NEWS
   The Art of Fiction No. 732
 
 
 
Lee Tasey has lived an eventful life. He’s lived on both coasts and in the Midwest. He has a learning disability—dyslexia—yet he has three earned degrees, two of them master’s degrees. He even dropped out of a PhD program in philosophy in order to become a fiction writer. He then worked as a bellman at a hotel where he continued to learn the craft of writing (on the night shift where there was lots of downtime). Eventually he started teaching at Doane College and has been there for twelve years, even winning the Outstanding Teacher of the Year award in 2014.
 
Tasey is also one of the few living American writers who believes in the devil. Literally. I stopped by his studio apartment in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska last month to talk about topics that have been on his mind lately: his newly released novel Jenna's Flaw, the future of higher education, political correctness on the college campus, and, of course, God and the devil.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
How are you feeling today?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Okay
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
You’re not a big fan of interviews. Why not?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
I don’t like talking about myself or my writing or God.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
But you’re a college professor. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Yes
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
How do you reconcile this? That's inconsistent, isn't it?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
If my students ask me about these topics in class, then I tell them. But I avoid them outside of class. Sometimes you need to get away from it all.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
You’re a big believer in the supernatural, yet a lot of college professors are atheists and agnostics. How have you survived in the academy?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Luckily at Doane College, we have a very diverse faculty. You have liberals and conservatives in the political arena. You have believers in God as well as atheists. This is great for the students. It brings them multiple perspectives in the classroom and thus a true education. Doane College is known as the college of fearless, bold learning. Our faculty is proof of that. And by looking at all sides of an issue—be it religious, political or ethical—the students know we’re not indoctrinating them. We’re educating them.
    .
 
 
Interviewer
 
You’re probably one of the few college professors in America who believes the devil is a literal being—a supernatural being, but still a being. Isn’t that embarrassing?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
If the devil exists, why should I be embarrassed? I think a lot of academics laugh at the idea of the devil because, first of all, they’re skeptical about the existence of God. And if they’re skeptical about the existence of God, they’re going to be skeptical about the devil. But a lot of figures throughout history have had no problem believing in both. Here I'm talking about Jesus, St. Paul, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Barth, just to name a few. Today we have no problem believing in embodied evil, like Hitler, who was the ringleader of a very dangerous movement on earth. So if there can be embodied evil, why couldn't there also be disembodied evil, like Satan, leading a very dangerous movement but on a more cosmic level? I think our modern sensibilibies are often offended by these ancient ideas. We often hear people in cafes say, "The devil is, like, so primitive. Who can believe in that stuff nowadays?" This is a huge bias. Just because an idea is ancient doesn't make it false. Newer doesn't always mean better or more true. It's quite possible that the ancients had it right when it came to the supernatural and it's us modern Westerners who are off track.  
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
On what foundation is your belief in supernatural evil based?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
The epistemological foundation? Personal experience. I had a run-in with disembodied, intelligent evil. It wasn’t a one-time deal, either. It lasted over a period of months. It’s real. I was an atheist when it happened, and I made a very quick U-turn and returned to belief in God. Yes, you heard that right. The demonic helped me to believe in God again. Life’s funny that way, isn’t it? But this is normal for me, because I always do things backwards. I’ve never done things the right way, in the right order. I’m a maverick. If I could be a gospel, I’d be John’s gospel, which is very unlike the other three gospels, the synoptics.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
The struggle between belief and unbelief is a big theme in your fiction.
 
 
 
Tasey
 
It seems to be my thing.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
How come?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Because our world is religiously ambiguous. You can interpret it with God or without God.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
You’ve often said that you’re an atheist who’s obsessed with God. But you just told us that you believe in God.
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Right. As citizens of the twenty-first century, we should be beyond this God versus the devil nonsense, right? We aren’t. But I’m absolutely convinced that God exists. And to believe in God is less absurd than to believe in a godless world. God is the lesser of two absurdities.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
How do you begin a story?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
It’s different for each book.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
What about your new novel Jenna’s Flaw, which is about Satanism in the Midwest? How did you conceive of it?
 
 
 
 Tasey
 
I was sitting at a Scooter’s café, staring at the wall. Then, out of nowhere, I had a vision of Kenny Winslow. I saw him on the sandbars of the Platte River. He was dead. Then I saw one of his Adidas shoes hanging by a shoelace from a low branch of a cottonwood tree. How did Kenny die? Soon Jenna McMaster appeared in my head, and I knew she had something to do with it, with Kenny’s death. Soon I learned that she’s a witch, and the story took off from there.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
Much of the book deals with demonic possession. Why this topic?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Because demons are real and so is possession. I know how possession comes about in a person and what it looks like in a person. I wish it wasn’t real. It is.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
How long did it take you to write Jenna’s Flaw?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Five years
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
Do you use a computer when you write?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
I start out in longhand. I use yellow legal pads and purple ballpoint pens. Once I get a draft or two done in longhand, I switch to a Macintosh. Then I can cut and paste scenes with ease. Plus, my handwriting is illegible, and I get tired of trying to read my handwriting, and so switching to the Macintosh is nice.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
At what point in the writing of Jenna’s Flaw did the American mass murderer Ronald DeFeo Jr. appear in the story?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
It happened relatively late. I’d been working on the book for years. I was working on the eighth draft or some crazy number like that. I’d always known about Ronald DeFeo who, in 1974, murdered his entire family in Amityville, New York. How did he enter the story? I was writing at my kitchen table when I had a vision of my protagonist, Carl Sorensen, walking through his college dormitory with a high-powered rifle in his hands. What was Carl doing with it? That’s what I had to find out. Soon I was watching him go from room to room, executing the residents as they slept. Then I had to find out why.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
The future of American higher education is also a big topic in the book. And your protagonist, Carl Sorensen, felt that he had a special task as philosopher, one you wouldn’t normally associate with a philosopher.
  
 
 
Tasey
 
Right. Throughout the novel, Carl has been reading articles about colleges and universities cutting out their humanities programs or at least downsizing them. Carl doesn’t like this. At all. He believes that he has to do something huge to save majors like philosophy, religion and literature from the chopping block. Why? Becuase those majors teach us how to live in a world of suffering and evil.  What inspires Carl to act is a passage in Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s about “the new philosophers.” For Carl, the only way to keep the college administrators from cutting out the humanities programs is to act cruelly, something the new philosophers might have to do (according to Carl’s interpretation of Nietzsche). And by committing a mass murder on campus, Carl believes he’ll spark a national conversation about the importance of humanities degrees, a conversation that will save those degrees from oblivion-and Western civilization from oblivion, too.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
Many of the college students in the novel seem to be mindless boobs who are preoccupied with their cell phones.
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Right. And if Carl doesn’t act quickly and cruelly, American colleges will be graduating students whose primary concerns are money, electronic gadgets, and vacations to Cancun. Instead of turning to the wisdom of the ages—Greek, Hebrew, Indian or whatever—to guide us through life’s challenges, today’s college students would rely on their little silver friends—that is, cell phones—to give them the answers to life’s deepest questions. And that’s not very promising. At least to Carl.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
So if colleges continue to eliminate their humanities degrees and instead favor STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), what happens then? What's the danger?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
STEM degrees don’t teach us how to live and what to value. Humanities degrees do. Carl reasons that if such a sad scenario were to play out, if the humanities were to dry up and disappear in America and in Europe, then human beings will lose their souls, and Western civilization will come to an end. That’s why Carl becomes a new philosopher. He sees himself as belonging to a higher rank of order, as a legislator of new values, and as a true helper of humankind, both in a moral and spiritual sense. He just has a much different method of philosophizing than most philosophers do.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
Who’s your favorite philosopher?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Any guesses? (laughs)
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
So as somebody who believes in God and the devil, you prefer Nietzsche, who believed in neither?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Life’s funny that way.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
Who were your big literary influences?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Stephen Crane was the first one. I was in Boston one day, sitting on the bank of the Charles River. I opened up The Red Badge of Courage and read the first sentence. I had a religious experience. There was something special about that first scene, about the army resting on a misty hillside in the morning, just before a battle. I must’ve read that sentence ten times. It was then that I grasped the power of literature, and I knew right then that it would somehow play a role in my life.
 
Then I discovered Camus and Dostoyevsky and Steinbeck. I love Steinbeck. He was probably the most important of all of them. Later on, when I moved to Nebraska to pursue a PhD in philosophy, I was browsing through the bookracks at the public library when I pulled down a Hemingway book. I read the first sentence. It said, “The day was frightfully hot.” It was powerful. Based on that sentence alone, I checked out the book and then read a bunch more Hemingway, especially the Nick Adams stories. In Our Time had a huge impact on me. Then I discovered Ernest J. Gaines and read A Lesson Before Dying. It was probably the most important book I’ve ever read. Shortly after I read Gaines’ book, I dropped out of the PhD program and began to write fiction.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
When does a novel seem publishable to you?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Usually five years after I start it. That’s the magic number. Five. I write slowly, I think slowly, and I’m a perfectionist, too. So writing takes a long time for me. Eventually I’ll reach a point where I can’t work on a book anymore. So I call it quits. I move on.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
You teach twelve months out of the year, right? So with such a heavy teaching load and without your summers off or sabbaticals, how do you find time to write novels?  
 
 
 
Tasey
 
I write in the mornings before I start teaching, so it’s not a problem.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
What do your colleagues think of you?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
I don’t know. 
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
And your students—what do they think?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
As far as I can tell, they like me. They like my teaching style, which is very Socratic, and the fact that I’m challenging them by asking questions, questions that others are too afraid to ask or are too politically correct to ask.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
For example?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
For example, I’ll ask critical questions about all religions. Not a single one of those religions gets a free pass, either. Not one. Some students haven't been fans of this approach; they like the comforts of their religion and have complained to the Dean because of my bold and fearless approach to learning. Not a big deal. The Dean always rules in my favor, since one of Doane College's core values is "Inquiry," plus we're the college of "bold, fearless learning." It's on our website.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
 In a free republic, you'd think college students would supprort the free exchange of ideas.
 
 
 
Tasey
 
You'd think so.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
Yet many of the poor little dears don't want to have their beliefs challenged in class or have their feelings hurt. Greg Gutfeld recently commented that American colleges have become daycare for crybabies.
 
 
 
Tasey
 
He's right.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
So if students don't like what you're discussing in class, what do they do?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
They deal with it. Most end up learning and growing intellectually, though a few have walked out.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
Of class?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
That's right. But only a few. And I've been teaching for a decade, too. But yeah, I once had a group of atheists speak to my religion class, and in the middle of their talk, a young woman got up and left the room. She was a fundamentalist Christian, and she couldn't handle what these atheists were saying about God, the prophets, the Bible, and so on. So she left. The same thing happened again recently, too. I had invited another guest speaker to class, an Egyptian man who had converted from Islam to Christianity. When his family found out about his apostasy, they tried to kill him-to burn him alive, in fact-and so he fled Egypt and came to America for his safety. As he spoke to my class and told us his amazing story-which included a few unpleasant truths about his former religion-a Muslim student got up and walked out of the class.
 
So yeah, both of these students experienced some seroius cognative dissonance in class. That's a good thing, too, because a solid humanistic education will make students uncomfortable, will challenge their existing beliefs, and will propel them to see religious and ethical viewpoints in new and exciting ways.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
What are your reading lists like?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
They're always changing, but I consistently use books by atheists, ministers in the Church of Satan, paranormal investigators,  Jews, Christians, Musilms, and so on. I'm all over the board. But sticking to the topic of bold, fearless learning, I'll often assign a book by a conservative author, like Dennis Prager, just to make sure that we have at least one conservative voice in the classroom. Most of my students enjoy Prager, even the ones who disagree with him, and nobody can deny that Prager gets a serious conversation going in the classroom, which is how a true education happens.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
So, in other words, there's never a dull moment in your classes.
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Never. Which is why my classes are so popular. Furthermore, if we don’t have multiple voices in the classroom, then the students will be in for a rude awakening when they enter the real world after college. And that’s not going to happen. At least under my watch. I believe in freedom of inquiry, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and so on. This is America. None of this is illegal...yet.
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
How has your encounter with supernatural evil impacted your teaching?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
It’s made me a better teacher. I think it’s given me a unique kind of credibility, something that my students can sense right off the bat. It's given me a deeper awareness of evil, not just in myself, but also in the world. I'm very sensitive to it. And I have a greater responsitiliby to fight it now, too. 
 
 
 
Interviewer
 
What advice do you have for those who want to write fiction?
 
 
 
Tasey
 
Read and write. Do it every day, if you can. And don’t worry about other writers, either. Competing with them, I mean. Just worry about your own work and try to write a book that’s better than the last one you wrote. Compete with yourself. That is all.