'A Dire Part of My Life, My Faith'

A Conversation with Writer David Schickler

David Schickler was barely into his thirties when the New Yorker published his short story “The Smoker,” about a teacher’s relationship with a student and her family, in 2000. A year later, the Rochester native’s collection of linked stories, Kissing in Manhattan, was published by the Dial Press. Schickler’s Catholicism permeated the book, which centered on residents connected to a New York apartment building. Images, names, and circumstances made it clear that sacrament and mystery are vital to the Georgetown graduate’s worldview, just as it was clear that Schickler loves to tell a good, sexy yarn. His first novel, Sweet and Vicious, came out in 2004, and reads like a mash-up of Flannery O’Connor and Max Allan Collins: a crime caper with grace, the work of a Catholic writer wanting to tell affecting, funny, sometimes startling stories with deep, complex cores.

Schickler, who taught high school for six years after receiving a graduate degree from Columbia and who still coaches cross country at his alma mater, McQuaid Jesuit, returned to the creative spotlight last year as a co-creator and executive producer of the entertainingly profane Cinemax crime drama Banshee. The series, which revels in premium-cable nudity and explosive violence, tells the story of a criminal who adopts a slain sheriff’s identity in a small Pennsylvania burgh, the corrupted province of a local kingpin who happens to be a shunned member of a nearby Amish community. Schickler developed Banshee with the popular Jewish writer Jonathan Tropper (2009’s This Is Where I Leave You, 2012’s One Last Thing Before I Go), and the two have worked in some prominent Judeo-Christian themes—falls from grace, sacrifice, good, evil—if not in a particularly reverent way. (“I’ve never had much patience for people who quote scripture,” one tough guy tells another.)

Banshee, which will return for its second season in 2014, could easily be viewed as the work of a pair of disaffected screenwriters working out their frustrations with faith. In fact, Schickler—who rereads Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer every couple of years and loads his rapid conversation with references to Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, C. S. Lewis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—remains a faithfully practicing Catholic. He explores the evolution of his faith in his just-released memoir The Dark Path (Riverhead). The new book, which chronicles Schickler’s struggle as a young man to discern whether he should pursue a potential vocation to the priesthood or chase as many girls as possible, is a notable arrival on the generally post-religious landscape of literary memoir. [Read Jerome Kramer's review of The Dark Path for Commonweal here.]

I spoke with Schickler in New York City before the book came out, while Schickler ate a plateful of mashed potatoes (“How Irish Catholic is that?” he said).

Jerome Kramer: Talk about the dual meaning of your memoir’s title.

David Schickler: The “dark path” is literally the dark path in the woods behind my childhood home, and I found God there more than I did in church. Metaphorically, the dark path is my faith journey: my journey toward God, throughout my young adulthood, thinking I was going to be a priest, and then abandoning that to become the writer you see before you.

JK: Do you have any particular trick for recalling things that happened decades ago?

DS: The same way a lot of guys quote exact lines from movies, I’m pretty good at remembering what people did and what people said. Trust me, there are holes in the memory—I just chose to not write about the holes. I tried to write this book as novelistically as I could, because while it’s a faith journey, I really do write to entertain. And there are a lot of people out there—and I’m sometimes one of them—who aren’t that interested in reading about religion or reading about faith. It’s hard to bring that stuff to life and make it visceral. Some of the time I don’t read what is considered to be literary fiction because some of it’s a drag to me, and some of it’s not funny enough.

We wanted Banshee to be very visceral and grounded. “Lived-in” is the phrase that Cinemax uses a lot. And I actually tried to make the memoir as lived-in and as grounded as it possibly could be. For example, my faith’s pretty important to me. And one thing that I’ve never quite understood is why people are quite dismissive of theirs, when they’ll say, “Yeah, I kind of go, I kind of care.” What I mean is, it was immensely important to me in my life, so it was immensely important to me that I write about my faith, especially the darker turns in it, or the times when I was doubting or lost my faith, in a very visceral way. It was a very dire part of my life, my faith. And I wanted the book to feel that way. There were a couple people who thought the title was not the best title for the book because it sounded too much like a bummer, too much like a book about depression. I’m also attracted to levity and humor and sex and fun bells and whistles. But I like the edge, I like the darkness. That’s something that’s in both Banshee and in all my work.

JK: What’s the status of your faith life?

DS: I’m at Mass every Sunday. I basically show up for the Eucharist—I still believe in it, that’s why I remain Catholic, because of that, very specifically. I think it’s healthy to have doubts. I think there are things, socially, things you could talk about regarding the Catholic Church that I might push back on or disagree with, but Mass itself, and the Eucharist, remain vital to me. I get the whole family to Mass a good number of times a year, but we’re not there all the time. In fact, there are times when I need to be there by myself to enter into it a certain way, where it’s not just about, “Does my daughter have her Cheerios and do we have enough crayons to get through the service?”—which, by the way, is a totally different kind of parenting than I grew up with. There were no Cheerios and no crayons when I was young. You sat there.

JK: There’s a key moment in the book, after you’ve been at Georgetown several years, when you’re convinced you’re going to join the Jesuits, and then one of your Jesuit mentors gets a little too friendly.

DS: Oh, the priest grabbing my ass, yeah, yeah. It’s funny, because when I was talking with Jonathan about the memoir, years ago, I asked, “Should I just call it  ‘The Priest Who Grabbed My Ass’?” and he said, “Oh, that’s your title, that’s your title.”

By the way, that particular incident, that having happened to me, that is not difficult for me to talk about or look back upon. All it was, really, was something that definitely woke me up to the fact that I was going to be just around guys a lot if I do this, and I am so not wired for that. If it had been any kind of molestation experience I’m sure it would have been deeply scarring. For me all it did was make me really, really think. What it made me realize, honestly, was Oh God, I need women. If priests could be married I would be a Catholic priest right now.

JK: I get the sense from The Dark Path that the vocation you were trying to discern was something you hoped wasn’t there.

DS: I thought I had it. I felt like, if God was calling me to this, how dare I say no? I felt it was important to try to be the best man you could possibly be, and I grew up in a culture and in a parish and in a church where the best guy, the star, was the priest—that was the best you could be, devoting all of yourself. I thought that any other way of devoting myself to God was somehow lesser. I really believed that.

JK: Part of The Dark Path has to do not only with your decision to become a priest or not, but the parallel path your father was on to enter the diaconate. What do you think of the difference being serving as a cleric and working within the church laity?

DS: This is something that people who aren’t Catholic have a very, very hard time understanding. Because the perception of Catholicism from many people who aren’t Catholic is, “You are in a top-down organization and you are a soldier, you are falling in line, and you’re parroting what you’re being told,” as opposed to having a full lifeblood ownership of your own opinions about the most important things in the world. I guess what I mean is, I think people who aren’t Catholic are surprised to find out just how much Catholics, especially American Catholics, have serious doubts about the papacy or about certain strands of social teaching in Catholicism, but by the same token, they don’t just abandon ship.

JK: You’ve mentioned disagreement with some church positions, particularly with the way the church addresses, or refuses to address, sexuality.

DS: I think you can become obsessed with something by not addressing something. I mean, I’m not looking forward to having all those conversations with my own children, but my point is—it’s one of the reasons I respect someone like Graham Greene’s writing so much, because it’s down in the dirt. He was able to write thrillers, he was able to write stories where guns are going off, where people are getting laid and stuff like that, and yet write about damnation and salvation, all with equal fervor. There’s such a paucity of that in the Catholic tradition.

I just remember from teaching, because I was a high-school English teacher for six years, and kids, as soon as you’re just, like, “Now, children,” their eyes, they shut down, they just go dead. They’re like, “You can’t talk to me, and if you can’t talk to me about what I’m really going through, then I’m checking out, and I’ll find other people—I’ll find somebody to talk to about it.” Well, would you rather it be you, the church? Or would you rather they quote-unquote learn about it or talk about it somewhere else?

JK: One could say there are essentially two approaches to Catholicism: One, that it’s a challenging, intellectually demanding, humanist faith; the other, that it’s an institutional set of rules and regulations for its adherents to follow.

DS: It’s very hard for me when people lump me into that second category. I’m a screenwriter and executive producer of television in Los Angeles. You think I can get into this stuff with people out there and talk about it? I’m terrified what’s going to happen to me out there when this book comes out. I worked like hell to write this book in such a way that it is not didactic, like, This is my life, my experience—and yet I’m still a member of this church. I hope it was clear at the end: I’m at Mass, I’m going, I’m saying that I go, that I receive the Eucharist. To me, that’s a fairly big admission that means I’m still in the game.

I would love to talk with people about this stuff. I would love to get on the lecture circuit, I’d love to make a mess. Not stir things up just for its own sake but, just, why aren’t we talking about this? There’s just so much beauty and grace.

JK: Meanwhile, you have a strong negative reaction to religion that has been, as you write, been “scrubbed too clean.”

DS: Honestly, if I hadn’t been raised Catholic, or raised religious, and I heard the kind of bubbly-safe stuff that some religious people say, I would dismiss it. I would think: This is silly. I mean, I do believe in a leap of faith—at some point reason is only going to get you so far—but reason brought me to my faith, as opposed to crushing it like a bug. But my point is, I recoil from safey-safe, kid-glove approaches to talking. Christ wasn’t like that.

It’s not like I’m saying, “Look, America, can you take how sexy and violent my writing is, even though I have faith? Well, you must!” It’s not like I’m trying to rub people’s noses in it. But I do think it takes an unbelievable amount of guts to believe that God was incarnate. That’s the only reason I stay in it. And it’s why I write fiction the way that I do, because the idea of the incarnation, the idea of the Eucharist, it’s more of a gutsy, revolutionary thing to believe than anything else I can think of.

Jerome Kramer, a writer, critic and editor, is the former editor of Book Magazine, Kirkus Reviews, and the Book Standard. He lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

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