It’s still a bit new for Lisa Takeuchi Cullen to be the subject of an interview. She is accustomed to being the interviewer; until 2009 she was a foreign correspondent and staff writer for Time magazine, and before that worked for Money, Financial Planning, and Ladies’ Home Journal.
But being the one answering questions “is so weird,” says Cullen. “I’ll have to do a lot of it, with the book.” Her debut novel, Pastors’ Wives, will be published in April by Penguin/Plume. She also is the author of the nonfiction Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death (HarperCollins, 2006).
The novel began as a Time story—Cullen’s editor assigned a feature about a convention of pastors’ wives. “It was a group that I didn’t know anything about, [that] I never thought about,” Cullen says. She was born and raised in Kobe, Japan. Her father, a Catholic priest from Philadelphia, met her mother when his order sent him to Japan, and he left the priesthood to marry her. They raised their four children as strict Catholics.
“I hadn’t grown up in a culture where I was around women who were married to ministers. But once I started interviewing them I found they were nothing like I had expected,” Cullen says. “It was just one of those assignments that got hold of me and I couldn’t stop thinking about.”
While considering a nonfiction book on the subject, and pregnant with the second of her two children, Cullen went to a pastors’ wives retreat. “They couldn’t have been kinder or more welcoming. I had my belly blessed more times than I could count.” The women spoke of struggles in their marriages—with adultery, temptation, and money—but the prevailing issue was that the wives came second to the church.
“I decided, for no good reason, that it would make a great TV series. I don’t mean a reality show. I mean a drama,” Cullen says. She pursued a series pitch, but it bombed. At her literary agent’s behest, Cullen wrote the novel. “The characters had taken on a life of their own in my head.” In Pastors’ Wives, Cullen tells the stories of Ruthie, Candace, and Ginger, whose lives intersect at a mega-church in suburban Atlanta.
Cullen says while working on the book she confronted her own crisis of faith due both to personal troubles—including the deaths of her parents—and problems in the Catholic Church.
“I do feel that it was cathartic, if only because it forced me to figure out my beliefs, and I can’t say that I saw the light and came to some divine awakening,” says Cullen, who doesn’t go to Mass anymore, but misses it. “I would just say that my own journey in faith continues, and I imagine it will for the rest of my life.”