Shawn Smucker’s prose pierces without leaving a wound.
The novelist perforates the gauzy veil between past and present, sin and absolution, natural and supernatural, exhibiting just how thin the separation is. The title of Smucker’s latest work, These Nameless Things, points a compass toward the very work he does as a writer: describing and, at times, naming the desires and forces which govern our world, yet so often remain unspoken.
The book alights on a den of survivors, living in sanctuary just outside the mountain territory where they once experienced physical and existential torment. One among their number reverses his escape, reentering the realm to free his twin brother. Painful memories and others’ motives—both of which prove unreliable and empowering—usher him toward a who, what, and where he can’t predict.
Smucker is as industrious as he is innovative, a writer’s writer who embraces questions big and small knowing they all make him a better craftsman. A few weeks after the release of These Nameless Things, we traded emails to discuss his characters, the shaping power of relationships with other writers, and the sacredness of fiction.
Danielsen: Something stands out to me, both in your previous book, Light from Distant Stars, and the early pages of These Nameless Things. It seems when your characters are in their earthiest, most human moments, they’re also most spiritually open and perceptive. Does this reflect your own life experience? Does this thread rise to the level of intention in your writing, or do you think it’s more instinct or intuition?
Smucker: Aarik, first of all let me say thanks so much for taking the time to have this discussion with me. One of the things most writers want is for someone to take their writing seriously enough to discuss it. I’m looking forward to answering your questions.
I hadn’t really considered it before, that when my characters are most human they’re also most spiritually open. This probably reflects my hunch that when our outer barriers are stripped away, when we remove ourselves from the things that make us most busy and distracted, we find ourselves confronted with life’s tough questions: Why am I here? Where can I find meaning in my life? What else is there besides this?
It makes sense that my protagonists would find themselves in these situations, not necessarily because I intentionally put them there, but because I think that’s what we would all turn to, should we find ourselves in these places where our normal life has been stripped away . . . as many of us are experiencing right now with Covid-19, the social uprisings, and economic uncertainty.
That said, in Light from Distant Stars I did want to place Cohen in a place of spiritual confession at the end of each day, and I did choose to structure the book into parts that pulled imagery from the six days of the creation story. So, I guess in some ways opening him up to a spiritual conversation was an intentional choice. But I don’t think he gets there in a believable way without first experiencing that hard thing that unsettles his normal life.
Danielsen: We’re always different for the people we spend time with and the work we do. How are you different for spending so much time with the characters in These Nameless Things? What does your relationship to your characters look like once a book cycle is done?
Smucker: So far, I have found that all the novels I write are exercises in self-exploration. Not that the protagonists are autobiographical—it’s more that in writing the book, I find myself exploring deep, unanswered (unanswerable?) questions I’ve always had.
In The Day the Angels Fell, I wondered if it was possible that death could be a gift. In The Edge of Over There, I was intrigued by the idea that possessive love invariably becomes destructive. In Light from Distant Stars, I wondered about how the space and time between an event and what we remember about it (and the things we forget) shape our present relationships. And in These Nameless Things, I wanted to explore a concept most aptly stated by Elder Sophrany: “You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.”
This is what changes me the most, I think, this long-form submersion into a question and the story that rises up out of it.
As to what my relationship looks like with characters in books I’ve finished, I must say I’m a rather faithless friend to them. I move on to the next story quickly, once the drafting is finished. Occasionally I’ll think of them, and when I do it’s like remembering an old friend, someone I lost touch with long ago. Often, I forget their names when talking about the book.
Danielsen: A number of passages in Light From Distant Stars describe just that, varied interactions between light and dark, earth and cosmos. Early in the new book, you write, “Everything has fallen into a stark, dazzling white, the light glaring off endless miles of glittering frost. I can smell snow, but none is falling.” Why do you think you’re so drawn to writing light, as it were? How do you experience or observe the elemental in your daily life?
Smucker: Isn’t light amazing? It’s everywhere but we can’t grasp it. It can illuminate, and it can blind us. I’m so drawn to light and our inability to completely understand it.
I think this is because, where I grew up, the light changed so much with each season, from gentle to suffocating to melancholy to glaring. In Light from Distant Stars, I was particularly interested in exploring that distance between the star and the light I see, and the related passage of time. That a star I’m looking at could be long dead has always challenged my ideas of perspective and knowing.
Danielsen: This season of your professional life has been marked by deliberate consideration of the creative process, both in your public correspondence with Jen Pollock Michel and on The Stories Between Us podcast you host with your wife, writer Maile Silva. Do you already sense those conversations reshaping your writing practice? Either from having to express your ideas out loud or being exposed to theirs?
Smucker: Definitely. I would go so far as to say that, as writers, we must be in conversation with other writers. Perhaps more than anything else, these discussions have helped me to have more grace with myself as a writer and creator, to have patience with my own writing journey. When Jen and I correspond about “tending our own (creative) garden,” or when Maile and I spend twenty-five minutes discussing our disappointment with the writing life, it allows me the space to take a deep breath, acknowledge the inherent difficulties that come with writing, and to be kinder to myself.
Conversing with other writers should reconnect us to a kinder, more encouraging voice than the one we often hear inside of our own heads. If it doesn’t, well, then we need to find other writing friends.
Danielsen: Any vocation can bend toward redemption or vice. What particular virtues and temptations have you identified in the writing life?
Smucker: Is there any greater potential vice for today’s writer than self-absorption? Look at my tweet, look at my most recent post, look at what this person has said about my wonderful writing. The fact that we are encouraged to build a platform of our own says it all. It’s so easy to use social media, blogging, and every other online tool to create our own little kingdoms, where we reside at the very center, constantly trying to be heard, constantly trying to amass more and more followers.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take long in these public lives we lead for humility to do its work, either. One of the greatest virtues any writer today could embrace would be what Henri Nouwen called “downward mobility.” I’m still not sure how that looks for a writer today, or how someone can make a career out of writing when they are pursuing downward mobility, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit.
Danielsen: “Holy imagination” is a phrase I’ve been turning over in my head the past few years, the idea of imagining the world as it could be in Christ, then letting that vision shape our way in the world. How can reading (or writing) fiction prepare us to pursue a world in which God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven”? In what ways has the art of fiction guided you toward Christlikeness?
Smucker: You saved the toughest question for last. I see how it is.
Let me start by saying I do not write “Christian novels,” if only because the term means as many different things as there are individuals who use the term. I think when most people use it, what they actually mean to say is clean, inspirational, easy-to-read fiction. As Madeleine L’Engle wrote in Walking on Water, “Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.”
But that does not answer your question: How can reading or writing fiction prepare us to pursue a world in which God’s will is done?
Two things come to mind.
First, as L’Engle also says in that marvelous book, “We lose our ability to see angels as we grow older, and that is a tragic loss.” Fiction can open our eyes to the beauty and the truth that we can no longer see because we are “grown up.” And yes, sometimes fiction can even open our eyes to the unseen working around us. This is a wonderful and important thing.
Second (and I keep going back to Walking on Water, but I really can’t help it—it’s been so formative in the way I view art and writing), fiction can help us find the image of God in places and in people we have given up on; fiction can remind us of the Spirit working its way among us all, in every situation. As L’Engle writes, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”
What is wrong with our world that could not be cured by an ability to see the sacred in our enemy? What atrocities would we commit if we could hear the sacred voice and recognize the beauty it is calling us to?
This, I think, is what fiction can do—open our eyes and our ears to the sacred around us. This, I hope, is what my stories will always do, whether or not people label them “Christian novels.”
Cover image by Joel Ambass.