After Pope Francis, Rev. James Martin is probably the most popular Jesuit priest in America. Fresh off a network television commenting stint on the pope’s recent visit and with over 330,000 Facebook fans and 64,500 Twitter followers, Martin, who served as Official Chaplain of the Colbert Nation on The Colbert Report, is a familiar face and voice to many. Martin now turns his pen to fiction. His novel The Abbey (HarperOne, Oct.) shows what happens when Anne, a bereaved single mom; Mark, an out-of-work architect turned handyman; and Paul, the abbot of a monastery, all cross spiritual paths at a Pennsylvania abbey.
You write in the book’s acknowledgements that the novel is based on a dream. Explain, please.
I had been counseling someone who had lost someone in their family, and one night had this vivid dream that had all the elements of the story and the names of the characters and the name of the abbey. The next morning I woke up [and] I thought, I’m not a fiction writer [but] maybe I could do this as an e-book. I loved writing it and I started to fall in love with the characters, and then I asked my editor if he might be interested in a novel and he said, “Absolutely.”
How is writing fiction different from writing nonfiction?
As I said to my friends: no research, no footnotes, no Greek. It’s much freer and looser. It was strange to start to start to fall in love with the characters and start to care for them and look at them sympathetically without tying everything up in a neat bow at the end. In life most things are not tied up with a neat bow; I wanted it to reflect people’s real spiritual lives.
One of the three main characters, the abbot Father Paul, is a priest. How much is he like and not like you?
I have heard the same kinds of questions about struggles with suffering and “how am I supposed to connect to God” over the last 27 years as a Jesuit. A lot of Paul’s advice flows from the responses I’ve given to those questions. He’s a bit more formal than I am; he’s a Trappist and I’m a Jesuit. He’s also a lot more serene than I am.
What’s your takeaway about the recent U.S. visit by Pope Francis?
The takeaway is that everyone matters. The pope showed that through his words and deeds by meeting with schoolchildren in New York, the homeless in Washington, prisoners in Philadelphia. No one is excluded. God is love: [the pope] showed that over and over again, particularly with his embracing of the sick, showing them affection, hugging and kissing them. God is near. I heard so many people say: “I can’t believe the pope came to my town.” It’s an image of how God comes close to us. People in Galilee probably said: “I can’t believe God is in my neighborhood.”