Spiritualism, Carl Sagan, Fact and Fiction…

I’ve enjoyed reading a lot of fiction lately. I’ve read primarily fiction twice in my life: when I was in school, and when I first stopped going to church. For the past 15 years or so, I’ve been reading nonfiction almost exclusively. Lately I’ve noticed that my reading started slowing down a lot because I wasn’t finding books that were engaging my imagination. I love to read but I’m not finding that I’m interested in much nonfiction right now. Why? I don’t ask these questions of myself. I indulge my reading whimsy uncritically. So now I’m heading back to the fiction shelves.

The interesting thing, is that fiction influences my thinking and ideas at least as much as nonfiction does, perhaps even more so. In a way, fiction is more true than nonfiction. It gives you a glimpse into the mind an hearts of characters that is rarely seen in nonfiction, except in exemplary memoirs, and it enables you to put yourself in the shoes — and hearts and minds — of characters who may be very different than yourself. God knows :-) if there’s one thing this world needs, it’s more empathy.

In his novel The Tea House, Paul Elwork gives us a glimpse into the minds of two children who perpetrate a hoax and unwittingly convince people that they can communicate with the dead. They find themselves deeply embroiled in situations that are much more complex or serious than they can handle. The writing is clear and engaging, and I found myself completely absorbed in the story. I love when I am reading a novel and suddenly I am in another world, as if I’ve been dropped into the middle of a movie. And that’s exactly how I felt reading The Tea House. (Elwork has a great post about this on his blog.)

Instead of sending Paul Elwork a list of interview questions, I asked him to write a guest post about what inspired him to write this book and what he hopes people will get out of it, and how a novel can influence skepticism and critical thinking. His response is below the fold.

Paul Elwork on The Tea House

The folks at Skepchick have asked me to write a guest blog about my novel The Tea House, which they have been kind enough to feature as a reading selection. The novel is about a twin brother and sister who pretend to contact the dead during the summer of 1925 and was inspired by the story of the Fox sisters, a familiar one I’m sure to you fans of James Randi and other hoax debunkers. 

I discovered the Fox sisters (the founders of the Spiritualist movement during the mid-19th century) in Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain, many years ago. (This was also my introduction to Sagan’s brand of skepticism as a portal to humanism, but more on that later.) In it, Sagan gave me the important keys to the story: the sisters falling on an ability to make cracking noises with their toe and ankle joints and claiming they were the sounds of the dead knocking on the walls and air around them; the spread of the belief in this hoax from their household to their neighborhood and, before very long, to a national and international audience; and the confession of an alcoholic and destitute Margaret Fox, made 40 years after it all started, at a packed theater in New York.  The true believers in the audience rejected the confession as coerced and desperate, something forced from Margaret by “a Rationalist inquisition.” This last part was the real hook for me, because it says so much about the nature of belief, how we as believers are complicit, consciously and subconsciously. It’s not just a matter of smart or dumb. The question is a much more complex emotional and psychological one. This realization I also gained from Sagan, and it’s one of the reasons he remains a hero of mine.

So I took the germ of the Fox sisters’ story, moved it from the 19th century to 1925 (playing with historical reality in doing so, I knew), recast the characters, and shrank the setting down to a riverfront estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia. I also shrank the time frame down to begin in June and reach a climax in December of the same year. I got some heat from a former editor of Weird Tales about this playing with history at my very first public reading. It was a little like encountering the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons: Worst use of artistic license ever! (There’s an author’s note in the beginning of my book to explain why I did it, so there.)

Years after reading Broca’s Brain, I read another book by Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World. This book reminded me of my introduction to the Fox sisters and stoked my fascination for skeptical inquiry. It also again acquainted me with Sagan’s gentle skepticism, which resists a sneering, dismissive approach better left to fundamentalists of all kinds. One of Sagan’s core philosophies is close to my heart: “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers.” A few months after reading Demon-Haunted World, I started writing The Tea House. I knew from the beginning that it wasn’t going to be a farce about gullible fools; I set out to write a novel about human beings (made-up humans, granted) wrestling with belief, grief, and their own mortality. I hope I succeeded.

For more information on The Tea House, links to reviews, a sample of the novel, and other content, please go to And if you’d like, drop me a note at [email protected].


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. “…which resists a sneering, dismissive approach better left to fundamentalists of all kinds.”

    That right there pretty much guarantees I’m going to go read your book, Mr. Elwork. Having come out of the fundamentalist Christian framework, I have been reluctant to submit myself to the equally rabid skeptical equivalent. If I want to be bashed over the head with someone’s belief or unbelief, I can do that for free at church. Writing that takes a more gentle approach sounds right up my alley.

    Thanks for taking the time to stop by!

  2. This sounds interesting but I don’t know if I will read the book or not. At least not for awhile.

    Could I get some recomendations for books on humanism? I am interested in it but am not sure where to start reading about it.

  3. I am intrigued by this book, but when when I look it up on Amazon the list of “Customers Who Bought Items Like This Also Bought…” contains a bunch what looks like gay romance novels. Shirtless men on the covers and titles like “The Wicked Gentleman” and “My Fair Captain”. Is there a prominent aspect of this novel that you failed to mention or is this an Amazon malfunction? Tell me that this book is nothing like a romance novel, and I’ll be okay.

  4. @davew: I can field this one, Dave. My publisher, Casperian Books, has a few titles in their catalog with gay romance as a major element. Even though my novel isn’t romance, gay or otherwise, the readers of these titles were apparently kind enough to purchase a copy of The Tea House while shopping at Amazon.

  5. Something to remember about Amazon’s recommendation system is that it is an algorithm based on the buying habits of its customers, meaning that if a sufficient number of customers who bought Elwork’s book also tend to buy a lot of romance novels, then the novels they buy the most of are going to find their way into the recommendation. It could also be that it is a relatively new title with a very particular title that initially appeals to the romance novel buying crowd but should normalize with time as more people realize that that is not the type of novel it is.

    As to whether I get this novel, probably not anytime soon, I have a full plate of reading material both fiction and non-fiction (as well as mythic) that I would like to get through, as well as a massive backlog of comics that I intend to get caught up on.

  6. I read Broca’s Brain so long ago that I wouldn’t have remembered the story without being reminded. I read very little fiction, but this–inspired by Sagan, for Pete’s sake–is just the kind I like to read. It sounds like a serious examination of human behavior, and fiction is a great setting for that. This sounds like a good book. I’ll take that recommendation, and give you another…

    I recently read “The Invention of Everything Else,” by Samantha Hunt. It is fiction, but within it is contained quite a lot of legitimate history of Nikola Tesla, one of the world’s greatest inventors. [You use his inventions every day of your life. I’ve you’ve never heard of the man, then this book could be a gentle introduction for you.]

    Much of the story is told with great compassion through fictional characters who came to know, observe, and care for him in the pitiful last month of his life, but several chapters are flashbacks in the first person of Tesla himself, much of it taken from his writings or other biographies. Some of the fictional characters are a little goofy, but somehow they fit with the psychoses that haunted Tesla, especially late in his life.

  7. Cool — I do know who Tesla is, and I’ll have to read that. I am almost always reading four books at once (three fiction, one non-fiction), and I’ll add this to the queue. I know that’s a little weird, but long trial and error has proved it to be my most effective reading method. Less than four, I get bored; more than four, I get confused; too much fiction and I don’t care what I’m reading; too much non-fiction and I get cross-eyed from TMI.

    It’s sort of like food. I love mashed potatoes, but I wouldn’t want to eat them for every meal for a week. Why on earth would I want to read the same book and nothing else for a week?! :P

  8. Thank you for writing this and for sharing the tale of your creative process and inspiration, Paul.

    This sounds like just the kind of book I enjoy and it will buy a copy soon.

  9. @davew: Thank you very much! Please stop by my site and drop me a note with your thoughts on it, if you like–and this goes for anyone who gets a copy. Without readers to bring it to life, a book is just a lot of bound paper; in other words, I love to hear how people experienced the novel.

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