Note: My answers may contain some spoilers for the book—please don’t read this if you haven’t finished the book!
How did you get the idea for this book?
When I was working as a newspaper reporter, my editor asked me to check out some rumors about a church that many people were accusing of being a cult. The church did a lot of recruiting among college students, and some of the colleges in the area had actually become so concerned that they’d banned the church from campus. As I began investigating this situation, I quickly discovered that the allegations were very hard to pin down. What did the word “cult” mean, anyhow? What counted as “brainwashing” and what was just a religious viewpoint that others happened to disagree with? It was a very difficult story to report and write. But it was also a fascinating story to look into, one that meshed in some ways with questions I had in my own life and religious faith.
While I was working on this story, the interviews that stuck with me the most were the ones with former church members—people who had been very devout believers but who had then become disillusioned and left. I was surprised that, although some of them were fairly bitter about their experiences in that church, most of the former members had not lost any of their faith in God. Their experiences, if anything, had made them even more religious, even more determined in their search for religious meaning. That intrigued me, and so when I began thinking about Dorry in Leaving Fishers, I imagined her first as someone who had left an extremist religious group. Then I backed up and tried to imagine her life in the group, and then, tried to figure out her reasons for getting into the group in the first place. So even though I wrote the book in chronological order, I imagined it backwards.
Why didn’t you show Dorry joining a church that would be a better place for her than the Fishers of Men?
I wanted to show that there was a value in Dorry looking for the right answers, not just in finding them. And, realistically, I think it would take Dorry a while to trust another religious group, so I think her search will take her quite some time.
What are your own religious views?
I have always been very interested in religion. There have been points in my life when I would have been attracted by the legalistic, black-and-white viewpoint of a church like Fishers of Men, and other times when I have been very disturbed by it. I think it's very easy to become distracted from the true point of Christianity. Except for a brief phase in my early twenties I have always been a regular churchgoer, and part of a religious community, and I find that to be very helpful and sustaining. For the past sixteen years I’ve been a member of various Presbyterian churches (depending on where I’ve lived at the time), and I really like that denomination’s emphasis on asking questions and becoming educated in your faith. It fits with my sense that God is much too immense for any of us to fully comprehend, but we’re still supposed to try. The older I get, the more convinced I become that faith really is a journey.