It's extraordinary for a new author to get one major review, let alone the string of significant acclamations Kelly Kerney '02 has amassed. Her first novel, Born Again, follows the often hilarious journey of a young Christian fundamentalist as she comes to terms with Darwinism. Published in September, Born Again has already received excellent reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle, Entertainment Weekly, and the New York Times. The following is an interview by Maine Public Radio News Director Keith Shortall '82 that aired in October.
Keith Shortall: Kelly Kerney's debut novel, Born Again, about the coming of age of a young Christian fundamentalist is winning critical praise as a funny piece of fiction that doesn't get bogged down in its own subject matter. Kerney, a Bowdoin graduate who started the book while in graduate school a few years ago, has created a cast of characters through the voice of Mel, a teenage girl who’s coming to terms with the conflict between Darwinism and creationism, along with more personal crises of faith. As the book opens, Mel, the county bible quiz champion, is about to take a public pledge at the Morality Check Abstinence Rally.
Maine Public Radio News Director Keith Shortall '82 interviewed author Kelly Kerney '02 when she was in Maine in October.
Kelly Kerney: [reading from book] I had practiced for weeks these three simple sentences, but now, squinting in the spotlight at the crowded gymnasium, the last one escaped me. Something about intimacy and God. I improvised.
"And in pledging my purity, I promise to be intimate with no one but God."
Silence. And then applause. Pastor Lyle ushered me away from the microphone and to the side of the stage. Squinting out into the audience, I tried to locate my parents, but it was impossible to see individuals. These hundreds of people blended together into a vague gray mass that reminded me of a sleeping animal—A twitch somewhere, a noise now and then, but still a single entity.
I stood in the shadows of the stage, watching Tessa Goodman make her pledge. She said it flawlessly and she annunciated the last sentence like the punch line of some joke: "And in pledging my purity, I promise to be intimate with no one until I am joined with my husband in holy matrimony by God."
She took Pastor Lyle's arm and I watched them walk over to me. She was smiling and her eyes were set about an inch to the left of my head. Bitch I said to myself, but immediately repented. Pastor Lyle gave me a disappointed look as if he had heard my thoughts.
KS: Tell me first about Mel who is the main character. How much of Mel is you?
KK: I would say, specifics of Mel's life, the characters, the situation she's in, are fictional, but the essence of her experience, her trying to find her way in confronting a larger world having grown up in such an insular place, is very much my experience. Although, other specifics, would have to be fictional.
KS: Were you surrounded by fundamentalist Christians in your early life?
KK: Yeah, I grew up in a Pentecostal family, a Pentecostal Church. I attended the Assemblies of God in elementary school. It closed when I was in the third grade so I had to go to public school. But it was very much, all of my life, church and youth groups, and they had different clubs and programs and sports and, so it was very much a part of my life, almost all of it for a long time.
KS: What struck me about the book is that while Mel was immersed in this internal, private debate over creationism versus Darwinism and sin versus all of these thoughts and urges that come from within her, she doesn't know where they come from, but, it's very funny, she's got a great sense of humor. Was it important for you to have her have a good sense of humor in doing this?
KK: Yeah, I think so, I believe it helps round out the situation because a lot of evangelicals are demonized and they’re expecting this really heavy moral. And I really wanted to keep the humor in it because I think it's important. Always humor. I mean, it’s the best way to really explore anything because it's more open; it doesn't judge. Anyone can find themselves laughing at a joke without all the implications that come behind it and what they feel about the debate or anything like that. I think it's a way to open up a topic that people are very sensitive about now.
KS: By using the voice of a teenage girl, as opposed to an older more jaded character, did that allow you to be able to see absurdity in what other people see are these very intense serious debates?
KK: Yeah, I think so, I think someone who isn't quite aware of the outside world and is just starting to engage beyond her experiences, has fresh eyes and so it becomes a very personal experience for her and it's not about politics and it's not about overarching things, but more just about her. So there is a certain solipsism in a teenage girl, which brings the issue on a more personal level, I think.
KS: You graduated from Bowdoin in 2002? And I read that you started this novel in graduate school? It's received very good reviews, particularly for a debut novel. Are you nervous about now having to follow up?
KK: No. No, I'm not nervous. I'm excited. I don't like to think of what people are expecting of me next. It’s what I want to write and what I'm passionate about and I think if it's something I'm passionate about, it will be a good book, whether it's what people are expecting or not.
KS: I wondered if maybe you could read another excerpt from the book, please.
KK: Sure, it's a point in the book where Mel is recalling her father's past and how he used to travel around as a preacher—a traveling preacher—and give his life story, his story of salvation.
[reading from book] He would always begin with his childhood in Slow Rapids, with his father. Finding him passed out on the kitchen floor in a pool of vomit and urine, finding his mother hiding in her bedroom with clumps of hair missing from her head. How he’d go through the house sweeping up the balls of hair before his brothers and sisters woke up. As the oldest boy, he had to do things like that.
An interview by Keith Shortall '82 was recognized as the best in the country by Public Radio News Directors, Inc. for the second year in a row. He won the award this year for an interview with a Maine soldier who was home on leave from Iraq.
I never really connected the woman sitting on the bed with bald spots with my grandmother. And the eleven children, all crowded around a kitchen table for a dinner of spaghetti and ketchup, they didn't seem like my aunts and uncles. They were all characters in this story that my father told.
KS: Thank you very much.
KK: Thank you.
KS: Kelly Kerney is a graduate of Bowdoin College and the author of the novel, Born Again, published by Harcourt.
Read a profile of Kelly Kerney in the alumni profile section of Bowdoin's Web site: Alumni Profiles