Jeanna Kadlec is the author of the enthralling memoir Heretic, which explores her breaking away from the Evangelical church and the fallout, and subsequent rise, that follows. It’s filled with brilliant writing and insight.
Debutiful wanted to get to know more about her life, her time writing the novel, and what she’ll write about next.
Your memoir is about breaking away from the Evangelical church. I’m curious how literature played a role during your childhood and time in the church. If fiction played a role, what were the types of books you read and enjoyed?
The Bible was the most important book in my life growing up, full stop period. I was reading and studying my Bible long before I was doing “close reading” in English lit classes; that kind of intensive interpretation of the text was really essential to the religious tradition I grew up in, and absolutely played a role in inculcating a love of books and desire to understand a text’s meaning.
But I also read beyond the Bible and the church’s library. I got placed in the (deeply problematic) “Talented & Gifted” program in elementary school, which is only worth mentioning because I think that early identification as a “smart kid” meant that my working class, high school graduate parents consequently allowed me to read anything I could get my hands on with relatively little monitoring. I ate up decidedly feminist MG and YA books like Catherine, Called Birdy, the Dear America series, and Speak, all of which planted seeds that challenged the evangelical church’s ideas about gender roles and bodily autonomy early on.
I’ve talked to a lot of fiction writers about how lonely writing can be but now I can’t think if I ever discussed that with someone who has written a memoir. Did you have a writing community while writing this or was the process pretty insular?
I benefit from being an extravert and someone who already had a pretty thriving writing community when I got the book deal, the foundation of that being my long-running writers’ group. I had our weekly meetings and group text to fall back on to discuss the strange particularities not only of creative issues but also the business nuts and bolts that can, I think, really make you question your sanity and perspective if you’re alone in it. Publishing is an antiquated and often discriminatory business, and having other people who can affirm what is and isn’t normal, or what is just really fucked up!, is helpful.
How has writing this book changed your view on yourself? Were there any revelations you didn’t realize until you started crafting Heretic?
Between writing, being in therapy, and the distance that time provides, I definitely had a lot of new revelations about the past — some that I wrote about in the book, but most that I’ve kept private. One that I write about in the last chapter was coming to understand that a fear I had going into the book — that I’d reconvert to evangelicalism — simply wasn’t possible because I now loved myself too much to ever go back to a religion that demanded I minimize myself. That was powerful.
I am not sure if the book changed my view on myself so much as writing it changed me, in that way that sustained creative vulnerability transforms you on both a spiritual and cellular level. I’m a totally different writer and person on the other end of this book.
You’ve written quite a few pieces ranging from talking about religion to Deconstructing Disney. How has your writing changed from your earliest pieces to now?
Well, I hope I’ve gotten better! To talk about one craft item specifically, I think I’ve improved when it comes to how I weave together personal narrative with cultural criticism. I’ve definitely written pieces in the past where the tonal switch between the two was jarring, where my more academic voice really took the reader out of the emotional intimacy of the memoir scenes. While there’s still room for improvement, I think I weave the two together much more smoothly in the book. That’s where having a writing community is so helpful; it took forever to really sand down that particular edge, and I couldn’t have done it without their feedback.
What topics haven’t you yet written about that you’re interested in exploring in the future?
Now that Heretic is out of my body, it feels like there is space for me to return to fiction, which is my first love. I’ve never published fiction! My writers’ group has never read my fiction! Which is wild.
The memoir has just had me in a vise grip for six years; some projects are so emotionally demanding that there isn’t room for anything else. But it feels like I’m moving into a new phase that is much lighter, for lack of a better word, and that’s exciting.
You have a reading recommendation resource on your website for when your students ask for recommendations. I’d love to hear what else you’ve been reading that hasn’t quite made its way on the lists yet. Anything good?
I was lucky enough to recently read a very early draft of Lyz Lenz’s absolutely stunning This American Ex-Wife, which isn’t even available for pre-order yet. I blew through it in one sitting, it was so gripping! A must-read for divorceés, for memoirists who work in hybrid, and especially for other ex-evangelicals.