Jessica Winter on Losing Her Religion
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
On the glorified suffering of Catholicism:
Jessica Winter: I think a girl is really lucky if she escapes adolescence without getting hit too hard by the food stuff. I really think it hits every girl in some way or other. Jane’s devotion compounds those dangers because so much of Catholicism is about self-denial and guilt and casting everyday pleasures as sinful or as temptations. In the Catholic Church you glorify God by contemplating his suffering. You wear a cross around your neck and you sit in church on Sundays and you’re surrounded by stations of the cross. There’s this bizarre, almost pornography of suffering in the church which, as a child, I found gruesomely fascinating and probably wired my brain in certain ways, and now I just find it kind of gross.
On the moment she lost her religion:
Jessica Winter: I used to babysit on 20/20 nights, which I believe were Fridays at 10:00. [The episode about Romanian orphans] aired in October of 1990 so I would have been babysitting. I can see their living room, see the couch that I used to sit on, they had this really fluffy wall-to-wall carpeting; it was so nice to sink your toes into. And I think I saw it there. But it might be just a just-so story that I tell myself. Whenever I saw that I honestly think that that was the moment when I started not to believe in God anymore. I really think that was it. I don’t know if I’m revising history, memory is very faulty, but I have this very strong association of seeing that and hearing those children’s voices and it just hitting me really hard that there’s no God. So I guess it was inevitable that I would write about it someday.
On the integration of real-life events in her novel:
Jessica Winter: I was very careful not to slot in pop cultural moments or historical moments just because they happened. I tried to be super selective about “how is this song or this video or this news item from 1974 or 1991, how is that actually reflecting a character’s thought processes?”. In a couple of instances it actually moves the plot along, and that’s totally the ideal. You want a character to watch something on MTV and it actually nudges the plot along.
Jessica Winter is an editor at The New Yorker and the author of the novel Break in Case of Emergency. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Bookforum, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.