By Leslie Lindsay
Stunningly executed first novel is brimming with conflict, but also hope, and the most astute writing.
A Today show “Read with Jenna” Book Club Selection***
“A moving portrait of love and friendship set against a backdrop of social change.”
—The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
Entertainment Weekly calls The Dearly Beloved “the best book about faith in recent memory.”
Plus, readers are saying it’s an instant-classic, traversing multiple generations.
I love THE DEARLY BELOVED (Simon & Schuster, August 2019) by Cara Wall. This has got to be one of the most stirring and incisive debuts I have read in a long time.
Writing with a restrained lyricism, Cara Wall’s THE DEARLY BELOVED is about marriage, beliefs, faith, friendships, conflicts, and motherhood. Beginning in the 1950s and traversing through the 1960s, we are truly immersed in the world of Charles and Lily, at college in Boston, when Charles strays from the academic path held by his father and wants to become a minister. But then he finds Lily, who is a skeptic –and for good reason. She’s dealt with some loss and heartache that leads her to question God’s existence.
Meanwhile, James and Nan, a minister’s daughter from the South, are transplanted to Chicago, and she’s finding it hard to fit in, but there’s more going on, too. James’s challenging family background is causing his faith to waver. What does it mean to have ‘the call?’ The backstory is absolutely rich and rewarding and so well done.
Though very different in terms of religious faith and family background, James and Charles soon find themselves interviewing for the same position at the same NYC Presbyterian church. They both get the job. Set amidst the turbulence of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, plus women’s liberation, and more, these couples must forge together and create an alliance.
I found THE DEARLY BELOVED a tremendously well-written and sharply imagined novel. I relished falling into the lives of these unforgettable characters and found myself thinking of them when I wasn’t reading. Plus, there are a few twists and unique perspectives toward the end which will absolutely endear you to these Charles and Lily, Nan and James.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Cara Wall to the author interview series.
Cara! It is such a pleasure to connect. I read THE DEARLY BELOVED in alternating fits of ‘I-can’t-get-enough-but-I-don’t-want-it-to-end.’ This book is just so good. I always want to know what was haunting writers as they set out to write. What was it for you?
I was newly married and pregnant with my daughter, so the themes of marriage and parenting were very strong for me at that time. I had been living away from New York City for five years, and though I had my parents and some good friends in my neighborhood, I was feeling a little bit lost. My community ties felt new and fragile, especially as I thought about becoming a mother. I knew my life would change in ways I couldn’t imagine, and I was fretting over how to deepen my friendships and feel secure in my new life roles. I felt a little bit like I did in middle school, when I was terribly social awkward and desperate to fit in. As an adult, I knew I would get over my insecurities–I just wasn’t sure how. All of that informed the sense of longing that I feel permeates this book.
Your daughter is now fifteen. That’s a long time to nurture and love a book. Can you tell us a little about your publishing journey? Did the story shift over the years, is it pretty much as we see it today?
My first draft was maybe 100 pages long. I wrote it in two or three weeks, and it was just a series of scenes. I think I spent the first revision adding the settings—describing all the people, houses, and cities in detail, so that I could feel the physical world of the story. From there, I spent a lot of time on the love stories and marriages of the two couples. That was all pretty easy—the two hardest parts to write were Nan and Lily’s relationship and Charles’s withdrawal from the church. It took me a long time to really understand why the two women dislikes each other so much, and why Charles wouldn’t let God comfort him in the face of Will’s diagnosis. So, those two story lines looked very different in earlier drafts than they do now.
The hardest part of publishing, for me, was just writing the book! It takes an inordinate amount of self-control for me to sit down and put pen to paper. It’s an agonizing exercise in discipline and patience, and it always takes me twice as long to write a sentence as I think it will.
Once I finished the book—I think I wrote 10-12 complete drafts–I had a very lucky and dreamy publishing process. I found an amazing agent almost by accident, and she did the heavy lifting that led me to Simon and Schuster. Once they had acquired it, I went through three rounds of targeted revisions with my editor: one to clarify Charles and Lily’s love story, one to clarify Charles’s withdrawal from the church (again!), and one to change the ending. Originally, Marcus and Annelise’s love story was much longer, and the book ended with their wedding, rather than Lola’s christening. I really liked that story line—I’d always wanted to the book to end with Charles, Lily, James, and Nan sending a new, young couple out into the world with hope and encouragement—but my editor wanted the book to stay closer to the four main characters. I was very resistant to making such a big change…until I realized I could change the wedding to a christening and keep the ceremony and Charles’s speech pretty much the same. As much as I’d dreaded it, that revision turned out to be the easiest of them all.
All of the characters—Nan and James, Charles and Lily—have a different view of faith. Charles is more academic and Lily doesn’t seem to have any at all; Nan is a minister’s daughter and her faith is pretty straightforward whereas James’s is a bit tentative. I think it’s important to note that not two people will ever have the same relationship with faith. Can you talk about how you developed these characters? Is there one you feel more closely aligned with?
All four characters came to me fully formed. I never felt like I was creating them; writing this book was simply a process of getting to know them. At first, I knew them as students and young people in love—the surface facts of their faiths were there, but if you read one of my first drafts, you would see that the religious parts of the book were skimpy and cartoonish. I was most interested in how these two couples stayed married for 40 years.
I really only started to think deeply about faith as I was expanding Will’s story, and it became clear to me that Charles was pulling away from God. I found that odd, and to figure it out, I had to go back to the beginning and really examine what Charles’s early religious experience felt like to him, and how he had made peace with Lily’s lack of faith. That was when the book became much richer and more nuanced, and I knew I was writing about something beyond love and marriage.
I feel most aligned with Charles. We are both academics, and we always see the nuances of any situation, which make it hard for us to take sides, even when we should. I feel least aligned with James, though I have incredible respect for his energy and determination—I think he would be perplexed by the fact that I write in bed and can spend an entire weekend inside, reading books.
One of the surprises of publishing this book is that readers tend to choose Team Nan or Team Lily. I’ve been taken aback by how much some people hate Lily—hate is their word, not mine–and also by how much they love Nan. I find Nan’s need for love and attention somewhat stifling, probably because she started out as a personification of my most insecure, desperate to be liked self. I think Lily gets short shrift—readers who dislike her feel like she never thawed, and I so disagree with that! For her to pray with Charles at the end was a HUGE development. It meant that she had fully accepted him, that he could bring his faith into their relationship, that and the biggest wall between them had been brought down. I can tell you that Charles considered it a miracle.
I know you said that you made a ‘dubious decision’ not to quote scripture in THE DEARLY BELOVED because you wanted a more modern take on church. I like that much of the spirituality is left private, sort of off-stage, because that’s how it is in the ‘real world.’ Can you talk more about that, please?
Well, practically speaking, I’m not a religious scholar, so I was always nervous to include scripture. And most of the ministers I know don’t quote Bible verses in everyday conversation, so the only place I would have included scripture would have been in the sermons. But as I wrote those, I wanted to get straight to Charles and James’s most personal and insightful revelations; including the entire sermon would have made those passages long and unwieldy.
Also, I wanted people of all faiths and no faith to read this book and feel like they saw something of themselves in each character. I didn’t want it to be a book that preached at people. I just wanted to write a book that deeply explored what it means to be in relationship with other people. That’s a universal and eternal subject that I didn’t want to shrink into the lens of one denomination.
“Finely drawn and written with compassion and care, and every word is precisely chosen…This story will be beloved by book clubs and fans of literary fiction.”
—LIBRARY JOURNAL (STARRED REVIEW)
I’m curious about so many things that go on inside a church. For example, I didn’t know about the hiring process or how ministers are provided housing. I didn’t know much about sessions or committees. These just aren’t things that typical church-goers know. Can you talk a little about the research that went into THE DEARLY BELOVED?
My research is from real life! My parents have been on every committee possible at their church, and I’ve been on quite a few myself, most recently as a choir steering committee member. Those committees are what build community, because you have to work with one another and make decisions that affect the success of the church. One of my jobs on the choir committee was to plan a tour to Spain for 65 choristers and parents—that was an almost impossible task, and I will be friends with the women who helped me pull it off for the rest of my life. (I’m not even going to discuss the annual pie sale.)
It’s important to note, though, that every denomination is different. The Presbyterian church is very democratic—every part of church life is decided by a committee, nothing is run top down by the minister. By comparison, in the Episcopalian church, the priest has final say over almost every part of parish life. And even within denominations, every church has its own personality and quirks of governance. So, I felt comfortable creating a fictional church that had its own character and traditions, as long is it evoked the feeling of the church I knew growing up.
What I think I really love about THE DEARLY BELOVED is the way you incorporated so many other aspects of these character’s lives. It’s not just a book on ministers and religion. At all. There’s motherhood and marriage, women’s liberation, friendship, and even autism. I loved the time period, too. I fully felt immersed in the 1950s-1960s. Was this all intention on your part or did it sort of evolve as the story developed?
My parents arrived in New York City in 1965, and it was a defining moment in their lives. They left conservative religious upbringings in very small towns to create a life together—to go on an adventure. The sense of “before and after” was in every story they told me, in every trip back to visit my grandparents, in the pictures of their childhoods compared to my own. I suppose had a clear sense of 1965 as the point in time when the whole world pivoted on its axis.
Also, Charles, Lily, James, and Nan are inspired by the ministers, and their wives, that ran my church when I was a child. One of those couples had an autistic son, and did, indeed, create a school for him and other autistic children in the 1960s. I was very drawn to that story—to the strength of character and determination it must have taken to advocate for him and themselves.
So, the time period was obvious to me from the outset, and I never thought about changing it. I don’t think the story could have been set even five years earlier or later than it was—it needed the push and pull between the conservatism of the 1950’s and the revolution of the 1960’s to challenge the characters. It needed to take place a time of social awakening so that the characters had to rethink their ideas of themselves and decide what kind of people they wanted to be as they moved forward.
What do you think challenged you the most in writing THE DEARLY BELOVED? What brought you the greatest joy? And what changed you?
My greatest challenge was, and continues to be, sitting down to write. It’s such a solitary, engrossing activity—sort of like a suspended animation, or a tightrope I have to walk entirely alone. Every single time I put pen to paper, I feel like I am leaving my friends and family behind and might never see them again. The flip side is that my greatest joy is writing. I love the texture of words, the rhythm of sentences, the experience of fully inhabiting a character’s emotional being. I love the moments when the words seem to write themselves, and I just watch them appear on the page, delighted.
I’m not a linear thinker, so my greatest challenge was putting everything I wrote into chronological order. My greatest joy was writing the epilogue. It was the very last thing I wrote, and it poured out of me in 45 minutes. I didn’t have a clue what I was going to write, except that I knew it would be from Lily’s point of view. As soon as she said, “Don’t bring Nan,” I started crying and didn’t stop until I finished. It was a truly magical experience to feel absolutely certain that the book was done. And to conclude it in a way that felt satisfying without being too sentimental—that remained true to each character and yet had an element of surprise.
I’ve been changed the most by the experience of having my book out in the world and discussing it with so many people. I’ve always been much more serious about my writing than I have been about me. At first, I was taken aback that people wanted me to talk about faith and the craft of writing. I really don’t feel like an expert in either of those subjects. It’s taken a while for me to become comfortable with the idea that I am, actually somewhat well-versed in those two things—at least in as much as I spent 15 years exploring them. I’ve had to put aside my insecurities and interact with people from a much deeper place of self-confidence. I’m not good at having a public persona and a private persona–I like to be the same person in every interaction, so it’s been a really challenging time for me, in a good way.
I’m so excited to see what you do next. Can you give us a sneak peek?
I’m working on a book about a painting that’s left of the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s an annunciata—a piece of art that depicts the moment Gabriel tells Mary she will be the mother of God. The book tells two stories: one about the people trying to discover where the painting came from, and one about the painting, itself. I’m three notebooks in—if you follow me on Instagram, you can get sneak peeks as I go along.
Cara, this has been most delightful. Thank you, thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I might have asked, but forgot?
Well, it might interest you to know that I’m in two book clubs—one very long-term one, and one that’s still new-ish. And that I’m a pretty good baker, a competent flamenco dancer, and a terrible ping-pong player. Also, no one ever asks me when I knew I wanted to be a writer, and it’s one of my favorite stories. I was a sophomore in high school—boarding school—and I had just gone down to the bookstore, which was in the basement, to get my texts for the spring semester. I was taking creative writing as my elective, and the book for that class was Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was going to change my life. The minute I got back to my dorm room, I sat down in my beanbag chair and read it cover to cover. As I was finishing, a girl on my hall walked by and said, “What a weird name for a book.” I looked at her completely dumbstruck, because I had never before encountered a phrase that seemed so absolutely true to me. Everything that meant anything was in our bones, and it all needed to be written down. I knew, in that moment, that I was different—not from everyone in the whole world, just from that girl. I knew her well enough to know that she was, at her heart, a doctor—something I could never be—and I suddenly knew myself well enough to know was a writer. It was the exact moment I recognized my identity.
For more information, to connect with Cara Wall via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE DEARLY BELOVED, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cara Wall is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and Stanford University. While at Iowa, Cara taught fiction writing in the undergraduate creative writing department as well as at the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio in her capacity of founder and inaugural director. She went on to teach middle school English and History, and has been published by Glamour, Salon, and The San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in New York City with her family.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Simon & Schuster and used with permission. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Please follow @leslielindsay1 on Instagram for more like this]