Plucky Teen Finds Atheism a Good Fit

A lot of adults read so-called Young Adult novels, and some of those books deserve not to be limited by the YA label. Author Laury A. Egan’s The Outcast Oracle (Humanist Press) has something extra that pulled me in and kept me reading: Her teen girl protagonist, Charlene, is an atheist.

The reader isn’t hit over the head with this information. Rather, the heroine’s views evolve naturally from coping with her unusual family life. There’s no talking down to any potential young readers here.

Egan shared her views on writing, and on believing or not, in the following interview.

Q&A with Laury A. Egan:

Q: Did you intend to write The Outcast Oracle for the young adult market?

I didn’t pre-conceive a readership for this book. However, I probably wanted to write a story that would have appealed to me as a teenager, that addressed my feelings of being different and creative. Having the opportunity to take some sly jabs at religion in the process was also definitely appealing. Charlie’s bright, folksy voice (a voice not at all like my own), and her independent character dropped into my head fully formed. I just held on for the ride!

Because the novel is about a teenager, everyone assumes it’s a young-adult title, but in fact many adults—men and women—have loved the book. I hope it will attract a full range of readers.

Q: I was a little surprised that the atheism theme was so muted. It was half way through when I first read the word heathen, and then on page 143 (out of 205) Charlene, the 14-year-old narrator, said this: “There isn’t any difference between religion and superstition, one being the same as the other as far as I can tell.” She came to her beliefs in a natural way, that is, she didn’t first believe and then have an epiphany.

One reason for the gentle start in the novel is that I wanted to hook the reader first, creating sympathy and understanding for Charlie, and then to present her as a humanist, one who came to this position organically. This process runs counter to many Christian books, where the reader is pinned to the religion mat on page one.

Q: How did your own beliefs come about?

I grew up with parents who never attended church, did not baptize me, and were more or less silent on the subject. My mother called herself a Unitarian, a cover for being an agnostic (she never stepped a toe in a Unitarian church). My father was raised in a large, poor Catholic family, who were often visited by fat priests in big black cars, insisting that his mother donate more to the church, even though she couldn’t feed her family. He thought Catholicism was full of hypocrisy and greed.

I was far more staunch in my anti-religion opinions than my parents were, especially after reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian at about age 11 or 12. Needless to say, pointing out my schoolmates poor logic and medieval thinking did not endear me to many of them.

I recall going to a Sunday school class at the request of a Catholic friend and being asked by the priest what church I belonged to. I answered “none” and he then began a lengthy diatribe, insisting that I would burn in hell, at which point I walked out, having my attitude toward religion confirmed. Previously, at age five, an aunt, after a few drinks, took me to my bedroom and told me the same thing. I told her to go to hell—which was unusual behavior for me, and pretty outspoken considering my age. The intrusive and aggressive attitudes displayed were quite disturbing, however, and certainly hardened my anti-religion stance.

Even as a young child I refused to say the Lord’s Prayer in school, sing “God Bless America,” or make pledges that included “so help me God.” One of my stories, “Payback,” in Fog and Other Stories details a frightening run-in with a minister (probably a fraud), the most autobiographical piece in the collection.

Q: Another character tells the narrator that the “best part of religion is the show itself, which is designed to impress and humble the masses.” I got twitchy reminders of Mark Twain when I read this.

There is definitely some Mark Twain-ish tone in this book (though I haven’t read Twain since high school), but perhaps anyone who pokes fun at religion, politics, etc., sounds a bit like Twain.


Q: Has your creativity always taken the three forms of fiction (both novels and short stories), poetry, and photography?

Yes, though my interest in the visual arts came after my passion for writing. I wrote my first poem at about age 7-8 years, began a hand-printed newspaper at age 10, finished a novel between the ages of 12-13, and wrote stories in high school, where I won awards in school writing contests and also for some for my drawings, an interest that blossomed in my later teen years.

For college, I was accepted at Bennington and Bard in creative writing, and at Carnegie Mellon in fine arts/design. I decided on the latter, which greatly delayed my writing career. I began as an advertising and book designer at Princeton University Press and remained in the publishing community for many years before returning to my first love, writing.

Q: Your previous novel Jenny Kidd is not about religion or the lack thereof, right? What made you decide to speak up on this topic in The Outcast Oracle?

The character of Jenny Kidd is not religious, nor is the subject treated in the novel, which is a psychological suspense story, i.e., not written to address issues. My writing runs from literary work to psychological suspense, the range well represented in my collection, Fog and Other Stories, where I deal with some anti-religious ideas directly and indirectly. The book will be published in a slightly revised edition by Humanist Press this fall.

As for the urge to tackle the subject in Oracle, I’m tired of the religious bombardment in our daily lives—from athletes casting their eyes to heaven and crossing themselves to all the bumper stickers on cars—and wanted to illustrate how brainwashed, gullible, and conforming believers are. Selecting a teenager to espouse the point of view and utilizing humor and satire, my hope was to make my case palatable and persuasive.


Q: What is your creative process? Are you ever blocked when you write? Do you have one or more future projects always in mind?

Over the last 18 years, I’ve written nine novels (most are hidden in closets), about 25 short stories, and numerous poems—enough for two full-length collections and a chapbook. During this period, I never encountered writer’s block, though sometimes a plot problem briefly stymied forward progress.

I worked all day, most days, beginning each morning by reading the output from the day before and then continuing. A novel takes about a year, but the polishing and revising adds six months or more to the process, though I make line edits and catch little discrepancies even in proof. I’m very old-school about my work and really care about usage, punctuation, and word repetitions.

Over the last year, I have not been able to do more than editing, proofing, book promotion, and submissions (of a new literary suspense manuscript, Wave in D Minor). My home life has changed dramatically during this time, and my focus has been divided.

Q: Do you think you’ll write more from an atheistic viewpoint?

Even if tacit, everything I write has an atheistic slant because that is my perspective. It would be a struggle for me to empathize with a believer. I manage better with sociopaths, con artists, and alcoholics!

  • Egan’s website is where you’ll learn about her fiction, poetry, and photography.
  • She keeps a blog here.
  • You can buy The Outcast Oracle (and/or Egan’s Fog and Other Stories) in paperback or ebook from the publisher, or at any online bookseller, including here.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry

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