PW: Why the title Killing the Buddha?
Jeff Sharlet: It's a saying attributed to a ninth-century Buddhist sage named Lin Chi. One day a monk said he'd met the Buddha on the road, and he was thrilled that he'd reached nirvana. But Lin Chi told the monk to kill that Buddha. The idea of the saying is that the Buddha we meet, the one we encounter on the road, is really just an expression of our own longing.
PW: Speaking of encounters, how did you two become friends?
JS: We met at the National Yiddish Book Center, where we were both working. I'm the Jew, Peter's the Catholic, but Peter's the one who's pretty good at Yiddish. He's one of the last Yiddish typesetters in America.
Peter Manseau: One part of my job was to drive the book center's truck up and down the East coast. That experience of going out and getting these books, and hearing all the stories associated with them, pushed me on the path of writing this book about the varieties of faith. It was a way to find out what people actually believe and what their faith is really like.
PW: You both spent a year on the road, learning about religion in America. How did you choose the sites and groups you would include?
JS: There were some ideas right from the beginning. When we proposed the book, we knew we were interested in stormchasers, for example, and that there was something implicitly religious in that. We knew that we wanted to talk to "gangbangers" in L.A.—the guys with the Virgin Mary tattooed on their chests. But others things we would just stumble upon. At one point we stopped in a town in North Carolina and picked up a newspaper with the headline, "Hermaphrodite gunman terrorizes local church." We talked our way into the jail to talk to this person, and actually witnessed an exorcism. All the people started speaking in tongues, which is really quite something.
PM: Another time, we were driving around Miami, lamenting our lack of Spanish, when we heard on the radio that there would be something called "victory day" at a local church. They were celebrating the conviction of a serial killer who had abducted, raped and murdered a member of the church. It was a church of mainly Caribbean immigrants, dressed in bright, vibrant red, because it was the color of victory and of Jesus' blood. We had gone to Miami looking for one story, and ended up finding something completely different.
PW: How did people respond to your desire to interview them?
PM: The subject of the book—the varieties of belief in America—was the key to unlock people's stories. They gave us tea in their homes and spilled their hearts to us. We told them that we were interested in what was most important to them, and just the fact of that changed our interaction immediately.
PW: One of the most unusual aspects of this book is its blending of fact and fiction, reportage and storytelling. How did you find the writers who did the biblical short stories and essays you've woven into the book?
PM: In the early stages, finding people was mainly a reading project—reading everything we could get our hands on from anyone we'd ever heard of that we thought would fit. The writers we ended up gathering, though they're all very different, are all taken up with what theologian Paul Tillich would call the Ultimate Concern. Not with the trappings, but with the soul.
JS: Some, like Rick Moody and Francine Prose, are well-known writers we admired a lot. There's a young novelist named April Reynolds whom we met at a party. We were blown away by Randall Kenan's book. Haven Kimmel was one that our editor recommended. We were careful not to pick people for fame or just because their publisher wanted to push them.
PW: Who do you hope will read this book?
JS: On our Web site, killingthebuddha.com, we get emails from all kinds of people, not just the urban literary hipsters. My favorite one of all time was from a Christian missionary in Papua, New Guinea, who has lost his faith in God. He hikes out once a week to an Internet café to see what's on our Web site, and sends us these thoughtful, incredible letters. We get letters from readers who are fundamentalists, who are much more open-minded than the stereotype holds, and also the New Agers, who feel like they can't really engage with the Western tradition and the Bible.
PM: Starting out, we thought our online audience was going to be 20-somethings who were vaguely interested in religion but didn't have much experience with it. We were really surprised to find just how many "orthodox" believers we had—a lot of Anglicans, Jews, liberal Catholics. And of course avowed atheists, people who think that religion is stupid. All of these different groups found something that they agreed with that we were doing: we were taking faith seriously, and not just treating it as self-help and mindless fanaticism.