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'All the World Beside' by Garrard Conley blends faith and love in puritan America

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The author Garrard Conley has spent his life exploring the overlap between Christianity and sexuality. His bestselling memoir "Boy Erased" was adapted into a 2018 film about undergoing conversion therapy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOY ERASED")

LUCAS HEDGES: (As Jared Eamons) I broke up with Chloe. We broke up because I think it's true about me. God help me. I think about men.

SHAPIRO: His new book comes at similar themes from a very different angle. "All The World Beside" is a novel set in the 1700s. It's a story of forbidden love between two married men in a small Massachusetts town. Garrard Conley, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GARRARD CONLEY: Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: The two men at the center of this story, Nathaniel and Arthur, are not just townspeople. They are pillars of the community. Nathaniel is the minister who founded the town. Arthur is the doctor. Why did you want to build this story around characters of such prominence?

CONLEY: Well, I mean, raising the stakes is always good for a story, But, really, the real reason is I've been attracted to this idea of leadership for a long time. You know, my father is a missionary Baptist preacher. He commands about 200 people every Sunday, and I've always watched that burden on him with fascination. I always wondered how he did it, and I guess that's where the idea came from.

SHAPIRO: And so how much of your father is in the character of Nathaniel?

CONLEY: Well, I think there's a lot of my father in Nathaniel. Nathaniel is very stubborn, but he's also very brilliant, and he's very conflicted about what he believes. I mean, so much of the novel is really about the challenge between the union of the head and the heart. And I think religion and sexuality often gets placed in that dichotomy where, you know, OK, we've got to do the right thing. We should do the right thing, but what do we really feel? And they don't have to be in conflict.

SHAPIRO: Do you think your father sees this or would see this as an honor, as a tribute, as sort of a paean to him? Or how - I don't know. How has he responded if he's read the book?

CONLEY: Well, you know, he says he's never read my first book...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

CONLEY: ...Which I do not believe in the least.

SHAPIRO: Which, just to remind people, was a memoir about your upbringing...

CONLEY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...In this very conservative Christian tradition.

CONLEY: And, you know, my father, who's a preacher, sent me to conversion therapy, and he claims he never read it. I don't believe that's true. We joke about it. I know it sounds odd, but we've had, you know, struggles for many years. And one thing he said not too long ago was, hey. When are you going to write a book my congregants can read? And I said to him, well, I already have. They can read it at any time, I mean, as long as the books aren't banned, which they kind of are in so many states. But, you know, I think that that it's a challenge for him to read it. And I want him to read it because it's written in a spirit of Christianity, honestly, and in a spirit of compassion and forgiveness.

SHAPIRO: And you're clearly so literate in the language of Christianity and the Bible. And although you may have renounced the specifics of your upbringing, the ethos of that tradition is so thoroughly woven through this book. I mean, there are Bible passages that made me wonder why you chose a particular one for a particular scene. Can you give us an example?

CONLEY: Yeah. Early on in the book, we have several Bible passages, most of which are referring to grapes withering on the vine, which are a little bit of foreshadowing for many of the characters. But I inserted this one passage midway through the book when the two men explore each other a bit more. And I can read that for you real quick.

SHAPIRO: Sure. Yeah.

CONLEY: It's the one about Jonathan and David...

SHAPIRO: Oh.

CONLEY: ...Which...

SHAPIRO: This is - like, if you want a gay Bible passage, Jonathan and David is the one you go to.

CONLEY: I know.

SHAPIRO: Even I know that.

CONLEY: It's a little on the nose.

SHAPIRO: It's a little on the nose.

CONLEY: But I felt like it was appropriate. I felt like it was appropriate because these men would be thinking, you know, what is the most obvious example, right? So you have the Greeks in history. But when you're looking at the Bible, Jonathan and David are where you go. And so one of the characters quotes to the preacher, I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan. Very pleasant hast thou been unto me. Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. So it does seem really obvious there that these two men are discussing love in a way that goes beyond heterosexuality.

And actually, in that scene, Nathaniel, our preacher - he disagrees with that interpretation that his lover is telling him. He says we shouldn't look for ourselves in the Bible that way. And so much of the way I was taught to read the Bible ignored some of the really obvious things that spoke to me. You look at the Song of Solomon, which is a book that is incredibly erotically charged. Anytime sensuality works its way into the Bible, people try to ignore it. Or, you know, there's that head-versus-heart moment again.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

CONLEY: And when these two men discuss the Bible verse, it's very much like a real discussion I've had with people who are queer and who are dealing with their faith in this way.

SHAPIRO: But it's so interesting because as these characters in the 1700s are looking for traces of people like them in the Bible, you in the present day went looking for traces of people like yourself in the 1700s.

CONLEY: Yes. I mean, it was such a challenge. My husband actually gave me the challenge. One day he just said, why don't you write about queer puritans? Just go back to the source of it all. And I thought that was insane.

SHAPIRO: Why did you think it was insane?

CONLEY: Well, I just thought - I saw as a writer how much work that was going to be. Right? So I was thinking, how do I figure out how people spoke to each other back then in a way that was natural to be that way?

SHAPIRO: So this book does deal with similar themes to your memoir but in very different ways. It's a novel. It's set in the 1700s. Did writing these characters and this plot help you understand your own story any differently?

CONLEY: Oh, yeah. I mean, with "Boy Erased," it was actually obviously autobiographical. It was very real. But this book, to me, feels even more autobiographical because with memoir, you're trying to protect some of the people that are still alive, right? But in fiction, you can really dive into some dicey territory and hide behind that screen. So there are a lot of discussions in the book that are very autobiographical. You know, the lovers' discussion in the middle of the book - they could almost be word for word discussions that I've actually had with people. And, of course...

SHAPIRO: Do you mean about, like, do we leave our society...

CONLEY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...And our culture to be with each other, or do we confine ourselves to the limitations that we've been given?

CONLEY: Yeah. And then also, how do we see ourselves in Christianity? Do we see ourselves there at all? And I think those are questions that I've always dealt with. And because of that, I was able to go deeper into many of these characters' thoughts than I feel like I would have been comfortable doing in my own life.

SHAPIRO: Do you still today see yourself as a Christian?

CONLEY: You know, I think that I'm still in a faith journey. For me, writing this book drew me back into my faith quite a bit. And so my friends were very concerned with the way I was talking because, you know, it never really leaves you, just like the knowledge of all these Bible verses that I casually included in the book. You know, I could just remember them. I have them memorized. You know, it's so much a part of my life, this faith. But I do believe that I have a more expansive vision. You know, I think I'll probably always have faith. I'll probably always believe there's something but certainly not just within Christianity anymore.

SHAPIRO: Garrard Conley's new novel is "All The World Beside." Thank you so much.

CONLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAN ANGUS WATSON'S "WALTZ IN SWEATERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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