Monday, November 07, 2011

Ian Morgan Cron's Jesus, My Father, the CIA

Q & A with Ian Morgan Cron

Why did you decide to write a memoir?
It began with finding a picture of me as a toddler sitting in rowboat on a beach in Greenwich, CT, waving and laughing at the photographer. I had this eerie feeling that this kid somehow knew when the picture was being taken that I would discover it years later when I was ready to take a journey of healing. I framed the picture and put it on my desk. One day I looked at it and knew he wanted me to write this book.

Why call it 'a memoir of sorts'?
I wanted to be transparent with the reader. The book dances on the hyphen between the genres of memoir and autobiographical fiction. I moved timelines and locations around, I changed every name except my own; I conflated characters; I left out or softened material that I thought would be too hurtful to people who didn’t sign up to be in my book, I omitted a few CIA related stories I desperately wanted to tell but some of the people involved are still alive. What’s important for the reader to know is that the book tells the truth about my childhood either in fact or in essence and most often both.

Being selected to be part of B&N’s Discover Great New Writers program is a big honor – did you ever expect to be chosen?
I’m told it’s rare that a book with overt religious themes finds its way into the Discover Great New Writers Program. Someone from B&N told me my book was selected in part because it was spiritual without being preachy; that atheists or people who were skeptical about organized religion had read it and were surprised the spiritual parts of the book didn’t stop them from enjoying it. It’s one of the highest compliments I’ve received to date.

How did your education influence your writing?
Some of the most formative years of my life were spent studying English at Bowdoin College. I write about Larry Hall, a professor who became a close friend and mentor. He had won the O’Henry Prize and the William Faulkner Award for best debut novel. His classes were better than church. His short story The Ledge is so heartbreaking that I have trouble getting through it. It leaves me with the same feeling of desolation and helplessness as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road does.

What were your favorite books as a kid?
My father was a voracious reader so there were piles of books all over our house. I sometimes read ones that were not particularly age appropriate. In sixth grade I showed up at school with a copy of Babi Yar an account of one of the worst mass slaughters of Jews in WWII and my teacher immediately took it away. She was incredulous and phoned my mother to ask if she knew I was reading such a disturbing book and my mother replied, “You’re calling to complain that my son is reading?” Don’t mess with my mother. At ten I was reading books like Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Jack London’s Call of the Wild, and I loved anything by PG Wodehouse.

In one chapter you write about the experience of ‘falling into God.’ Can you explain what this means?
This happened at my First Communion Mass when I received the Eucharist. It was an uninvited and momentary experience of profound union with God, a graced-moment that was such a gift to me. Even as a boy I saw the world through a kind of mystical lens. I knew deep in my soul that we lived on a planet brimming with God. The experience of falling into God has only happened to me three times in my life but they changed me forever.

Have you tried to find out more about your father's work with the CIA?
Six or seven years ago I contacted the CIA and asked them under the Freedom of Information Act to tell me what my father had done for them. They don’t make it easy to get an answer. There’s no woman at Langley who answers the phone and says, “Oh you want to know what your dad did for the CIA? No problem honey, let me just grab his file and I’ll tell you.” I had to jump through one hoop after another until one day I finally received a letter that said something like “We can neither confirm nor deny that your father ever worked for the CIA and if he was in the clandestine services we can never tell you.” What I know of his work I’ve learned through others.

Your parents mingled with many celebrities. Tell us about a few….
I was a baby when my parents moved in those circles but I heard the stories over and over again from my older siblings and parents. There was the night when Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks spontaneously performed their famous sketch the 2000-year Old Man in our living room or the time Art Buchwald stood on a chair and took off his clothes to the song The Stripper at a Thanksgiving party. I heard stories about nights out with Judy Garland, the daily visits of our neighbor the author James Jones who wrote From Here to Eternity who would come over to have coffee with my mother after finishing writing for the day. Roger Moore and others were family friends. They all disappeared when we fell on hard times.

What programs helped you into recovery from alcoholism?
A few things happened all at once to bring my drinking days to an end. In the course of 6 months my father died from drinking, my closest friend and drinking buddy went into rehab, and my counselor told me he wouldn’t see me again until I stopped drinking. He was the first person to tell me to my face that I was an alcoholic. Others had expressed concern but he nailed me. It turned out he was in AA and took me to my first meeting. I think if church services were more like AA meetings we wouldn’t know what to do with the crowds that would show up.

What would you advise other children of alcoholics who fear they will become addicts?
I had this very conversation last night with my son who is going away to boarding school next year. I told him the old line: “Alcoholism doesn’t run in our family, it gallops” and we had a good laugh. Fortunately none of my children have fooled with drugs or alcohol but I’ve warned them about the risks.

Readers have been responding strongly to the last chapter about the ‘quarry’ – why do you think it is resonating with readers?
Yes, I’ve received a great deal of email about that chapter. There is something moving in that story especially for fathers who grew up in crazy homes and fear they can’t give their children something they themselves didn’t receive from their parents. For me it’s about baptism being a daily experience. We have to choose to face what terrifies us, boldly jump off our cliffs into the waters of life rather than halfheartedly rolling down the side like ragdolls. I cried three times while writing the book and the end of that chapter was one of them.

Ian Morgan Cron is an Episcopal priest, speaker, and the acclaimed author of Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale. His literary debut received accolades from the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Brian McLaren, Fr Richard Rohr, Phyllis Tickle, Tony Campolo, Brennan Manning, and artist Makoto Fujimura. Ian is currently the Curator of the Conversations on Courage and Faith Series at Christ Episcopal Church in Greenwich, CT and a doctoral student at Fordham University, where he is studying Christian Spirituality. He enjoys reading, hiking, traveling, and kayaking. Ian and his wife have three children and divide their year between homes in Connecticut and Tennessee.


Gina Holmes said...

I'm reading the memoir right now. Pulled me in right from the go!

Ane Mulligan said...

THis is on e of the most fascinating interviews I've read. Thanks, Ronie, for bringing it to us! Ian, I can't wait to read the book. :)

Julie Jarnagin said...

This is a fascinating interview. I'm headed to right now.