A Rationalist’s Ghost Story

What inspired you to write Holy Ghosts?

On a cold evening in March 2007, I went to my three-year-old son’s room to get him a pair of socks. His room was dark except for a small night-light that cast a puddle of light against the wall. As I was in the room, I had a strange feeling that I was being watched. I turned around and saw nothing out of the ordinary. I wrote it off as just my imagination, but after I grabbed the socks and I turned to walk downstairs I felt something, the intensity of which I had never felt before. The only way I can describe it is as if someone had an electric glove and was rubbing the length of my back. I couldn’t move, not because I was paralyzed but because it was so odd. It didn’t last long and I was quick to write it off as nothing, and I probably would have forgotten the incident entirely except the sensation began to happen on a regular basis. And it only happened while I was in the room alone. It never happened when my wife was with me or when my son was with me or if the three of us were in the room together.

That was the first indication that something strange was going on in our house. Now, I’d always considered myself a rationalist, but over the next twelve months a series of odd events would challenge the way I viewed the world. It was an extraordinary time. There were moments of fear, confusion, belief, disbelief, and awe. When the events seemed to come to a close, I felt like I wanted to tell people about it all because it was just so bizarre. So I did, mostly friends and colleagues, at first. Many people suggested I write a book about my experiences, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that for the simple reason that if you tell someone, especially a stranger, that you might have a ghost in your house, the probability of that person thinking you’re crazy is rather high.

As someone who had written about spirituality in the past, I was very conscious about how important it was for me, both as a person and a writer to talk about finding meaning in the small things of life. My focus has always been on day-to-day spirituality, if you will. Finding value in the mundane. Over time, though, I began to see that what my family and I had experienced over a twelve-month period, though extraordinary, was part of our day-to-day life and had deep meaning; not only for us personally, but universally as well. The more I shared my experiences with the people around me, the more and more people reached out to me to tell me of the strange encounter they’d had. And these were stories from perfectly sane, responsible, and reasonable people. All of them began the same way, “I don’t normally talk about these things, but you’re not going to believe what happened to me once…”

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

I think my experiences led me to a deeper appreciation of the living and the dead. None of us knows for sure what happens to us after we die, but there are living people around us, all around us, who feel things—joy and hurt, happiness and sorrow, compassion and frustration. They experience gain and loss. They have people who are born into their lives and people who die from their lives. I suppose I understood all these things on an intellectual level, but after the experiences in our home, these understandings moved out of my head and into my heart. It gave me a greater appreciation for the lives of those living and for the lives of those who have passed on. You know, one day I’m going to die and hopefully the people I know and love will remember me, but then they’ll pass on and their families and friends will pass on until I will become just an anonymous name in a cemetery somewhere. There’s something sad about that, the anonymity of the people who lived before us, but there’s something beautiful about it too, how life just keeps going. We can all sometimes forget about that. I know I have. I know I have taken people for granted, but I try to be a little more aware now of the life around me.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Ann Beattie wrote a terrific line in one of my favorite short stories of all time, “Snow.” This is what she said: “Any life will seem dramatic if you leave out mention of most of it.” Holy Ghosts is a memoir and like most memoirs it leaves out a lot of the day-to-day experiences that a person has—standing on a line at the grocery store, cleaning the house, cooking food, doing laundry, the mundane but necessary things we do at work. To include all those things in a memoir would make for a cumbersome story and probably just bore people to tears. So, this book really does focus primarily on the extraordinary circumstances that happened over a twelve month period in my family’s life (as well as a number of flashbacks from when I was a young boy).

In addition, there were a number of things I didn’t get the chance to explore for a very practical reason: I had a deadline. Working in publishing I’m very conscious about how important deadlines are. Writers need to make those deadlines and because I worked in the industry I wanted to be respectful about that. There were a number of frightening episodes that my wife experienced that I didn’t have time to flesh out as well as I would have wanted so I dropped them. There was also a rather scary moment in my basement near a long, dark crawl space that I decided to cut because I didn’t have time to do it justice. Maybe someday I’ll do an extended version of the book.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

I think in our modern world it’s very easy to be dismissive of what people call paranormal or supernatural activity. I can totally understand that. I was dismissive of these things for most of my life; so many of these occurrences have been sensationalized over the course of human history. Now, when you start doing research in this field you find out really quickly that there is very little conclusive scientific evidence for the existence of ghosts or angels or demons. I mean that’s why the debate between faith and reason, between believers and non-believers, continues to this day.

Most supernatural experiences are written off as folklore, metaphor or just plain superstition. But even though there is very little scientific evidence for these things, there are thousands of years of historical accounts that suggest otherwise. Science is great. I love science. But science only gives us a layer of truth. There are other methods out there besides the scientific method that can tell us a lot about the world we live in. There is the historical method, the philosophical method, the theological method, the linguistic method. All of these methods give us a way of looking at the world. So, just because the science of supernatural experience is inconclusive doesn’t mean that these things don’t exist. There is a great line by Huston Smith that sums it up very nicely: “absence of evidence in not evidence of absence.”

Did you have a specific audience in mind?

Just people who like good stories. I think like many writers you want to appeal to as many people as possible. I was no different. However, my intention in writing the book was never to change people’s minds or make them believers. I wasn’t trying to change the minds of skeptics. What I wanted to do was to tell my story and get people to think about some of the things I wrote about: Is there more to life than what we can see with the naked eye?; What happens to us after we die?; How do we explain the fact that for thousands of years people from around the world have been experiencing similar phenomenon?; What does religion have to say about supernatural experience?

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

Ha! There is a line the book which I didn’t write. My wife did. She said these words one night while some frightening things were going on in the house: “You have this gift for royally pissing off people at the most inopportune time.” She’s right. She’s always right, I do have a gift, though it wasn’t my intention to ruffle anyone’s feathers (though I’m sure it will). Essentially what I wanted to do with Holy Ghosts was to tell a story that people would enjoy reading. I love books and have been in the publishing business for fifteen years and the reading experience is something that is very important to me. I wanted to write a book that entertained and educated at the same time. That’s my favorite type of book and my favorite teachers of all time were the ones who told the best stories.

When I look back on my life it’s the storytellers who stay in my memory the most. I can remember as clear as day some old man I met on a motorcycle at a rest stop in Delaware after my car broke down almost twenty years ago. He was a weathered old guy who smoked Marlboros beneath an old neon sign and kept me company as I waited for a tow truck. He told me stories about his family and his years as a mechanic. I swear this guy told me a story about replacing a carburetor that was riveting! Maybe it was his voice which sounded a bit like his vocal chords had been scratched with sandpaper or maybe it was just because he seemed to love everything—his wife, his kids, his bike, helping other people. I never asked the guy his name. He didn’t ask mine, but I still remember his thin face, his skinny legs, his red bandana and his wild gray hair to this day. So to answer your question, I wanted to tell a good story—a spooky story because what my family and I went through was spooky…and I wanted to share the love.

What alternative titles would you give your book?

Great question! Maybe, My Mom Sees Ghosts. Me? Not so Much. Ha! You know, I debated the title, Holy Ghosts, Or, How a (Not So) Good Catholic Boy Became a Believer in Things that Go Bump in the Night for some time. Religion is an element of the book, but I don’t think it’s the main focus. The heart of the book is the mysteries that sometimes unfold around us and how each of us embarks on a personal journey to understand these events. I was a bit concerned that the book sounded too religious and that it would turn people off. Though I’m Catholic, it’s not a Catholic book in the way a book on prayer might be. I wanted people from all walks of life and all faiths to read it. In the end though, it was pretty much the perfect title for the book. I am a not so good Catholic boy, I now believe in the things that go bump in the night, and maybe the things we are scared of have a holiness which we might not fully understand but which in the end could lead to transformation.

How do you feel about the cover?

Working in publishing, I know how difficult it can be to come up with the perfect jacket for a book. There are a lot of people involved in the process: the author, editor, publisher, designer, marketing, sales, sometimes the agent. You can sometimes go through a dozen different ideas and variations (sometimes more) before you find something that everyone can agree upon. A daunting task to say the least. But I have to say, the team who worked on Holy Ghosts nailed it from the get go. The layout and font were perfect as was the placement of the photos. There was just one caveat. The initial incarnation of the jacket featured a full-length photo of my family’s house. The cover looked amazing! But having our house splashed on the cover of the book made me a bit uncomfortable. Holy Ghosts is already a pretty intimate book already; it had to be in order to tell the story the right way. I just wasn’t sure I wanted it to be that intimate.

My family and I thought about it quite a bit and in the end felt like it was too much so after talking to my editor the cover went back for a redesign. About a month later I received an email with a PDF of the new jacket and I was blown away. It was the same exact design but with a stock photo of an old house. It looked amazing, but not as good as it did when I saw my first copy of the actual, printed book. The cover just radiates and I don’t know how the designer did it, but the colors and the fonts and the photos and their placement makes the jacket look like it’s glowing. I’m really grateful for the care everyone involved in creating such a great cover.

What book do you wish you had written?

This is my third book and if you had asked me this question about the two books prior to this one I would have given you a laundry list of things I would have done differently. But Holy Ghosts was really a miracle for me in that it was the book where I found my true voice. This is my most personal writing to date. Though this book is a ghost story it is very much a memoir so the writing had to be personal. It’s a serious book, but anyone who knows me knows I’m a bit of a smartass and I make lots of mistakes because I can be stubborn or just clueless sometimes. That comes through in the book, I hope, not in an annoying way, but just in an ordinary way. Moreover, I wanted the book to have a certain feel to it, like you were meeting me for the first time and you, the reader, and I were stuck late at night in an airport somewhere while a storm grounded all flights and I just started telling you over a couple of beers about the odd events that happened to me a few years ago and how they mirrored events that happened to me while I was a child. I’d probably never see that person again, but I wanted that person, the reader, to never forget the story.

What’s next?

You know, I’m not really sure. I’ve caught a bit of the unexplained mysteries bug and have been reading a lot about paranormal and supernatural phenomenon since I wrapped up Holy Ghosts. Does that mean I’ll be writing about these things again in the future? It’s really hard to say at this point, right now I’m just soaking up as much information as I can. There has been an idea for a novel I’ve been playing around with about an American soldier who moves to Paris after the end of World War I. It’s a supernatural thriller and that’s all I can say right now. You really have to have the right chops to pull off a novel so maybe I’ll be spending the near future trying to hone those skills. Writing is very important to me so I want to improve my technique as much as possible.

There is a secret to great writing which I’ll reveal to you right now. Actually this doesn’t come from me, but something novelist John Irving said. I’ll paraphrase his words: “I am a good writer, but I’m a better rewriter.” For me, I want to work on not only my writing skills, but my rewriting skills as well. It’s in the rewriting that an author really shines.