Kerry Egan is the author of Fumbling: a Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago, a memoir that recounts the author's pilgrimage along a medieval route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of Saint James are supposed to have been buried. "With introspective artfulness," says the National Catholic Reporter, "Ms. Egan matches up the landscape of her soul to the landscape of the journey." Publisher's Weekly calls her writing "confident, sharp and engaging," and Booklist says Fumbling is "compassionate and unforgettable testimony." Earth Goat caught up with her after a softball game in Iowa City.
EG: Your book is about a pilgrimage in Spain that you and your then-boyfriend, Alex (aka Señor El Gordo), took a year after your father died. Was it hard writing a book that is so brutally honest?
KE: It was very hard. I remember one afternoon especially. I was sitting in the Java House trying to write about my Dad. I had just moved out to Iowa City from Brooklyn, I had no real friends yet (apart from El Gordo, of course), I had no idea how to write a book, and I desperately missed working as a hospital chaplain. As I was trying to write, I started crying. One of Alex’s fellow workshoppers came over, introduced herself, looked at me closely in the darkness (that’s the reason I don’t go in the Java House anymore—I can’t take the gloomy, cave-like atmosphere) and suggested I take a break from the computer because my eyes were so bloodshot. I cried a lot while writing, but it was really helpful. I feel like the writing process was a necessary part of my grieving, as necessary as the pilgrimage was.
I think that memoirs can easily fall into the trap of navel-gazing. The question for me is always, why should my story be meaningful to anyone else? People have their own stories to tell. Why should I presume to write about mine? For me, the answer came in that brutal honesty. By going back down into those dark, sometimes shameful memories of grief, by reliving those experiences and putting it on the computer screen, I think I connected with readers. At least I hope I did. I’ve received a lot of letters from people who read the book, and I think in 9 out of 10 people have said that they wrote because they experienced many of the same things I described—anger, shame, meltdowns—and thought they were the only people who felt that way, and thought they had to keep this awful secret.
As painful as it was to re-feel all that stuff, I think it’s a necessary part of writing a memoir. I really dislike memoirs where the writer is trying to show just how very cool he is by mocking his own experience or the reader with flippant ironic detachment. I think it’s just self-indulgence. And I think most readers can tell when you are faking it. Another thing that was hard was distinguishing between what were my stories to tell, and which stories really belonged to my dad, or siblings, or Alex or my mom. I think that there’s always that risk, in writing nonfiction, that you will trespass on someone else’s story.
EG: Americans, more than almost any anyone except perhaps Saudi Arabians, overwhelmingly regard themselves as believers in God. Yet many of our actions as individuals and as a nation -- from practicing capital punishment to waging war to tolerating poverty, homelessness, and lack of medical care -- would seem to indicate otherwise. What do you think this gap indicates?
KE: I think it indicates that many Americans don’t think very deeply about what it means to “believe in God.” I think it also indicates that the organized churches to which these people belong are choosing to focus on certain issues, at the expense of others. Economic issues are moral issues, but they are much more difficult to talk about and act on than questions of sexual ethics. It’s easy, if you are, say, a middle class, married parent of three, to tell young women that they cannot have an abortion, and to declare that premarital sex is wrong. It’s much harder for that middle class parent of three to accept personal responsibility for the health and well-being of a baby born to a poor teenager.
Few people are willing to give up their second cars and vacations and eating out at restaurants in order use that money to help feed their fellow human beings. It’s much easier to focus on sexual ethics in our hyper-sexualized, materialistic society than to focus on the real message of Jesus, which was “give up everything, heal the sick, ameliorate suffering, and preach that the kingdom of God is here.” I’m not saying that I actually do that. I still lust for an Audi station wagon. But I think that the almost-pathological focus on sexuality by the Catholic Church and the evangelicals, the two biggest religious blocks in our country, is distracting “people who believe in God” from the deepening crisis of social justice in the US.
EG: The National Catholic Reporter described Alex, your companion on your trip and husband now, as "a saint." Any comment?
KE: It’s true. He is a saint. And he reminds me of this every time he doesn’t want to change the baby’s diaper.
EG: The inevitable question: What was it like being a workshop spouse and working on your own book? Did anything Alex brought home help you, or were you on your own, private path to writing?
KE: I never thought I wanted to be a writer, so I knew nothing about the craft and discipline of writing. Alex’s experiences in the Workshop helped me realize that the only way to learn to write is through a lot of practice. And that was an important thing for me to realize. The other important thing I learned from Alex was something he learned in Sam Chang’s class. She suggested that writers “map out” stories and novels they admired. I did this with about five or six books that I really liked. This was very early in my writing process, and it helped so much. People have commented on the way I weave different times and places and ideas through the narrative, and I learned how to do that through mapping other people’s work.
For the most part though, writing nonfiction about religion and grief kept me pretty isolated, as a writer, from the workshoppers. Many of them would just look at me blankly when I told them what I was writing about. But of course, El Gordo says the same thing. I write about relics and saints eating scabs and drinking the pus of the wounded. He writes about flying monkeys and Baba Yaga. People look at you funny. Thank God we found each other.