So begins this wonderful, warm, funny, poignant, sad, hopeful memoir by Aaron Hartzler in which he shares how he was raised to believe that Jesus was going to come back any minute so one dare not do anything too worldly for fear of being left behind.
When I contacted Aaron Hartzler, he graciously agreed to do an email interview. The answers are a bit long and he gave me permission to cut them down, but as I was moved to the point of tears by several of the answers I didn't want to diminish your opportunity to experience his answers as I did.
1. When did you decide to write this memoir and were you afraid that it would hurt your family to read it?
My career as a writer grew out of my career as an actor. Portions of the writing in Rapture Practice began as one-man shows I did in Los Angeles and New York about the experience of growing up Born Again and coming out to my family in college. In 2006, a friend working in television development suggested I write a memoir. I’d always been a big fan of memoir, especially humorists who wrote personal essays like Erma Bombeck and David Sedaris. At my friend’s suggestion, I decided to put together all the autobiographical writing I’d been performing on stage and expand it into a book.As to fear of hurting my family, as I was working on Rapture Practice I did a great deal of soul searching. I said from the very beginning that I wanted this book to be a parade, not a baseball bat. Still, it’s always scary to be the truth-teller in a family unit. Eyewitness accounts are, as a rule, subjective, and I have four younger siblings, each of whom had their own experience of our upbringing.At a writer’s conference I attended in 2007, I heard Katherine Patterson speak about writing Bridge to Terabithia. She talked about the very personal, very real events upon which that book was based. She made the comment that as writers, our greatest fear is not to tell our truth; that our greatest fear as writers is that we will tell our truth, and be despised for it. I started crying in the balcony of the hall where she was speaking because I realized this was my fear—and that at some point, I was going to have to be courageous and write through that fear.
2. Your book is extremely well written and readable. Talk about the writing and publishing process.
It is very kind of you to say that the book is well written, and yet, to me, it is simply the book that I was capable of writing at the time. I sat down and worked very hard, and took feedback, and made edits, and this is what came out. I don’t know if that means it’s good or not, really. It’s only what is.I’ve found that my job as a writer is not to judge my work. That is the job of the reader. My job is only to write. It’s an exercise in releasing expectation. At the end of the day, writing is a solitary process: you, alone with the page. I have learned that expectations are baby resentments waiting to grow up and wreak havoc, and resentment is the enemy of creativity. If I want to live free of resentment, it is imperative that I release my expectations and not allow my self-doubt to play the comparison game.As to the business of publishing, I have learned that Anne Lamott was correct in her book Bird by Bird: publishing will change your life, but not in the ways that you expect that it will. Publishing—any book, really, but especially a memoir—is a very tricky thing because in doing so, you put your heart in the marketplace. This is why it is so important to write the thing you know you must write. That may not match the trend, or the current wisdom. There is a not a giant shelf of other young adult memoirs at your local bookstore. My book is shelved in the “Teen Nonfiction” section next to a lot of books with celebrities on their covers. I only knew that I had to tell this story—my story—and doing so opened the door to publication for me.
3. I was raised in Christian home. My father is a minister. I was always teased for being a PK (preacher's kid.) You know about those PKs (wink-wink), they are trouble-makers.
To what degree do you think that your drinking and acting out was in relationship to the strictness of the rules at home and the fact that you had to show your friends that you were your own person not a clone of your father?
I don’t believe that breaking the rules my parents set down for me was about showing my friends I was different than my Dad. I think I wanted to experience things I had not experienced before for myself. I grew up in an environment where I felt that all my decisions were being made for me. In that sense, while the world of my story my be unique, my teenaged experiences were fairly universal.In Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, a young Cinderalla sings the lyric “Although how can you know/Who you are till you know/What you want, which you don't?” That perfectly describes being a teenager to me. I wanted to have my first kiss, see movies with my friends, listen to the music I liked, try a beer, find out who I was by learning what I wanted—what I liked and didn’t like.The trick about doing that in my family was that my eternal soul hung in the balance. I’ve heard from lots of young readers who have identified with my teen experiences regardless of their religion, race, creed, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status. The reason always comes down to the idea that as teenagers, we may have adult opinions and increasingly mature bodies, and yet we lack power over some very basic decisions.
4. Though I really like the ending, it seems like there is more story to tell. Will there be another book picking up where this one left off?
I certainly plan to write it. I’m not sure it’s a young adult book. Adults who read the book are all disappointed there’s not a big coming out scene at the end. Interestingly I haven’t heard that from a single teenager, and to me, that means I did my job of writing a book specifically for teenagers about being a teenager. The first librarian who read the book wrote me and said, “I just wish there’d been more actual gay content in the book.” To which I replied, “ME TOO.” The tricky thing about memoir is that you can’t just shoehorn in scenes that didn’t really happen chronologically until later. I didn’t come out to my parents until I was in college, and I felt that was a very different story—a book of its own. Since this story dealt specifically with my teen years, I wanted to relate that as authentically as possible. For me, being a teenager was far more about asking questions than about finding answers.
5. My father-in-law always says "There'd be more Christians if it weren't for the Christians." You certainly experienced both the loving (good) and the judgmental (bad) sides of the faith. Talk a little about your current faith journey.
I’ve actually written about this in a couple of other interviews at The Pirate Tree and Salon, and I encourage your readers to check out those pieces, too. I will sum up by saying that I am no longer religious. I was raised with all of the pat answers to the world’s unanswerable questions: Why are we here? What happens when we die? The questions that began in my childhood and teen years led me on a quest for knowledge and science, and I can only say that the older I’ve gotten, the less I know for certain, and the happier I am.Most of the teens that I’ve heard from—especially the LGBTQ ones—are struggling with the idea that their faith is set up as an all or nothing proposition—and that was my experience as well. It opened up a real chasm in me as a teenager and I struggled with it for years. Eventually, I was unable to reconcile that discrepancy, and I left religion altogether.
6. I was shocked to read that your parents thought the To Kill a Mockingbird (my favorite book) wasn't a good book. Were there other "classics" you weren't allowed to read? What are some of your favorite books today? Who are some of your favorite authors?
My parents were big on reading. We didn’t have a TV at home most of the time when I was a kid, and books were everywhere. Reading was what we did—individually, and as a family. When I was very young, the great majority of the books we had available at home were Bible-themed, or from religious presses. As I got a little older, my mom took us to the public library a lot during the summer, and when my second grade teacher at the Christian school I attended started reading us Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, it was an epiphany. This was unlike any book I’d read before. The next time we went to the library I found the “Blume” shelf, and checked it out. After I finished it in one sitting I went back and checked out every Judy Blume book at the library. My mom took notice of this pile of books and after looking them over and not being happy with what she found, my parents called the school and the teacher suddenly stopped reading us Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing in class. It was my first experience with censorship. My parents objected to what they perceived as the disrespect of the characters towards their parents, and the secular nature of the families portrayed among other issues.I was very disappointed, but we kept going to the library, and while my mom was over in the picture books with my younger siblings, I would sit in the floor under the “Cleary” shelf, ostensibly reading about Beezus, while actually reading every book by Judy Blume on the shelf just above.This is why I am so indebted to librarians. I understood, even at eight years old, that the men and women standing behind that desk, who had allowed me to check out Judy Blume books without a second thought, were fundamentally different from my parents. These were the Adult Guardians of the Books, and collectively they said to me, You may read any book you like, and decide for yourself.So, to librarians everywhere, I owe a debt of gratitude for my life as a reader and a writer. I felt your presence and knew I didn’t have to hide my Judy Blume books from you. I heard your silent message that I could decide what to read for myself. Because of your fearless voices, I grew up, and found my own.As to favorite authors, I could never pick just one. Today, I am still a voracious reader. I read as much and as often as I can. Here is a too short list of authors across several genres that I read most often, or have recently found and love (in alphabetical order):Peter CameronJonathan FranzenHolly Goldberg SloanLauren GroffBarbara KingsolverDavid LevithanTom & Laura McNeilCarrie MesrobianTom PerottaDavid RakoffDavid SedarisMaria SempleJulia SweeneyDonna TarttJonathan TropperJames ThurberRyan Van MeterJess WaltersCorey Whaley
7. As a school employee I like to think that I am available if a student needs to talk about issues and concerns, but kids may not view me that way. It didn't seem that you had anyone you could talk to about your concerns as you were growing up, except maybe your grandma. For teens who are being raised in such restrictive environments, do you have any suggestions where they can go for help if they feel they need it?
Yes! The INTERNET. I graduated from high school the year before Al Gore invented the World Wide Web, and for LGBTQ teens especially, the web has been a game-changer. Here are some of the best resources I can suggest:
-The Trevor Project: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/
-The Trevor Lifeline: 1-866-488-7386
Trained counselors are here to support you 24/7. If you are a young person who is in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call The Trevor Lifeline now at 866-488-7386. It's free and confidential.
-Trevor Space: http://www.trevorspace.org/
TrevorSpace is a social networking site for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth ages 13 through 24 and their friends and allies.
-GLSEN (Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network): http://www.glsen.org
If you’d like to organize a Gay-Straight Alliance at your high school, GLSEN can help you get started. Go to GLSEN.org and click on “What We Do > Gay-Straight Alliances.
-Secular Student Alliance: http://www.secularstudents.org/hsaffiliatesThe mission of the Secular Student Alliance is to organize, unite, educate, and serve students and student communities that promote the ideals of scientific and critical inquiry, democracy, secularism, and human-based ethics. We envision a future in which non-theistic students are respected voices in public discourse and vital partners in the secular movement's charge against irrationality and dogma.
|Aaron with his dogs Charlie (black) and Brahms (golden). Used with permission.|
Readers: Everyone should visit the other interviews with Hartzler at The Pirate Tree and Salon. I especially liked the Salon article where he talks about how he feels today when his mother tells him that she is praying for him. Both articles add depth to this interview. In addition, I want to encourage all teens to read Hartzler's book, Rapture Practice: gay, straight, Christian, non-Christian, preppy, nerds, all. The book, in its distilled state, is about growing up and becoming your own person. That is a message we all need to hear.
Rapture Practice is the only memoir on the BSD 2014 Mock Printz list.
Disclosure: All interview questions and answers were generated by me and Aaron Hartzler between the dates of October 12-16, 2013. Similarities to questions and answers from other interviews published in other sources was unintentional and coincidental.