The Common Good
January 2013

Vehicles for Grace

by Betsy Shirley, Francisco X. Stork | January 2013

Betsy Shirley talks to author Francisco X. Stork about helping young adults ask the hard questions.

BORN IN MEXICO, Francisco X. Stork moved to Texas with his parents when he was 9. After college he studied Latin American literature at Harvard. Stork then decided to get a law degree, planning to make a living as a lawyer while writing fiction on the side. Many years later, he published the first of his five novels, The Way of the Jaguar. He continues to balance his vocation as a novelist for young adults with a "day job" as a lawyer for a Massachusetts state agency that helps develop affordable housing. Former Sojourners editorial assistant Betsy Shirley, now a student at Yale Divinity School, interviewed Stork last spring at Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing.

Francisco X. Stork

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Betsy Shirley: On your blog you say that every author has a bone to which they return again and again to gnaw. What do you gnaw on?

Francisco X. Stork: The question that characters in my books keep asking themselves is, "Why am I here?" I keep coming back to trying to find some kind of meaning to life and to suffering that keeps people going. All my books center on young people who are questioning themselves in that vein. My first book had a person on death row, the second had a young man with someone out to kill him, and the third one had a boy, Marcelo, who was questioning how he could possibly live in a world of suffering. Those questions of mortality make you a little bit more aware of the preciousness of life.

What have you observed about faith and spiritual curiosity in young people? What scares me about a lot of the young people that I meet is that there's a lot of living on the surface—trying to achieve and to do well on tests and to make sure that you get into a good university to get jobs. So I see a lot of less significant questioning in many young people. Then you get to know them, and you know that those questions still exist. But there's a greater need to conform than there was in the past.

Why is there that pressure to conform? Part of it is our society has just become very goal-oriented, very competitive ... a lot of status-seeking and trying to make it through the ranks. That's not the kind of character that makes it into my books, because I know there's a large group of kids who still feel those spiritual questions deep inside.

Did you feel those spiritual questions yourself as a kid? My adoptive father died when I was 13, and my mother and I had to find a place to live. We ended up living in the housing projects, moving from one place to another. Loss and death deepen you a bit. I became very interested in religion—not just one particular religion, but many religions. I started reading all the religious texts I could, reading a lot about the people who had experiences of God. I began to understand that what really mattered was not so much dogma, but the actual experience of a relationship with a Mysterious Other.

Have you had experiences of God? There have been periods in my life that I felt were holy, in that you experience a sense of being loved and loving, and they give you a context for the rest of your life. Maybe we're not open to those experiences quite as much as we were. There has to be a sense of emptiness for these experiences to happen, quiet times, reflective times. We're busy people.

So how do you cultivate that sense of emptiness? I try to get up early and have a time of reflection or prayer that's a reminder of how I want to dedicate my day. I try to have moments of just prayer, to the extent that I can. Writing in a journal is also a way of finding that time. It's separate from my other writing. In the journal, I'm just praying through writing, I'm asking questions. I pour out my doubts, despair, whatever I'm feeling.

Do you think of yourself as a mystic? I'm not a mystic. I've had some experiences with death, and there's some mystery there that I don't understand. But I'm a mystic in the sense that I think that what matters in religion is experience as opposed to dogma. Dogma is how you explain the experience afterward. But what really matters is this connection to some Other. If you're a Christian, it's really that Christ was not only a historical figure, but also a presence that you can access. He lets you become close to him. We should all be a little bit more mystic. We're a very action-oriented society and, especially in Protestantism, there's not enough of the contemplative part of religion.

Tell me about your 9-to-5 job. I'm an attorney for a state agency that tries to develop affordable housing. We go to a developer and say, "We'll give you a low interest rate, but in return when you build these apartments you have to dedicate, say, 40 percent of them to low-income people." It's a good job, and there's a flexibility that's not really often found in the legal profession.

How did you end up being both an attorney and a writer? I always wanted to write. I lost track of that a little bit when I went into law school for a few years, but it came back to me in my middle age, more as a saving way of life, really ... I had totally taken a lot of wrong turns and forgotten who I really was. Rediscovering that mission of being a writer sort of saved me, in some ways. I started looking for jobs in the legal profession that would be compatible with writing. It's only lately that I've discovered that my vocation is really to teach, and writing is a way of actualizing that vocation.

What's the role of a teacher? The word educere means "to lead out," to lead the student into questioning. The young person needs to discover who they are.

What kinds of messages do you receive from your young readers? The ones that mean the most to me have been from people with Asperger's syndrome, for example. Marcelo in the Real World actually reflected the way that they thought, and they saw themselves in a nicer light all of a sudden—proud of themselves. So it's the people who have suffered somehow and have been somewhat healed through my books.

I don't know exactly how that happens, how words heal, but sometimes they do. You are at a particular point in your life where it's painful, and then the right book comes into your hand and healing takes place—even though the book is about other people's suffering; you're not picking up a sugary, optimistic book, you're picking up a book about somebody else struggling, but for some reason sometimes the right book comes into you, and it has that healing effect. I just create the opportunities for healing to happen. I think that books, in many ways, are vehicles for grace.

Do fiction and storytelling have a place in the work of justice? Yeah, they do have a place. For example, I try to have all my characters be Latino, and a lot of them are poor, because I think in young adult literature these days, that's a little bit underrepresented. So to read about very intelligent kids who are also Latino—that's part of social justice. Everybody has their little way of doing social justice; my way is to write about characters who sometimes are on the outskirts.

How do you live out your faith? I try to be Christ-like to the extent that I can. He was a teacher and a healer, and I want to do that too: To teach and, hopefully, through my writing, also heal.

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