Richard Dawkins wants Pope Benedict XVI arrested when the pontiff visits England in the fall. Canadian National Post columnist Robert Fulford rightfully slammed the Dawkins proposal as “a publicity stunt to denigrate the Pope and his Church.” In doing so, Fulford channeled Mary Eberstadt and her new book, The Loser Letters, a full-length satirical slap-down of the whole lot of contemporary, out-of-control atheists.
“The Loser Letters” were first published on National Review Online in the spring of 2008. Ignatius Press has now made them bookshelf-ready. Revisiting the conception, Eberstadt talks to NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the Letters.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Who is A. F. Christian and why does anyone need to know her?
MARY EBERSTADT: A. F. (“A Former”) Christian is the book’s protagonist, and the Loser Letters are written in her voice. She’s a worldly, bubbly twentysomething girl who has a religious conversion story to share. For reasons that are revealed as the Letters go on, she’s chosen to tell it to her personal rock stars, the New Atheists. Along the way she gives these “Brights” plenty of earnest advice about how to strengthen their movement against the believers — a.k.a. the “Dulls.”
LOPEZ: Where did you meet her?
EBERSTADT: In a way, A. F. is everygirl — or at least every girl who’s had the experience of losing her faith in college and then moving out into the secularized world. I’ve seen glimpses of her in lots of young women over the years, especially now. There’s even a little of me in A. F., though she obviously gets to do some things I don’t (or don’t anymore).
LOPEZ: Is there anything significant about her age? Is that decade, our 20s, when we tend to get “lost” in one way or another?
EBERSTADT: The early- to mid-20s can be singularly tough on unmoored young women, I think, especially in these feminized, secularized, pornified times. That’s what makes Tom Wolfe’s Charlotte Simmons so brilliant. He zeros in on that unique vulnerability of girls today and brings it harrowingly to life.
In a sense, A. F.’s story begins where Charlotte’s ends — as one possible way that such a girl, battered by some of the more toxic elements of contemporary life, might look a few years after college.
LOPEZ: You typically write — and we typically publish — relatively straight non-fiction, newsy analysis, and commentary. What made you go the “comic tale” route?
EBERSTADT: In the first place, making at least a little fun of the New Atheism was irresistible. After all, this movement has grown fat and happy by painting religious people as grim and humorless and self-righteous — all while writing tracts that exhibit plenty of those features themselves, as A. F. points out in the book by quoting them. And quite beyond the “New Atheism,” it seemed overdue to throw at least a few punches back against the nonstop pummeling of religion — and to try and do it in a way that would make people laugh as well as think.
Satire also felt right for another reason. From a critical point of view, it’s disarming. The worst you can say is that it’s not funny — but if other people are out there saying that it is, then you run the risk of looking like what A. F. Christian would call a “honking dork.”
LOPEZ: Does the Right not do enough of this type of writing?
EBERSTADT: The Right doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the fact that the funniest writers are on the libertarian-to-conservative side of the spectrum — P. J. O’Rourke, Dave Barry, Jonah Goldberg, Rob Long, Andrew Ferguson, Mark Steyn . . . the list goes on, and, of course, at its top is the master, Tom Wolfe. The ideological imbalance, I think, is due mainly to the fact that the Left hands the Right so very much material worth satirizing.
That said, a black comedy delivering orthodox apologetics remains a rare sighting – the literary equivalent of a duck-billed platypus.
LOPEZ: Besides the obvious Screwtape Letters comparison, was there anything that inspired you to do what you did with The Loser Letters?
EBERSTADT: I’m privileged to spend lots of time around teenagers and young adults, both my own and other people’s. Their cadences, their stories and dramas, and the way they live now are all part of what inspired A. F. Christian. In a way, this book is intended as a gift to them and their compatriots — some fighting words about religion for the Facebook generation, delivered in their own vernacular by a character they can feel for.
LOPEZ: There are so many story lines, so many cryptic yet revealing cultural and theological references throughout The Loser Letters. How did you keep them straight?
EBERSTADT: Actually, it was easy — almost frighteningly easy — to enter into A. F. Christian’s head. Like many of us in the electronic age, she bubbles constantly with an indiscriminate brew of the high and the low, the sublime and the ridiculous, the irreverent and the deadly serious — everything from the Bravo Channel to rehab patter to Dante’s Inferno all rolled into one. Once I got used to her particular mix, the story pretty much wrote itself.
LOPEZ: What was the reaction to “The Loser Letters” like when they were published on NRO?
EBERSTADT: NRO’s readers are wonderful — engaged and prompt and feisty, a lot like the spirit of NRO itself. Some wrote in every week, commenting on the plot and cheering A. F. Christian on. A few also caught errors that were later corrected for the book version.
Of course, there were also some reflexively hostile responses of the kind that online writing always brings. The hostility got shut down, though, in a funny way. About halfway through the NRO series, A. F. Christian informed readers that no more e-mails could come through “the filters,” whatever that was supposed to mean, if they used the F-word or had misspellings. Apparently the worst offenders actually believed it — because after that, the belligerent e-mails just disappeared.
LOPEZ: Is “New Atheism” different from old atheism?
EBERSTADT: In general, as Max von Sydow says in The Exorcist, “There’s only one.” On the other hand, there’s at least this difference. Some of the older atheists, Nietzsche most notably, at least understood that the hoped-for abolition of religion would bring dire consequences. Today’s antireligious tracts exhibit no such nuance.
LOPEZ: Have you heard from any of the New Atheists in response to the book?
EBERSTADT: Not yet. But I hope they’ll all be flattered that a sassy twentysomething girl took such an interest in them.
LOPEZ: Are you proselytizing with your book?
EBERSTADT: At a minimum, I’m proselytizing for a more accurate grasp of Western Civ – and a more accurate grasp of the role Judeo-Christianity played in the creation of that civ than anyone on the other side will admit to.
LOPEZ: You’ve had these published online and now in a bound book. Is one better than the other?
EBERSTADT: “The Loser Letters” probably wouldn’t even have been a book if I hadn’t serialized it online on NRO. There’s nothing like a weekly electronic deadline from Kathryn’s Blackberry to concentrate the mind — and the plot!
On the other hand, having the story out in book form means that more people will actually understand it. The Letters have to be read sequentially, so whenever readers missed one online they got lost. That won’t happen now that A. F. is trapped between covers. And, of course, the best thing about having the Letters in book form is that cover Ignatius came up with.
LOPEZ: How did you convince a publisher that usually publishes papal books to publish, on the cover of yours, a girl in a miniskirt and a French manicure with her laptop?
EBERSTADT: No convincing necessary! I just wrote the book. Father Fessio and the Ignatius team did all the rest themselves, right down to the social media. Thanks to them, A. F. and I both have our own Facebook pages now — though I suspect she spends more time on her page than I do on mine. As A. F. would be the first to tell you, Ignatius Press totally rules.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.