FOOLish lies

Back in the Dark Ages when I was a stay-at-home-Mom with a secret hobby (because really, the income generated by my writing was so far beneath minimum wage it couldn’t be considered a job) it was difficult to justify the hours spent at the task. I tended to sneak away and scribble as a slightly shameful habit, one that my family rather hoped I’d grow out of.

When the kids were small, I was firm about being a stay-at-home. We could afford it, if we cut corners, and I thought that kind of relationship was best for children if one could manage it. And since a stay-at-home is really a full service homemaker, from growing and canning a winter’s worth of tomato sauce to repairing bits of a falling-apart farmhouse, I felt I was holding up my part of the communal effort.

The tricky part was, this was a house dominated by academia. My husband taught at the university, I finished my MA while the kids were small, there was no question that academics mattered. And if I’d been writing The Definitive Work on Third Century Christianity, there would have been no question that my lack of earning was worth it.

But these were novels. Worse, mystery novels. And I think the last novel of any stripe my husband had read was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for a class on African Traditional Religion that he was teaching. So while he didn’t exactly say anything, there was an underlying, and growing, question of when I would set aside the frivolous stuff and get a job. Preferably one that permitted me to take off during all the summers and sabbatical quarters when travel called.

Until I found such a thing, however, I ignored the growing number of hints and kept writing. And gave each book to my spousal unit to read and comment on, even though novels weren’t (and aren’t) his thing.

So in the summer of 1994 I handed him TO PLAY THE FOOL and he solemnly read it and made a couple of comments and that was that. Until he happened to go to San Francisco to visit a community founded by some of his ex-students, aimed at feeding the poor. Over their macrobiotic lunch they talked about names—Brotherhood of St. Francis, it being that saint’s city? Or Fools for Christ, that being how they thought of themselves?—and Noel said, Oh, how interesting, my wife has just written a book about modern fools. And they said, Modern fools, pray tell? So he regales them with the story and they are interested and he comes home and says, Sweetheart, can you give me a bibliography on the modern Fools movement for my friends in San Francisco.

Now, the husband was a professor superscale (meaning, ain’t no higher step to get on) of the University of California. Oxford degree, Nottingham D, Phil. He’d spent his life studying religion, ancient and modern. And he fell for my story.

Because I lied. That’s what writers of fiction do, after all, we lie. And the better we write, the better we lie. Oh, everything else in the book was footnoteable-fact: St Francis, early Christianity, Russian Fools, the Irish community of fools. But not the group at the center of TO PLAY THE FOOL.

Deeply satisfying, to tell a flat-faced lie to my husband and get away with it.

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  1. elleemmiss on September 10, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    Did you get away with it? I thought, to get away with a flat-faced lie, one is never called to pay the piper. Yet, you say your husband asked you about modern Fools. Did you admit to him that there were none, or did the subject fade away? I’m just curious.

    I am looking forward to reading TO PLAY THE FOOL, but my bookstore is very slow at ordering. Hopefully it will come in before next week, when I have surgery. That way, I will have a wonderful new book to read during recovery.

    Thank you for your other books, especially the Mary Russell mysteries. Take care!

  2. emyers on September 10, 2007 at 11:53 pm

    Great story. Others have fallen for your very convincing narrative, too. I had a friend argue rather vehemently that the background story–modern fools–must be true.

  3. Kerry on September 11, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    Wow! Nicely done! I never doubted that such a thing existed — it made so much sense in the context of all the other footnote-able material. Seamless and elegant; I guess that’s the best kind of lie.

  4. Carlina on September 12, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    Now this was really inspiring for me. I saw too many parallels in my own life (minus the children…we haven’t any), especially since my spouse is Ph.D. in history and, like yours, does not read fiction. My household also dominated by academia..with one exception. I’m an academic that loves to write fiction. For me its an escape from the pressures of academia…to go somewhere else and be something else.

    If may…this quote struck me: “I tended to sneak away and scribble as a slightly shameful habit, one that my family rather hoped I’d grow out of.” Boy does that sound familiar…

    I shall bookmark this and if…if…one of my works does get published, then I will show my other half this and say “see….she gave me hope.!” Thanks much!

  5. Nan on September 13, 2007 at 8:10 am

    This comment is not really to this posting, but I have a question about The Art of Detection. I have not, as yet, read the Kate Martinelli series, though I have read the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books (I’m reading The Game right now, with Locked Rooms to follow). Should I read the earlier KM books before TAoD? Would I be lost if I hadn’t read them? I do plan to read Locked Rooms first.

    Also, I may have missed a comment in one of the books, but has Mary ever thought of cutting her hair? I would think it would be so much easier to live her life with short hair. :

  6. Jen B on April 13, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Gaaaack! I just spent 2 hours trying to find out more about that 70s movement and the murder incident on the net! So yes, I am a PhD student and an archaeologists and research is what I do, and you TOTALLY had me. Though as an adolescent I was part of a Christian Clown Troop called “Fools for Christ” which did essentially what you described, in sermons and other church events. It was a little scary, the permutations and manipulations of jestering, for adolescent presbyterians! We also went to a place called “Bread and Puppet Theatre” in vermont, which does a large, semi-liturgical puppet show with 20 foot puppets (they finish by setting the “big brother” puppet on fire at sunset, in a natural amphitheatre in the hills). I loved the minister who ran the group, she died a few years later. I thought of her a lot reading this, she would have liked it. Ripping good story, too.

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