For the majority of us, adolescence is no cakewalk to the prom court. But when you’ve been raised according to staunch evangelical Christian values—when masturbation and Daisy Duke-lust is accompanied by fear of eternal fire and brimstone—a teen’s confusion about his or her budding sense of self stands to be compounded, to say the least.
Georgia native Mark Beaver, whose mother routinely scoured the news for signs of the End Times, became Born Again in 1975, at age seven. For the next ten-plus years, he maintained a healthy fear regarding the safety of his soul—all while navigating young love at Bible Camp, struggling to master the euphonium in the school band, becoming a guilt-addled telescope peeper of female neighbors, and evolving into a Prince-obsessed, Camaro-driving employee of his Atlanta suburb’s Baskin Robbins outpost.
Beaver’s book debut, Suburban Gospel (Hub City Press, April 2016), comically illuminates the often universal complexities of adolescent heartache and friendship, as well as the pain that accompanies teens’ gradual detachment from family and home. This collection of self-contained but chronological tales of real-life endeavors such as 4-H camp, hunting fiascos with his late father (to whom the book is dedicated), and cringe-worthy prom nights is hardly your typical sweet tea-drenched Southern memoir. In Suburban Gospel, the rawness of adolescent yearning is always vivid, sometimes crude, and never dialed back.
As a non-Baptist, Northern-born reader, I too was transported back to my youth and its suburban landscape—a setting that Beaver manages to render distinct in its homogeneity, not to mention its cultural import (especially where the phenomena of integration and “white flight” are concerned). The scope of this memoir, however, expands far beyond the strip mall-laden suburbs, beyond the hell-fire characterizing the magnolia tree-lined Bible Belt. Above all, it is a markedly relatable book about identity—family identity, Southern identity, and the dicey matter of reconciling one’s faith identity as one comes of age.
A father of two and an instructor of eleventh-grade literature, Beaver is “blessed,” you might say, with a constant reminder of the intricacies of adolescence. He recently spoke with me over the phone, in his syruppy drawl, from his classroom. While his book is laugh-out-loud funny, I found the kind-mannered author serious and thoughtful in conversation. Indeed, Beaver got candid about matters of narrative drive, mining the universal from the personal, puberty, and his own complicated relationship to evangelical Christianity.
Tell me about the moment you realized you had this memoir in you.
I studied fiction in graduate school, and never even experimented with nonfiction, but then when I was in my thirties, my father died. He was a mailman five days a week, a deer hunter on Saturdays, a Baptist deacon on Sundays, and a devout evangelical Christian every day of the week. He and my mother had raised me to live according to that ethos, and to become a certain kind of boy, but by the time he died, I’d become what you call a “Christmas and Easter Christian.” And when I stood at that pulpit in his church to deliver the funeral sermon, I realized it was the first time I’d been there in a decade, and I had this real sense of dislocation, which made me want to get to the bottom of how I’d gotten from there to here. But I knew I didn’t want to write some sort of deeply meditative reflection—I wanted to explore my path through stories, to make my own narrative novel-like.
Speaking of stories, while the book certainly flowed thematically and chronologically, I did notice that a lot of the chapters had their own individual arcs.
I originally wrote quite a few of the chapters as standalone, independent pieces, and had published a number of them that way. By the time I got three or four together I started to see how they were connected, and started to recognize an overarching narrative. Then it just became a matter of continuing to build on that, of examining who I was at thirteen versus who I was at seventeen, and of filling in that arc.
I feel like in any long piece of writing, you’ve got to have that desire in the main character from the beginning, and be able to follow it over the course of the narrative. Once I recognized my own character’s source of desire—which was that I was saved and “washed in the blood of Christ” at age seven, a circumstance that served me well until I turned thirteen and puberty and adolescence hit, presenting this whole new realm of experience, which was in direct conflict to that original narrative I’d been given as a map to live my life—I realized the engine driving the story was my quest to find the relationship between the story I was given to live my life, and the story I began to develop for myself, on my own. It was figuring out whether those tracks could be parallel to each other, if they could braid and synthesize at any point.
You’ve described yourself as guarded, reticent, as the type never to be accused of oversharing. What was the most challenging aspect, personally, of writing a memoir?
There’s a lot of male sexuality in this book, because I knew that if I was going to write about faith, I’d also have to write about the flesh—I think it would be dishonest to write about male adolescence without sexuality being an important component. So given my upbringing, that was the hardest part—it felt difficult, but necessary. When I was shopping the book around, one publisher told me he liked my book but wouldn’t be publishing it because female readers—the largest book-buying demographic—would find all the sexuality off-putting. I took that as a compliment—a sign that I had finally overcome the shame that I was brought up to associate with the body.
Could you tell me more about the challenges of writing about your own and your family’s faith?
A big portion of my family is indeed evangelical Christian, and they don’t read anything that might be called literary, so I think my experience as a writer is very much out of their realm of experience. For example, when a cousin heard about the book, she contacted me on Facebook and asked whether there was anything about redemption in it. I suppose you could say, “Well, yeah, there’s a lot about redemption,” [laughs] but that’s probably not the kind she’s talking about. So, I don’t expect my book to be a big hit among those who are closest to me by blood. I think my audience is actually quite different than most of the people I grew up among.
How do you think your father would have reacted to the book if he were still alive?
My father had cancer and his death was pretty protracted, and it was interesting to watch him toward the end of his life, as his illness deepened, because he developed a broader and more diverse perspective on the world. For example, Southern Baptists and Catholics have never really been on the same page, but I had a good Catholic friend, a former member of the convent, who prayed for him with rosary beads each morning of his illness. When I told my father about that, he was so moved and appreciative. To welcome prayers from a Catholic was a pretty big step in terms of worldview, so I like to think that he would understand and be able to appreciate the journey that I’ve taken—even though in many ways, it’s a journey away from the gift that he tried to give me.
I’d say that if there was one thing my father wanted for my life, it was that I would embrace the Christian faith in the same way he did. I still call myself a Christian, but my brand of Christianity certainly differs from his. I’m very aware that the good Christian folk I grew up among would call me a backslider at best, and at worst, would probably count me among the lost. But the philosophy of Jesus still resonates with me. So on the one hand I think my father would be disappointed by the book, but on the other hand—given the circumstances of his illness—I think he would have come to appreciate and value it.
I love that you gave your parents’ characters’ context by providing specific information about their back stories. How much research went into mining this information about your lineage?
My mother is always willing to talk about my dad—she feels like his absence left an enormous gap in her life. She knew I was working on this book, but to be honest, a lot of the questions I asked about her and my dad didn’t come up in the context of the book; they were just conversational. That’s how I came upon a lit of tidbits that turned out to work well in the narrative, like the simplistic, unromantic way my father proposed to my mother [mentioning he was “thinking [they] ought to get married” during a shift at Sears and Roebuck].
You’re also very specific when it comes to pop-culture details—down to which Prince album was hot, and what was playing on MTV, and what Jerry Falwell was saying. How much research goes into all this recollection?
Some, because pop culture within the context of suburbia is something that’s pretty important to me in my writing. Suburbia is considered this place where nothing happens—at least, nothing distinctive or unique. And that’s part of what I was after—to make a connection to the reader by rendering these moments that are so universal. To my mind, the memoir genre has been hijacked by stories aiming to demonstrate how different the author’s life is from the reader’s—the genre can feel like literary Jerry Springer. But I wanted to capture those moments and universal emotions and pop culture touchstones that we can all relate to.
Were you working with any models or other structural inspirations?
I didn’t really work with any models in terms of narrative design, but I certainly had some great models for literary coming-of-age memoirs. I’m a big fan of Tobias Wolff, Frank Conroy, Mary Karr, and Steve Almond—his Not That You Asked was a big influence on me.
Your book tour kicks off in the South, and of course, Spartanburg, South Carolina-based Hub City Press is a prominent Southern publisher. In what ways do you identify as a “Southern writer”?
It’s definitely part of my identity. I get frustrated with Southern writers who want to push that to the side of theirs. I understand where it comes from—Southerners are treated in a very reductive way in the overall conversation, and we don’t want to be automatically associated with stubborn mules, with an agricultural way of life. I think these writers are rebelling against the notion that Southern life is any less diverse than life anywhere else, but if we writers don’t clarify that for everybody else, then who else is going to? When I look at how much has changed in my hometown of Atlanta since the ’96 Olympics in terms of our demographics and our way of life, I think that, as an Atlanta writer, it’s important for me to be proud of that, and to share that. And I think we should all be proud and happy to participate in the broadening of people’s perspectives on what it means to be Southern.