When I arrived in South Dakota nine years ago, I lamented to a university colleague that I didn’t know any Catholic writers in the region. She introduced me to Adrian Koesters in Nebraska, whose writing and camaraderie I’ve come to greatly appreciate. She interviewed me about my novel Of Fathers and Fire for the 2019 SS. Peter and Paul issue of Dappled Things, and it felt appropriate to turn the tables now that she has a new novel out herself.
Koesters puts words on a page like a master scrimshaw carver etches lines on whalebone. She achieves such detail in depicting the inner uncertainties of her characters that in reading about them, I fear for their spiritual safety. They all walk the razor’s edge between longing for light and succumbing to darkness. In this sense Koesters’ fiction strikes me as quintessentially Catholic, since we live our whole lives on that razor’s edge. Koesters puts us there and keeps us there, sometimes narrowing that edge so tight that it feels like we’re going to drop off of it with her characters.
Her fiction has an intense connection to her original hometown of Baltimore, a cross section of classes and ethnic influences that may not get as much attention as cities like New York and Washington D.C., but is nonetheless a vibrant place with living history everywhere you scratch. Koesters’ first novel, Union Square (2018) unfolds during the week before Palm Sunday in Baltimore in 1952 and takes us inside the interlocked lives in one of the city’s most varied centers. Its Catholic milieu is very much pre-Vatican II—monolithic, imperial, inviting obedience but not question.
Her new novel Miraculous Medal (2020) picks up in the same community in 1964 as America and the church—which was then in the very midst of Vatican II—undergo changes that are both slow and cataclysmic. It’s the week after Easter this time, and lives are being turned inside out by violence, fear, and haunting memories of failure. It has a similar structure to Union Square in that it tracks multiple interlocking lives to create a web of intricately observed drama as everyone walks their own razor’s edge. The whole tapestry is vastly more weighty than the sum of its parts.
It’s not surprising, given the sharpness of her language, that Koesters is also a poet; her first collection Many Parishes (2013) is deeply concerned with Catholic life, and she has another, Three Days with the Long Moon (2017). She has also written a book of nonfiction, Healing Mysteries: A Scriptural Rosary (2005). She earned an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she served in many capacities—including the teaching of creative writing—until her recent retirement.
Miraculous Medal is the second book in a trilogy you started out with Union Square (2018) and it includes some recurring characters—in addition to the city of Baltimore, which looms large in both. What was different on a craft and character level about writing these two novels?
Thanks for that question, first of all because, although this is a sequel, it obviously has to stand on its own. There are moments when those who have read Union Square will recognize someone or something that’s directly connected to the first book. Catherine and Paddy, for example, are not main characters in Miraculous Medal, and they had to succeed independent of who they were in Unon Square. So, Catherine, of course, is now a grown woman with a school-aged child, and Paddy is a wreck of a man who continues to spread pain and more wreckage in his wake. But, while prominent in Miraculous Medal, rather than knowing their every thought, who they are and what they are about had to be demonstrated from a much greater distance.
The major characters, however, are connected in the two books, in that very close third-person point of view, being absolutely right inside the character’s mind, feeling their bodily sensations, using what is behind their eyes to see into the place and feel what they feel about it. The difference between the major characters in both books is contained, I think, within where I wanted the reader’s view to be. So, I think it can be said that in Union Square, I took a much stronger psychological approach to each character, but in Miraculous Medal, it was far more important to me to show the characters’ struggles with understanding God and meaning, really. Again, as to the larger themes, Union Square is a book mostly about interpersonal experience, and Miraculous Medal about religious experience.
The novel is deeply steeped in Catholicism, and an interesting era of it, too. Vatican II is happening in the background, yet the “old school” faith that had recently helped launch John F. Kennedy to the White House is highly visible. What is the relationship between the Catholicism you grew up with and the one rendered in Miraculous Medal?
They are identical, as a matter of fact. In 1964 I was just a year younger than Marnie and Alice, and had gone through all of the moments of second grade that you go through in a Catholic school. That year, the Daughters of Charity who taught us at St. Martin’s went from wearing their cornettes and long black habits, to the modified blue habits and shorter veils without wimple and so on. Like Marnie, I was devastated by this!
What I want to say here is, though, that just as Union Square was not particularly autobiographical, Miraculous Medal may be more so in terms of using memory of life events, but it is not merely fictionalized personal history. My aim in writing this novel trilogy is to address within the context of faith a ravaged place during a dark time. In Miraculous Medal, you see faith taken for granted, but also taken very seriously (as Church requirements are taken very seriously), and that is a great thing, but also as we’ve come to see over decades now, a real problem with real questions that at the very least have to be asked, if they cannot be fully answered.
Looking back, how do you view the Catholicism of that era compared to what holds sway today? Did you feel Vatican II “in the air” then, and if so how does it relate to the world of the new novel?
I think you are likely referring to the exchanges between Fr. John and Sr. Camille. No, I didn’t feel Vatican II in the air because I was only seven years old. I wasn’t aware of any adults in 1964 who were even considering the changes in the Church—we were families of regular lay people. At any rate, I would have been too young to notice if that were a conversation going on.
And had I not gone to Creighton University for college and ultimately majored in theology and taught religion for a few years, I very much doubt I would have given any of that any particular thought. My guess is that I would have wound up as a disaffected ex-Catholic, as a matter of fact. But that university environment and training made all the difference—our professors were young men (and a few women) during Vatican II and they brought that experience into the classroom in the 1970s every day. It was a very exciting time to be a college student for me, for that very reason. I felt very much that I had regained an understanding of what the Church is and what attachment to a religious tradition means, how important it is. I returned to the Church because of that religious education, and I believe that such “adult” education is critical. It used to be said that faith development stops for most people around eighth grade, but you’d never respect or give credence to an adult whose math or science education stopped at that age.
And the other influence on that relationship and conversation between John and Camille were the numerous religious and ex-religious that I met and worked with over the years. We knew nearly the entire history of how religious communities exploded in the 1940s and ‘50s, and how their ranks began to erode in the wake of Vatican II. It’s a complex history, and part of what I wanted to show in this book and extending into the next is that those changes were not merely the result of “more liberty” or laxness or however the phenomenon is (and was then) characterized.
As to comparing it to the Church of today, that’s such a vast question that I don’t think I could begin to answer here. As I suggested elsewhere recently, the Church of 1964 is simply gone. I’m not sure that a comparison is worthwhile at this point.
Both of your novels have settings tied to the church year. Union Square unfolds on the days leading up to Palm Sunday in 1952, and Miraculous Medal unfolds in 1964 the weekend after Easter. Why was it important to you to explore these particular times of year and how do you see them framing the action of your books?
The connection with the Church year is actually coincidental. I wish I could say more about that, but it would give away too much about the third and final book. Given the days that I settled upon, the fact that they coincide with these major Church feasts was afterward more something I used for the benefit of the story rather than the other way around. So that was a nice gift for me.
You create characters with such completely different casts of mind. Marnie, a second grader who’s so Catholic it hurts (and who dreams of being “Pope Joan the Twenty-third” someday) sees the world quite differently from Jeb Heath, a grown black man who is vastly more rooted in the daily round of his own life. How do you capture these distinct casts of mind? What do you do in your writing practice to make those internal voices so different?
This is a terrific question and a very complimentary one, for which I thank you. And so I wish I had a better answer, but the truth is that I don’t know exactly why I have the ability to create such diverse characters. It seems to come somewhat naturally to me and not anything I especially have to work at. Marnie, for example, is based on a little girl that I met one weekend at the home of my mother’s friend. She was a wildcat! I’d never met a child like her before, and at the time I didn’t care for her very much, although I was fascinated by her. Again, though, I only met her once and didn’t know her well. As to Jeb Heath, I don’t know that he was created around anyone that I’d known in particular, but as with writing any male character (I’ve been asked about that before), I considered him as a person and as he came to life, he more or less showed me who he was. I think that’s actually the case with every character I’ve written—if he or she has felt more like someone I’d know very well, there has also always been a good bit of surprise about them, many instances of my thinking, Well, that’s interesting! I’m not sure I would have had the character do or say whatever it was, but they did, and so I followed their lead. It’s all kind of psychotic but very enjoyable.
I was particularly drawn to Jeb, whose perspective opens the book. You write that “Jeb was hardly a likely candidate for paradox,” yet he’s incredibly open to religions experience—he seems always around the corner from reverie, and sometimes he takes that step and all of creation seems to unfold before him. Can you talk about your relationship with Jeb as a character?
Yes, that’s really well observed. I have known many people personally who have been open to contemplative or deep religious experience, and who have had charismatic prayer experiences. I have neither sought nor been granted such experience, and I’m fascinated by it and what it means, what is being communicated within a given person. Certainly such experience can be from God and not from God (as a temptation), but I’ve never gotten close to it. But I have read a great deal of descriptions of what it is like, and in that case I guess for Jeb I was more or less inventing what it must feel like.
The main thing that I wanted to convey with Jeb is that people do have these experiences, they do have these kinds of inexplicable connections to the non-material world, and that this is neither the result of superstition or self-entrancement. I cannot say what it means, but that it exists and that it is deeply meaningful I have no doubt whatever.
So to answer the last part of your question, I wanted Jeb to be someone whom I knew well and in a way found reliable as a person—as you say, a Steady Eddie, but who also is confounded by these moments he knows very well would be found possibly repugnant even by those closest to him. The comment about “all that Protestant stuff” is not to disparage Protestant Christians, but to show how deep the mistrust of such experience would have been at that time amongst Catholics (probably especially Black Catholics, although I can’t say that for sure). I think he accepts the experience in the way he accepts the sacraments, as from God and most certainly not his to question.
Father John Martin, who was raised both Jewish and Catholic in Baltimore, is in intriguing blend. He’s had visions of the divine, but he can’t find his way back to them and almost seems like he doesn’t believe in them. To what extent is he a man of his time, and to what extent is his this cross he bears one that any priest—or maybe any Catholic—has to carry?
I don’t know that I can answer the last part of this question except for my own insights that are necessarily from a good distance (not being a priest or a religious) and possibly not at all accurate. When you and I spoke last time, you talked about your deep desire to wholly give yourself to a life that meant something real to you, in your case following the spirit of the Catholic Worker movement. John is such a person. He says to Camille how he got so tired of his family, how everything has to mean something, but he’s part and parcel of that and there is no getting around it. His family has been the bolster of his life, but as with any maturation, ultimately you have to find your way on your own (and hence the epigraph from the film, The Innocents—when the sister says that, “You know, faith…” she is talking about how God eventually lets go your hand and you have to find your way).
John’s anger at his grandmother and Miss Maurice is an adolescent anger—he wishes they had never felt him to be special or worthy of remark, so that it would not have been so painful when he could no longer rely on it. When he comes up against his own weakness, he begins to see that he simply has to let that go. What I like about John is that he accepts his role as a priest but doesn’t attach too much importance to it—his identity is in the work he wants to do, not in the status he has as a member of the clergy. What I feel compassion for in him is how alone he is within himself, and how often he has to stay in the past, in his memories, to deal with that loneliness.
I want to say something here, too, about the other central theme of the book, which is child rape and sexual abuse, and the involvement of clergy. There’s no getting around this, but I also wanted to show that for someone like John (who clearly has no idea of what happened to his younger cousin Catherine, and no idea whatever of Paddy’s tragic history), it simply was not anything you’d ever consider. It was not on the radar. There’s the whole “few bad apples” idea, and someone like John certainly would have been aware of some clergy acting in this way, but the knowledge that this was going on in the numbers we now know it was would have been admitted only at a different level of the clergy. This was important to me to include, not only because I know very well that it is not the majority of priests, but also that the majority of priests would have made that psychological distance just as any lay person would—out of a sheer unwillingness to “know.” That is my assumption here.
Finally, the novel mentions the “Koesters Bread Twins.” Was that your family, by any chance? Is there a story here?
That’s so funny you should ask! I had completely forgotten about Koesters Bread for most of my life. I’m not positive we ever even bought Koesters Bread when I was a kid (I think it might have been too expensive, I’m not sure). But my first book of poems was published by the wonderful Clarinda Harriss of Baltimore’s BrickHouse Books, and while we were talking back and forth before the book was formally accepted, she said, “If you tell me you are related to the Koesters Bread company, I shall faint dead away!” But in fact, my maiden name is Gibbons, and Koesters my married name. Though they do pronounce it the same way, as a matter of fact!
Steven Wingate is the author of the novels Of Fathers and Fire (2019) and The Leave-Takers (forthcoming March 2021), both part of the Flyover Fiction Series from the University of Nebraska Press. His short story collection Wifeshopping (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), won the Bakeless Prize in Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He is an associate professor at South Dakota State University and associate editor at Fiction Writers Review. His writings on faith and culture have appeared in such venues as Image Journal’s “Good Letters” blog, The Cresset, The Windhover, The Other Journal, Talking Writing, and Belmont Story Review.