Kathleen Tarr: 49 Writers Author Interview/Community of Grace: An Orthodox Christian Year in Alaska

The community of St. John the Evangelist Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River was founded in 1972; back then, the people there were not Orthodox Christians, and they certainly were not a church. They lived together in a big house at the end of a street called Monastery, where they began a journey toward church and community that continues to this day.

Mary Alice Cook was raised in East Texas in the church of her ancestors, the Southern Baptist. She moved with her husband to Alaska in 1976, and they lived for 17 years in midtown Anchorage with their three sons. The family joined the community at St. John’s when they were chrismated in 1992; a year later, they moved into a house on Monastery Drive in Eagle River, where they continue to live – and Mary Alice continues to write – within the sound of the cathedral bells. Community of Grace is her first published book.

Kathleen Tarr, Anchorage nonfiction writer and Program Coordinator of UAA’s MFA Program, interviewed Mary Alice Cook for this 49 Writers Interview.

Community of Grace: An Orthodox Christian Year in Alaska, tells the stories of the people who live in what you call “intentional community.” When we imagine what an intentional community might be, we naturally think of monastic life. St. John’s isn’t a monastery, though. At St. John’s, people not only worship in the same church, but they also live in a kind of spiritual and material fishbowl. The people and families are deeply and seriously committed to staying involved in each others’ lives. Many live within walking distance of one another. I was fascinated by the stories contained in your book, on why in this day and age, people would ever choose this kind of unconventional existence, one that’s also tied to the church’s liturgical cycle, as well. How much did the place itself contribute to you becoming a writer?

First of all, when I moved into the St. John’s community in 1993, I had a longstanding familiarity with “church.” Trouble was that I, like Kathleen Norris, was beginning to realize that my Christian upbringing had been skewed toward the belief that “one had to be dressed up, both outwardly and inwardly, to meet God.” The church community, to me, had always meant a group of believers who determinedly put their best face forward with each other, and usually accompanied it with much quoting of scripture and what I call “Christian jargon.” I never openly rebelled against my upbringing, but neither did I ever feel satisfied with that definition of either church or community. Secondly, I was also familiar with the concept of the church as a “body.” Again, trouble was, I had never figured out my place or function in that body. And thirdly, I always wanted to write, but confined my efforts to an occasional spurt of journaling. When I became a part of this unique community in Eagle River, I got to know religious people who were also okay with being real, and that became the catalyst for me to get serious about writing.

In the St. John’s community, my friends Barbara and Nancy and Robin introduced me to Flannery O’Connor, a devout Christian who wrote stories about odd, sometimes marginal people, who experience encounters with the grace of God. Flannery’s people either choose to accept that grace or to kick against it – out of cynicism or fear or just plain stubbornness. And that is how I learned to see my community and, more importantly, myself (and all of us mortals) – as either willing to recognize grace and accept it, or refuse it. So I began to write Flannery-type stories, along with essays, articles, and even a novel, and to have some success with publication. My community encouraged my efforts, and I learned that I could articulate my convictions and be faithful to who I was without employing a lot of religious imagery and jargon.

You weave together the history of St. John’s by interspersing mini-profiles of some of the people who have chosen to make their home there, including the very interesting story about the community’s founders, Harold & Barbara Dunaway, who still live there today, and Robin Armstrong, the iconographer. You also talk a little about how you “jumped from the Southern Baptist ship” to become chrismated into Eastern Orthodoxy. But your personal story is not the central focus of the book. Do you wish you had incorporated more or less of your own meditations and ponderings throughout the narrative? Are you satisfied with the balance you ended up as far as how much time and space you devoted to reflecting about your own spiritual story?

When I first began to write the book, I didn’t intend to include any details of my own story; nor did I plan to record what I had learned from living in the community. It wasn’t going to be that kind of a book. Now, looking back, it seems that the length of time it took to figure out how to write the book was connected with my own experience of living there. The organic way that the book developed was as much a function of my own growth as it was of confusion about how to tell the story. Also, I was constantly aware of the fact that there are dozens of “spiritual” writers out there who are eagerly sharing their personal opinions and interpretations about theology, religion, and the spiritual life (a perfect example is a book that is a mega-bestseller called The Shack, in which the author “humanizes” the Trinity to the point of execrable triteness) and I didn’t want to join them. The Orthodox Christian tradition (and the community at St. John’s) is inclusive and tolerant of individualism; however, basics of the faith are not open to innovation or fresh interpretation. I never intended to make my personal story the focus of the book, and I’m mostly satisfied with the balance I achieved.

How long did this project take you from the first moment you conceived of it as a possible book, until you received your first shipment of books from Conciliar Press in Indiana? And what were some of the most difficult challenges you faced in figuring out how to write and structure the book?

As I mentioned in the book’s preface, my friend and mentor Barbara Dunaway asked me in 1996 to write a “history” of the St. John’s community. I felt flattered and eager to comply, so I interviewed a few people, searched the archives, and commenced writing a boring, linear account of how the community came to be. I bogged down in details of the group’s conversion that had been covered by other authors, and I concentrated the story too intensely on the Dunaway family. The book refused to catch a gear and for years, I made sporadic stabs at writing that history but laid it aside every time. Then, in an unexpected moment of grace, I realized that the only way to tell the story of my home would be to tell the stories of the people who make it my home. And I could tell the stories simply and naturally by organizing them around the Orthodox calendar year of feasts and fasts. And then everything fell into place. So I couldn’t have written this book without having been blessed to find my own place among those people; neither could I have written it without becoming part of an amazingly diverse and interesting group of people who found their way there through interesting chains of circumstance. In short, it took 14 years.

Some potential readers might be disinclined to read Community of Grace because they view it as too religious for their general literary taste. Others might assume the story is probably too regional and lacks a universal appeal because it has to do with a small, fairly unknown Eastern Orthodox community in Eagle River, Alaska. How would you answer these skeptical readers?

I would say that I worked hard to avoid writing a “religious” book; if it must be categorized, I would prefer to call it a book about community, about finding others with whom to make a spiritual journey, and committing to stay together in order to see it through. These folks – who were mostly disaffected Protestants – came together in the first place because of a shared mistrust of “organized church,” and they stayed together through a lot of experiments and readjustments until they anchored themselves in a “foreign” church that is unfamiliar to most Americans. To me, that story has a tremendously universal appeal because, as I tend to repeat in the book, every one of us longs for a place to belong, to feel at home. Not just physically, but spiritually as well. The story’s setting gives it great appeal, especially now that Alaska seems to be all over the news. And, as a kind of bonus, Alaska’s rich Russian Orthodox history and tradition creates a backdrop that sort of brings the book’s wandering Protestants’ journey full circle.

You studied history under the esteemed Professor Stephen Haycox at UAA, and now you’re in a Texas graduate school working on a degree in Public History, with an emphasis on museum and archival work. Would you comment about how your training and education in the discipline of history has helped or hindered your writing style? What does the formal study of history have to do with a writer’s development?

I am not a trained creative writer; I’ve attended a couple of writing conferences and have written a few short stories and one unpublished novel, but most of my experience has been with academic writing, and I would include expository essays and articles in that category. I also adore the process of research, of finding a piece of information that leads to another, and another, and sometimes takes me down a fascinating rabbit trail. So hunkering down in the stacks or in an archive is something I enjoy doing and history books were always my favorites. Writers like Joseph P. Lash, Edmund Morris, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose have created a genre of “popular history” and some of their books become huge bestsellers. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale is a lovely example of creative nonfiction and it won a bunch of prizes, including the Pulitzer. Of course, popular history makes some historians blanch with fright and dismay. When I first decided to return to college for a master’s degree in history, I chatted with a distinguished older professor (not Prof. Haycox) and actually used the words “creative writing.”He advised me right away that those words had no place in the history department. Well, I respectfully beg to differ. In fact, I believe that the creative retelling of true stories is where I will find my niche as a writer.

When you look out across the vast expanse of America, would you say there’s an increasing or diminishing influence on spiritual life? When you gaze at the spiritual landscape, what is it you see about contemporary spiritual life that may be missing?

The conventional wisdom is that Americans are turned off by religion (meaning organized, dogmatic churches), but are hungry for an authentic spirituality. And that spirituality takes many forms in the U.S., a place where freedom of the individual is itself often an object of worship. As an Orthodox Christian, I don’t subscribe to the relativity of truth – I believe in absolutes. But at the same time, an open-minded search for truth is not a quest to be condemned. As Robert Duvall said in The Apostle, a movie I highly recommend, “I’m on my journey.” And we all are on our own journey, and we go where it takes us. But the thing that may be missing is that at some point on the journey, pilgrims can choose to travel together. A friend and neighbor of mine, Harold, appears in my book as a man who set out alone to search for truth and ultimately found what he was looking for not in a church or a book, but in a group of people. Perhaps what is missing from contemporary spiritual life is not relationships, but rather the hard work that goes along with relationships: a commitment to stick around when the going gets tough; a willingness to drop the mask and get real; and the courage to seek and give forgiveness.

7 thoughts on “Kathleen Tarr: 49 Writers Author Interview/Community of Grace: An Orthodox Christian Year in Alaska”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Such a thoughtful, in-depth interview — a real joy to read. Thanks to Kathy, the interviewer, and congrats to the author, Mary Cook!

  2. What an excellent interview, making one want to get this book right away. I am so very pleased to see that Mary Alice has reached this wonderful goal of a book in print, with such a compelling theme—community. Congratulations, Mary Alice, on this achievement.

  3. Thank you all for the positive comments and good wishes. Especially thanks to Kathy for her terrific questions!

  4. Wonderful interview, Kathy. Your questions were perceptive and interesting. Thanks for sending me the link.

    I strongly believe that history is rendered more interesting when it's written in an accessible style, rooted in metaphors, skepticism, and judicious use of language.

  5. . I loved the interview questions–they helped shed an interesting light on this book that I've been waiting to read…

  6. Yes, excellent interview. Kudos to both Kathy Tarr and Mary Alice Cook. I especially liked the reflections on belonging and sticking around through the "hard work" of relationships. Very well put.

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