CNN: Just finished “Lamb,” which I enjoyed immensely. So now, a few questions for starters:
Are you Jewish? Are you SURE? (I am Jewish, and your characterizations of various folks in the book is dead-on Jewish parody.)
CM: No I’m not Jewish, but I’m flattered that you would think so. Funny thing about the letters I get from readers of Lamb. Catholics assume I’m a lapsed Catholic, and Jewish people seem to think I’m Jewish. I love that. Actually, I’m describe myself as a Buddhist with Christian tendencies, which comes simply because Buddhists ethics are much more difficult to explain than Christian ethics (and even to grasp oneself).
CNN: What inspired the idea of doing the book? Had you been watching “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”? Were you simply cracking jokes about the Apostles?
CM: Actually, as much as I love the Python’s stuff, and there is, indeed, a bit of a tribute to them in the book (scene where a dead Roman soldier who has been resurrected insists that he’s just been “nicked”) the initial inspiration came from a book I was reading called The Master and Margarita, by Mikael Bugarov (check the spelling on that). In it there’s a scene of the trail of Jesus from the point of view of Pontius Pilate, who has a migraine at the time, and it was very moving. I had never really thought of the Jesus story characterized like that before. A short time later I was watching a PBS Frontline special called From Jesus to Christ, which talked about how much we actually don’t know about the life of Christ, including the infamous “missing years” from twelve to thirty, and I thought, “Someone should write that story. And since I know nothing about religion or history, I should be that someone.”
CNN: Books and movies that poke fun at the life of Christ — even in a thoughtful or respectful way — are greeted with less than hosannas from certain folks in America. (I can still recall the protests that greeted “Life of Brian” in New Orleans, where I was raised . . . talk about people who didn’t get it.) Does this concern you? Did you expect protests from humorless fundamentalists? Did you HOPE FOR such protests, since that kind of publicity can’t hurt?
CM: Actually, my family was concerned about my safety, and I was a bit reticent about touring the South, but as it turned out, the reaction from virtually everyone, including many, many members of the clergy, has been overwhelmingly positive. I had always said, even before the book was released, that I wasn’t worried about the people who read the book, but those who didn’t. That’s still my worry. The book is not in the least bit mean-spirited, so anyone who took offense to it would have to be looking for something that simply isn’t there. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to garner any negative publicity either, and at one point I was calling friends in Ohio and begging them to burn my books (I even offered to pay for the books and the lighter fluid), but in the end everyone remained reasonable and intelligent. America is more reasonable and intelligent than the pundits would have us believe.
CNN: What is your own religious background? Also some basic biography.
CM: I was baptized Methodist and raised in the first church of the NFL. My father was very much into football, which conflicted with church, somewhat, so there you go. Of course I grew up in Ohio, where even college football is sacred, so observing the Jewish Sabbath or being a Seventh Day Adventist was out of the question as well. My father was a highway patrolman and my mother sold appliances at a big department store, so their schedules were ever-changing. I believe they would have raised me with a much stronger spiritual base if they could have found a religion that held services on Thursday evenings between say, six and six-fifteen. The rest of my upbringing is pretty standard Midwestern middle-class suburbia, with short stops at various state universities and menial jobs before I started publishing books in my early thirties.
CNN: How long did it take to write the book? Did the writing deepen your own religious interest (I’m assuming you’re not an atheist) or make you more cynical?
CM: The book took about three and half years, including the research, which is longer than any other of my books has taken me. Much of that time was spent in the research, because, as I said before, I just didn’t know much about the time, the man, the society. I needed to get the history right if I was going to write this as a comedy, so I did a lot of reading and spent some time in Israel as well. What struck me most from the experience was the courage of Jesus of Nazareth as a man. You have to look at him as a man, because that’s the only point of view one can really carry. The more I learned about society in first century Israel, both among the Jews and the Romans, the more I respected the courage for the things that Jesus said and did in the context of his time. I suppose if there was any personal enlightenment in doing the work, it was in realizing that passion and compassion do not have to be mutually exclusive. Lately it seems that Jesus has been co-opted by conservatives in our society, but what I learned is that this man was anything but conservative. He was a revolutionary, a radical, and like all of those who seek to change the status quo by peaceful means, he was killed for his views. I also learned that there is not such thing as too many camel jokes in any biblical story.
CNN: Who are some of your favorite writers in general? Some favorite books?
CM: First and foremost the comic work of John Steinbeck, specifically Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. There’s a voice and a lyricism in those books that never fail to move and inspire me. I’ve also been inspired by Kurt Vonnegutt, who always seemed to have had an idea some twenty years before I did, and expressed it with elegant simplicity, and I like Tom Robbin’s work a lot too, specifically Jitterbug Perfume, which is sexy and lyrical and funny all at once, while showing a great self-indulgence of a writer who is appearing to have a lot of fun with his material. His stuff sort of gives you permission to go be goofy, which I seemed to have made a career out of. Douglas Adams was an inspiration to me as well, if only because by satirizing a genre he actually transcended it, and I had hoped to do that at one time with the horror genre when I was starting out. Lately I’ve been reading everything by Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke, Lullaby) who can be very funny and very dark and very entertaining all at the same time. My stand-bys, guys who I read as soon as their stuff is available are Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, and Dave Barry. None of these guys’ books will ever disappoint.