How much of that was real?
Here's the short answer
Business!!! More recs for everyone to buy my novel that’d already been recommended by dozens of excellent creators:
Kirkus Reviews, the librarian-trusted reviewer awarding its uncommon “GET IT” accolade: "Layered with humor. Meticulously examines Christianity. Blends sublimely. Hilariously blunt. Endearing."
Independent Book Review, which revealed top-tier “STARRED” status: “Joyous and sobering. Intensity balanced by humor. Brilliant, taboo-shirking. Searing emotional honesty. Wonderful novel.”
Funny Christian podcast Fun Sexy Bible Time spent 15 minutes recommending it (plus encouraging other podcasts to talk about it, hint hint.)
Will be at Madison, Wisconsin’s Northstreet Taproom on Leap Day with Matt Brown and Mason Mennenga to sign books and talk stuff. Details here!
Joined Hand in the Dirt to discuss donating this whole round of proceeds to the Trevor Project ($39K already) and how to smoke ice cream.
Podcasted with Lutheran pastor Zach Parris about the book’s Fullcast ethos.
And went on Big Screen Sports to break down the Evangelical-movie-industrial complex.
From an interview with my pal Spencer Hall at Channel 6, the internet’s only literary review:
“Some parts of this book sound like SERE training the Green Berets go through. I know it sounds like you made some of this up, but it doesn’t feel to me like you had to make up many of these experiences, if any at all. Am I right?”
And from an interview with my pal Action Cookbook, the esteemed culture connoisseur:
“In looking at early reactions [to the book] on social media, I've seen it cleave quite neatly between ‘Oh god, you've captured my life,’ and ‘Oh god, I had no idea.’
“If you're in that latter group—like me—there's some elements of the story that might seem completely outlandish, while the former group is probably nodding along somberly. I'm thinking specifically of a scene where a youth group is terrorized by masked gunmen who bursts in and tells them to renounce their faith or be killed, only to later be revealed as dads and uncles from a neighboring church brought in to test the children's faith.
“Now, if you're from a non-evangelical background like I am, you might think this is just a wild plot contrivance, something that would never happen. But I understand this is something that actually does happen–and something that I think you experienced first hand?”
They both knew the general answer already, but obviously most people don’t. So, to expand on the answers I gave my pals (and yes, the following is still only a slightly less-short answer):
The book’s origin moment is the same as the origin story of its antagonist character: that time men burst into Wednesday youth group while waving guns in order to make some point about whatever.
Over the past decade, talking about that incident has revealed a lot of people from surprising places have experienced similar things.
In isolation, that Wednesday didn’t traumatize me, but it does fascinate me. Talking about it is what began revealing how many elements of my upbringing I’d buried. Why was a middle schooler so accustomed to shit like that? Why’d nobody get in trouble? And what’s all this say about so much Western Christian pain-freak theology?
It was just one of many weird moments from my adolescence. And in the book, it’s just a few pages all total, though it reverberates and echoes. (If you’ve read it, you’re wondering about whether a specific reverberation is based on something real. Spoiler footnote time1.)
Still, the guns stuff is the element most likely to make readers suspect I’m whole-cloth inventing things. Well, since I’m not the only one who’s witnessed a version of it IRL, what’s that suggest about the other things?
Answer the freaking question. How much of that was real?
I’d love to go paragraph-by-paragraph, but in general:
The insane things said about human bodies by my youth pastor characters and other religious authorities, clogging the brains of young men with ever-oppressive shame and resentment, all of which is just a faint version of what young women experience, as several of my female characters explain? Much of that dialogue is virtually transcribed from things millions of young people have heard.
The cruel things said from my fictional pulpit about damnation and right-wing politics? At times, one of my pastor characters nearly quotes real Neo-Calvinist superstars. Another says even crazier things while quoting Thomas Aquinas, the monumental Catholic theologian.
The amount of time and brainpower my characters are expected to devote to a very specific religious mission? Widely documented.
The fear tactics I depict? The hell houses meant to convince everyone the world is literally haunted? The maximum-pressure group confession exercises with horror theatrics? The ingrained obsessions with demons, the end times, self-hatred, and martyrdom? There are documentaries and academic studies about this stuff.
The vast, sprawling, lucrative Evangelical pop culture with its own alternate-reality movies, books, music in literally every genre, and every other kind of merch? Among the dozens of musicians named in my novel, the only one that doesn’t exist is Paisley Grace’s emocore group. (Her snub at a local battle of the bands, though, is real. I’m still mad we lost to those dorks.)
The setting? The early 2000s, campgrounds, post-9/11 America, Pizza Hut, residential basements full of video games, the beach, Family Christian Stores, vaguely non-denominational churches2, AOL Instant Messenger, public schools, road trips, the post-Augustinian West, and the mall’s Orange Julius are real. Anytown, Pennsylvania is basically real. (Nope, it’s not set in the South. Why? Spencer answered that six years ago: Everywhere is the South.)
As far as the setting goes, my creative decisions were about choosing which details to include for thematic reasons, what to research about them, and how to describe them, not about what to concoct. And what a buffet of ludicrous options that was! Ultimately, each of those little references is in there for very thought-about reasons, regardless of whether those thoughts were good thoughts or not.
The things I invented: characters.
Life gave me this world, and then I made up people who could react to it in hopefully revealing, relatable, and funny ways.
But even though things said by Kori or Caleb or Bobbi or Mom feel like things said by distinct people, they also constantly remind me of things I’ve said/done/thought/heard. Right now, Alexa’s the one I most relate to, but that changes weekly. So if you want some noodle-brained woo-woo author crap, all of these characters are just me arguing with myself, meaning … I actually invented nothing. Easy gig, huh?
Semi-vague spoiler zone: No, I’ve never witnessed anyone doing the exact thing Eli does in chapter 35. (The two guns that have been half-assedly brandished at me personally were not attached to theology debates.) But it’s a logical extension of everything that’d molded him (if you reread, notice Eli, Jack, Josiah, and Isaac telling us where the story’s going), and as of 2024, millions of historical Christians have inflicted physical violence in defense of their beliefs. Me having one guy move one muscle is just one more nail in the bucket. (Also note: Dozens of chapters earlier, Eli’s explaining basic firearm safety rules. That’s how I remember it IRL. Those men knew exactly which semi-sacred regulations they were breaking, and they were willing to do that in order to, they believed, keep children out of Hell. What’s that say about belief?)
The only scenes that went beyond what I knew to be real: Isaac’s descriptions of the rival megachurch in chapter 20. I imagined him exaggerating that place, turning it into an over-the-top parody of ridiculous churches — and then the IRL Texas church with flying drummers started going viral every few months. So yeah, the one time in the entire writing process when I tried to make something up, Evangelical reality had the last laugh.