Lisa Takeuchi Cullen
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What's it like when the man you married is already married to God? asks Pastors' Wives, an often surprising yet always emotionally true first novel set in a world most of us know only from the outside.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen's debut novel Pastors' Wives follows three women whose lives converge and intertwine at a Southern evangelical megachurch. Ruthie follows her Wall Street husband from New York to Magnolia, a fictional suburb of Atlanta, when he hears a calling to serve at a megachurch called Greenleaf. Reeling from the death of her mother, Ruthie suffers a crisis of faith-in God, in her marriage, and in herself. Candace is Greenleaf's "First Lady," a force of nature who'll stop at nothing to protect her church and her superstar husband. Ginger, married to Candace's son, struggles to play dutiful wife and mother while burying her calamitous past. All their roads collide in one chaotic event that exposes their true selves. Inspired by Cullen's reporting as a staff writer for Time magazine, Pastors' Wives is a dramatic portrayal of the private lives of pastors' wives, caught between the demands of faith, marriage, duty, and love.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen was a longtime staff writer for TIME magazine. She now develops television pilots for production companies. Born in Japan, Cullen lives in New Jersey with family. This is her first novel.
This novel was inspired by an article you wrote for Time. Was the transition from journalist to novelist a tricky one? How did the research you’d already done for the article play into the book?
I would probably never have been introduced to the world of megachurches and pastors’ wives had it not been for my magazine assignment. As with my first book (Remember Me, about weird and wonderful funerals and burials), the article was a jumpingoff point from which I then began the far deeper reporting and research necessary for a booklength project.
Transitioning from fact to fiction was and still is tremendously difficult. I spent almost two decades as a journalist, much of it for Time. Magazine journalism is about telling stories, portraying characters, arguing a point. I knew how to become an expert on subjects I initially knew absolutely nothing about. I can find sources like nobody’s business. But making stuff up? That’s a whole new ball of wax.
When Jerry decides to take the job at Greenleaf, Ruthie is thrown into a totally new world. What was it that inspired you to write about a woman who’s forced to adapt to completely new circumstances? Have you ever experienced something similar?
I won’t pretend I invented this literary device: when introducing readers to a new and different world, it sometimes helps to have another newcomer be your guide. As a reporter, my job required me to play the interloperso, yes, it’s a familiar role for me. In my personal life, I suppose the most dramatic change was coming to college in the United States after growing up in Japan. But haven’t we all felt like this at one point or anotherwhen starting a new job, or moving to a new town?
Pastors’ Wives is very much a novel about faith. Do you subscribe to Ruthie’s father’s view: that faith in somethingbe it in your family or in a religionis necessary? What were some of the challenges you faced in depicting the various faiths of the characters in the novel?
I wrote Pastors’ Wives in the throes of my own crisis of faith. I was raised in a devout Catholic family. My father, in fact, was a former priest who left the priesthood in order to marry my Japanese mother (she converted from Buddhism). My mother died of cancer in 2008, and my father nine months later of a broken heart. I had just had my second daughter and decided to quit my career as a journalist. I felt at sea in my life. I felt forsaken.
In many ways, Ruthie’s journey most resembles my own. Her mother’s illness and death, her closeknit tribe of siblings, her quirky point of viewthey are all familiar to me. But her father’s character is idealized. I wished so badly mine had lived. I wished so badly he had fallen in love again. I wished so badly that I could talk to him about my changing views on faith, and that he might have advised me as Ruthie’s did.
Although or maybe because I continue to struggle with faith, I feel deep respect for those whose faith quietly informs their lives. I am not a pastor’s wife and do not belong to a church community like Greenleaf’s. Yet no one I met in my years of research looked at me askance or treated me with anything less than kindness.
What are you working on now?
After I sold Pastors’ Wives to Penguin/Plume, I wrote a TV pilot about a character inspired by my fathera young priest who quits the collar when he takes a confession about a plot against his family, a famous political dynasty. It’s called The Ordained. I sold it to CBS last fall, and we just finished shooting it in New York City. We’ll find out in May if CBS will pick it up for series. So, you see, I’ve resurrected my father not once, but twice. This is the power of fiction.
I am also at work on my third book, another novel. It too is inspired by an article I wrote for Time when I was its Tokyo correspondent. It’s a mystery starring a young, mixedrace woman as an investigative journalist. Once againthe power of fiction!
- The novel opens with what Ruthie calls “an act of defiance”the purchase of a Star magazine. How does this set the tone for the novel? Why is it important for her to assert that she hasn’t changed? What does it tell you about her?
- What is your first impression of Candace? What does her initial interaction with the church elders tell you about her? Did your opinion of her change over the course of the book?
- Consider Aaron’s interfaith ministry. How does the novel represent Baptists, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews? Do you think that these faiths have more in common than some might assume? How so?
- Though this book tackles some serious subjects, it’s also lighthearted and humorous. How does the author’s wit inform the novel? How does she use humor to tell her story?
- One of the questions that the novel asks repeatedly is “what is it like when the man you married decides to marry God?” What is it like for the women in the novel? Can you imagine yourself in such a role?
- Ginger notes that she regularly dreams about Timothy’s death. What do these dreams mean to her? Why do you think she has dreams like this?
- Aaron’s sermon about fear affects Ruthie deeply. What is it about his call to “fear not” that strikes such a nerve in her? Does it have anything to do with the recent death of her mother?
- What do you make of Candace’s appraisals of the people around her? The Matterses? Her own children? How does she find them wanting? She thinks to herself that she does not judge people, but is that true? Does she view herself with the same critical eye?
- What does the retreat for pastors’ wives offer to Ginger? To Kaycee? How does it help them grow? Do you think Kaycee and Ginger would have found the strength to make the changes they needed to make in their lives without it? What does the novel have to say about camaraderie between women on the whole?
- What do you make of Ruthie’s relationship with Juan? Does her need for a friend outside the Greenleaf community blind her to his intentions? On the other hand, what do you think about Jerry’s relationship with Gee?
- Were you surprised by the lengths Candace went to in order to protect Ginger? Was that truly what she was doing? Why doesn’t she tell Ginger about it?
- “Let me take care of it” becomes a motif of the book. How do the characters take care of each other? Of themselves? Consider Ruthie’s relationships with her siblings, her dad, and Jerry.
- Do you think that Ruthie’s mother’s death has affected her in ways she isn’t truly aware of? What effect does it have on her faith? On her father’s faith?
- Does the shooting change Candace? How so?
- What were your thoughts on the end of the novel? Has Ruthie taken her dad’s advice to have faith in something or someone? What do you make of her father’s advice? What do you think the novel is trying to say about faith? Is it important, regardless of whether or not it’s religious?