Tea, Sake, and a Glorious Life: An Interview with Novelist/Philosopher Carol Quinn
Carol Quinn is Professor of Philosophy and a Women’s Studies Associate at Metropolitan State University of Denver and also holds Graduate Faculty status at University of Colorado Denver. She was the 2017 recipient of MSU Denver’s Outstanding Woman Faculty Award and LGBTQ Ally of the Year Award in 2013. Her new novel, The Glorious Life of Jessica Kraut, was released just two weeks ago from Rock’s Mill Press.
Ron Cooper: Carol, I’m excited about the appearance of your new novel. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first tell us something about your background—where you grew up, your education, your early academic interests, etc.
Carol Quinn: I am a California girl who deeply misses the ocean and was forcibly transplanted to Colorado. Big earthquakes have a tendency to do this sort of thing. I started as a wannabe vet in undergrad (bio/pre-vet major) until “experiences” working in the necropsy and cancer wards at Colorado State University’s vet teaching hospital caused me to abruptly change course. I did a history degree in two 21-credit semesters, since I’ve always been interested in history, and I am particularly adept at memorizing a shit-ton of facts. That was followed by a “Now what?” anxiety attack at which point my boyfriend suggested that I pursue a master’s degree in philosophy, concentrating on animal ethics. Why not? I had never had a philosophy course in undergrad save the honor’s logic course I excelled at. I quickly fell in love with the subject. I got my master’s in philosophy at CSU, and then followed my future husband #3 (I was a marriageaholic in my twenties) to Syracuse where he had just been accepted into the doctoral program in philosophy. I put all of my eggs in one basket (!?!) and applied ONLY to Syracuse–and got in. Indeed, I was the only one in my class to get a fellowship. I have always been one of those (shall we say) rebellious/transgressive overachievers.
RC: During those early years of your education, or perhaps before then, did you have any inclinations to become a writer?
CQ: I wrote my first story when I was four years old. I’m looking at it right now. It’s written in pencil on now-yellowed wide-ruled paper, like you use in kindergarten. It’s called “Christmas Holiday”: “Christmas is comeing all the people put their lights on their houses. I think Santa Claus is comeing. He eats all the cookies. And I dream about reindeers and trees.” Born to write! (And utterly appropriate given the time of year.) I’ve led a very colorful life and many of my stories—embellished of course, with names changed to protect the innocent—have found their way into my novels.
RC: Who were your favorite writers or thinkers as a young woman?
CQ: This question stresses me out. I don’t want to miss somebody! I’ve always had a multi-course literary appetite. Lewis Carroll, Iris Murdoch, Camus, Sartre’s plays, THE GREAT GATSBY, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Gabriel García Márquez, hardboiled detective novels (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, etc.), Mark Twain, and J. M. Coetzee.
RC: That’s quite a variety, although some of those you mention were either philosophers in their own right, like Murdoch, Sartre, and, I’d include Camus in there as well, or raise serious philosophical questions in their work, like Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Coetzee. Most professional philosophers, however, stick to writing philosophy throughout their career. What made you turn to fiction?
CQ: I’ve always had a wildly crazy imagination, so it was inevitable. But it really started when I wanted to write a book based on material from one of my favorite courses, God, Sex, and Gender. The last time I taught the class, I had two wonderfully “colorful” personalities who would always disagree with just about whatever I had to say, while offering interesting perspectives. I invited them to write something with me. One of them, Kyle, who really enjoyed creative writing, suggested that we try incorporating the course material into a fictitious story. I was skeptical at first, but we came up with a wild plot while eating chili rellenos at a gassy Mexican joint across campus, and I was sold. This was about the time when I first reached out to you and asked “What next?”
RC: As you know, I really enjoyed your first novel, The Rashomon Tea and Sake Shop. Tell our readers something about it.
CQ: The novel is about three old college friends who meet at the eccentric Phil’s (Mr. Bunny Slippers) ryokan in Japan. The entire novel mostly takes place in a bar at the ryokan (the shop of the title), where they argue about Western philosophies and religions, biblical criticism, and, well, just about everything else. They are visited by “interesting” guests, some of whom make a lot of trouble. It ends with an otherworldly, Spaghetti Western showdown. I have a soft spot for Sergio Leone movies.
RC: The novel is basically an extended dialogue. Why did you choose that structure?
CQ: The original idea—before Kyle came up with a Much Better Idea—was to have a Socratic dialogue of sorts, in the manner of Torin Alter and Robert Howell’s The God Dialogues (OUP). The GD, while terrific for what it does, has very little plot, and so can be a little, um, boring. Once we decided to go with the Much Better Idea, we wanted to keep the dialogue, but couch it in a fun story with weird characters.
RC: You co-wrote that first novel with two other writers. That must have been a distinctive endeavor. What are the positive and negative features of co-writing a novel?
CQ: We had great synergy, especially in the beginning. Kyle and I would get together with his wife (who would join the project a bit later) and laugh out loud while coming up with the most outrageous plotlines. The chapter addressing the question “What if Jesus had a vagina?” almost got us kicked out of the bar we were writing in. The negative features: having to write with two other people, each having different ideas about plot and dialogue. And we all have stubborn personalities. I had much more fun writing the second novel. And I’m finding the third to be an absolute blast.
RC: Let’s talk about that brand new second novel, The Glorious Life of Jessica Kraut. Give us a synopsis.
CQ: It’s about a woman with a dark past and an unhappy present. She has the opportunity to escape her life, and she takes it. She gets caught up with a bunch of shady characters who do shady things in Belize. She eventually finds redemption and love. The philosophies and religions—this time Eastern and Indigenous—are mostly set apart from the plot in the manner of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World.
RC: Carol, I know you’ve done traditional philosophical work as well. Why did you decide to express such ideas in a novel?
CQ: My students often complain about “dry as toast” philosophical and religious texts, and so I wanted to teach philosophies and religions in a more enjoyable way to students and general readers. It’s an effective formula to take the subject matter outside of the classrooms. I’m now addicted to it.
RC: Philosophy in America is dominated by certain topics and approaches known in the discipline as analytic philosophy, which is more often than not indeed as dry as toast. You, however, have other interests that are included in Jessica Kraut, for example, Eastern thought. How did you become interested in Eastern thought?
CQ: Without trying to sound nutty as hell, I had my first “mystical” or “spiritual” experience when I was twelve years old, and I have been nothing short of obsessed with the supernatural, spirituality, and religions ever since. My interest in Eastern thought mostly comes from my (formerly) New Age, “Hindu,” hippie aunt who lived in our basement for a time when I was a kid. Her room always smelled “funny,” she was forever burning brightly colored candles, and she wore beads and tie-dye. She was about as cool as they come. She gave me a big book on world religions, which quickly became my most cherished possession. After she became a fundamentalist Christian, she told me to burn it. I never did (big grin). Beyond that, I find Eastern religions and philosophies far more appealing than anything that’s offered by the West. Most Eastern religions teach compassion, gentleness, and respect for all creatures—human and nonhuman.
RC: Do you think we have a need in America for more discussion and access to Eastern thought? Eastern thinkers often express their ideas in poetry, aphorisms, and even a line or two in connection with an artistic image. Do you think, as some have said, that they are trying to express something that is not well addressed by the Western tendency toward argument and analysis? Is that why you turned to fiction?
CQ: Absolutely. Taoism, for example, teaches simplicity, selflessness, “going with the flow,” respect. Contrast this with the fast-paced, complicated, smartphones and calendars, Amazon.com, impatient, intolerant, & etc., American culture. It’s no wonder we are chin-deep in violence, assorted conflicts, and alienation from each other and the natural world. So, yes, I really hope that readers will come away from Jessica Kraut with a gentler, more loving approach to our fellow sisters and brothers, our animal kin, and our environment.
RC: Carol, you were instrumental in advancing women’s and gender studies at your university. You’re also an advocate for LGBTQ rights. Those interests are dear to you, so they must show up in your fiction. How so?
CQ: Two of the three main characters in my first novel, The Rashomon Tea and Sake Shop, have “nonstandard” sexual identities. For example, Max is a gay deacon who is studying for the Episcopalian priesthood. He struggles with self-acceptance and reconciling his love of God with what many Christians say about his “lifestyle.” Michal, the firestorm feminist, has had relationships with women, men, and even a transwoman. I devote an entire chapter to a discussion of homoeroticism and gender in the Bible. Because of the sorts of classes that I teach, and being a well-known advocate on campus for LGBTQ+ rights, many of my students have gender- and sexual- nonconforming identities. They’ve told me that reading the RTSS was truly life-transforming. This is precisely the effect I want to achieve. In Jessica Kraut, the protagonist has a lesbian aunt whose sexual identity is just mentioned in passing, not drawing attention to it but normalizing it.
RC: In addition to your work on campus, you’re a community activist. Do you think that writers have a moral duty to present social issues in their work?
CQ: I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say a moral duty, though maybe. I would say that good stories always involve relationships of some sort, and so opportunities to highlight social injustices. Jessica Kraut has a strong social message—an animal and environmental ethic informed by Eastern thought. It pains me to see how much we’re destroying our planet and each other, and I offer a change of perspective which might just make the world a better place. I’m sounding a bit Pollyanna now!
RC: You’ve said that you play the guitar badly. So do I—we may have a contest ahead! You are also a painter. Do you find a connection among different art forms? For example, when I am writing, I tend to play guitar more than when I am not writing. What about you? Do you feel more creatively energized to write while painting or playing music?
CQ: I love to paint and draw in oil pastels. I wish I had more time to do this. I find that writing makes me more creative in my paintings and drawings, and painting and drawing seem to make my fiction writing better, though I’m not sure why. I’ve actually written a children’s philosophy story on environmental ethics, suitable for a picture-type book, and I’ve even drawn most of the scenes in oil pastels. My publisher has expressed interest in it, but I’ve not yet found the time to sketch out the rest of the scenes. I would love to start doing this type of thing. As for the guitar? Ugh. I really suck at it. Anyway….
RC: Thank you, Carol. It’s been a pleasure.