Writers are often told to pick a genre and stick with it, but I get restless if I don’t have both a fiction and a nonfiction book going at once. The pull to spend time on anything other than the work at hand can sometimes be so strong that I have to find a way to turn procrastination on one project into progress on another.
On the nonfiction front, the book I’ve recently begun (coming in a few years from Little, Brown) is a retelling of American history called “Twenty Gods or None” — a title borrowed from one of Thomas Jefferson’s lesser known defenses of religious liberty: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The book will describe the making of the nation from the perspective of marginal religious traditions — basically, it’s a narrative debunking of the stubborn assumption that the United States is essentially a Christian nation.
My next novel, meanwhile, is stuck more in my head than on the page, but it’s set in China in the 1970s, just after the end of the Cultural Revolution. In all my work, fiction and non-, I’m interested in the moments at which old gods die and new gods are born; I’m particularly curious lately to see how that story might play out in a place where — officially, at least — there were no gods at all.