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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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 inÂ exemplaryÂ 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 thisÂ on his blog.)
Instead of sending Paul Elwork a list of interview questions, I asked him to write a guest postÂ 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 Iâ€™m sure to you fans of James Randi and other hoax debunkers.Â
I discovered the Fox sisters (the founders of the Spiritualist movement during the mid-19th century) in Carl Saganâ€™s Brocaâ€™s Brain, many years ago. (This was also my introduction to Saganâ€™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.Â The true believers in the audience rejected the confession as coerced and desperate, something forced from Margaret by â€œa Rationalist inquisition.â€ 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. Itâ€™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 itâ€™s one of the reasons he remains a hero of mine.
So I took the germ of the Fox sistersâ€™ 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! (Thereâ€™s an authorâ€™s note in the beginning of my book to explain why I did it, so there.)
Years after reading Brocaâ€™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 Saganâ€™s gentle skepticism, which resists a sneering, dismissive approach better left to fundamentalists of all kinds. One of Saganâ€™s core philosophies is close to my heart: â€œWe make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers.â€ A few months after reading Demon-Haunted World, I started writing The Tea House. I knew from the beginning that it wasnâ€™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.