Interview with Matt Mikalatos (Imaginary Jesus Tour, Day 3)

Today, an interview with Matt Mikalatos, author of Imaginary Jesus, in which we discuss controversy, the significance of style, the people behind the story, and more. Venture on!

Rachel: The info sheet sent with Imaginary Jesus proclaims that your book “has the potential to get a Christian publisher in a whole lot of trouble.” The comment is tongue in cheek, but there’s no denying your book is controversial. Is that something that scared you as you wrote it? If so, how did you find the courage to keep on writing?

Matt: During the writing itself I wasn’t thinking much about it, I was busy entertaining myself. If it made me laugh I threw it in. During the editing process we cut quite a bit of the needlessly controversial episodes. When I was uncertain whether we should keep something in the book I would use two criteria: Is this funny? Is it true?

My editor Lisa Jackson was really instrumental in this process as well. She would help me put things “on trial.” She would come after things as a skeptic (“Prove to me that you NEED that offensive event in the book.”) and I would give my best apologetic for why it was good and necessary. Sometimes things got cut, sometimes they survived. But I have to give enormous props to Tyndale that they let me make the final call on what would be left in the book and what would be edited out. They gave me a lot of leeway.

Truthfully, I don’t mind offending people if it moves them toward Christ. What I don’t want to do is offend people just for fun. So there are some controversial things we agreed to keep in the book because we felt it shook people out of their misconceptions of Jesus. I hope there aren’t any gratuitous offenses left in the book.

Rachel: Was “funny” part of your original concept for the book, or did you ever consider writing your story in another style? What’s the significance of humour to you as a Christian and writer?

Matt: Yes, funny was always in the plan. I think humor has a way of disarming us. Serious essays knock politely on the front door and ask to be let in, and comedy sneaks in the back window, makes itself a sandwich and puts its feet up on the table. You see this so clearly in, for instance, Shakespeare’s presentation of “the fool” in King Lear. The fool can say things to the king that no one else is allowed to say, because he’s funny and maybe a little unhinged. Comedy lets you sneak messages past people’s defense mechanisms.

Humor has always been an important part of my life, I guess. I like to see people laugh, and there are a lot of wonderful things in the world that should give us riotous belly laughs. It’s important to celebrate the good things that God has given us in life. Christians should not have a reputation as the dour, sour-faced people. We should be full of vibrant life. Certainly in scripture we see a lot of satire, especially in the prophetic works, where a prophet points out the mistakes and sins of those around him in a funny way by saying something like, “Look. You cut down a tree and use half of it to make a fire to keep you warm and carve the other half into an idol and worship it.” He’s pointing out the absurdity of the situation and making light of it. That’s a pretty unique thing that humor allows you to do.

Rachel: How have you found reception to the book so far?

Matt: Surprisingly, overwhelmingly positive. I had visions of being chased out of churches by villagers with torches, or at least of being publicly humiliated on the internet. I’ve found that the age range of the fans is much broader than I expected (a seventy year old woman at my church pulled me aside to tell me it was the funniest book she’s ever read), and I have been amazed by the number of e-mails I am getting from people who say, “I realized while reading your book that I was following an imaginary Jesus and now I’m working on following the real Jesus.” There have been a few detractors, but they’ve been pretty mild, and from people who aren’t really the target audience for the book, anyway.

Rachel: In my review I stated that this book shouldn’t be read as a theological treatise on “the real Jesus,” but as the spiritual journey of a real Christian. It’s open and honest and sometimes surprisingly raw. Can you share a little of the story behind the story?

Matt: Sure. This is a mild spoiler if you haven’t read the book, so avert your eyes now if you care. A few years ago, my wife became pregnant with our third child. The night before we left for a trip to Thailand she had a miscarriage, which was completely unexpected and emotionally devastating. We cried all the way to Thailand. I was surprised, actually, by the depth of my own grief and sense of loss over our baby’s death. It brought up a lot of questions… if God is good and powerful why doesn’t he intervene in these situations? I know from experience and from scripture that he is both good and powerful and even that he loves me, so why doesn’t that seem to match what I am experiencing? And of course we knew all the theological answers, but they weren’t terribly comforting. I wanted to know Christ was near me, not know some theological factoid about him. In a lot of ways our story parallels that of of Mary and Martha when Lazarus died. They say to Christ, “Where were you?” And that was my question, too… I know you are good, I know you have the power to intervene, so why didn’t you? I tried to share honestly about that part of our spiritual journey in the book.

Rachel: As “Matt” in the book comes closer and closer to encountering the “real Jesus,” I found myself wondering how on earth you were going to pull that off. Unless you were to simply present Jesus through the verses of Scripture, how can you write the real Jesus into a work of fiction without making Him just as imaginary as the rest of the bunch? Is this something you struggled with as you wrote? Are you satisfied with your presentation of the real Jesus?

Matt: I was scared to death that I wasn’t going to be able to pull off a convincing “real Jesus” by the book’s end. The easy route, of course, would be to have some moment in which I was witness to a Biblical event (and I do use that technique in the book) but I was concerned that implies that Jesus is “dead”… that there aren’t new stories with him in them. And I was sensitive to the fact that if I presented a “This Is The Real Jesus” moment that it might really be “Here’s Matt’s Current Understanding of Jesus.” So, I took a real encounter with Jesus from my own life, and presented it in a way that I hoped would be compelling and true in the context of the book. Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with the way it turned out. My hope is that it takes people to the place of saying, “There is a real Jesus out there, and I can get to know who he is if I look for him.”

Rachel: I loved the atheists’ Bible study. Are those folks real? And are they all still atheists?

Matt: The study is real, yes. I actually only went one time, but I was impressed with their commitment to discovering what the Bible actually is trying to say… they were a lot more serious about it than many Christians I know. My experience is that there are many reasonable atheists who enjoy intelligent conversation on spiritual matters. I would encourage everyone to find an atheist and make friends!

Rachel: What’s with the talking donkey?

Matt: Sweet Daisy, the talking donkey, was not part of the plan. She nosed her way into the book during a time I had sworn not to edit anything until I was done writing. I remember thinking “I’ll come back later and get rid of this talking donkey.” But by the end of the book she had become one of the more necessary and intelligent characters. Donkeys are used by God at several key points in scripture, which is rather funny. In the story of Balaam, we see that a donkey is sometimes a better prophet than a human. That’s what Daisy does in the book… she’s a theologian who is constantly pointing out my own flaws, inconsistencies and idiocies. She’s a construct very similar to the apostles Peter and John in the story, and hopefully she gives the reader a little clue into the origin of those characters in the book.

Rachel: Most of my readers are also writers, including myself, so I wanted to ask about your publication process. In the Acknowledgments, you wrote “This book would not exist in its present form if Wes Yoder (agent and friend) hadn’t declined to represent the original sugarcoated collection of Sunday School lessons by saying something along the lines of, ‘This is no good,’ and graciously reading the next draft.” Can you tell us a little about that early incarnation and how it evolved into the book that’s been published today?

Matt: I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this, but I rarely read theological essay-type books. I don’t like them. But I hatched a plan to write one that would be funnier than normal. You can see the original book proposal here. I queried three agents, all of whom were interested in seeing the proposal. The first one to get back to me was a guy named Wes Yoder who read the proposal and then said, “Forget all those other agents, I’m going to be your agent!” which was very exciting, indeed.

We set up a phone appointment, but by the time I called him he had read my sample chapters, which he did not like. He asked me if I even liked books like the one I was proposing to write, and I had to admit that I did not. He told me that it needed a stronger narrative, and I asked him if he meant something more like Dante’s “Inferno.” Some college kid could probably write a great paper on the parallels between my book and Dante. He also told me to write something I would enjoy, not something I thought agents or editors would like As I recall I said, “It will be weird.” He said that would be fine, so long as I was being honest with myself. He had already said something to the effect of, “I can tell you’re a deeply weird individual who is trying to write something normal.” He didn’t want to be my agent, but he agreed to read the next draft and give me his feedback, which was very generous of him.

So, I debated his advice, talked it over with my wife, turned off my internal editor and spent the weekend writing the most insane six chapters of my life. I had a spectacular time, I felt like a mad scientist who had been given permission to harness lightning to bring a monster to life. I sent Wes those six chapters and he e-mailed, called and texted me within minutes to say that he loved “Imaginary Jesus” and wanted to be my “real agent.” And that’s pretty much the story of how the book went from humorous essays to inexplicable not-quite-true-memoir-fiction-comedy-thing.

Rachel: My thanks to Matt for a great interview, and for giving us all so much to talk about! Readers, browse the rest of the blog tour for the insightful comments and reviews of my fellow tour guides :).







5 responses to “Interview with Matt Mikalatos (Imaginary Jesus Tour, Day 3)”

  1. Rachel Avatar

    You’re welcome, Matt. I really enjoyed doing the interview :). Becky, thanks for the link — I’ll check it out! I ended up really busy during this tour and wasn’t able to keep on top of everyone’s post as much as I like to. I’ll definitely read Dawn’s posts when it comes time for voting for Top Blogger :).

  2. Elisabeth Avatar

    Truly fascinating! Thank you for sharing!

    I especially enjoyed the comments about the agent and writing “real” vs. what a writer thinks a reader wants to read. Hmm. Imteresting!

    Thank you, Rachel!

  3. Matt Mikalatos Avatar

    Rachel, thanks for doing the extra work of an interview! You did a great job and asked questions that made it easy to talk about. I appreciate it.

  4. Rebecca LuElla Miller Avatar

    Love the interview. Rachel, you asked great questions, ones I secretly wondered about too. I brought up the issue of Matt, the character, finding the Real Jesus in the end. I know that must have felt daunting. Even though I had a criticism of it in my review, I honestly don’t know how it could have been better. I do like the idea of conveying that Jesus isn’t a dead guy you can read about in a history book.

    By the way, worth reading, in my opinion are Dawn King‘s three posts. She personalized the story in such a vulnerable way—I thought it added power to the message of the book.


  5. […] King ? ? ? John W. Otte ? ? Donita K. Paul Crista Richey ? Chawna Schroeder ? ? ? Rachel Starr Thomson ? ? ? Steve Trower ? ? ? Fred Warren ? Phyllis Wheeler ? […]

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