On a cold winter evening, Tweed’s editor Randy Rosenthal visited Brendan Kiely in his Greenwich Village apartment to discuss his debut novel, The Gospel of Winter, which is about teenagers dealing with sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
Tweed’s: What inspired you to write The Gospel of Winter?
Brendan Kiely: My brother and I like to joke that we grew up culturally Catholic—we went to Catholic school, our extended family is mostly Catholic, our parents were both raised Catholic—it was in the air all the time. Even though I didn’t necessarily believe in the spirituality, I certainly revered the institution for its place in the world and its mission of social justice and love and compassion and being a bastion of hope in the world. So for that institution to be revealed as the absolute corruption of that kind of hope—the desolation of hope, instead of a zone of rescue and hope and redemption and support—a place that is harboring criminals and has been injuring and harming young people, it was like: Okay, that’s the big evil I want to write about.
Also, I have always been interested in the kind of young person who has to cope with this kind of enormous obstacle and this enormous violence—who has to find a way to overcome it. And I wanted to find a kid whose story would help us look this evil in the eye and find a road back to that hope and love and support that I formally believed in.
Tweed’s: What are some of your early memories from being in church?
Brendan Kiely: When I think of my early experiences in the church, there’s a hushed reverence. There’s a kind of We’re Like Soldiers, We are Following the Duties that are Asked of Us, in a room that seems somewhat mystical, in that there’s something in the air—to be honest, almost a sense of nervousness. Something out there that I’m not sure is there or not—and I’m concerned that it’s watching me!
Tweed’s: It’s interesting then that the priests would think they could get away with their crimes, especially since they of all people should feel that God (or something) is watching them.
Brendan Kiely: Both priests in the book do have lines throughout the book that speak about God, but I feel like their lines are spiritually bankrupt. I wanted those characters to seem spiritually bankrupt because in my mind, they are, and so too are all the adults in the book.
Any institution that claims to be for the benefit of many—the minute they make choices to protect the institution instead of the people that they claim to be protecting, they have corrupted themselves. And that is true for banks that misuse laws to protect themselves over all the people in the economy. It’s also true for a church that claims to be the harbinger of love, and then they’re not.
So for me, I wanted the redeeming elements of the book to be about friendship, and how the kids forming real friendships is what protects and buoys us in these horrible situations and in the face of tragedy, catastrophe, evil, horror, et cetera.
Tweed’s: It takes a while for them to become actual friends, though. For most of the book, they bond by getting intoxicated. Can you talk about the idea behind all the drug use?
Brendan Kiely: As is the case for many young people, they look for opportunities to indulge in deviant behavior because they think of that as the adult world. So that reflects reality in some way. But in the book it’s a coping mechanism because the everyday thoughts that these kids have are confusing and it’s often easier for kids who are confused, afraid, or scared to use the drug world to escape that pain. I don’t think it’s a good thing, but I think it’s a true thing that people do. And so it has to be in the book, in my mind. Because it’s real. And it’s false to totally demonize it, because there are many moments in which people can bond. Some foundations of the friendship are formed in some of those moments when they’re smoking pot and drinking.
Tweed’s: Many people think the widespread molestation happened because priests are so suppressed. Where is Father Greg’s motivation coming from? Also, you get the dark feeling from several scenes, but you don’t really know what Father Greg’s into, as you don’t explicitly describe the molestation. Did you work out what actually happens? You never really know. You leave it implied.
Brendan Kiely: You don’t know exactly what’s going on. I’m purposefully vague about that because I think it unnecessarily sensationalizes the act if I name it specifically. By not naming it specifically, the hope is that all of that behavior gets lumped together as completely inappropriate. We shouldn’t make distinctions between sexual acts if all the sexual acts are inappropriate. Whatever the behavior is, it doesn’t need to be named specifically, because I think that would do a disservice to the whole thing.
One thing that has to be especially, especially clear is that the situation with the church and the abuse scandal has nothing to do with homosexuality. Pedophilia and homosexuality are not the same thing. And to equate those things is something that the church has tried to do too many times, and that’s despicable.
To be clear, if there’s an issue of any kind of sexual deviance, which society might rail against in one way or another, it has to be a discussion about pedophilia. I don’t think there’s one singular cause for it. It would seem psychologically and socially reductive if I give you, specifically: This is why Father Greg is the way he is. Because I don’t think that’s the case for every single priest who has been involved in abusing children. I did a lot of research in order to come up with Father Greg. And a lot of that research came from the amazing work that the Boston Globe spotlight team did back when the scandal broke in 2002. Many of these priests were the life of the party, the backslappers, the neighbor next door that everybody loves. Often it’s the case that a person who lives a dual life really lives a dual life. They’re magnanimous in social situations, and then their other side—their Mr. Hyde—emerges in moments of intimacy and privacy. It’s unbelievable to think about.
As I read about many of the priests who abused children, I found that some of them were abused themselves, in one form or another. So it’s a repetition. That’s not for everybody, but that was the case for quite a few.
Because the church institution operated the way that they operated when there was a pedophile—allowing this to happen and covering it up with secrecy—those people just got to operate freely. The system enabled them to do it more than they might be able to do in another context in life. A used car salesman doesn’t have the same access to being protected. I think it’s a combination of influences, with the institution, the kinds of individuals, their own psychological and sexual histories, all of it. It’s too limiting and reductive to give it one cause. So Father Greg’s cause doesn’t need to be in the book; again, for me what was most important were the consequences, the effects.
Tweed’s: What I found most fascinating is the perversion of values—you have the priests use love and compassion as a weapon rather than as a method of healing or comfort or connection. This is the most disgusting aspect of their actions. How did you come to this idea that love can be used as a weapon?
Brendan Kiely: If it’s the mask of love and compassion that one is presenting, it’s not love. It’s nothing close to love; it’s abuse. This is sort of an old trope, that the devil is often dressed as a gentleman. When I introduce Father Greg, he’s talking about love, which for me, felt representative of the institution. Here we are talking about how we are an institution for good, but behind that, we’re not doing the good—we’re doing some really terrible things. In that way, the false face of love is a weapon.
Tweed’s: The events of your book take place immediate following 9/11. Did you make this connection directly, of the hypocrisy and corruption of the Bush Administration’s involvement in 9/11, and the Church’s abuse?
Brendan Kiely: A hundred percent. I am not part of the conspiracy of 9/11 being an inside job. I don’t believe that. But regardless, I still think the government is accountable and should, like the church, recognize the vast tide of violence that it issued into the world in the new millennium after 9/11, and how it used 9/11—they said we’d bring freedom, but what they brought was violence. Also, the inspiration, so to speak, for the New Year’s scene, where the kid is being tortured—he’s drunk, passed out, naked, and he’s being drawn on—I was thinking of Abu Ghraib, where the American soldiers dressed up the prisoners and humiliated them. That’s what I was thinking of.
Tweed’s: When did you start writing this book? 2002?
Brendan Kiely: Actually, later. Those ideas were kicking around. I was working in book publishing then, and I quit because I wanted to write. That lasted for just a couple months, and then I was like, “Wow. I forgot I need an income and health insurance and things like that.” But I quit right when we went to war in Iraq, and I sat there watching the war in Iraq on CNN for three months, and it was devastating. That was my time off of work—just watching the war on TV. It was disgusting. And obviously, it sat within me and bitterness grew. I started the book in January of 2007, eight months before I began a Masters at City College.
Tweed’s: You originally wrote this to be a work of literary fiction, but it’s being published as YA. What changed during the editing process to make it for young adults rather than so-called literary readers?
Brendan Kiely: To be honest, I still think it’s a literary book. I haven’t changed that sensibility. I now think it’s a literary YA book, not necessarily a literary adult book. But I’m not even sure I quit fully recognized the difference between the two when we decided to go YA. I took out some of the internal narration that probably just bogged down the book anyway, and it didn’t matter if it was Young Adult or not. We sent the book to Young Adult Editors instead, without having changed the book all that much.
A lot of it has to do with the sixteen-year-old boy narrator. It has to do with the writing of the book. It’s not as cerebral as Dublinesque. It’s just not that kind of writing; it’s much more commercial in its delivery.
Tweed’s: What were you thinking in terms of audience? Us literary folk tend to forget that the most important books, those that changed our lives, were read when we were young adults.
Brendan Kiely: When I first was working on the book, I really was such an egotistical bastard. I was like, I want to write Catcher in the Rye for the age of terrorism. That was my goal. It really was. In my mind, the abuse scandal is a kind of terrorism.
But my agent Rob said, “Think about this. You’re a teacher. Don’t you want to inspire your kids? Don’t you want your book to really reach this audience?” And I thought, Damn. Yeah. I think you’re right; it’s the kind of book where maybe the ideas seem trite to an adult because they are about that shift from innocence to experience, so it’s more relevant to a younger audience, maybe. But like so many YA books, they also become meaningful for adults as well.