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Her Pen is a Sword:
an interview with Regina Doman

by Sean P. Dailey

Her Pen is a Sword: an interview with Regina Doman

cover article of the June 2005 issue of Gilbert Magazine
Reprinted here with the permission of the publisher

Editor's note: Regina Doman is the editor of the new John Paul II High series and the author of numerous children's books including, most recently, Angel in the Waters, which has sold more than 32,500 copies in the past three months.

 

GM Well, tell us about yourself: You're a writer, right? How did you come to choose that rewarding—albeit not financially—profession?

 

RD I've wanted to be a writer—well, strictly speaking, a storyteller—since I was a child. My parents will tell you that I was constantly drawing stories or creating plays and later, when I learned to write, writing books. It's been one hallmark of my writing that I usually attempt things that are big and long, like novels. I think I've only written one or two short stories in my entire life, and they are pretty long for short stories. The usual college major that writers pick is English literature, but I was never really interested in English literature because I didn't want to teach. So I chose to major in television production, and learned scriptwriting. I figured that would get me a day job, and I could write books at night.

But my academic advisor at Franciscan University was a journalist, and he said, "You really ought to consider journalism." I refused when I was in college, but after I graduated and found the TV industry to be in a large slump, I ended up taking a job as an assistant editor. That was my entry into the publishing field.

Over the next few years I worked as an assistant editor, wrote free-lance articles, and wrote books after hours, just as I had planned. Now that I'm married and home schooling, I've pretty much dropped freelancing articles (one reason why I never submitted anything to Gilbert Magazine, though believe me, I've wanted to!) and just write (and edit) fiction books. I find writing to be the most personally rewarding profession for me, and I hope to be able to keep it up til I die.

And you're right about the financial rewards—I write for the love, not for the money. As I've grown—and grown in my faith—I find my sense of a personal vocation to write has deepened. Of course I see my marriage vocation as primary—but I do have a sense that God has given me talent, and He expects me to use it. My husband also has a strong sense of that, so he's a real support and a real partner. That's a tremendous blessing.

 

GM Before we get to some of your other books and influences, you currently have a "pro-life" book that has become rather popular, Angel in the Waters (reviewed in GM Jan./Feb. 2005). Could you tell us about it a bit and how you came to write it?

 

RD When I was pregnant with our first child, I spent a lot of time wondering, as a lot of first-time moms do, what must be going on inside my tummy, from the baby's point of view. I was also reading a lot about pregnancy and birth, and that stimulated my imagination. I started to write a story about a baby exploring the womb, but an incident that had happened a few years before was the inspiration.

The incident was something that my youngest sister had said. I'm the oldest of ten children and my youngest sister was born when my sister Alicia and I were in college. Alicia was studying early childhood education and she read that children under the age of two can sometimes remember life in the womb, and if they learn to talk early, sometimes they can describe it. So on the next holiday break, she asked Anna, who was about two and was already talking, if she remembered what life was like in mommy's tummy. She said that Anna grew thoughtful and then said, "It was warm, and dark, and there was an angel there."

Naturally, Alicia was blown away by Anna's words, and told the rest of the family what had happened. When I was pregnant myself, I remembered Anna's words, and they're the germ of the story Angel in the Waters, which was published this past year by Sophia Institute Press (illustrated by Gilbert Magazine cartoonist Ben Hatke). Although I wasn't writing it to send a message, the book is extremely pro-life, because it imaginatively humanizes the unborn child. The baby in the book has a distinct personality and, from his point of view, he has a pretty nice life in the waters of the womb. His guardian angel, who has always been there with him, is gently preparing him for the end of his womb life so that he can enter "real life."

I am very, very happy that so many people have been touched by the story. It was a gift to write it, and I'm happy to have been able to give readers this gift.

 

GM I know you probably have a number of influences, but could you tell us about your familiarity with G.K. Chesterton and what role his works and thought play in your writing?

 

RD Actually, G.K. Chesterton is one of my primary influences, and I could even say he was the crucial one. See, although I was raised Catholic, and was always serious about my faith, by the time I reached my teen years I was questioning the Catholic Church, not just intellectually, although I had intellectual issues, but emotionally and psychologically. The Church didn't really seem necessary to me, mostly boring and dull.

This is despite the profound Catholic faith of my parents and the fact that I attended one of the few orthodox Catholic grade schools in the country during the confusion after Vatican II. Marian devotion really did seem like a kind of creepy Babylonian invention, and the Eucharist was irrelevant to me. I loved God and my relationship with Jesus deepened as I got older, but the effect of public school history classes, reading lots of Protestant fiction and Biblical commentary, and close Protestant friends who loved their churches passionately was subtly eroding my feelings toward my baptismal faith. The loony liberal Catholic teachers I encountered in high school (who were clueless about the culture wars that I had already experienced) convinced me that Catholicism was a barnacle-infested boat drifting behind and slowly sinking in the fleet of Christian soldier-ships.

Two things happened to change my mind when I was around 15 or 16: one was attending a youth conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville, now my alma mater. That persuaded me that there was some hope for the Church after all. And around the same time, I read part of an essay by a man named G. K. Chesterton.

One of my English teachers in the new Catholic school I was attending gave it to the class as a handout. I believe that is the first time I ever heard of the man, though I might have recognized his name from the writings of C.S. Lewis, whose books I was devouring at the time. When I was a teen, I read any Lewis book I could get my hands on, and read it repeatedly, to the point of absorption. I was consciously modeling my faith and imaginative life around the type of creed he preached in Mere Christianity.

But I was totally unprepared for Chesterton. Whereas Lewis preached a faith that was as reasonable, calm, logical, and pristine as his prose, Chesterton was a swashbuckling and extravagant apologist whose words were effusive, colorful and passionate, and packed full of images, comparisons, and paradoxes. That essay on the handout, "The Paradoxes of Christianity," was like an explosion in my mind. Chesterton simply explained Catholicism—explained why it didn't fit, why it was so odd, why parts of it seemed so out of balance—because the faith is like a man swaying in a chariot, because the Church refuses to jettison any large idea or issue—because the Church is a lion tamer, because orthodoxy is an adventure.

By the time I finished that essay, I was on my way to falling in love with the Catholic Church. Despite the fact that I had been trying to fit my Christianity into an unadorned plain framework, I had always had a secret attraction to the Gothic and the Baroque, and Chesterton convinced me that this was okay. He also showed me that normality is not prosaic or boring, but is actually one of the most extraordinary things in the world.

From that essay, I went on to read the whole of Orthodoxy, all the Father Brown mysteries, and The Man who was Thursday. In book after book, I received not just encouragement, but ammunition. After a summer or two of immersion in Chesterton, I started to feel ready to no longer apologize for Catholicism, but to proclaim it, and defend it.

My first novel, still unpublished, was a complicated allegory called (in homage to Lewis' first book, The Pilgrim's Regress) The Pilgrim's Dilemma, in which a steadfast Christian soldier encounters an ancient, jewel-encrusted giant Woman who he suspects is the Whore of Babylon, but who turns out to be the Bride of Christ. That really describes my experience, even though I never was a formal Protestant—just an imaginative one.

 

GM Does Chesterton continue to play a role in your life or in your work?

 

RD Yes, he does, far beyond instigating my first sharp turn toward Catholicism. In particular I was taken with his fiction, which is pretty much always set in the real world, but whose characters have a constant sense of a deeper reality, the larger outlines of a drama.

Of special influence I count his novels The Man Who Was Thursday, The Poet and the Lunatics, Manalive, and The Ball and the Cross. Chesterton shattered the categories of realistic fiction and fantasy. Playing with paradox as usual, he combines the two in his novels. There's no magic or monsters, but spiritual magic and monsters in the soul are evident and operative in a compelling way. In doing so, he taught me a whole new way of writing fiction. Previously, like most imaginative teens, I dreamed of writing fantasy. But Chesterton convinced me that there was high adventure to be written about in the doings of ordinary life, and that the Catholic worldview was the instrument to cross the gap.

As I read, I criticized him for having really only one kind of main character—the Gabriel Syme/Gabriel Gale/Innocence Smith character, who is really just a form of G. K. Chesterton himself—but it wasn't long before I determined that I was going to write novels like Chesterton, only with characters who were more rounded-out.

And actually, that's exactly what I do. I am writing a series of novels based on fairy tales but in contemporary settings, starting with The Shadow of the Bear: Snow White and Rose Red Retold (Bethlehem Books, 2002), Black as Night: A Fairy Tale Retold, (2004), and Waking Rose: A Tale Retold (under contract for 2005—2006) with more stories to come. The stories, which many teenagers have enjoyed, owe a huge debt to Chesterton.

The concept of the stories is taken from Chesterton, who said in Orthodoxy that modern novels pair odd and misunderstood heroes with ordinary settings, while fairy tales put ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. So in these books I have ordinary people who realize, as the Chestertonian characters usually do, that the world is an extraordinary and wondrous—even dangerous—place. I have a Chesterton-type character or two in each book, and as Chesterton did, I set my stories in the real world, usually an urban setting. In the most recent book, I even have a fair-play mystery.

Chestertonians who read my books will recognize the parallels with Chesterton's novels right away. But I never describe them as Chesterton-style novels, because sadly, as his novels are so not-well-known these days, it would make for a difficult explanation.

My contacts with other Catholics after my young adult years have ensured that Chesterton hasn't remained a merely literary influence: I fell in with a group of Distributist Catholics and started learning economics from a Chestertonian perspective (asking myself: was there anything this man wasn't involved in?). I did my share of polemics, writing for a Franciscan University alumni magazine about unjust working conditions in Catholic apostolates, and attempting to argue Distributism to skeptical economics professors and alums.

But Chesterton's economic ideas are more than just abstractions for my husband and me: we think of ourselves as practicing subsidiarity by owning our own business—my husband working from home—and home schooling. We also garden and buck the zoning laws by keeping a chicken or two for the family economy. Oh, and we also own a radio drama production company, which is called (what else?) Chesterton Productions. Right now we're getting ready to release our first drama (together with Northern Rain Studios), an audio dramatization of my first book, The Shadow of the Bear, featuring Leonardo Defilippis as the villain in the story (www.chestertonproductions.com).

Beyond everything else, I feel a spiritual kinship with Chesterton and a deep gratitude that he ever existed. I do pray to him, and ask for his prayers. And it's marvelous to imagine that I might meet him someday.

 

GM A radio production company? How did that get started and where/how can people tune into "The Shadow of the Bear"?

 

RD My husband grew up in a mostly TV-free family, and he and his siblings loved listening to audio dramas of their favorite books, including The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He's always talked about making radio dramas, and thought about ways that we could do this. Well, as Ansel Adams said, "Chance favors the prepared mind." A company that he worked for was renting space to a recording studio that was in the process of building a permanent studio. There was a window of about four months where no one would be using their recording equipment in the evenings and Andrew asked the studio head if we could use it during that time. He said we could use it free of charge, and Andrew jumped at the chance. Within a week we had turned my first book, The Shadow of the Bear, into a script, and within two weeks we were holding auditions.

I honestly thought my husband was crazy—I had just had my third baby—but it all came together. We had 90 percent of the drama recorded by the time the window closed. Plus we had a fantastic time working on it together. I hope we can do it again someday.

And for information about where they can hear The Shadow of the Bear, readers can look at the stations we'll list at www.chestertonproductions.com. And they can order the entire radio drama—which we expect to be about six hours long—from www.BethlehemBooks.com or call
1-800-757-6831.

 

GM I'm interested that you got Leonardo Defilippis to be in it. As the producer of many one-man dramas—and most recently director of a biopic of St. Therese—he should be no stranger to many of our readers. How did you get to know him? The way he filmed and distributed Therese is a study in Distributist filmmaking, wouldn't you say?

 

RD I met Leonardo through the Bethlehem Community—they're all Northwest Coast Catholics and they share a sort of common vision about creativity and the Church and the arts. My husband and I saw him perform Maximilian, and when we started recording our drama, we thought, "He'd be the perfect Mr. Freet"—the villain of the book.

And I'd say yes, the distribution of Therese certainly was an exercise in Distributist filming—so much so that it annoyed some who wish Leonardo had played more "by the book" in his release of the movie. Leonardo personally has put a tremendous effort into this "grassroots effort." And it seems to have worked out for him and I'm very glad.

 

GM Since you brought up your family, tell us about them a bit. What is your husband's name and what does he do? Aren't you both part of some online Catholic artists' guild (which our own art director also belongs to)? How many kids do you have? More importantly, how many chickens do you have?

 

RD My husband is Andrew. I don't really know what he does, but he stares at a computer a lot.

 

GM Funny, my wife often says the same thing about me! (laughter)

 

RD Actually, he owns a Web development company, Veraprise, with his brother and another partner, and they work behind the scenes to develop and host some of the coolest sites on the Web (well, I think they're some of the coolest sites). As proof of this, they used to host the Gilbert Magazine website a few years back.

Another neat site we host is www.smallpax.com, otherwise known as SPRIG—the Small Pax Romish Illustrator's Guild. I'm a founding member, but I'm really just a scribbler. They only made me a founding member because my husband is hosting their website for free (Ted knows I'm kidding). In all seriousness, we like to support Catholic artists however we can, and I think SPRIG has some pretty quality illustrators among its members.

And we have five children so far. We're shooting for ten. I'm the oldest of ten kids, you see, and Andrew's the oldest of eleven, so big families are normality for us.

And for the last couple years or so, we've had anywhere from one to six chickens walking about our fenced-in yard and roosting in our trees. Usually more like two. Our kids adore them, and chase them (because chickens look funny when they run) and engage in a year-round, daily Easter-egg hunt for their eggs. Our chickens are so used to being chased that now they only run a few steps then squat down as if to say, "Okay, okay, I give up—just don't hurt me!" Our cats do the same thing.

Most importantly (to the cats), we have three cats—one Siamese (Earendil), one gray (Gandalf), and one black (Luthien). We used to have a white-pawed Siamese named Curunir (or "Sharkey"--that's Saruman, to you movie-only LOTR buffs), but like his namesake, he met an untimely death.

 

GM Ah, The Lord of the Rings. I can see I'm in good company! It sounds like your husband was raised on it, and you're obviously a fan too. What do you think it is about the books that makes them so attractive to such a wide variety of people?

 

RD There's a variety of opinions on that subject, but my opinion is that J.R.R. Tolkien was answering the yearnings of the twentieth-century heart by creating a story that was intensely beautiful, intrinsically moral, inherently melancholic, and deeply religious in a very Catholic way. There's simply nothing else like these books—I have a writer friend who re-reads them once a year because she's never found anything else to match them. LOTR fills up the significant gaps in the modern mindset with a story about beauty, death, reverence for nature, good and evil, and heroism.

And when I say Tolkien writes about good and evil, I need to mention that he creates goodness that is various, delightful, and fascinatingly attractive; and evil that's mind-numbingly uniform in its tactics and end results. The modern reader recognizes the evil and yearns for the good portrayed. That's a phenomenal accomplishment for a twentieth century writer whose surrounding culture was awash in muddy-minded ambiguities, uncertainties, and general crassness.

The only other author of recent years who seems to have accomplished this with a work of similar scope is J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. Her series is entirely different from Tolkien's in its tone, trappings, and conception, but the variety of goodness and the uniformity of evil (which makes the reader desire the first and dislike the second) is undoubtedly present, in forms so subtle that they pass through the defenses of even the most cynical and media-glutted readers (and trip the alarm bells of modern Christians in the process, but that's another story).

 

GM Now we're getting into some controversy (laughter). Could you tell us a bit more of you thoughts on Harry Potter?

 

RD I'll give it a shot! I've been making a list for some time of artistic "Signs of Hope" in the modern world. Growing up as a "post nuclear" and "post Roe v. Wade" kid, I kind of presumed that we were living in the End Times and headed for the Apocalypse fast, and I never seriously thought I would reach adulthood before martyrdom or nuclear holocaust overtook me. So my default setting is pessimism. But I started to find signs of life in the culture, hints that the modern world wanted more than sex, TV, and money. These signs were generally the unexpected appearance of certain creative products that I found incredibly Christian, truthful, beautiful, pointed about the faults of the modern world, and commercially successful. By my logic, anyone who told the truth to the world would be smacked down and ignored. But the fact that these products succeeded was a curious sign of hope that maybe people were still listening.

One of these signs was the success of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. Another was the fact that Tolkien was voted the author of the century. And now I'm going to add J.K. Rowling to that list.

This may be against most conservative Catholic thinking, but I think that Harry Potter is a generally positive phenomenon. There are some concerns, as I've said elsewhere, but I think that the troublesome elements of occult trappings might decrease in time as the years pass. For instance, growing up, I followed other serious Christians in avoiding Tolkien because I held him to be responsible for the Dungeons and Dragons phenomenon, which was the Harry Potter of my teen years. Just as people say about Rowling's books today, I was told, "Oh, don't bother with Tolkien—maybe there's something to his book, but look at all the bad things that were inspired by him! And having a good wizard as a hero—that can't be right! It will just lead to a greater interest in the occult."

So I pretty much listened, and found out years later that I had missed out on a good book. I disagree firmly with those who think the HP books are poorly written fads that don't need to be paid attention to. In particular, I think that aspiring Catholic writers will ignore them at their own loss. Rowling is a master of the craft.

 

GM She certainly is. But could you say a little bit more about your reservations?

 

RD Well, as I've said elsewhere, I'll give some caveats: the series isn't finished yet, and it could be that Rowling will do something indefensible in the last two books—say, have Harry committing fornication or something—and it's probably prudent to withhold final judgment. But with more than half of the series over, I think most of us who've read the books are guessing that something very good is in store for Rowling's readers.

Honestly, it's just a sign of hope that books this good can still be written! I mean, I've read all my life about how this culture is dying, how the written word is perishing before the cathode-ray-tube of the television, how the Christian influence on souls is withering away, how education is dumbing us all down to neanderthal levels, how the late twentieth century is not capable of producing anything that's not degraded and debased and awful and pandering to the sex- and violence-sotted commercial masses.

And then, in the midst of this, along comes J.K. Rowling with her degree in classics and Latin and her love for Dickens and Austen. And she pens thick novels full of Latin phrases and elevated vocabulary that contain slow-building suspense mysteries, books that are innocent of sex, and ignore feminism, Marxism, environmentalism, and gay-rights agendas. And what happens? Non-reading, secularized, television-raised kids devour them.

Stores can't keep them in stock. The elite of New York and Hollywood have to Take Notice. She lands five of the six spots on the top-selling books of the past decade. Three of her books are made into blockbuster movies. She changes the face of book publishing and children's media and is cited as a major cultural influence. Who would have predicted this? It's actually really given me hope as a writer—good books of complexity and depth—new classics—can still be written! We're not all dead yet!

 

GM We most certainly are not! And, promoters of certain Internet hoaxes notwithstanding, more critics are coming to see the very strong Christian themes and symbolism in Harry Potter.

 

RD Yes! And, let me acknowledge here my debt to John Granger's Looking for God in Harry Potter (reviewed in the Sept., 2004 GM)—it's amazing that the Harry Potter books are packed full of Christian themes and Christian imagination and Christian heroism. If books six and seven remain faithful to the rest of the series, then we will be faced with what has to be one of the greatest coups in the creative industry: that the best-selling book revered by all the secular world is none other than a Christian work, Lord of the Rings all over again, in the 21st century. There's still hope!

 

GM You mentioned the Church and the arts. The arts are the patrimony of Christianity, and yet now they're almost completely overtaken by secularists and worse. Do you and your husband—and others in your creative community—see yourselves as working to restore to the arts a proper Christian perspective?

 

RD Absolutely. I really do feel that this is crucial. I see the mission of the Catholic artist as evangelizing people's imaginations. At first glance, this might not seem so important—why not go for evangelizing their morals, or their hearts, or their lives? But planting seeds in the imagination is a very important work. It helps people to emotionally understand spiritual realities. It can help us visualize and understand, to a degree, the incomprehensible.

For instance, how do you explain to an audience of modern-day readers what God is like—that He is terrible, omnipotent, terrifying, full of righteousness and justice? And at the same time He is also all-loving, comforting, someone you want to be with, even attractive and mesmerizing in beauty? How do you reconcile terror and power with love and beauty? How do you help people to understand this? Let's up the stakes: how can you help ten-year-olds understand this kind of theology? I think most of us would find this pretty challenging.

And yet, you can explain all this to kids ten years and even younger by citing one word: Aslan.

In that one character, C.S. Lewis managed to pack in all the divine attributes listed above. And because millions of readers have met and loved Aslan of The Chronicles of Narnia, they will be able to more easily imagine God. That's the power of evangelizing the imagination.

I'm not saying that all Christian artists have to turn out Narnia clones or deal with specifically religious themes. But when they show heroism, or purity, or morality in a way that allows the reader to yearn for and appreciate goodness—or at least imagine it, they're fulfilling an important role. They imaginatively incarnate for their audience goodness and virtues that might otherwise remain abstractions or platitudes.

Conversely, a Catholic artist can also show the audience what sin is really like, behind the glamour of temptations and the masks and the lies—you can show the audience the tragedy, the staleness, the loss of personhood that comes with sin. That can be powerful as well. And of course, you have to show them the way out—you have to show them hope and redemption as well.

As a modern film director said, "A good story shows us the way—it shows us what is possible." That's Sam Raimi, director of the two Spiderman movies. So stories are not just for entertainment, not just for leisure. They are a crucial front in the battle for the Culture of Life.

GM On that note, I look forward to seeing many more imaginative works from you.

RD Thank you! God willing, I'll keep writing them.

For more information about Regina Doman visit her website at www.reginadoman.com

copyright Gilbert Magazine, 2005. This document is available for republishing only after the publisher's permission has been obtained. Click here to email the publisher.

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