Long before Rosalie Morales Kearns launched the feminist publishing house Shade Mountain Press and began to publish such illustrious women writers as oh, me, for instance, she was already a writer. Her short stories, poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals, and her sparkling short story collection, Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous Books), came out in 2012.
On December 1, Rosalie’s first novel, Kingdom of Women, will be published by Jaded Ibis Press, and the main thing I have to say is: book groups, start your engines.
The novel takes place in a near future only slightly different from our own world. We know it’s different because the main character, a woman named Averil Parnell, is a Catholic priest. We know it’s familiar because Averil, running late, is the only one in her cohort of female seminarians to survive a mass shooting by a man who hates women.
In the US, women grow so sick of male violence that they take matters into their own hands, some with vigilante violence, others by seceding into a country they call Erda, based in the now-depopulated North Dakota. Averil has her own problems: she’s been drawn into a compulsive affair with a man she doesn’t even like but can’t resist, and she’s begun to see visions, feeling herself transforming from a religious scholar into a mystic. She forms a close friendship with an assassin who will rise to be a general in the women’s army Erda must form to defend itself. And Averil too will become central to the fate of this new nation, as it decides the shape of its soul.
Kingdom of Women covers decades, throwing its inquisitive gaze into the past and the future, asking deep questions about faith, anger, vengeance, allegiance and connection. The novel explores these issues with dry wit, breezy erudition, and strongly drawn characters who pull you into their world even as it is spinning into new shapes beyond their recognition.
Rosalie and I met in the early 1990s at the Feminist Women Writing Workshops, and we’ve been friends ever since. Here are excerpts from our discussion, conducted by email.
Lynn Kanter: I know it took you many drafts and many years to write, with the writing interrupted by small distractions such as starting your own press and making a living. How did your vision for the book change over those years, or did it?
Rosalie Marie Kearns: The book sprawled all over the place, through many, many revisions and total rewrites. Originally I planned to have three main characters, with equal weight given to each: Averil Parnell, the female Roman Catholic priest; Catherine Beck, the assassin whose targets are men who’ve gotten away with violence against women; and Selene Marisela, a young leader in the original version of Erda, the separatist matrilineal society, before the revolution.
Eventually the novel evolved into something that focused more on Averil and made her the main character, with Catherine and Selene important secondary characters. There was still a lot of material on those two, but it was clear to me that Averil was the strangest of the three characters, the most mysterious and tragic, and I wanted to give her more room.
Even then the manuscript was long and unwieldy, well over 300,000 words, I think. So I cut a lot, rearranged a lot, and ended up with a manuscript that was about 98,000 words.
The only viable way to shorten the novel was to take out most of the scenes and subplots related to Selene, her life in Erda, her family, the work she did before the US invaded, and the background on Erda’s early formation.
Also, earlier versions of the novel had lots of vignettes that didn’t involve those three main characters at all. One version had a whole subplot on the FBI’s COINTELPRO-like activities. There were also a number of Averil-related subplots that I had to cut. For example, in the earlier version there were preparations going on for a Third Vatican Council, and Averil was planning to attend and make a presentation. Also, she had this ongoing writing project of sorts, where she kept coming back to the question of how patriarchy started, and she would write a paragraph or two with different possible scenarios, written on random bits of scrap paper, and then she would burn the paper she had written it on. In the earlier version, Averil was feeling her way toward a Goddess-oriented Catholicism; the published version only hints at that.
I wish there was a way for fans of the book to read the sections you edited out. You know, a director’s cut.
Last year, before I trimmed the novel down, I published an excerpt in The Fem Lit Mag in which Catherine Beck is in Erda teaching self-defense. Those scenes don’t appear in the final version of the novel, but they’ll live forever on the internet.
Did world events that happened while you were writing the book affect its trajectory?
The news constantly provided me more examples of the kind of misogynist violence that makes my blood burn. One example from last year was the Stanford student who raped an unconscious woman, left her near a dumpster, got a slap on the wrist (six months jail—not prison—plus three years probation), and expected sympathy because his life was ruined. But the general pattern of those crimes remains the same: man gets a light sentence for raping a woman; man gets a light sentence for murdering a woman; celebrity gets away with rape; celebrity gets away with murder.
While I found the spiritual questions the book raises to be compelling, I know that as a non-Catholic, and in fact a non-Christian, I probably missed some layers of meaning. What insights can you offer for the heathens among us?
I have this image of me going through the book with a green highlighter, marking all the Catholic stuff. Maybe we could publish an annotated edition to the book, with explanatory notes. Kingdom of Women: Heathen’s Edition.
I’d definitely buy that.
The thing is, if you’re writing a Catholic priest as a main character, you need to give a sense of how immersed they are in Catholic culture, how important Catholicism is for their lives. But you run the risk that some readers won’t pick up all the references.
So let me give a couple of examples. The title of the book evokes the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” which Jesus refers to a lot in the Gospel of Matthew (the other gospels tend to have him talking about the “kingdom of God”). And this was a very mysterious concept; people still argue over what it means. Jesus would say that it was coming soon, it was close at hand, etc., but he also said “the kingdom of God is within you,” which takes the meaning in a completely different direction.
So besides having “kingdom of women” being a nice off-rhyme of “kingdom of heaven,” I like the implication that no one really knows what it means. And also the irony of using “kingdom” to refer to women, and to what was intended to be a truly just, egalitarian society but was clearly raising questions of how power corrupts, how power can be abused.
And there are passing mentions, like “Peter was a pragmatist, as rock-solid as his name.” This is a reference to the name Peter meaning rock; Jesus was referring to Peter when he said “Upon this rock I will build my church.”
One other example: the prologue is titled “Make Straight the Paths.” This is a famous quote by John the Baptist, referring to Jesus. Then readers turn the page and see chapter one, “Advent” (the coming of Jesus), and are introduced to Averil. Which might seem to imply that Averil is a Christ figure or a savior figure, but then again, Catherine Beck, the assassin, is introduced in that same chapter. Both of these women are willing to die to do what’s right or to save others. Of course, what Catherine means by “saving women” is killing the men who prey on them.
And then to complicate the question of Christ figures, toward the end of the novel Averil gets the imagery of Jesus confused with her memories of her long-dead lover John, a sadistic serial rapist. But his death is redemptive also, for Erdans and possibly for himself. So, you know, Jesus is everywhere.
Let me ask you about John Honig. As a novelist, meaning someone who lives in intimate proximity with your characters for long periods of time, how did you stand him? And why create a character like him?
I’m not sure I can give a coherent answer to why I created him. Characters come to me out of wherever they come from: my unconscious, my gut, my intuition, whatever.
It was an interesting challenge to depict a character who feels no guilt about the pain he causes. He’s not conflicted about what he does. He doesn’t feel some irresistible compulsion to do it. He rapes women because he enjoys it.
What’s really ironic is that he kind of gets feminism. He’s smart enough, observant enough not to delude himself about what a patriarchal society we live in. He knows women get a raw deal, he just doesn’t care.
And I don’t think he’s solely or purely evil. I hope people see that in his relationship with Averil, he exhibits some capacity to care about someone else. And perhaps he senses some possibility of changing his own life, becoming a different person. And then there’s his anger when that possibility is suddenly cut short.
Some readers might compare Kingdom of Women to The Handmaid’s Tale. Both novels deal with the domination of women by men, and while both create new worlds with their own traditions, laws, and realities, these worlds can reasonably be seen as extrapolations of our own time. What would you say to that kind of comparison?
We’re both old enough to remember “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” I worry that someone will pop out of the woodwork to remind me, “You’re no Margaret Atwood.”
But you’re right that both novels are extrapolating aspects of our own time and place. Maybe Atwood asked herself, How can this get worse? and then followed misogyny and Christian fundamentalism to their logical conclusion: the enslavement of women.
I don’t know the situation in Canada, but certainly in the US the 1980s saw the entrance of Christian fundamentalists into politics, and mainstream politicians pandering to them for votes. It was a scary time, and it only got worse.
And the scenario Atwood created is not a big leap of the imagination. Enslaved Black women in the US and the rest of the western hemisphere had to face those assaults, that erasure of their personhood and bodily integrity, perpetrated by people who cloaked themselves in the mantle of God’s will. And those fuckers still have statues in their honor.
I guess what I did—and who knows, maybe I was catalyzed by The Handmaid’s Tale—was to ask the opposite: How can this get better? What if women fight back?
Speaking of world-building, how did you go about imagining the details of Erda—its economy, its governing structure, its national character? What kind of research and resources did you consult?
I just imagined it. Now I’m worried. Should I have done research?
Ha! But surely you had to do research to make Averil so knowledgeable about medieval religious scholarship, right? I hope the answer is yes, because if you had all of this in your own head, that would be a little freaky.
For Averil’s knowledge of the medieval women religious figures, I relied mostly on my years of reading feminist history and feminist theology. I should mention that I have a B.A. in theology from Fordham, which is a Jesuit university.
The books I did have to read for research were mostly on the details of the Catholic Mass and the priest’s daily prayers: the Daily Roman Liturgy, the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours, the official Catechism of the Catholic Church.
One of the fun things I did was have Averil “solve” a historical mystery: the authorship of some of the poems attributed to the mystical writer Hadewijch. I made up a fictitious Beguine and named her Rikardis, after my father, whose first name is Richard.
You got an MFA and published a collection of short stories during the years you were working on Kingdom. Did you find any of these experiences helpful to the writing process for this book?
Having to hand in work on a regular basis inspired me to play around with the short form, trying different techniques and devices in each story. And I studied craft in a more focused way on my own. I gave a lot of thought to questions of narrative distance, and discovered how much I loved to use omniscience. Also I grew bolder about using elements of the fantastic and became more confident about simply asserting that something is the way it is rather than feeling like I have to explain or at least hint at the backstory of how it got to be like that.
You’re working on another novel, which I imagine will be as sweeping, erudite and thought-provoking as Kingdom is, although the subject matter is entirely different. Care to talk a little about it?
Well, it’s definitely going to be sweeping. I can only hope that readers find anything I write to be erudite and thought-provoking. The novel, One Good Thing, has five main characters, two girls and three boys, who spend their childhood together in prerevolutionary Russia and develop a very close-knit bond even though not all of them are related to each other. Then the Russian Revolution breaks out when they’re in their late teens, and they’re scattered in different directions, both in terms of geography and the trajectories of their lives. They manage to re-establish their connection in the 1930s, but then World War II begins. The basic description I give is “Good people suffer a lot and then die young.”
As you turn your attention to the new book, are there any characters from Kingdom you particularly miss, or are you happy to move on?
I think those characters will stay with me forever.