The Churchgoer by Patrick Coleman is an engrossing noir that tackles religion, faith, and morality. Set in Southern California during the early-2000s, it follows a former Evangelical pastor turned blue-collar worker and surfer. His world gets turned upside-down when his coworker is murdered and a new woman in his life go missing on the same night.
Coleman leans into tropes of the noir genre at exactly the right time, but then pushes away from them to create an intoxicating plot that pays homage to great detective novel while also being wholly original at the same time.
I spoke with Coleman about his churchgoing experience and how his noir novel came to be.
You can also enter a giveaway of a free copy of his book courtesy of the publisher at the end of the interview.
Were you or are you still a churchgoer?
I was a churchgoer. I am not anymore. I grew up in a loose catholic family that was friendly to science. We were semi-frequent churchgoers. Then, like what happens to a lot of teenagers, especially in this area, it’s easy to get sucked up into this larger evangelical community. I spent some time kind of inside that before self ejecting from that.
Now, I don’t go to church. I’ve always thought a lot about god and religion since I was a kid. First through catholicism, then through evangelicalism, and then through other lenses as I grew older. I obviously still find it an important way of thinking about the world since I wrote a book about it.
I’ve talked a lot of about religion and belief a lot this year with writers based. Similar to you, I grew up in the Catholic church and school. When I moved across the country we just sort of stopped going. I still think about how religion informs people’s lives and can change the trajectory of their entire life for better or worse.
So you’re not a churchgoer now?
No — definitely not. My sister and I are close in age and she is pretty staunchly against the church and very much not religious. I don’t care for organized religion, but still have a complicated relationship with it all and think about things that stem from when I was going to church every Sunday.
I definitely find myself more in that complicated relationship space. The main character in The Churchgoer is very angry about it. It comes from somewhere in me. It’s a tough thing especially if you grew up with it. You learn it as a way of making sense of the world.
Did you always think your first novel would be steeped with religion?
No, I wasn’t really expecting this as a first novel on any level. I never expected to write a crime or noir novel in any sense. Religion was always a way I thought about the world. I read a lot of theology and philosophy of religion through grad school. It’s kind of a thing that you can’t escape. Even going back to when I was a kid and being obsessed with Jedi in Star Wars, I think genre and spirituality are in my bones. It started to come out. There was a gravitational pull.
My only other book is a book of poems called Fire Season, which maybe has one poem that makes a sarcastic reference to god. There is very little religion in it. It’s more about parenthood, climate change, and work-life. In a similar way, I never expected to write that book either. Yet, here we are.
Where did the hook of a pastor turned blue-collar worker turned amateur sleuth come from?
When it all started, I had fallen for Raymond Chandler, who was writing in San Diego but writing primarily about Los Angeles. I really loved what those books allowed him to do in terms of allowing him to move around a region and different aspects of the culture. The kinds of satiric or pointed asides he could make about how the community works were really alluring to me.
I think right around the same time, I was living in Indiana. A lot of people brought their own associations with California when I told them where I was from. We’re all surfers and really laid back. We’re all liberal and open-minded. I started The Churchgoer around the time Prop. 8 was passed, which outlawed gay marriage. I was really angry about this and how the majority of the voters voted for it despite all of those associations people have of who we are. That just started to muddle together in the back of my mind. One of the things that came out was thinking about the male pastor figures who led the charge against Prop. 8 and other social issue today and really the past 100 years.
[These pastors] in their DNA share a lot of moral aesthetic stance with [Raymond Chandler character] Philip Marlowe. I thought that was strange and interesting. I wanted to take a Marlowe-ish character who had come of that mold and then see what else I could find beneath the surface of them.
I used the book to dig a little deeper into a person like that and how they see the world and how they can unlearn that in different ways.
This book was a more of an exploration in that question then as opposed to knowing what you wanted to write then?
Right. Once I have an outline, my projects are kind of dead. If I can figure out what is personal and worth exploring about a project, I have more gas in the tank. I wrestled with those ideas through the genre and the tropes of the genre that I wanted to use and ones I thought needed revising.
Noir’s tropes can become obvious and gimmicky. How did you balance your story and characters with the style?
I hope I pull it off because that was a concern I had while writing it. Having those formal exceptions to lean on but also push off of was also part of the fun of writing this. I wanted to start the book with that sense of certainty about the world that a pastor or detective has. That informed the language in the beginning. That’s part of the joy of reading Chandler’s The Big Sleep; it’s so sharp and so assured. Then it breaks apart as it goes on. Part of the process of my book was seeing how it could break apart and how different ways of narrating can come in as the story is shifting away of the expectations of an old school noir.
How did you steer away from those expectations?
The first draft had a lot of those expectations of the noir genre but I had no interest that kind of stuff. it felt like bullshit coming out of my mouth. I went through two substantial and expansive revision of discovering who the characters and institutions who made up the setting were.
How many drafts did it take to get the voice, tone, and story as tight as you wanted it to be?
It was probably 10 or 12. Raymond Chandler had this revising process where he would underline a word or three or maybe a sentence. On a given page there would be four or five of these but most of the pages didn’t have an underline. Then he would start fresh and those words or phrases would be the only thing he carried forward. Everything else he would approach in a new away to improve in the next version. I tried something similar to let the book grow and become itself.
And speaking of revising, was The Churchgoer always the title you had in mind?
There were a few others early on, but I landed on The Churchgoer pretty quickly. I liked the ambiguity of who it could be referring to because there are a lot of churchgoers in the book. I’m also a great admirer of The Moviegoer by Walter Percy. That book had a big hand in my evolution as a writer.
Besides Raymond Chandler and Walter Percy, who are some other authors you’d recommend?
Recently, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries blew my mind. Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland series I found thought-provoking. I’ve been reading more science fiction and just finished Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, which is a far-future science fiction novel, but it has a lot of religion and spiritual practice in it. Those are three that come to mind right now.