The debut novelist and former Jehovah’s Witness on being a child preacher, leaving the church, and the safety of a good book.
Image by Beowulf Sheehan
It is common now to hope that better days are ahead while also feeling that the end is, indeed, nigh; rampant income equality, police brutality, and climate change all seem to point to our demise. But for many evangelical Christians, there is no contradiction here: the end of the world means the beginning of the kingdom of God.
Novelist Scott Cheshire was raised among these believers, by this story of the apocalypse. Born into a Jehovah’s Witness household, Cheshire proved to be a talented and devoted child preacher, skilled at exegesis particularly when it came to the Book of Revelation. But Cheshire’s obsession with Biblical texts gave way to a new faith—a devotion to literature. He read voraciously as a teenager: science fiction and thrillers at first, and then literary lions like Don DeLillo and Kurt Vonnegut. The books that Cheshire took up ultimately unraveled his religious beliefs.
At the age of thirty-three, he enrolled in college and indulged his love of reading and writing. A few years later, he began crafting a story about his search for meaning in a secular world, a quest that has culminated in his powerful debut novel, High as the Horses’ Bridles, published in July 2014 by Henry Holt.
The novel, tripartite in structure, explores the life of Josiah Laudermilk, the type of child preacher that Cheshire once was. The first section begins with the young Josiah delivering his sermon, a vision of the end of the world, which he believes will take place in the year 2000. But by the second section, the world hasn’t ended. Rather, Josiah, now an adult who goes by the nickname Josie, is adrift. He lost his faith long before, but without a surrogate structure to replace it, is grappling with existential dread. He must also care for his ailing father, who split with his sect and is contending with apocalyptic visions of his own. The third section of the book defies any impulse toward comforting resolution, hurling the reader back into the narrative of a nineteenth-century Laudermilk ancestor with his own perception of how the world will end.
In his work, as well as his life, Cheshire resists glib answers and tidy endings. He says that he loves being scared, and perhaps there’s nothing more frightening and darkly funny than his anti-apocalyptic novel, which gestures toward an America that wants to end, but can’t.
Cheshire, who renounced his faith over twenty years ago, lives in Manhattan, physically near yet worlds apart from his childhood home in Queens. We spoke over lunch near his Upper East Side apartment, and his effervescent manner and booming laugh demonstrated both the charisma that once made him an effective preacher and the openheartedness that has helped him see that there is more to the world than its end.
—David Burr Gerrard for Guernica
Guernica: Your novel explores dreams, which defies the writing-workshop dictum “tell a dream, lose a reader.”
Scott Cheshire: My interest in dreams gave birth to the entire novel. The very first thing I wrote is about a man talking about his nightmares. It’s a three- or four-page rant about a man contacted by his ex-wife, a man who, the reader discovers, is obsessed with death. I eventually cut it from the novel and published it as a short story in Slice. Teachers and friends responded to it. So I realized that dreams are boring, yes, but people are never boring. If you use the dream as a vehicle to access people’s interior lives and obsessions, that’s interesting.
The birth of that was an undergraduate course I took. I went to college quite late, at thirty-three years old, and I became an English major. I had always been a voracious reader, but in the community that I came from, going to college was discouraged. So I ate up everything that I could. I took some courses twice, just because I wanted to.
One of my literature teachers, Jason Tougaw, saw something in me. He was teaching a senior seminar called “Literature and Dreams.” That class changed me in many ways. But in particular, it was a way into the Book of Revelation, which Harold Bloom calls the “preferred text” of the evangelical community.
He’s right: it’s their favorite for lots of reasons. When I was a child, we would meet on Sundays with a particular study book that interpreted the Book of Revelation for us verse by verse. We did this for years and years. The book scared me if I thought about it. It wasn’t until that class that I went back to the Book of Revelation and saw that it was all a vision, a dream. I did a lot of research, and apocalyptic literature is all dream-based. The ancients believed in setting themselves up in such a way that they would fall asleep and dream themselves into heaven.
I exaggerated this greatly in the idea of Josie’s father. He’s doing what was done by Enoch and Ezekiel. He is something of a dry-lipped prophet out in the desert—but because he’s doing it in the suburbs of Queens, he looks crazy.
The reader should feel what it’s like to wrestle with doubt and faith and existence. And with time.
Guernica: Josie’s father also seems like any other old man with whom an adult son might be saddled.
Scott Cheshire: That makes me happy to hear. To me, the book is really about a boy and his dad. The religious stuff is important, but I really wanted to write a book about a boy and his father. That made me very afraid to give the book to my own father. But he’s reading it now. He told me he’s reading everything twice, “first to hear your voice, the second to understand what the hell’s going on” [laughs].
Guernica: Your book has a very distinctive structure. Can you talk about how it took shape?
Scott Cheshire: The opening started as a short story, and then it became a very long short story. Finally, my teacher, Colum McCann, told me that it wasn’t a short story, it was the beginning of a novel. I felt like I needed permission to write a novel.
I know it wasn’t deliberate that I was going to write three books within one book. But my love of those books just came out. Then I spent about four years on the middle section, which explores the adult life of Josiah. That was the hardest part, to make that leap from his childhood to his adulthood. Dramatically speaking, I kept doubling back, and then I just stopped fighting it.
I was writing about the apocalypse. For that reason, I didn’t want to use the apocalyptic form, the straightforward linear of sense of time, the idea that all things must end. So instead, I started messing with how I could order the story so that the ending might happen at any moment, in such a way that the reader is hopefully immersed in Josiah’s consciousness.
For me, that’s the most important part—that the reader should feel what it’s like to wrestle with doubt and faith and existence. And with time. That’s what Josiah is trying to do, to divorce himself from the apocalyptic perspective. I kept immersing the reader inside of Josiah’s story without telling the reader how he got there at any particular point.
I finished writing that section, and I thought the book would be done. But it wasn’t. I didn’t know what to do, so I started reading other books again, which is what I do when I’m lost. I found myself drawn to early American religious histories. I read for a long time, and then I wrote that last section in a month. It was a fevered flash of writing for about three weeks or so. And I kept trying to figure out where it should go. Then I realized that it should go back in time. That was the end, which denies certain notions of linear time.
Guernica: Josiah’s rejection of apocalypse also seems to come with a denial of his own mortality.
Scott Cheshire: Absolutely. That’s me. I don’t want to die.
I found that, to grow up with that explicit apocalyptic worldview, you deny tomorrow, or at least deny tomorrow’s importance. Because if the apocalypse is coming, what’s the point? If that’s the case, why learn any practical, day-to-day things?
When I met my wife, she was like, “You’re a 30-year-old twelve-year-old. Why don’t you have a bank account, why don’t you start saving money, why haven’t you gone to college?”
There’s a problem with telling yourself that everything is leading up to something big and then telling yourself that it doesn’t mean anything. Because when you first make that leap, that’s really scary. And I’m sure it’s scary for anybody to consider their mortality. But when you come from a community that insists on your specialness and uniqueness and your particular role in the end of the world, it’s like a rug is being pulled out from under you. You have to make your own meaning. And that’s scary. For me, it’s what the whole book is about.
In the book, I wanted to present Josie as ill-prepared. Where he is in life—his financial success—is an element of luck. That’s the inverse of what the faithful would call grace, that you have faith and you’re rewarded. But Josie doesn’t have faith, and he’s been rewarded anyway. That’s called luck.
I think that is maybe the greatest attraction of the evangelical apocalyptic model—you’re a character in the story and you know how it ends.
Guernica: Something else that comes up a lot in the book is Star Wars. You weren’t reading non-evangelical literature when you were growing up, but were you watching that movie.
Scott Cheshire: I love that you ask about that; no one’s ever brought it up. I know why I loved it as a kid, but as an adult I’ve thought a lot about why my parents allowed it.
I don’t want it to sound like I lived in a Third Reich household where everything was regulated. Certain novels were all right. But I think the more unreal they were, the more welcome they were. I read Ray Bradbury as a kid. I remember my father looking through my Ray Bradbury collection, and he seemed fine with it because it was unreal. I think it was the same with Star Wars.
Guernica: That movie in particular is heavily influenced by the writings of Joseph Campbell, who reverse-engineered a lot of religious writings to find secular lessons at their core.
Scott Cheshire: That’s interesting because when I discovered The Hero With a Thousand Faces, it blew off the top of my head. That was the beginning of me realizing that the stories I had been told my whole life that I was trying to divorce myself from—the traditional Christian narratives—were not only perennial favorites but were stories in which I was in some way playing a part. I think that is maybe the greatest attraction of the evangelical apocalyptic model—you’re a character in the story and you know how it ends.
Guernica: Looking back on your writing process, what was your favorite part to write?
Scott Cheshire: My immediate inclination is to say the last section. It’s the last thing I wrote, and it happened the fastest, and I feel like I learned something new while writing it. I almost feel as if it came through me. It was strange. But really, I must say the middle sections where Josie is an adult, when the writing and reading might be less climactic than the opening and closing sections; those pages represent, for me, the heart of the book. They are alive to me in the best sense. They fight against the rest of the book and are filled with the minutia of everyday living, the possibilities of meaning that surround us, the pitfalls and the traps.
Guernica: Can you take me through the history of your relationship to Jehovah’s Witnesses and to books?
Scott Cheshire: I was born into a Witness house. It’s understandable that when a lot of people hear that I was a child preacher, they find it exotic or weird. But of course in the community it’s not. Even the name, Jehovah’s Witness—witnessing, preaching, is the defining character. For boys especially, they want you to get up on the stage. My brothers did it, and my sister did it. Women do it in a different form, but they do it.
The book, too, is a lot about how there’s no singular moment when faith is lost. I’m not sure that faith is ever lost.
It turned out I was good at it, which I think was an earlier iteration of the reader/writer. It required research. You had to read the Bible and the supporting literatures and develop an argument—of course it was an argument you were given to develop. There was something writerly about that, and I became really good at it, and I enjoyed it.
I should say that there was no moment when I stopped and said: “This isn’t me.” The book, too, is a lot about how there’s no singular moment when faith is lost. I’m not sure that faith is ever lost.
But there were moments that contributed to a cracking of the shell. And they all had to do with literature. I loved Bradbury, but there was nothing in Bradbury that challenged my worldview. Then I started reading Vonnegut—Cat’s Cradle. That’s a book that could be burned by every church in this country. That’s a very scary book for a believer.
Guernica: Or for a nonbeliever.
Scott Cheshire: Yes. As a teenager, I didn’t have the equipment to understand that book. It’s like I was wearing a suit of armor, but the suit got dented or cracked. It was like getting shot. Something about Bokononism, the fictional religion in the book, seemed very familiar to me. Ezekiel was very real to me, so was Daniel; the prophets of old were very real to me, because I’d been reading about them my whole life. There was something about Cat’s Cradle that thrilled me and scared me. And I loved being scared.
Guernica: So you were still a believer at that point.
Scott Cheshire: Yes. Although even the word “believer” is not quite right. I was in it.
Belief is a very strange thing; I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it. I’m not quite sure what it means. It’s like you’re given a car, and you’re driving that car, and you only realize as the car breaks down that this isn’t the only car around. You can get another car.
You know what was the real downfall? In the back of the Bible that the Witnesses use, the New World Translation, they have indexes, maps, lists, ancient Greek terms, explication, interpretive tools. During church, I would pore over that stuff more than anything else, just because it was strange and it was weird and it seemed to promise something else. I would think, “They think they got it, but I think I’m on to something that’s beyond what they understand.” I probably thought it was some spiritual revelation, but actually it turned out to be a very down-to-earth human revelation, which is that the novels that I was reading delivered more to me than the Bible with its indexes.
I was eighteen or nineteen years old, and I just started reading novels like crazy. I read a lot of supermarket page-turners—crappy, fun books that I could read really fast. Lots of Dean Koontz. I would read them in a day. I did that for about a year.
The biggest turning point was discovering The Names by Don DeLillo. That book scared me liked nothing else. It cracked open something in me. It’s a book about religion in a lot of ways, but it’s about language, too. That made me realize that my hunger was for that sort of deeper book, rather than a book that would just entertain me.
I started finding myself very attracted to books that are structurally interesting. That comes from growing up reading the Bible—which some would say is not even a book, it’s a library. All of DeLillo’s books have strange structures that are sort of like set pieces that are made to vibrate, almost like separate books. I found myself more and more attracted to books that had that element of irreducibility, and I’m still drawn to those kinds of books.
Guernica: You went to college later in life, which I’m assuming means you had a different approach to literature and to writing than a younger student would. What feedback did you receive from your writing teachers or your fellow writing-workshop students? What were their reactions to the initial versions of your novel?
Scott Cheshire: Well, when I went to school it was rather late in life, but it was also after spending a decade voraciously reading on my own. Which is how most people read, I should add. And that certainly affected my relationship to reading and writing. It made the acts themselves almost religiously important to me. They still are, and it’s a dynamic I’m still trying to figure out.
Certainly the most helpful thing about school, and the response I got from fellow writers and my teachers, was the problem of dramatizing the loss of faith. From the beginning, I wanted to write a novel with a hole in it—at least that’s how I referred to it. It was the only way I could articulate the problem, because faith does not fall away in a day—and sometimes reluctantly or not entirely at all.
But this also made for specific dramatic problems. They encouraged me to stick to my central idea but not be so lazy as to use it as a crutch, not to ignore the question entirely. It was also good to hear that writing about faith from a perspective of deep disappointment was of interest to people.
It’s been well over twenty years since I left the church, and I’m still disentangling myself. I still find myself having to erase parts I thought were not there.
Guernica: Why did you make that decision not to dramatize the break from the faith?
Scott Cheshire: I fought not to dramatize it. Every editor whom I met wanted me to dramatize it except for [my editor] Sarah Bowlin. Every agent whom I met wanted me to dramatize it except for [my agent] Carrie Howland. For those other editors and agents, losing the faith was the drama.
But for me, I kept thinking, “What is so dramatic about an eighteen-year-old who decides to stop going to church?” Dramatizing that break supports the lie that there’s a moment in your life when you’re finished, and that’s not the case. What is dramatic is the fallout. Where is Josie now, and how do certain key moments in his youth contrast with where he is now?
I’m forty-one. It’s been well over twenty years since I left the church, and I’m still disentangling myself. I still find myself having to erase parts I thought were not there.
Guernica: How has the book been received—both by believers and nonbelievers?
Scott Cheshire: I certainly did not set out to write a book that is pro-faith or anti-faith. And in the latter years of working on the book, I found that to be of greater and greater importance to me and my vision of the book. I did not want to write a sermon for either side. I wanted to to explore the experience of faith and longing, at times to make the reader a believer, if that makes any sense.
What I’ve found is that both believers and nonbelievers are drawn to the book. I’d like to think their reasons have chiefly to do with the storytelling. Although, I’ll admit I did not expect so strong and so positive a response from the religious community. I’ve received more than a few notes about how the book actually sent people back to church. Which I must say is about as powerful a thing to hear as I can imagine. I also hope it sends them back to buying and reading more novels.
Guernica: What was your family’s reaction to your book?
Scott Cheshire: This was one of my biggest concerns while writing, and as it turns out one of the biggest concerns of my readers, which I find quite sweet on their part. My family’s response has sort of been wonderful. They are excited for me. They’re proud. I think they are happy to see that the book—and also me as the author, of course—is wrestling with the very same questions they wrestle with in their worship. I think they are glad to see that, while I do not share their perspective on faith, the book and I take life seriously—its provenance, direction, and meaning.
My mom also wanted to know if I was as sad as Josie is in the book, which I thought was lovely [laughs].
Guernica: This book is about a small group that believes it is facing apocalypse. You are a member of a small group that may in fact be facing apocalypse—writers of literary fiction.
Scott Cheshire: [laughs] You went right for it. But it also feels like people have been saying that for the last fifty years.
Guernica: And they’ve been saying that the world is ending for a lot longer than that.
Scott Cheshire: I think both ideas are attractive. The physical apocalypse is attractive because it’s controlled; there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the idea of the book going away—I don’t believe it. But I do probably subconsciously engage in the idea that people like you and me are taking part in this very special thing that not everybody appreciates or understands. It’s a little insulating, and it’s probably not good to think that, but I probably do think that, and the logical end is that the community will keep getting smaller and smaller until, bloop, it’s gone.
Guernica: Did the disappearance of literature play in your mind while you were writing this book?
Scott Cheshire: No. There’s a line I’ve heard quite a few times in my reading life, that books don’t do anything, that they don’t have any inherent power and can’t change anything. I think that that is such a dangerous lie.
In the extremity of my youth, books had all the power. Reading the literature of the evangelical community—and only that literature—reinforces itself, and that’s very dangerous. I was able to break that cycle, but a lot of people don’t.
That means that there’s something about literature that can be dangerous. Which I have to believe means it can also be, if I dare use the word, redemptive. Helpful. Good for the soul. And if that’s the case, then I can’t imagine that literature will end. Because if it did, then humanity is fucked. And I can’t believe that. I’m not cynical.
Guernica: It sounds like one constant throughout your life has been a need to relate to the world through stories.
Scott Cheshire: That’s very true. Like you, I read a lot. It’s always been that way. I feel safer in a book.
I used to really enjoy that feeling of being immersed in a world and knowing I’m in good hands. I don’t have to worry about all the things that happen in the outside world. As I’ve gotten older, it’s become the opposite: a good book makes me feel safe from banality. What I find in a book is a chance to think deeply about something. Not to mention that there’s so much I want to read and so little time. I feel like I’m reading with a gun to my head.
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