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When 'A Rational Woman' Writes Fiction

When you meet people in cyberspace, they can be anywhere. While Susan K. Perry was interviewing me online, I was pleasantly startled to learn we'd both been the object of amorous attentions from a nonhuman primate at the LA Zoo. Turns out we are both Angelenos. She told me her erotic moment (transposed through poetic license to another place I know well--the Gibbon Conservation Center in Santa Clarita) serves as the opening scene for her novel, Kylie's Heel. Of course I had to read it.

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I found out I have a lot in common with the fictional protagonist: I can't snap my fingers either. I've been to almost every LA neighborhood and landmark made vivid in the novel. But more important, Kylie's Heel, with its atheist narrator, offered a welcome antidote to the relentless cultural and political impositions of the Religious Right.

You can read the novel as a retelling of the Book of Job--but in reverse. Job's troubles begin when Satan goads the Lord into testing the righteous man's faith. As Job loses everything that matters to him, what he has to do is refrain from cursing God. For Kylie Moran, it's her born-again sister's missionary zeal that sets the destructive machine in motion. Kylie is threatened with loss as devastating as Job's (though she doesn't have any sheep, camels, or oxen). For her, the challenge is to refrain from turning to God for answers or comfort.

Kylie has all the answers she needs (and maintains her sense of humor) when she dispenses advice in her newspaper column, A Rational Woman. A reader writes in with the classic theological problem--Why do bad things happen to good people? The question has no meaning in a reason-based worldview and so Kylie replies, "You may as well ask, 'Why do bad things happen to good gazelles'?"

Kylie's Heel explores how a rational woman copes--or fails to--when she finds that she is the good gazelle.

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Now I know if I want to ask Perry questions, I could just go knock on her door. But I decided to continue our conversation where it began: online.

Q: I loved Kylie's Rational Woman column, and then I discovered that you are actually the real-life Rational Woman blogger. Who came first? And can you tell us something about your involvement with The Brights?

A: The fictional version of the column came long before the actual blog. I had the idea that making the column real would be cool (and good promotion) but it’s not easy to find newspapers open to blatant atheist advice. After all, they have to devote a lot of space to astrology and holistic medicine columns, right? I’ve been a member of The Brights since they began and when I got a newsletter saying they were seeking bloggers, a major light bulb went on for me. A few months after I began that blog, Kylie’s Heel was published.

Q: I'd never heard of The Brights. What are they or what is it?

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A: The Brights is a loose-knit group of people with a naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural or mystical elements. It's that simple, and when all the big names in atheism (Richard Dawkins!) agreed to have their names attached, I registered too. It's an international internet entity, so that anyone who feels isolated can connect to a broader freethinking community. The site offers opportunities to do practical things, too, related to such projects as getting evolution posters into classrooms.

Q: What do you think about my comparing your novel to the Book of Job? Your protagonist, Kylie, was raised with a religious Jewish background and you've told me that you were as well. Did you have Job in mind when you wrote Kylie's Heel or was this unconscious?

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A: I don’t recall learning about the Book of Job growing up, though I did attend Sunday School for many years. But I think your reverse comparison is lovely. I tend to believe that life is about loss, though happily not everyone has to endure the full range of hardship that Kylie suffers. And of course, heartbreakingly, many around the world and throughout history have endured much, much worse.

Q: If you go by pop culture, Southern California is a land of godless hedonists but new religions and religious movements have been born here. You can find every world religion with all their branches and sects and every form of New Age spirituality. With all this diversity, can one tradition dominate the others? So maybe atheism is just one more piece of this extraordinary mosaic of belief systems. But is it an equal piece?

A: Atheism is rational, peaceful, and growing. But as it doesn’t answer people’s deepest desire for comfort, and to their wish for yet another life after this one, atheism isn’t growing as fast as other belief systems. And maybe it’s harder to be comfortable with future nothingness and the lack of some god-given meaning to our lives, so that it takes a certain level of education to be open to that. Many popular belief systems, including the vague ones that promote “spirituality,” appeal to the gullible. Just like advertising does. Both faith and acquiring more goodies are powerful seducers, here in Southern California as much as anywhere.

Q: I share Kylie's frustration with her sister. Though I respect most people's beliefs, I still want to scream and tear my hair when I remember the acquaintance who brushed off the deaths of 9/11, saying "It happened for a reason. God has a plan." As a nonbeliever, there's a line I draw in my mind: On one side, religion plays a positive role in a lot of lives; on the other side, it bolsters values and actions that are harmful to the believers themselves and everyone else. Kylie can be cavalier and dismissive about religion while at other times she seems curious and open minded about the role it plays in people's lives. So I wonder where she--and probably you--draw the line.

A: Neither Kylie nor I wants to be strident, hateful, arrogant, and off-putting. Though if we were totally honest, we might well be all of those. Religion has done much more harm than good, I believe. It offers comfort (though even Fundamentalists fear death), but it also tells people it’s fine to kill those who don’t agree with your particular sect. I mean, if you read the Bible and the Koran, there’s some nasty stuff advocated. How much “comfort” justifies terrorism, Inquisitions, Crusades, Holocausts, ethnic (religious) cleansing, and so on?

Q: Kylie stands to lose everything, but I notice she doesn't have a dog or cat. Were you afraid that killing off a pet would be too clichéd or sentimental?

A: When I wrote the novel, I didn’t know you or your view that animals are equal to or even better companions than people! I never considered Kylie having a pet, though it was probably just an oversight. I had a dog for several years as a kid, and it hurt when my parents took it to a shelter when we moved to an apartment, without even telling me. When my sons were little, we had two mice, but the little critters got cancer. I’m allergic to cats. I’m also lazy, so haven’t wanted to have another member of the family to care for. And my husband satisfies my need to snuggle with something warm and loving. I do, though, recognize that dogs and cats are a godsend (i.e., perfect solution) for many many people. I do enjoy them, but I prefer slightly more intellectually stimulating companions, when available. In the novel, Kylie struggles a bit, perhaps, with the natural world that keeps trying to invade her house.

Q: Your nonfiction book, Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity, grew out of your doctoral dissertation in psychology. You contacted almost 200 creative writers hoping to interview them and close to 100 granted interviews or answered questionnaires. As I understand it, at the time you were a frequent contributor of articles about parenting and psychology to a wide range of national and regional publications. Did you study poets, fiction writers, and playwrights as a way of getting your feet wet, preparation for writing Kylie's Heel? How did you apply what you learned about flow?

A: I studied creative writers because they seemed so different from me! My husband’s a poet (his first book of poems is Questions About God, also out from Humanist Press http://www.humanistpress.com/questions-about-god.html ). He can get into a deeply focused state, rather easily and for long stretches. Not me. So I studied the topic of flow in order to learn to get there more readily myself. And then when I heard what fun creative writers often have in their writing, much more than I was having by this time writing nonfiction, I decided to try writing a novel. Funny thing: I still have a hard time getting into a flow state, but at least I know why. And my solution is to accept my start-stop-restart style of writing and just keep going back to the work that is meaningful to me.

Q: What are you working on now? Anything else you'd like to address?

I’m currently spending a lot of my time keeping up with three blogs, partially to be a more out-of-the-closet atheist rationalist humanist. I am about a sixth of the way into my next novel, but haven’t touched it for a few months now. I can tell you it takes place in Silver Lake also, and involves time travel.

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Links to Susan’s blogs and more info about Kylie’s Heel and her other books at her site, http://www.BunnyApe.com/susan.htm

(links...) The Kindle version of Kylie's Heel is available from Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Kylies-Heel-Susan-K-Perry-ebook/dp/B00EGP3DVS/ref=sr_1_1? The print edition can be ordered from The Humanist Press, where there’s also a free Reader’s Guide. http://www.humanistpress.com/kylies-heel.html