Most people know the general rule about not discussing religion or politics when you first meet someone. Yet often that's what fascinates me about other people. I am not a religious person, yet my interest in religion, and the role it's played in my life, strongly influences my writing. I tried very hard in The Awakening to depict characters who clashed not because some were inherently good and others inherently evil, but because they hold conflicting beliefs that mean more to them than almost anything else. None of the characters was inspired by me or my mother, but I'm sure some of the themes in the book came from a lifetime of conflict with my mom over religion. We both had strong views about it, and over time those views diverged more and more. My mother took that personally, seeing our differences as a failing on my part or hers or both, as she believed, as many people do, that her beliefs were the only correct ones. (Happily, at some point we reached a sort of truce, each letting the other go her own way.)
After my parents' deaths, the way religion can divide as much as unite became even more striking to me. My mom and dad were hit by an intoxicated driver. My mom died at the scene; my dad died after two major surgeries and 6 1/2 weeks of struggling to recover. Because my parents were very religious, it didn't surprise me that many people said things about God when trying to offer words of comfort. What did surprise me was the people who said things like, "It's God's will." They must have believed such a concept would bring solace. For me, though, the idea simply seemed wrong. Surely a kind or just divine being had no reason to want my parents to die in such a painful and violent way. And surely the individual who caused their deaths was not a god in the heavens, but a man behind the wheel who chose to drink and drive. To blame -- or credit -- God seemed to me to let the man who had done this off the hook. Other variations on the theme included that God had a purpose for everything and everything happened for the best. If someone who recently suffered a loss or tragedy said that to me about her or his own circumstances, I wouldn't argue with that person. But I could never for myself consider what happened to my mom and dad, or my or my family's loss of them, to be for the best.
Often I feel people offer comments about God and religion after a death as much to reassure themselves as to comfort others. Why an all-powerful, all-good divine being would create a world where terrible things happen is a question that's difficult to answer. One answer is that perhaps God doesn't watch over everyone on a personal level, but instead is only concerned with the very big picture -- the fate of the world, perhaps, or the fate of our souls. In a culture that prays about the outcomes of football games or even attributes particularly good plays to God, though, that answer doesn't seem very satisfying. But if there is a god and he or she does influence everyday life, why would that god heal one child's cancer and not another? Or, worse, help a basketball player make a free throw and seemingly ignore the child with cancer altogether?
I don't know the answers to these questions, but they trouble me, so I write stories to explore them. Writers get to create their own universe, to create order in their world even if there is none in real life. That's why I love reading fiction, and why I'll keep writing so long as there are questions to ask.