Award-winning author, Mark Richard, graciously took time to discuss his memoir, House of Prayer No. 2, which was selected as the SLR June Read of the Month. We hope you enjoy reading the fascinating conversation between Richard and SLR editor-in-chief, Julie Cantrell.
SLR: What I love about this book the most is that my high school English teacher would hate it. If you weren’t the award-winning writer you’ve become, and you were instead an ordinary high school junior sitting in her classroom turning in any random segment of this book, she would take a quick glance at your unique point of view, and she would use her red pen to swipe a clean bold X across the page from corner to corner and tell you to try again. Maybe it’s the rebel in me, but I admire the fact that you have broken all the rules with this book.
My thirteen year old daughter read a passage from HOP No.2 and said, “This is like those choose your own adventure stories. Turn to page 131 if you want to escape the children’s hospital in a wheelchair. Turn to page 217 if you don’t make it out alive.” At first it sounds like a criticism, but it’s not. I think she’s on to something. By writing in this style, you’ve given us command of this story as if it is our own, and I think that’s the most powerful thing a writer can do.
Did you experiment with different points of view or did you know from the start that your story needed to be told this way? Were you met with any resistance from you agent, publisher, or editor who may have preferred a more traditional format?
MR: I love your daughter’s take on the book! Yes, I can see how it reads like that, my life actually FELT like that. I think when I finally have a sense of a story before I write it, it kind of dictates how it will be told, I just follow along behind and take notes.
The first part of the book was actually written in answer to an essay question “Why Do You Write?” I’ve never been good at essay questions. I prefer exampled-stories or parable-like stories, and I think these are in the Southern tradition. If you ask a Southerner of a certain age how he or she is faring, their answer is generally a recounting of their past day, week, few years – and it’s up to you to assign a meaning or value to their response. For me, I like that approach because I trust the reader, I trust the reader’s intelligence to cipher through what I’m relating and come to his or her own conclusions.
My editor, Nan Talese, never had a problem with the second person. I don’t think she saw the book until I’d finished it, except for the first section. The best thing Nan did early on was to discourage me from writing a history of the place in which I grew up (I’ve always been fascinated with the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in my home county of Southampton County, Virginia) and to write instead my own personal history, which I didn’t think was of any interest to anyone. Like the story finding its own voice, my life chose me, I feel like, and I’ve never felt strong enough to resist it, and only sometimes strong enough to keep up with it.
SLR: I can’t interview you without asking this right up front, and I don’t mean it to be disrespectful in any way, but as I read your memoir I felt like I had to skim it for the truth. It happens to be one of the things I liked most about the book, but you seem to have given us a hazy line between reality and imagination, leaving me at times asking, “Ok, but what really happened?”
This may be in part due to the fact that you were under the influence of mind-altering chemicals during some of the scenes, but alarms were going off, like when I read James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (before the truth was revealed) and it made want to sit down with you and ask…So, did you really pull a hairless monkey from the bottom of the sea? Did you really add on to a beach house in which you were squatting, not knowing the owner? Were you really captured by Castro, held in a Cuban prison, and set free with a ship of hardened criminals? Did you really feed crayons to a child in the hospital? Tell me, Mr. Richard, how true is your truth?
MR: That’s a pretty funny question. The truth is, not only did these things happen to me, but there are several notebooks of things I didn’t include in the book because I didn’t think anyone would believe them. Even I can’t believe some of the things that happened to me. While I was writing the book, I asked Steve, whose brother had just died and I was there for the funeral, about the hairless monkey thing we saw that night and he recounted it in even more vivid detail than I remembered. There were a couple of other things I asked friends about, and again, they offered more detail than I remembered.
As you know, the South is a strange place in which strange things happen. Heck, the WORLD is a strange place. Some of the other things you ask about, happened to a lot of people. Castro emptying the jails and the flotilla of boats from the Florida Keys was a huge historical event affecting thousands of people, I was just one of them. For me, the most remarkable event in the book is the last event in the church, Mother Ricks’ prophesy. I’m glad it happened in the church with witnesses and had been foretold.
SLR: I appreciate that your book seems to say being “special” is a gift, not a curse. Throughout the book, you mention the term autism. As a speech-language pathologist, this peaks my curiosity. You touch on the topic of sensory issues with childhood scenes in which you tuned out in front of the TV and later when you developed a strong, physical connection with music. I happen to believe some of the most amazing people on the planet have been diagnosed with some form of autism. What do you think about the growing number of people being diagnosed as being “on the spectrum” and what do we need to learn, as a culture, about the benefits of both physical and cognitive differences that we still like to coin as “disorders” or “disabilities”?
MR: That’s a tough question, as I’m not a medical professional or therapist, and can only speak to my experience. Yes, a lot of us probably are “on the spectrum,” as you put it, and I guess that’s where God put me. I’m reading Tim Page’s “Parallel Play,” and some of his childhood experiences are strikingly similar to my own, and he has been diagnosed with Aspberger’s.
I’m also reading a lot about Native American culture, and it sounds like there were people “on the spectrum” in their world, and they were often shamans and contrarians and “holy people.” People on the outside looking in, sometimes offering commentary that the tribe may not want to hear, observations, tirades, kind of like the prophets in the Old Testament. Maybe some of those guys were on the spectrum as well. You’re right, the terms “disorders” and “disabilities” are poorly chosen words of description at times. I think that’s why I prefer, if to be labeled at all, the Southern term “special.”
SLR: You’ve survived more pain in your life than most people will ever experience, and the most captivating parts of your book are the scenes in the children’s hospital, where your bones are broken and nailed and pinned and your body is split apart and cast in plaster. There, you see evidence of “God’s mistakes,” and you bring the reader into a world most of us have never entered. How have you come to terms with your faith now as an adult in regards to you feeling as a child that you were one of God’s mistakes? And how has your faith been challenged now that your own son has been “born with a glitch in his spine”?
MR: Itry to believe that God doesn’t make mistakes. And as I said in the book, maybe all the pain and trauma I went through as a child was partly to prepare me to raise a son with similar issues. As a parent, I accept that, and am grateful for the preparation. Anyone who has ever had a child in pain would do anything to either take the pain on themselves or be able to do something to help their child with their condition. I consider myself lucky and blessed that I can offer that to my son.
SLR: Your childhood gave you many reasons to question the existence of God, but along the way, God kept sending “signs” that you were not alone. Reading about the way you became an award-winning novelist and successful Hollywood writer seems like divine intervention has played a part in your journey, but you did not come to your faith by any easy route. Throughout the book, you mention your mother’s faith and her steady prayers. Now that you are a father and a husband with your own family to protect, I wonder if your spiritual role has shifted and if you now pray as your mother did, and if so, how that ritual impacts your daily life.
MR: Good question. As I tried to make clear in the book, my faith walk has been and continues to be slippery at times. There are times when I feel in harmony with God’s plan and there are times when I feel far, far away from God. During those far, far away times I have to take a step back and do some serious self-inspection. Often, I have let my prayer time shorten or let other things intrude (often necessary things, like work, commitments to family). Have I let the culture push my worship around (in our community, there are regularly scheduled sporting events like Little League practice on Sunday mornings, right in the middle of traditional church time and not many people seem to care or mind). I still feel my mother’s prayers and prayers sent to me from her friends and from the House of Prayer congregation, and Pastor Ricks and I stay in regular touch, usually during my hour or two drive into work.
I keep finding shortcomings in my spiritual work, theological books unfinished, gaps in church-attendance. One of the biggest wake-up calls to a nearly missed opportunity was when my seven-year-old son recently asked me to read to him from the Bible. I wasn’t home the next night and stupidly nearly forgot to take him up on his simple want. I feel like that was a gentle prodding to pay attention to the spiritual development of my children and by extension, myself. Thank you, God.
SLR: One of the things that really stands out to me about your life is how you’ve lived in a realm that somehow interconnects the human existence we all know and the supernatural or spiritual realm that includes ghosts and out of body experiences, signs from God and miracles. Called a “special child” from the start, I think you have touched a nerve for many readers who want desperately to believe there is more to this life than we know, yet, you do it in a grounded way that speaks to every reader, regardless of religious background, by saying such things as, “”a man’s relationship with God is determined by his relationship to his father.”
Your relationship with your father was difficult, and as a Louisiana girl and an LSU alum, I found your references to the “flying tiger” particularly painful, as his heavy college ring would hit you when his hand came at you in anger, a detail I’ll never forget.
This is such a personal question, I understand if you want to avoid it, but I feel I have to ask. One of the fundamentals (and most challenging aspects) of Christianity is the need to forgive. Has your faith enabled you to forgive your father? Maybe I’m getting it all wrong, but that’s how I interpret the final scene in which the preacher’s mother “lays her hand on your shoulder, and you, at last, are slain in the spirit.”
MR: Oh yes. Again, as I get older, and experience son-raising myself, I really have to cut my father some serious slack. Raising children is hard, if you’re trying to do a good job. My father was an only child born late to two very different and in their ways, difficult people. His own childhood wasn’t that great, I’m thinking. I couple that with Rev. Ben’s note that he believes most people are doing the best they can. I choose to believe that as well. I believe most people are doing the best they can. I think up to a certain point my father was doing the best he could with a situation (me) that he was ill-prepared for. Yes, I’ve forgiven him, and oddly, recently, have begun to miss him. I’m looking forward to meditating on that one.
SLR: Finally, I believe you have a potential book in nearly every paragraph of this memoir. Reading House of Prayer No. 2 makes me want to know the rest of the story. Please tell me you are already working on something else and that your fans won’t have to wait too long for another dose.
MR: I’ve been sketching out something that I would like to think could be a young adult novel. I’d like it to be a cross between Deliverance, Huck Finn, and Catch-22. I don’t know yet. I have a lot of little moleskin books in which I scribble notes. I see characters everywhere, in my sons’ Boy Scout troop, skateboarding down our street, and I assign little story lines to them. Yesterday I was at my eldest son’s jazz ensemble concert and the keyboardist suddenly got a massive nosebleed but kept on playing during a cover of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein.” I had to pull out my notebook and write it down.
SLR: Thank you for your time. You’ve written a brilliant memoir, and we are excited to share it with our readers.