The Conversation: Monica West and Kelsey McKinney on writing religion and disillusionment
It's not often that two novels are as aligned as Monica West's Revival Season and Kelsey McKinney's God Spare the Girls. Both take place within Southern evangelical communities, with female protagonists who begin to question their upbringing after traumatic moments. In Revival, 15-year-old Miriam suffers a crisis of faith after she witnesses her father, a reverend, commit an act of violence while on the revival circuit. West describes its themes as "disillusionment and faith and family and power."
In Spare, two daughters of a megachurch's evangelical pastor discover a terrible secret about their father, leading them to question their entire upbringing. It explores, as McKinney puts it, "faith and power and who gets to choose what the truth is."
To top it all off, the novels will hit shelves within weeks of each other (May 25 and June 22, respectively). Bringing the authors together for a conversation was, it seems, written in the stars. Here, West and McKinney, who know each other through the power of the internet, discuss their inspirations and the nuances of their subjects.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As you read through each other's books, what resonated with you the most?
MONICA WEST: I thought the experience of reading was like when you look at your own photo — you see someone else's perception of you. Our books are really different in some ways, but the questions that we're trying to ask at the heart of them were almost identical. So much of Kelsey's book resonated with me, particularly the struggle that the girls had around thinking about their father differently. What does it mean when this person who is not only a god in your family, but a god in this church, starts to fall away from you and unravel?
KELSEY MCKINNEY: One thing I loved about your book, Monica, is that it seems like there is this public persona around Miriam's father that she's aware is partially false. So she has a private versus public perception of him, thinking she knows who he really is — but then realizes there is actually a whole other level of private beyond that. I thought that was really well done.
Both of your novels are rooted pretty heavily in evangelical traditions and processes. Can you talk a little bit about how that comes into play, especially for readers who might not be as familiar with it?
MCKINNEY: When we talk about "evangelicalism," what we're really talking about is "not Catholic." [Laughs] There's a liturgy in Catholicism that most people know, and it's ingrained in Catholic culture. Something Monica and I are both doing in our books is saying, this is true in other religions too — it's just less prescribed. There's a very specific way to behave in the church, there are decisions you make that you don't even realize you're making, like the way the offering plate is passed around or the hierarchy around where everyone sits.
WEST: It's all internalized, there are things that people just follow. And it's really uncomfortable if you're an outsider. If you visit a church, even one that hypothetically believes the same things as you but is in a different part of the country or has a different pastor, there will be rules that you don't know.
How did your own personal stories and background with religion play into the building of your novels?
MCKINNEY: Well, the book is completely fiction — there's one scene that's pulled directly from my life, and it's late in the book when the two sisters do a tequila shot. [Laughs] But the questions at the heart of it are true. The major question is, what do you do when what you've known your whole life is now a question mark? I grew up evangelical, I bought into all of it and it was really meaningful to me. I know don't know for sure that I believe those things anymore. The struggles that all of these characters are having about, this church is a place that has hurt me, and also a place that was really comforting to me, are struggles I've had within myself.
WEST: I echo so much of this. My book is complete fiction as well. I grew up in a religious family, but it was very different from the one I wrote. But I have been thinking through this idea of religious institutions that take away power, particularly from the people who feel the most devoted to it. I've been struggling with that as a person who comes from a faith tradition: What does it look like to question the structures that are in place to keep you subservient?
MCKINNEY: I think we both wrote characters who are learning to understand their faith at their own pace. There's a slow deterioration in what you believe. Something that I did intentionally was write a different journey for both of the sisters — I wanted them to end up in a place where they believed different things and yet had consumed the same information.
WEST: I think in Kelsey's book, when you see Caroline take off her purity ring, that initial shift is the most important in her journey. There are other small breadcrumbs that lead to it. In my book, I would have been happy to have a subtle, nuanced percolating of ideas, but no one wants to read that. [Laughs] My editor was like, you need to amp this up.
Both of your novels have secondary and tertiary characters who continue to buy into the the church while the main characters become disillusioned. How did you ensure that you didn't label anyone as "right" or "wrong" in that regard?
WEST: I thought a lot about this as I wrote. The Hortons, the family in my book, are really insulated. The kids are home-schooled. There's a bubble around them. One of the things that was really important to me was the idea of community — even though Miriam has this growth journey, the people who are close to her are still very close. I don't intend for the reader to see her mother, or others who aren't able to see what Miriam sees, as flawed. Instead, Miriam is asking, what is my role in this family and how do I navigate that? And you don't judge the people who navigate that differently.
MCKINNEY: I wrote my book in third person because I wanted to make sure that while the story was tight on Caroline, there were things that the reader could understand that Caroline couldn't. There are things in the book that a reader might think, oh that seems bad — but Caroline doesn't think about it that way.
Did you do any specific research, or is there anyone in the public eye that served as direct inspiration for your characters? Both novels have these men of largesse behaving badly…
MCKINNEY: You can throw a tiny rock and hit an evangelical white pastor who has had an affair. It's not hard to find inspiration. It happens all the time and they're still in pulpits, they still give sermons. So I mostly did my research in watching those sermons to understand how they do what they're doing. So it was pretty easy for me to then project that behavior onto the daughters in the book — it would make perfect sense for a man with this much power and the backing of the entire community to talk to his daughters in this way. He preaches at his daughters, and he emphasizes their purity.
What moments in each others' book made you think about the themes and questions in your own novels differently?
WEST: There was a moment when Caroline and Abigail are discussing the Lot section of the Bible, and it made me realize that I didn't spend much time on Miriam rethinking the Bible. She was more so thinking about her family, but I feel in love with those sections of Kelsey's book.
MCKINNEY: The beauty of reading Monica's book, for me, was that I din't have anything like this growing up. I haven't read another book that felt close to this until I was sent this galley. And I just thought, this is fascinating. Two books about different churches and their prodigal daughters coming out in the same year. But I also found myself wishing I had written a character like Mrs. Cade, whose primary goal was to protect the family and protect their faith — to make sure the souls of these girls were protected. I felt envious that I didn't include a character like that because that is really true in churches.