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Featured Author: John R. Coats, author of Original Sinners
The story of John R. Coats first book radiates with inspiration for every writer whose hair went gray before they began to write in earnest. Coats found an agent and a publisher through old-fashioned work and a great query letter and proposal, despite a paucity of published credits. He'd published only one essay, an essay so original and provocative--it was selected for inclusion in the Best American Spiritual Writing of 2008 anthology. An elegant and conservational writing style and a lifetime of study swirled in an eddy of thought and work to create Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis.
John R. Coats holds master’s degrees from Virginia Theological Seminary (Episcopal) and Bennington College Writing Seminars. A former parish priest, he was a principal speaker and seminar leader for the More to Life training program in the United States, Great Britain, and South Africa, and an independent management consultant. He lives with his wife, Pamela, in Houston, Texas.
An original interview with John R Coats
ALJ: Amy Lou Jenkins JRC: John R. Coats
ALJ John, I understand that writing is your second or third career. Please briefly explain your journey to becoming a writer.
JRC Following my graduation from university, I enrolled in the Episcopal seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. I graduated in 1973, was ordained, and served parishes in Texas and California. Then, in 1981, I was invited to join the staff of a startup training organization, then called The Life Training, now called More to Life. For the next fourteen years, as a trainer and speaker for the program, I traveled extensively in the United States, Great Britain, and South Africa. By 1995, with my daughter well into a difficult adolescence, it was time for daddy to stay closer to home, so I decided to try my hand at corporate consulting. In 1996 the writing bug sank its fangs and refused to let go. In time it became what Rilke called my “necessity.” I tried detective fiction, spy fiction, literary fiction, then settled on nonfiction—memoir and personal essay. After taking most every writing course I could find in Houston (a few more than once; one of them three times), I applied to Bennington Writing Seminars and was accepted. I started Original Sinners in my last semester.
ALJ What is your publishing background?
JRC Almost nil. After a year or so of those “thanks but no thanks” letters from magazine and lit journal editors, a friend suggested that I sent one of my essays, “Who Am I, Notes on Ecstatic Moments,” to Portland, the magazine of Portland University in Portland, Oregon. It was accepted for the Fall, 2007 issue, then was reprinted in Best American Spiritual Writing, 2008. Except for all those rejection letters, that’s it.
ALJ I can't imagine that any new writer could even dream that one's first published essay would be included in the Best American Spiritual writing anthology. How did they notify you? What was your reaction?
JRC What a surprise that was! It was February, ’08, the same day I mailed query letters to the agents about Original Sinners. So I’d gone to the post office, and just as I slid the key into the lock of my back door, it was as if all the pent-up fear of rejection and failure that had been so quiet in the two years that I’d been working on it decided that now would be as good time as any to come blowing out of the closet: “What if nobody wants it?” “What if nobody likes it?” “What if they all say no?” “What am I gonna do?” Any Psych 101 student knows that questions like that are just masked statements, so it was more like, Nobody’s gonna want it! Nobody’s gonna like it! They’re all gonna say no! By the time I got through the door, my knees were weak, my breath short, and I was breaking into a cold sweat. So I flopped into the nearest chair and stared at the wall as all the above roiled around in my head. After a while, having processed through my mind’s bleaker yammerings, I decided to check email—opening email is always a bit like Christmas morning even when I’m not waiting for something in particular. No responses yet to the email queries, but there was one from a Philip Zaleski—a request to reprint my essay from Portland in The Best American Spiritual Essays of 2008. Not only would Jimmy Carter write the Introduction, but if I said yes, my piece would be alongside the writing of John Updike, Natalie Goldberg, Robert Pinsky, Richard Rodriguez, Oliver Sacks, and the like. And I’d get two hundred bucks, which meant my little essay had earned a total of five hundred. From the dumps to one of those above-the-line-of-expectation highs. It was pretty wonderful. A few days later I had an agent, Eileen Cope, who’d been my first choice.
An interesting twist on the story, a finale of sorts, is that, when The Best American Spiritual Writing, 2008, came out, I discovered that the subtitle of my piece—Notes on Ecstatic Moments—had been left out. Since the first sentence of the essay, “I’ve had a number of them, actually, all unexpected,” is dependent on that subtitle, there must have been more than a few readers wondering what the hell I was getting at. The writing life does have a way of keeping one’s ego in check.
ALJ Kudo's to you! Still it's unusual to follow up that one essay with a book that is picked up by a major publisher, especially in this economic environment. How did you come to write Original Sinners? And how did you find a publisher?
JRC You could say the book had been writing itself in my head for forty years. I was raised a Southern Baptist which meant that my childhood was spent beneath a waterfall of words both from and about scripture. Baptist doctrine insists that the Bible is true as it was written, and for a while, I assumed this was true. But I noticed discrepancies, and when I’d ask about them, I’d be given nonsensical answers by teachers who were not prepared for such queries. So I kept asking until, finally, I was expelled and sent home with a note that read, “Johnny can come back to Sunday School when he stops asking so many questions.” My father thought it was a hoot; my mother not so much, so with orders from her to keep my mouth shut, I was allowed back the following Sunday. But it was a return in body only—my faith in the place, itself, was gone. But not the questions.
Twelve years later, I joined the Episcopal Church. A year later, I was headed for the Episcopal seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. After two years in the seminary, I took an intern year at one of the most progressive parishes in the Episcopal Church, and it was there that I learned to read the scriptures as metaphor, to see them as larger stories about being human—as mirrors of my own life, of our lives in relation to one another, the world, to the numinous, that which is beyond our understanding, beyond the reach of language. Finally, this huge, ingrained piece of my life finally made sense! Even after I left the church, in 1981, my connection to the biblical stories remained. It was Phillip Lopate, my teacher during my last term at Bennington, who suggested that I draw on my theological and biblical background for my writing. He suggested that I look at Genesis As It Is Written, an anthology to which he’d contributed. There, while the writers had done their homework of consulting biblical scholars, for most, their main thrust had been to read those primal stories primarily as myth and metaphor, stories that had reflected and informed their lives in particular ways. It was sweet Déjà vu. I could do that. I wrote two essays, the first about Jacob and Esau, the second about Jonah. Lopate liked them both, and said that if I’d write a book, he’d endorse it. I was off and running. That was three and a half years ago.
ALJ Your essays must have been wonderful to impress Lopate who is the master of the form. You must have written quite an engaging proposal!
What question do you wish I would have asked? And how would you answer that question?
JRC Question: Something like, Who do you hope will read your book, and why?
Answer: The reader I had in most in my mind was from the vast middle ground. With fundamentalists shouting from one extreme and the New Atheists from the other, what of the intelligent, curious reader who is not interested in being saved by religion or saved from it? Whether we like it or not, the Bible is source material for our civilization: its spiritual, moral, ethical DNA is embedded in Western culture—our culture. It is part of our common ground. The Bible has given shape to our lives both individually and collectively, and because that’s true, it belongs to everyone, the religious and non-religious alike. My focus is not on Genesis as a religious text—which it is not, but on the humanity in the stories. Pull back the centuries of overlay, and you can see that, at the level of the human, the stories are entirely modern. You can see people who were just as colossally stupid as we are, just as wise, as greedy, as foolish, and as clever. Take a step back from the habit of seeing them only in the context of religion, and their stories become our stories.
ALJ Thank You John