit that I love being able to carry my 50 favorite books on an iPhone or Kindle, and all of Shakespeare that I’ve encountered has been 100% by listening to LibriVox recordings. I love that. They’re poor recordings with generally poor readers, but somehow Shakespeare comes through. I love that I remember the places that I’ve been when I first heard Lear or Macbeth or Hamlet. I was sodding my backyard with grass when I first listened to Romeo and Juliet. It sticks with me.
But the point is that I do think the ark in which the thing is carried matters. And I’ve always loved layout and design; I can’t look at a page that isn’t well-designed. I hate to say that I do know the imperfections in this one, but I would have been displeased if somebody else had produced them, and not me.
CaPC: Maybe it’s just the degradation of the term, but it feels cheap to me to call this a “Christian novel”—in a lot of ways, it just feels bigger, more expansive, than that. At the same time, though, the book seems to say some important things about Christianity as a way of understanding and living in the world. Do you see this book as having anything to give to Christian audiences in particular?
JW: First of all, I understand what you’re asking, and I understand the place in history where things are such that you would ask the question that way…but in my answer, I’ll flip it on its head a little bit.
You know, to say it feels “cheap” to call this a Christian novel…I would rather say that if I could write a perfect novel, which I won’t be able to, it might approach the foothills of what might be fit to be called a “Christian novel.” And it wouldn’t be bigger or more expansive—it would be the smallest mote in the smallest anthill of the reality that Christianity is. Because Christianity, of course, isn’t an ideology; it’s the physical Christ in our physical world that we physically eat weekly (and I’ll put in my Catholic plug there).
But I know what you mean…and in that sense, no, I didn’t set out to write a “Christian novel” as they are often characterized now—basically, one in which a shallow version of one’s conclusions are already forgone, and where corners are cut or reality is avoided because of that. The elements in my book that are overtly Christian—for example, the fact that there’s a priest, and that there are church services—those are more on the order of furniture. I don’t know that my next book will have any of that. But the undercurrent does try to say the truth about the world according to the vision granted me. In that way, then, it’s a very faint echo of Christianity, at least to the degree that it partakes of the reality that we as humans live in.
Now, does it say some important things about “Christianity as a way of understanding and living in the world,” as you put it? Well…to be honest, it says that it can often be miserable. I can see easily the pleasure, the deep pleasure of a kind of pagan existentialism that affirms the goodness of the world and makes the most of our short time in it. But I think whatever’s Christian in this book along thematic lines involves very hard things in the face of external realities that we can’t avoid. Forgiveness. Love that can’t be consummated. Just living within time, and the horror and torture that that often is. I hope the novel is Christian, then, to the degree that it tells the truth about those things and does so with charity.
CaPC: What’s next for you? Do we have more novels to look forward to, or are you focusing on other projects for the moment? Is there anything you’d like to plug?
JW: Well, there are a number stories, maybe one of which is somewhat far down the line and may find its way into being my next novel. I’m also working with a number of filmmakers, though, so there’s potential to—well, we’ll see. I’d love to see it as a feature film. And that story would involve the secession of Texas…a kind of a Friday Night Lights meets Les Misérables. The main thing that’s next, though, is planting my garden for the Spring and trying to become a better person.