PW: Soul Survivor is about cultivating an authentic Christian spirituality, almost in spite of the church. Why this book, and why write it now?
Yancey: I'm just now coming to terms with the past in a way that I can write about. I've waited a long time because I didn't want to write out of anger.... I hope this is a safe and comforting book. I find that a lot of readers have a wistful longing for spirituality, for connection with God. But because they've been bruised, because God has been misrepresented by the church, they have barriers. Preachers have waved a finger in their faces, calling them sinners. But I have found that God is full of grace. I hope this book is a safe place, a gentle path for others to follow.
PW: Why did you choose a New York house for this, instead of a CBA publisher?
Yancey: It was about the audience I wanted to reach. I receive a lot of mail from people who have been bruised by religion and burned by the church. Many of them would never go into a CBA bookstore. This book is really for them. The people I profile in the book are all people who brought me back to faith. I was so resistant to the church and its propaganda that I had to look outside the church for spiritual guidance.
PW: Did writing this book help you achieve "closure" with the past?
Yancey: The beginning of closure, maybe. It's a "semi-memoir." It has a memoir aspect. Of the 13 people in the book, the only thing they have in common is their effect on me. So I realized in the writing that I needed to put myself in the book, to explain why I had chosen these people. These were the people who affected my faith and my outlook on the world.
PW: What else do these subjects have in common?
Yancey: It was while I was working as a journalist that I came back to faith. I interviewed famous people—professional football players, politicians, actors and actresses. These were not people whom I wanted to emulate. The people in the book are the ones who affected me—Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Coles, Gandhi. I realized that it was their commitment to a cause that made them great people. It wasn't wealth; it wasn't success. Their lives had meaning because of their service and their connection with God. This was something I wanted for myself.
PW: Who were some of the others you thought about including?
Yancey: Bill Clinton, for example. A lot of people would be interested, in a gossipy sense, in what I'd have to say about Bill Clinton, but he really hasn't been a mentor for me.
PW: Many of the people you profile are writers, like Frederick Buechner and Annie Dillard. How did they influence you?
Yancey: I talk in the book about learning to trust the written word, rather than the spoken word. As a child in the South, especially in Southern churches, the spoken word was so emotional and untrustworthy. They misused words—they sang about how Jesus loved all the children, "red and yellow, black and white." But just let one of those red or yellow kids try to get in the church, and you'll see that they don't mean it. They inoculated me against words. And in a sense I became a writer to recover words, to scrub them clean.
One of the greatest things about writing as a profession is that the words of Tolstoy, Chesterton and Dostoyevsky have lived for a hundred years and are just as powerful today. Their words have changed me just as much as the people I actually met.