Sunday, July 12, 2015

Being an Ex-Jehovah's Witness: Jennifer LoveGrove's Novel Watch How We Walk

Canadian writer Jennifer LoveGrove talks about being a former Jehovah's Witness and writing her debut novel, Watch How We Walk

Toronto author Jennifer LoveGrove writes poetry and novels. Her poetry collections include The Dagger Between Her Teeth (ECW Press, 2002) and I Should Have Never Have Fired the Sentinel (ECW Press, 2005). 

Author photo from
First off, a disclaimer: Jennifer LoveGrove and I have some interesting things in common.

LoveGrove published my poetry in May 2004, for which I am grateful. From 1997 to 2007, she published dig, a poetry ‘zine which showcased emerging Canadian poets. Very few of the limited edition copies remain. My poem “Eulogy for Alain Brosseau” appeared in issue ten. 

Notably, we also have had experience as Jehovah’s Witnesses (Although I never converted, I was close.). 

In October 2014, I did an e-interview with LoveGrove about her first novel, Watch How We Walk, which was longlisted for the 2014 Giller Prize. Watch follows Emily, a protagonist raised in a dysfunctional family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the book, LoveGrove plays with various time periods—the heroine’s childhood, early adulthood, and the present. It is a crackling and dazzling debut novel and a villifying portrayal of how a religion can tear a family asunder. You can watch the book trailer here.

My e-interview with Jennifer LoveGrove is below.

JKM: Full disclosure: In grade school, I had a best friend who was a Jehovah’s Witness (JW). We started studying toward the end of grade eight, before we each attended separate high schools. He went to the rough high school comprised mainly of native kids, and I went to the immersion high school.  But because he was a JW, we couldn’t hang out unless we studied. So for the bulk of high school, we did study. But, in grade 12, his parents prompted him to talk to me. The upshot? After all the studying and all I had learned, I wasn’t attending enough meetings (I was also in karate and held down part-time jobs and getting into books and writing.) If I wasn’t going to convert, they said, we had to part ways. So part ways we did.

JKM: I think it is fair to tell you that I am not going to focus much on curiosities of the JW religion in this interview, as I am well aware of them. Instead, I am focussing on your emotional journey or experience with the Jehovah's Witness religion, and your writing process.

JKM: In Watch How We Walk, you adopt a beautiful point of view for the novel. I think it’s great that you have Emily, a young, prepubescent character but also her older sister character who is rebelling whole hog against her family. As for the Watchtower meetings and environs, I was back there, in kingdom halls. And the brutal, oppressive truths of the religion that destroys friendships and families by dis-fellowshipping members was also bang-on. I adored the Uncle Tyler character. In particular, I like how he visits friends for “Bible study”, where he smokes pot and drinks beer with them and leaves them some Awake! flyers as the extent of his witnessing.

JKM: The lack of quotations in dialogue was not my favourite aspect of the book. However, your distinct character voices won me over. Coincidentally, I just read Ray Robertson’s What Happened Later and he also employs dialogue sans quotation marks and, also coincidentally, to great success.  The book's about a young kid being impressed with Jack Kerouac's On The Road and his half-hearted efforts to find a copy, intercut with scenes of Kerouac's alcoholic downturn after publishing On The Road. But, being a believer in the idea that there are no coincidences, I thought I would mention this.

JKM: Now, some with fun questions. Your protagonist, Emily, inherits a Misfits T-shirt from her older sister. I too have a character wearing an old Misfits T-shirt in a story I am trying to place entitled “Sexster.” It’s about lost souls in the suburbs and the choice to relinquish or hold onto dreams. Coincidence? Did you too grow up a 'burb? Please tell me about it.

JLG: I didn’t grow up in a suburb, but a small town not altogether unlike the one in Watch How We Walk. It was a small, isolated, gossipy town that I couldn’t wait to leave. I did have, and still have, that T-shirt.

JKM: Now, some brass tacks questions about the novel. How many drafts did Watch How We Walk go through?

JLG: Lots. Too many to count. Changes in tense, changes in chronology, changes in point of view, and characters cut. Many times I would only be able to find out if something would work in the novel by doing it, and that would necessitate another draft.  
JKM: How long did the novel take, from first draft to one you were happy enough with?

JLG: A long time. It’s tough to say, because sometimes I was working at a day job too, and sometimes I would leave it for a few months to get some perspective, but all told, I think it was about six years.

JKM: And why a novel? This is a big switch from writing poetry.

JLG: It was a big change for me, but I knew that I wanted to write this book and that a novel was the form it needed to be in. Occasionally I would sit down to work on a short story or something other than poetry, and every time it ended up coming out in Emily’s voice. She wouldn’t go away. Eventually I gave in and went with it, and pretty soon I realized that the scope would necessitate a larger form, so a novel it was.

JKM: What was your first thought when you sat down to write the book for the first time?

JLG: It was exhilarating, and a little terrifying.

JKM: Did things turn out how you thought or planned, or did the story develop another way?

JLG: A bit of both. I worked with an outline, but as characters and plots developed, I would adjust it and things would change, and hopefully got better, more interesting.

JKM: Did you surprise yourself in writing the book? If so, please give me an example.

JLG: I knew it was going to be dark, and non-linear, and emotional, and maybe a little controversial, but what I didn’t expect was humour. I didn’t even know it was at times funny until I read from a draft in front of an audience and they all laughed—perhaps a little uncomfortably, that nervous sort of laughter, but there was an undercurrent of dark humour without my even consciously trying to be funny. In later drafts, I was aware of it, and enjoyed refining scenes like when Emily and Agnes the Pentecostal discuss snake handling, I would make myself laugh in my office.

JKM: I found that National Post interview with you was pretty aggressive. The reporter asked “Is Watch How We Walk autobiographical? Why didn’t you just write a memoir?” Did you encounter this question with other reporters? I was offended on your behalf. Why do you think they asked this?

JLG: Ha, I enjoy that you think it was aggressive, and I thank you for your offense. That was when I was a guest in the Afterword column, and I was interviewing myself, actually. I created a Q & A, and the tone was to be thoroughly tongue in cheek. Having said that, when I would talk about the novel to some people, or to an agent, for example, the memoir question would come up. WHWW is not autobiographical in terms of its characters, plot or events, but I did grow up as a JW, so there are some assumptions. I get it, to a point, since it would be a religion pretty tough to infiltrate and “research” for a novel, but I did come to resent the memoir question. My own story, as I mentioned in the Post, is far less interesting.

JKM: I was convinced that the book was autobiographical, but certainly not a memoir. Why do you think some readers or critics might consider a memoir more truthful than a work of fiction? (I myself fall on the side of fiction. Everything we write is some part of us. Writers are at their best when they tell the truth using lies—elaborate, beautiful turns of fiction, but lies nonetheless.)

JLG: I’m not sure who said it first, but truth and fact are not necessarily the same things. Unfortunately, some assume that they always are, whereas in reality, fiction may be a more direct and more powerful route to truth.

JKM: What was the hardest thing, for you, about being a Witness?

JLG: I think it was the tension between concepts of authority. It was a very authoritarian, male-dominated culture, with “man is the head of the household” being paramount, and the notion of obedience— for children and for women—being constantly emphasized. Constantly. Then on the other hand, the kids are forced from a young age to stand up to teachers and other adults in a way that is very direct, public, and leaves them quite vulnerable. I found this difficult—on one hand to be told to 'Obey Obey Obey', but then the next day in school being obligated to confront teachers about religious content, Christmas-related stuff, refuse to do certain work, leave the room for the national anthem, all that stuff. There was a lot confrontation that was encouraged, but is tough on kids.  

JLG: Knocking on doors to preach about Armageddon and hoping the school bully doesn’t answer the door was also not so fun.

JLG: So that was stuff was hard, yes, but it also helped to make me who I am. It’s influenced my feminism, it’s gotten me used to never fitting in, I’m used to rejection, I’m used to public speaking … these are what I see as positive outcomes. I’m only being partially facetious here… there is some truth to it. 

JKM: What did you genuinely like about the religion?

JLG: Even though everyone in our congregation in rural Ontario was white, it is a religion that actively preaches equality and is opposed to racism; any form of racism was considered morally wrong and sinful. I’ve always appreciated that about it.

JKM: For myself, as a young, puberty-transformative teen, I was rebelling (ironically enough) against my parents’ very lax Protestant upbringing (We rarely, if ever, went to church) in an intellectual way. However, when I started grade 13, I found that all the neat answers to many of my questions were failing. The Watchtower teachings couldn’t answer my questions anymore. While I was going to kingdom hall meetings, however, everyone was warm and cordial. This was as far as my conversion got, really, because my parents were keeping an eye on my exploration. While they supported the friendship that I was desperately trying to hold onto, they had great misgivings about the extensive teachings I was into, and also  about what the Watchtower Society said about many things. They also didn't want me to convert. Of course, looking back, I see things clearer. My parents were simply trying to protect me. As well,  almost all of the people I spoke to at the kingdom hall and who led meetings were older white men in positions of authority.

JKM: Does this sound familiar?

JLG: Yes. It’s very male-dominated. My mother, whose departure from the JWs was indirectly a catalyst for mine, had a hard time with that. She would visibly tense during meetings when “men are the head of the household” was mentioned. Of course as a kid, her anger made me uncomfortable, but she was right to be angry and to resist that.

JLG: I understand what you mean about the doctrines not holding up to rigorous inquiry. They’re ridiculously literal and critical thinking is actively discouraged.

"I hope that the ex-Jehovah's Witnesses, particularly those who felt harmed by their time in the religion, feel some sort of vindication and feel that their experiences were given a voice, even if their personal experiences didn’t exactly match up with those of my characters."

JKM: Do you hope current Jehovah’s Witnesses will read your book, if only out of curiosity?

JLG: For sure. I hope they do, and maybe it will make them reconsider certain elements of their beliefs and the impact those ideas have on those close to them. They probably won’t read it though, as it would likely be labelled apostate literature (anything critical of JWs).

JKM: Please describe your idea of an ideal reader of the book (myself excluded, of course!)

JLG: I don’t know that I want to have an ideal reader; that sounds like it could exclude other kinds of readers, and I’m open to whoever wants to check it out. I’m thrilled when anyone chooses to read my work. They don’t have to; there are so many other books. Beyond that, so many other things that compete for our attention in this world. But okay—my ideal reader is someone who not only gets into the characters and the plot that I’ve created, but appreciates what I’ve done with the structure in terms of chronology, the different tenses, and the two different points of view. The structural stuff is most interesting to me. Of course, I know that it appeals to ex-JWs, since there is so little written about this sect, and that’s also really important to me. In part, they’re my intended readers. But not exclusively.

Jennifer LoveGrove reading from
Watch How We Walk.
Photo from profile.
JKM: What do you hope either current or ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses take away from your book?

JLG: I hope that the ex-JWs, particularly those who felt harmed by their time in the religion, feel some sort of vindication and feel that their experiences were given a voice, even if their personal experiences didn’t exactly match up with those of my characters. In fact, I’ve heard from quite a few ex-JW readers, and often they share deeply personal and devastating stories about terrible things they experienced as JWs, and are astounded at how closely I rendered their lives in fiction. One really moving message ended with something akin to “Now I don’t feel so alone anymore.” That’s more than I ever hoped for, right there.  

JKM: We commiserated about there being a dearth of fiction or even non-fiction out there about Jehovah’s Witnesses. I know that Kurt Vonnegut had a JW character in one of his novels that is transported to another world by an alien who is disinterested in their Awake! flyers. So this JW is on another planet with only their faith and brochures to see them through. Kyria Abrahams' scorchingly humorous memoir, I'm Perfect, You're Doomed is also an exception (and an exceptional read on the subject matter).
Why do you think there is a dearth of such material out there? Any thoughts?

JLG: It’s a hard religion to extricate ones’ self from; it’s very cult-like, in my experience, if not an outright cult. And because it’s so isolationist, it’s hard to write about unless you’ve lived it. And if you live it, well, you’re probably still living it. As well, education beyond high school is strongly and actively discouraged for JWs, as is being too career-focused. So these things can work against the likelihood of making books or films or whatever about the experience.

"In fact, I’ve heard from quite a few ex-Jehovah'sWitness readers, and often they share deeply personal and devastating stories about terrible things they experienced as JWs, and are astounded at how closely I rendered their lives in fiction. One really moving message ended with something akin to 'Now I don’t feel so alone anymore.' That’s more than I ever hoped for, right there."

JLG: I didn’t know about the Vonnegut character, that’s interesting. Zadie Smith has a JW character in, I think, White Teeth, and I remember reading it very critically, watching to see if she got it right (and I like the book and her work). She was doing well, until suddenly the character touched the small gold cross around her neck, and I was like “Nooooo!” The symbol of the cross is very taboo for JWs. It’s idolatry. That would never happen. But I doubt any fact checker would catch something like that, unless they knew.

JKM: I’ve said it already, but I’ll say it again. If ever you decide to put together an anthology about Jehovah’s Witness characters, or characters undergoing a crisis of faith, and need submissions, I am all in, as they say.

JLG: Okay, noted!

JKM: Any other book projects on the go, or are you back to penning poetry, or doing both?

JLG: I’m pretty deep into a poetry manuscript at the moment, and in the early stages of a new novel.

JKM: Is there anything that you want to add that I haven’t asked about?

JLG: Just that I’m recovering from the shock of being longlisted for the Giller. I didn’t get much sleep for a couple of days, and now I have a terrible cold, so I can’t think of any other points to make. 

JKM: In closing, I’ll give you a trick question. You did a few interviews for Watch How We Walk. Is there a question that a reporter did not ask you that you wish they had?

JLG: Actually, no. Sometimes I get to talk about tense and point of view and those sorts of choices, which I love, and sometimes it’s more personal, which is also cool. 

JKM: Thank you for writing Watch How We Walk. It’s terrific.

JLG: Thanks so much.

JKM: You’re welcome.

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