What inspired you to write If Nuns Ruled the World?
Around 2009 I started spending a lot of time around nuns. I was finishing a thesis for my masters over at NYU and the topic was how Catholic nuns used social media. I started traveling around the country to meet with nuns who blogged and tweeted.
Despite having gone to an all-girls Catholic high school I had just as many stereotypes of Catholic sisters as anyone does. But the nuns I met on the road began to shatter those stereotypes. They weren’t these stuffy, ruler-wielding automatons. They were independent bad-asses. And each of these bad-ass nuns led to another bad-ass nun. I would come back home from some of these trips and share their stories at dinner parties and people were just so surprised. They’d never heard of nuns doing so many amazing things. In fact, they hadn’t heard that much about nuns at all. That’s when I knew there were stories here that needed to be told.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
Nuns are the true embodiment of the way that Christians believe Jesus Christ wanted us to live. They are right there fighting on the frontlines of social justice for the people who live at the margins of our society. They rarely get banner headlines or magazine covers or even recognition from their male peers, but they do it anyway.
In my book I talk about Sister Jeannine Gramick’s fighting for the rights of gay Catholics for the past four decades, Sister Joan Dawber running a safe house for victims of human trafficking, Sister Donna Quinn fighting for a woman’s right to have an abortion and Sister Simone Campbell leading the Nuns on the Bus to lobby for political justice for the poorest of the poor in America. These are women whose praises we should be singing from the rooftops.
For a good portion of my career I covered the entertainment industry and celebrities. One of my goals here was to elevate the incredible work of the nuns so that we will consume their stories as hungrily as we consume content about celebrities.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
This might be the cleanest copy I have ever turned into my publisher. I wanted the sisters to feel comfortable with the re-telling of their stories and so I let many of them read sections of the book before it went to press. What I forgot is that so many Catholic nuns spent decades of their lives as grammar teachers. I have never seen so much red ink in my life.
If I learned anything writing this book it is that nuns love a good pun.
But the truth is that apart from removing unnecessary commas they let me be incredibly honest in talking about their lives and their fights for justice, even when we had to talk about the Vatican handing down warnings and threats in the case of Sister Jeannine Gramick or about the rape and torture that Sister Dianna Mae endured at the hands of her captors in Guatemala. They didn’t have to share so many things with me and I feel honored that they trusted me enough as a journalist to do so.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
Where do I start? One of the questions I get asked all of the time when people find out that I have written a book about nuns is Why? They don’t want to know why I wrote the book, they want to know why someone would become a nun in the first place. It rocks their world to think of someone who gives up that prescribed American dream of meeting someone, falling in love getting married and having kids—someone who takes a vow of celibacy. That shakes people to their very cores.
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about nuns is that they have given something up. They don’t see it that way. The women I have met are so happy and at peace with themselves. They are comfortable with their place in the world and the knowledge that every day they are living a very authentic life. They don’t feel like they missed out on marriage or children. They are comfortable in their own skin in a way that I have rarely encountered.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
I don’t think you have to be any one thing to enjoy this book. For non-Catholics I think it pulls back the veil (forgive the pun. If I learned anything writing this book it is that nuns love a good pun.). I hope to tap into the audience of Catholic women to make them feel proud of these incredibly strong women who represent their faith. But I think that men could benefit from reading their stories as well.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?
This is a touchy subject. I am bound to piss some people off here. I don’t shy away from the fact that I think the Catholic Church’s current stance on women is absolutely terrible. It is antiquated and frankly misogynistic that women can’t be priests in this day and age and I am very upfront about calling out Pope Francis on that fact in the introduction.
That said, I don’t want that controversy to take anything away from the women’s stories here.
At the end of the day this is really about them and their work and celebrating the incredible things they have done and making sure that people know their stories. With those stories I want to both inform and entertain.
What alternative title would you give the book?
I had a title in mind before I even wrote the book; in fact, the original title was the entire reason that I began writing in the first place. I was initially going to call the book “Bad Habit: The Secret Lives of Nuns,” and for about two years I told people that was the title of the book. We only talked about changing it a few months before I submitted the final manuscript. “Bad Habit” apparently didn’t work well for search, which matters these days when people figure out what to read by googling rather than browsing in a book store.
The next option was to call it “Bad Ass Nuns,” which we volleyed around for a couple of weeks. But even though many of the nuns in my book are very progressive and hip they don’t love foul or harsh language and the last thing I wanted to do was to insult any of them. We finally landed on the current title, If Nuns Ruled the World. I think it spells out exactly what I took away from the book as an author: that if nuns did rule the world, it would undoubtedly be a better place.
How do you feel about the cover?
I love it. This is the fifth cover we went through and just like the title it was really hard to get right.
I’m not an academic. I wrote this book for a lay audience and I wanted it to appeal to one. But on the other hand, I didn’t want it to come off as flip or patronizing. We tried a couple of graphic covers. We had a nun actually standing on top of the world at one point in a very literally representation.
It was only at the last minute that one of our designers found this incredible picture of a young nun in Mexico up on the top of this mountain that we literally all sighed together and said: “That’s the one!”
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
I am a huge fan of Nick Kristof’s Half the Sky and I thought about the book a lot while I was writing. In the same way that he took women’s stories from around the world and used them to narrate a specific issue, I tried to find ways to do that in each of my chapters.
What’s your next book?
When Nuns Rule the World.
I’m kidding. As a journalist I have been spending a lot of time with young progressive Muslim women who are shattering stereotypes and right now I am exploring telling more of their stories. If that works itself into a book that would be incredible. We have so many means of telling a story at our disposal these days that I don’t necessarily think everything needs to be a book. Some ideas may turn out to be an incredible Tumblr or an amazing long form essay, but if that topic decided that it wanted to become a book, I think it would be worth exploring.