PW: Your book Jesus: What He Really Said and Did adapts your The Gospel According to Jesus (HarperCollins, 1991) for a teenage audience. How did the new work evolve?
SM: The topic was near to my heart. In my opinion, everything written about Jesus for children was saccharine, with no reality in it. I asked Liz Bicknell at Candlewick, who had edited a friend's book, if she'd be interested. Liz was very excited. She had me write something personal to introduce the book, because she felt kids would be able to identify with it more readily. But when it came time to present it, other [Candlewick] editors, understandably, thought it was too controversial. My children's book agent, Holly McGhee, sent it to Harper, and I have a wonderful editor there named Stephen Fraser.
I do have two books coming from Candlewick, a retelling of The Nightingale and a book of poetry.
PW: What kinds of issues did you take into consideration when you geared the text for teen readers?
SM: I didn't think in terms of what teenagers needed, I thought in terms of what I needed to say. If there's a fit, I'm glad. I just told the truth as it happened to me.
I took liberties that I didn't take in Gospel. With this book, I felt it was important to be as clear as possible, and if something wasn't clear as a translation [from Scripture], I felt free enough to paraphrase [from the Greek] and get the point over to young people that way.
Adults who have read Gospel have told me that they prefer [Jesus] because it doesn't have the subtleties and scholarship of Gospel—they found it to be even more forceful. The message—that not everything in the Gospels is accurate—is possibly even stronger here.
PW: How would you frame a description of your own faith?
SM: Faith is a word that I don't use myself. Because often it is equated with belief, and my whole Zen training was addressed to undoing all belief and putting yourself in direct contact with what's real, not what you want to be real. I would say it's more a sense of trust in reality and in knowing that everything is good—that whatever happens is good—and of getting that trust deeper in my bones and in my dealings with other people.
PW: Why Jesus, rather than Buddha or Lao-Tzu, both of whom appear periodically in the volume as spiritual leaders you admire?
SM: When I was a little kid, the issue that I had was with Jesus—I'd never heard of the Buddha. Growing up and even into my 30s, [Jesus] was a big problem for me. In a way, I'm writing to my nine-year-old self who would have loved a book like this—and for Jews and others who are getting confused messages about God and about Jesus. Our culture is basically a Christian culture or has come out of a Christian culture. If we were living in Thailand it might be more important to have written about the Buddha.
PW: What do you hope teenagers will take away from the experience of reading your book?
SM: I would love it if they could get a sense of where Jesus was pointing with his teachings and if they could feel that clarity and wisdom are not things that they need to or can get from outside themselves but things that are available within themselves.
For kids who are bright and spirited, often the choice is between what is being taught and nothing. This book might briefly, even for a moment, give children another possibility, when they're feeling that some of the things [in the Gospels] are unkind and untrue. If [the book] could do that for even one child I would feel it is a great success.