[Editor’s Note: Educated in engineering and theology, W. L. Patenaude has been writing and speaking on the intersection of faith and reason for almost two decades. With his background as an environmental regulator and Catholic blogger, Patenaude has served as a special lecturer in theology at Providence College and written for national publications, including Catholic World Report. He’s also provided analysis for the Associated Press, National Geographic, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. He spoke to Charles Camosy about his debut novel, A Printer’s Choice.]
Camosy: Your debut novel, A Printer’s Choice, has been successful beyond any expectations you had for it, I imagine? To what do you attribute its success?
Patenaude: It has been well received, yes. As to why? Based on the reviews and direct feedback, readers have been intrigued by the story’s blend of popular genres with faith and philosophy. “Thought-provoking” is a term frequently used in reviews. “Space opera with a soul,” I call it.
Digging deeper, I’d say that serious readers are always open to new worlds and cultures, which is the reason why many of us enjoy reading in the first place. So, no matter if you’re Catholic or not—or a person of any faith, or not—the religious aspects of A Printer’s Choice may hold a certain appeal simply because a faithful expression of Catholicism isn’t a common element of science fiction. Now, not all readers are comfortable with this. But that sort of feedback has been marginal. Both the trade reviews and the great majority of readers have expressed an appreciation of the story’s exploration of the future, yes, but also of humanity—of our failings and suffering, and, importantly, the Church’s understanding of free will and grace.
So, despite being new to the genre, you’ve seen the power of fiction first hand. Do you think the Church could benefit from more intentional use of entertainment/fiction? Maybe as a means of evangelization and catechesis?
Absolutely. And we don’t have to be coy about it. Sometimes, I think, we underestimate the draw of the Catholic intellectual tradition and even of the gospel. But given that the heart of what Catholic writers offer are the very teachings and the life of Jesus Christ, we can be a bit bold when entering popular culture. Again, not everyone will accept what we offer—what Christ offers. But we owe it to everyone else to offer it anyway. That’s a lesson I learned early in writing A Printer’s Choice.
As I had explained elsewhere, one of the secular editors I worked with gave some of his highest praise to the chapter devoted to the murder victim’s funeral. He was especially intrigued by the homily given by the protagonist, Father John McClellan – a former atheist and retired US Marine. As we discussed the funeral, the editor — who told me he had a Catholic parent but didn’t practice the faith — suggested a second homily somewhere else in the story. I pushed back. I told him I didn’t want the book to be “too religious.” But the editor insisted. He said that the book needed more preaching — literally! So, I added a second homily.
This taught me a lesson: when telling stories rooted in Catholic thought — rooted in the gospel — we don’t need to be subtle, as if we have to slip messages under people’s radars. Now, of course, subtlety is an effective strategy. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were masters of telling profoundly Christian stories without any mention of Christianity. And those stories have inspired millions — as they did for me as a young man. But we can also write (and film!) stories that are as overtly Catholic as they are entertaining — stories with heroic priests, cardinals, and religious; stories about sacraments and scripture. By doing so, we can invite the reader to experience the Church in ways that may surprise them.
Come to think of it, this is really the kind of thing that Pope Francis is calling for when he asks for a Church that is open to “encounter” — of going out into the world and meeting people where they are. Well, fiction can help us do just that. For those who may not regularly encounter the Church through her institutions or her members, stories that are alive with a Catholic witness certainly can be a means of evangelization.
And for those of us who only know the life of one’s local church — as it exists within a particular time and place — stories can be a means of catechesis. By that I mean that our individual experiences with a local parish or diocese, even with our national church, can be myopic. I think that especially for many fallen away Catholics, such as I once was, the entirety of Church history can be informed only by one’s local experiences, good or bad. Fiction can help broaden that understanding.
The Church is about as divided as we could imagine it to be. And things are going to get worse before they get better, I think, especially after the report comes out on Cardinal McCarrick. Do you think that what you’re speaking about here can help heal and united a fractured Church?
I believe so, yes. In fact, one reviewer, Dr. Jason King, a professor of theology at Saint Vincent College, wrote that he found Father McClellan to be an antidote for so much of the scandal we’ve been experiencing within the priesthood. In his review for Catholic Moral Theology, Dr. King wrote that McClellan “captures what Christians and priests should be. His actions speak of a love for others grounded in a God who is love itself.” Reviews like these mean a lot to me because that was my goal in writing McClellan — to portray the priesthood in a way that does the priesthood justice; that shows the priesthood as a means through which God uses the imperfect to bring his perfection to others. For me, this is more than just a platitude. I came back to the Church because of the joyful, intellectual, and dedicated witness of two local priests. We need to be reminded of this life-changing reality — not of just the priesthood but of the Church herself. Of her members. Of you and me. And I’d argue that being reminded of who we’re meant to be is a way forward. It’s a means of healing.
As for unity, well, when writing about the Church and her ministers and members, I made small attempts at offering something for everyone, with the hopes that such a synthesis might encourage a nuanced appreciation of the Church, rather than today’s narrative of left and right, liberal and conservative, whether we’re speaking politically or liturgically.
For instance, Father McClellan is a bit of a social justice warrior, with his “preferential option for action,” as instilled in him from his career with the United State Marine Corps. There’s an important subplot about his causing waves in caring for an elderly woman who had been receiving poor treatment in an orbital world’s hospitals, with their robotic nursing assistants that offer nothing resembling human compassion. McClellan also celebrates Mass Ad Orientem and has a partiality for cassocks. He plays basketball and has a strong inner life of prayer and a devotion to the Rosary. In other words, as best as I could in a work of fiction, I modeled McClellan after real priests. My hope is that this more realistic, nuanced vision will help readers move beyond the binary narratives that only divide us — that serve only the agenda of our ancient enemy.
Similarly, it’s important to explore the dangers of separating ourselves from the Church — of creating one’s own church. There’s a backstory that follows the global rise of a drug lord who believes he’s been instructed to prepare the world for the Second Coming — which clearly puts him at odds with Rome and, because of how he goes about it, with world authorities.
I don’t want to give away too much, but while I use the backstory to drive the plot, it also helps explore what can happen when one breaks away from the life and teachings of Christ. It also offered me an opportunity to write a nice theological exchange between McClellan and a follower of this drug lord — and that allowed me to offer a bit of a synthesis of the thoughts of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, without saying that’s what I’m doing. I’ll admit, that was a fun chapter to write!
Two families of issues which cause major disunity in the Church are “life issues” and “ecological issues.” You run a great website which explicitly connects the two families of issues together, but do you think fiction can help as well?
I do. In fact, because of the freedom that comes from creating new worlds, I found it easier in fiction to explore shared principles within sometimes polarizing issues. For instance, one could hold a week-long seminar on this single papal quote: “Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person” — that “[i]t would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other,” which, as you know, are words of Benedict XVI in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate. But honestly, how many people read encyclicals? Even among our brothers and sisters who regularly go to Mass? And how many average Catholics attend seminars? But in A Printer’s Choice, the very point made by Benedict XVI is made as an aside by an unlikely voice as part of a much larger discussion necessary to solve a murder.
So, this gets back to your question on catechesis. Through fiction, a reader can encounter a concept or two that they may not otherwise. And they may see an inner logic between issues that they believed held little in common. I remember once on Twitter you were responding to someone arguing that you couldn’t fully support multiple issues—and I believe the issues were human life and ecological protection. At one point, you countered with a great line, something like, “But we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.” Well, in fiction, anything is possible, including characters that walk while chewing gum. Sometimes concepts are best teased out in an entertaining, non-threatening world that’s similar enough to our own to help us see things differently. Fiction can provide those worlds.
Lastly, I just have to ask: is there a sequel to A Printer’s Choice in the works? If so, what can you tell us about it?
Yes. In fact, I’m working on the sequel now. As for what happens next: A Printer’s Choice ends with Father McClellan making a decision that not everyone agrees with — not the rulers of the new worlds in outer space or, it turns out, many readers in this world, who have been having spirited discussions about the ending’s implications.
In the sequel, we’ll see some of the consequences explored in, well, explosive detail — both in orbit and here on Earth. There will also be some soul-searching about McClellan’s decision within the Church and within the United States Marine Corps — and elsewhere. But the point of the story will be to serve a goal greater than entertainment. The overall lesson of the sequel will be what it is in A Printer’s Choice: that with God’s grace, we broken creatures can rise above our failings and work toward a better, unified future. We’ll just need to do it one choice at a time.
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