Is this the book that you thought you'd end up with?
Not at all. When I came to see Joe the last time, the book I was planning was just recorded dialogue, two men talking. After he died, that obviously became impossible, but I discovered that Joe had had quite a little ministry going. I thought it would be a non-self seeking way to celebrate Joe to get lots of other impressions of him. The abbey was reluctant to cooperate with that, understandably, because it meant invading people's privacy.
So I became very frustrated. I desperately wanted to write about Joe,because of the void that he'd sort of left in my universe. But I was not really equipped to do it. Whenever I tried, it would come out sort of hideous mush. The only muscles I had were comedic ones, you know--ridicule and diminishing and so forth. Not exactly a way to celebrate a saint or someone who looked like a saint.
As it happened, I had been asked by a storytelling group here in Manhattan called "The Moth" to tell a story. I decided I would tell the story of my relationship with Joe in capsule form. It was terrifying, but the audience loved it. They laughed, but what was truly extraordinary was they wept. I realized that all I had to do was to tell the story of this relationship and however it came out, funny or sad or both or neither, it didn't matter.
You're the perfect foil for Joe. On the one hand you're a sinner, but even as a child you already seem to be not of the world, always roaming the countryside. Did that innate spirituality lead you to stumble upon the trailer where you end up having the affair?
I was very happy to live a kind of proto-hermitic life in the countryside. I was never scared by it. I never missed other people's company. There was this fascination with discovering bird's eggs and seeing things like that for the first time. There was something sort of miraculous about it. I didn't recognize it as spiritual. I didn't even recognize it as antithetical to the lack of affect that I got from organized religion. But I suppose looking back on it, it was a little piece of what attracted me to Joe.
Where did that come from? Is being not of the world a response to a lack of belonging, say, with your own father?
If it was, I wasn't alone. A lot of the problems my generation had with authority possibly came from the fact that our fathers were not there for the formative years of our young lives. They were off fighting war. But he himself was a quiet and hermitic type, and his vocation was a very odd one. I was the son of a stained glass artist and it made me odd by reflection.
So Joe becomes the father you never had.
Yeah. I don't really get into that as much as I would have liked. Joe had fatherly qualities which were sort of extra-clerical. He was gentle, he was never angry, he was non-judgmental, he didn't cross examine me. He didn't do any of the things my father did and above all, he was consistent, about his beliefs and his actions formed from his beliefs, which my dad wasn't. My dad was treacherous that way, as many dads are, and, speaking as a dad, I am.
Absolutely not. I recognized that as soon as I became a father myself. But to a young teenager, this looked like an ideal father and once my own father died, Joe became in every way, negative and positive, my father figure.
You write about the discrimination against Catholics you saw growing up, but at the same time Catholicism in 1950s Britain was also on the rise, with Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Can you explain that sort of schizophrenia?
In part, I suppose it's not unlike being Jewish in an anti-Semitic society. It was a defense mechanism, being really good at what you choose to do. The Jesuits in late '50s in England were fantastic, I mean really, really smart people who would argue the Church's case forcefully and brilliantly whenever they got the chance. Waugh was regarded as part of that. He was a feather in our cap, as Greene was.