Southernmost is a meditation on love and its consequences in a quickly changing America. Among the book’s honors are the Weatherford Award in Appalachian Literature and a longlisting for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, as well as selections by the American Library Association, American Independent Booksellers Association, The Advocate, Booklist, Garden & Gun, Southern Living, Paste Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, PopSugar, and the New York Public Library.
Southernmost is now out in paperback. Rebecca Gayle Howell, author of American Purgatory and poetry editor for Oxford American, sat down with House for Image.
IMAGE: Southernmost is your sixth novel. You are widely known as one of the leading voices in Appalachian fiction, and your books have all been bestsellers. But Southernmost is the first book in which you explore faith. Can you talk a bit about this choice?
HOUSE: All of my novels for adults consider religion and question it but in this one I knew that I wanted to look at the full spectrum of belief, tie it to a specific issue, and then challenge myself to create characters that represent different points on the belief spectrum without making caricatures of any of them. For example, I wanted a fanatic fundamentalist Christian, a progressive Episcopalian, a doubter, someone creating their own theology, an agnostic—and I wanted to give voice to each of them, examine their humanities individually.
The word “Christian” is so loaded right now, and frankly I think that there is good reason for that, so I wanted to look at a variety of Christian faiths and show that there are many ways to be a Christian, or a believer, and that we have to think of the word on an individual basis instead of as an umbrella term. I think that the word has become so politically charged by politicians and the media that it makes for a really good topic for a novel because the form allows time and space to look at it with the complexity it deserves. The role of the novelist is to explore the between, or the gray—not the black or the white. So, in a time when I feel like everything is being boiled down into absolutes, it’s more important than ever to explore the most mysterious gray of all: faith.
IMAGE: I agree. Few spaces in American life exhibit the nuance of our citizenry quite like spaces of Christian implication. These communities amplify personalities and piccadillies, and put people into direct and sometimes needful conversation who otherwise might not have anything to do with one another. But I suppose that has always been true. Why this novel, now?
HOUSE: Well, this book is about the cross-section of LGBTQ rights and Christianity. I was seeing so much progress on the way Americans were evolving on the issue—we had marriage equality happen, for one thing, and much more representation in mainstream media—yet there was also so much pushback, and most of it was coming from the evangelical community. Having been raised in the evangelical church, I felt I had something to say on this. The great paradox to me is that in my experience, I had known so many truly good people in the evangelical church, yet had been shocked by how easily most of them could switch to downright hatred when it came to an issue like this. The most disturbing thing of all, to me, is when a loving person can exhibit such extreme judgement and then try to back it up with Bible verses. At the same time, not all evangelicals are that way. My parents, for example, are still evangelical, but they will not abide anyone being homophobic in their presence. So in Southernmost there’s the fanatic evangelical whose religion has turned her so mean that she holds a pistol to her son’s head when he comes out. And then there’s the evangelical preacher who loves his gay brother so much that he spends ten years really examining what he believes in, finally landing on compassion instead of judgment. And everything in between.
IMAGE: Do you consider yourself a Christian?
HOUSE: I left the Holiness church I was raised in when I was sixteen years old. There was just so much misogyny and racism and homophobia, and even though I loved all of those people individually, as an entity it was just too oppressive. I found myself leaving church feeling battered, exhausted. But being a believer is almost as innate for me as being gay is. No matter what, I never stopped believing, and I never stopped craving a congregation. I’ll be the first to say that I experience the divine out in the woods or on a riverbank or just sitting with a dog but there is also something in me that loves a church, too. A congregation. So yes, I am Christian, and I am gay. I contain multitudes, as Whitman said, as do we all, but many people can’t quite rectify the idea of a gay person identifying as multiple things and not just as a gay person. For years I wandered alone in the wilderness and eventually found a home in the Episcopal church.
IMAGE: How was Southernmost informed by your search for wholeness?
HOUSE: Even though I left the church as a teenager, I still didn’t accept myself for a long while. At the time I thought that if I prayed hard enough I wouldn’t be gay. But in retrospect I think I just didn’t want to let my parents down by coming out. About the time I was going to come out, around age 18, my mother had breast cancer. So that set me back. But when you’re looking for reasons to not come out, there are always obstacles. I came out very late in life, at 34, after being married to a woman and having two children. But I have no regrets. It took me a while to identify the God of My Own Understanding but once I did, I was free. And that’s something you see happening to a couple of the main characters in this novel. Some of the characters are not able to do that, and that makes for a very hard character to write. Because as a novelist, you want to make change occur in the people who inhabit your books. But in this case, sometimes people just do not budge, ever.
IMAGE: Characters, yes. Though I actually know many real-life Christians for whom Southernmost has created change, giving them a mirror they’ve longed for, one that reflects God as love, and not as a bigot. It does not escape my attention that this book is, accidentally or not, interacting with a heightened and complex public discourse along these same dividing lines. The story’s relationship with the Supreme Court’s decision to declare marriage equality, as you’ve mentioned, but also the book’s timing with Trump’s election and his having been endorsed by several leading evangelicals, most notably Jerry Falwell Jr.
This spring, as you’ve prepared to launch the paperback edition of Southernmost, the Methodist Church voted to reject the sanctity of their LGBTQ sisters and brothers and The Washington Post published a general electorate poll that indicates nearly half of Republicans still claim to believe that Trump enjoys a mandate from God. And then, of course, Pete Buttigieg, your fellow Episcopalian, announced his run for the White House.
HOUSE: Yes, the novel is far more relevant now than when I was writing it. I wrote it in a time of great hope, during the Obama administration’s progressiveness on the issue, and the passage of marriage equality. One thing that inspired the book is when Reverend Frank Shaefer of Pennsylvania defied the Methodist Church by performing his gay son’s wedding ceremony and was defrocked in 2013 because of it. Rev. Shaefer became a folk hero to a whole lot of LGBTQ people in that moment of standing up for what he believed in, even though he knew it was in opposition to his church. He was resisting before we were even talking about The Resistance.
And yes, Buttigieg is being attacked vehemently because he identifies as a gay Christian. There is just no dividing LGBTQ equality from Christianity in this country. All of my life, when someone has been homophobic to me, they’ve backed it up by saying that “it’s against God” or “the Bible says so.” The absolute best moment for me with this book, after eight years of writing it, was when a Baptist preacher told me that Southernmost made him reconsider the way he had treated his sister when she came out to him, years ago. He was in tears. He said he called her as soon as he finished the book, after so many years of silence between them. For me, as a writer, there is just nothing better than that. And it reminds me that people are capable of change, of choosing love over judgment. These days I need reminding of that more and more.
IMAGE: You said earlier that you’d hoped to write a novel about belief in which no one is presented as a caricature. While I was reading, I was surprised, and instructed, by the complexity with which you wrote the characters who are homophobic, even those who justify their bigotry with Scripture. Was this painful work for you?
HOUSE: The most challenging characters to write are always the ones the writer disagrees with the most. But I think every writer should be up for that challenge. The “antagonist” in the book is Asher’s wife, Lydia. She turns a gay couple away into the night after they’ve lost their house because they’re gay. She wants to erase the empathy from her child. She wants her husband to suppress his true beliefs so they can continue with their settled lives. She is a total homophobe. But the novelist’s goal is to make each character three dimensional. I worked hard to understand her bigotry and I found that it was, of course, rooted in fear. There’s a vulnerability in that. And humanity can be seen when someone is vulnerable. But still, I tried to not let her off the hook. I wanted her to be put on the page for the reader to have their own reactions about her.
Some people in the LGBTQ community have accused me of giving Lydia too much grace by complexifying her, but my job as the novelist is to put the character on the page, to put the situation on the page, not to lead the reader. I don’t want to write polemics. I’ve also been criticized in the LGBTQ community because I’m a gay man who was raised in the evangelical church in a rural place, yet I made the straight evangelical rural pastor the main character, leaving his gay brother to be a secondary character. Because a main character has to be in trouble. And I didn’t want my gay character to be troubled. I wanted him to be like me: content in who I am, in the world I’ve made for myself. The more interesting character to me is his straight brother, who is a mess, mostly because he’s allowed religion to turn him judgmental and unkind. Luckily, he realizes that. So to me, the book is about the way we all have a choice. If we are believers, we can take that belief and use it compassionately and kindly or we can use it to back up hatred and backwardness. Ultimately, however, the role of literature is to shine a light on that gray area, to explore the complexities. We’re living in a time of absolutes, so I believe that literature is more important than ever.
Silas House is the nationally bestselling author of six novels—Clay’s Quilt; A Parchment of Leaves; The Coal Tattoo; Eli the Good; Same Sun Here (with Neela Vaswani), and Southernmost—as well as a book of creative nonfiction, Something’s Rising (with Jason Howard). A member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, his work has been honored with the EB White Award, the Storylines Prize from the New York Public Library/NAV Foundation, the Nautilus Award, among many others. Houses’s writing has appeared recently in Time, The New York Times, Garden and Gun, Oxford American, and many other places. House lives in Kentucky with his husband, the writer Jason Howard, and serves as the NEH Chair at Berea College and on the fiction faculty at the Spalding University School of Creative Writing.
Rebecca Gayle Howell is a 2019 United States Artists Fellow. Her most recent book is American Purgatory, selected by Don Share for Great Britain’s Sexton Prize and named a must-read collection by Poetry London, The Millions, and the Courier-Journal. She serves as the poetry editor for Oxford American and the James Still Writer-in-Residence at the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Kentucky.