Interconnected short stories deal with church, faith, people and culture
Published : Tuesday, March 10, 2020 | 1:33 PM
When we were young
we let the waves tumble us
and shipwreck our bodies on the sand,
panting in the whitewash
— From Faith
When I first met Heidi Turner, I immediately knew she was brilliant. She’s smart, dynamic, well-read, and incredibly down-to-earth. We met while attending Azusa Pacific University’s MA Program in English, and since our time as students and colleagues, Heidi’s become a great friend, collaborator, and advisor. This past fall, Heidi and I each published debut books. Her book, The Sacred Art of Trespassing Barefoot, is a collection of interconnected short stories set on Maui in the early 2000s published by Heritage Future in Orange, CA. Each story follows a different character, and each character is connected by a certain degree of separation to another. It explores themes of God and church, faith and spirituality, the space one occupies when being othered by people and culture, and the weight of growing up in a drastically changing world. I was a reader and editor for a few of these stories, and I’ve seen them grow into what they are now as they rest together in Heidi’s stunning collection. Her control of language is dazzling; the way she turns a phrase is enough to stop her reader in their tracks so they might absorb the layers of what she’s just said, what truth she’s just revealed. She is clearly talented, but there’s something else—she sees people and understands their motivations, their hearts, and what drives them. She knows the deep ache of a broken heart, the secret doubt of those who seek God, and the reasoning behind choices: why people do and don’t act, why they do and don’t decide, why they do and don’t choose. In short, TSAOTB is a collection of stories that opens the mind and makes the reader feel seen. Last December, Heidi interviewed me about my debut book, Black Was Not A Label, and now, it’s her turn! I had the privilege of chatting with her about her collection, what it means to her, and what we can expect from her next.
The Sacred Art of Trespassing Barefoot was the winner of Heritage Future’s Great Story Project, which meant a fast track to publication with the press and your debut book. Walk me through the process—your submission, the waiting, and ultimately hearing that you’d won. How did it feel? Where does it place you as a writer to have achieved something so huge so soon in your career?
I try to think of submissions the way actors think of auditions: chances are, I won’t get it, but when I do get a publication, I can be confident that I was the right fit for the journal or press. I already really liked what Heritage Future does (a former professor/current mentor judged the contest one year, a friend interned there, and one of my favorite authors has published through them as well) so I felt like I needed to give it a shot.
Around three months after submission, the editor-in-chief called me at around 5 AM my time—there’s a three hour time difference, so I missed the call—and when I called back he told me my book was a finalist and we talked a little about what winning might look like. In this case, I knew I was in the top three and knew there was still a good chance that I would end the contest as a finalist (a huge honor, and also a good reason to wait for the results). When I finally found out I won, I was floating on air for weeks. I also had the joy of surprising everyone and even made up a fake “emergency podcast production meeting” so that I could tell my hanai sister in person.
Career-wise, I’m so grateful I got to publish with Heritage Future. Honestly, it’s been amazing working with the team, especially my editor, and the cover and design of The Sacred Art of Trespassing Barefoot is just gorgeous. It feels like I’ve leveled up as an author in some ways, and it definitely gives me a little more confidence in my work. I tend to think of my career as being made of switchback trails up the mountain; this was a big boost up in the fiction direction, and it’s made songwriting, poetry, and everything else feel a little more significant.
Many of your stories feature explicit sex, drug use, assault, profanity, self-harm, and death— all heavy themes that many traditional Christian authors have stayed away from. What is your goal in telling such raw stories from a faith-based perspective? As a Christian yourself, how do you want the subject matter of your book to be taken by those who aren’t believers or those who have no experience with church? Do you think it’s off-putting or confusing for readers with preconceived notions about faith and spirituality to read TSAOTB?
I’m always surprised that Christian fiction tends to steer clear of the things that the Bible dives head-first into. Like, it’s not a gentle book. In writing TSAOTB, I wanted to really examine my corner of the world. I think there’s a space in fiction between pure cynicism and inspirational fiction. TSAOTB is full of crises of faith in both directions, and I think it is a little lighter in tone as a collection than most of the stories that were published as one-offs were without the full context.
I suspect my book is more off-putting for Christians. Non-believers have all met Christians like my characters. It’s much harder for the Church as a whole to really acknowledge its brokenness than it is for non-believers to see it. I also find fictional conversion stories with characters that already act Christian and are just nominally non-believers to be aggressively uninteresting.
So, we know TSAOTB’s setting is because you were born and raised on Maui, where you are seen and regarded as a ‘haole.’ What is it like telling stories of the island where you’re from, but where you are not a native? How do you handle this inherent otherness in your writing?
I’d have a much harder time writing about Hawaii as though I was a Native Hawaiian than I did writing as a haole because I’d be picking up someone else’s voice. Being haole in Hawaii is to live in a liminal space, at least if you’re doing it right. A lot of TSAOTB comes back to finding how to exist in a space that isn’t really “yours” (and shouldn’t be) and understanding that there are ways of being accepted, and ways of accepting yourself, that don’t depend on homogeny. Being the Other and having a sense of belonging aren’t mutually exclusive.
TSAOTB is split into four sections [Sacrament, Carved Image, Trespass, Holy Ground] with poems and vignettes between the short stories. What made you order your collection in this way? While different characters grow up, the stories are not exactly linear. Was this a choice in the weaving of the story at large, or did the stories tell you where they needed to go?
The main four stories first appeared in my Master’s thesis and were basically the cornerstones that told me what else I needed to write, so I always knew the first story would be first. The longer stories are all chronological (based on the end of the first story) and that was very intentional. The vignettes are a little out of order in the chronology but in general, I tried to introduce a character in the section where they would be at their youngest within the larger arc and had to have a relationship bubble chart and a timeline to keep everything straight. Once I had everything in order, I used the poems to help clarify the theme in each “era.” The last story in the book passes through every other section. Sometimes while editing or proofing, I’d have to laugh at the amount of structure I was trying to manage.
In our interview, you asked if there was a moment in my book where my younger self fought to have a piece written or erased since both our works deal pretty heavily with “younger selves.” Did you experience this in your work? Your book is also fiction, which begs the question of how much of it is taken directly from your life. Did you actually smoke your way through the Bible as a teen?
The book is a work of fiction, but the materials of fiction are always real life. By the time I was writing TSAOTB, there was very little that I’d witnessed that I didn’t want to write about. The best thing would have been for those things to have never happened at all; the second best thing would be to write about them (I really started to understand that when I studied the story of Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom in 1st Kings). That said, I tried to really treat the fictional space as sacred and put evidence in myself in the small things, like the prevalence of Dr. Pepper or my strong opinions about guitar-playing. The Bible-smoking actually came from a conversion story I’d heard about a pastor–he smoked Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and “John smoked him.” I did a lot of that: narrators or central characters who go through events that I’d heard about or witnessed from a distance.
You present a complicated, almost cynical, view of the church throughout TSAOTB that deals a lot with the Bible and the rules, but not so much with God Himself. Can you unpack that a little?
I’ve experienced a lot of artificial dichotomies in Christian culture: either you are 100 percent committed to the church (your specific church, not the Church in a cosmic, eternal sense) or you are 100 percen against it, and that your feeling toward the church is synonymous with your feelings toward God. I love the church (both locally and in the eternal sense) very deeply, and I struggle to reconcile that with how terrible the church can be. In TSAOTB, I very intentionally put moments of grace and moments of God interfering anonymously into every story, but I let the characters have their own relationship with him. Some of them can see how God’s working, and others can’t. I genuinely believe that it isn’t possible to write a story set in reality without God being a character because he is the Omnipresent. Once I came to that conclusion, it was also easier to let His stealth-mode way of working go through every story.
I decided quite young that I was never going to put God on trial. At the same time, there is real evil out there, and it was important that actual messy humanity got to show its face in this book. The church can, and usually doesn’t, live up to God’s plan for it. Anyone seriously considering what Christianity is, has to reckon with the mismatch of Jesus the Groom and the Church His bride.
You’re smack in the middle of your 20s with a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and your first book to boot. You’ve also released an album, have a long-running poetry series, AND two podcasts. What’s next for you (besides a nap, probably)?
A nap is definitely on the horizon! Whenever I’m stuck on one project, I can usually work on something else and that will jog my creative wheels, so there’s always at least two things I’m playing with at any given time. There are a couple of bigger projects that I’ve completed, at least as far as I can on my own, that I’m hoping to bring onto a bigger stage. I’m also planning on pursuing an MFA in the fall so I’m wrapping up as many loose ends of projects that I can, but I did just start a new songwriting project as a fun experiment. I’m not pushing myself too hard right now, mostly reading and recharging my creative juices for whatever new idea becomes the focus in the next season.
Follow Turner’s various creative endeavors at http://www.hidturner.com/