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The Fight for the Heart of the Southern Baptist Convention

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On a recent Friday afternoon, Dwight McKissic sat at a folding table in his three-car garage, on a cul-de-sac in Arlington, Texas, discussing the role that race plays in a growing divide among American evangelicals. McKissic is sixty-four, with a trim white goatee and an imposing stature. For the past thirty-eight years, he has served as the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church, which he grew from a few dozen people to roughly four thousand congregants. In the process, he has become a prominent member of the Southern Baptist Convention, which, with more than fourteen million members, is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. But McKissic is also one of a growing number of pastors of color who may leave the S.B.C. next week, amid allegations that the organization won’t collectively acknowledge the realities of systemic racism. “I’m hanging on by a thread,” he told me. “Dozens of other pastors have already called me to ask what I’m going to do.”

Across the driveway, beyond a stack of ruined mattresses, sat McKissic’s house, ringed with pink roses. During the storms that struck Texas this past winter, his pipes had frozen and burst, flooding the building. For the past three months, McKissic and his wife had been living at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the denomination’s six major academic institutions. He had served as a trustee of the seminary and had recently donated twenty-four thousand dollars, which included funds to pay tuition for students in need. A few days before I visited, McKissic and his wife had returned to live in an apartment attached to his garage. A pair of Southern Baptist volunteers hovered around the garage, unpacking a case of bottled water for him. McKissic was grateful for the hospitality of the seminary. Nevertheless, he was increasingly uncomfortable remaining among the Southern Baptists.

McKissic thought that it would be hard for an outsider to understand why he’d joined the S.B.C., which has a long and painful history around race. But he’d also seen the organization do a lot of good. He was raised in a Black Baptist church, and, when he started Cornerstone, in 1983, the S.B.C. had helped out with funding. “The Lord told me to start my church in a garage,” he said. “Hardly anybody will lend you three hundred and thirty thousand dollars to start a church in your garage. We were birthed through the mission heart of the S.B.C.” Over the years, McKissic benefitted from the organization’s strategic advice, and attended its fishing outings and trips to Bible schools. The S.B.C. also provided a kind of moral support that was more difficult to quantify. “They were rooting for us,” he told me.

Until recently, much of the racism that he’d encountered in the S.B.C. was “passive,” McKissic said. But after the election of Donald Trump, in 2016, he felt that the racist rhetoric became more overt. McKissic was also unsettled by what he saw as a growing antipathy toward allowing women to serve in leadership roles in the church. The tensions came to a head over the teachings of critical race theory, a loose set of academic tools used to identify systemic racism. C.R.T. emerged in legal scholarship in the seventies, as a method of examining how the law perpetuates racial injustice. Recently, though, it has become a kind of bogeyman for the right: last year, Trump tweeted that critical race theory was “a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue. Please report any sightings so we can quickly extinguish!” His Administration also issued a memo ordering federal anti-racism training programs to stop using the theory.

For the past few years, prominent members of the S.B.C., including Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the denomination’s oldest academic institution, have demonized C.R.T., calling it, among other things, Marxist and anti-Biblical. Critics have frightened S.B.C. members with the prospect that the theory could soon be used in public schools to indoctrinate children against conservative values. During the organization’s yearly conference in 2019, the resolutions committee attempted to address the tensions over C.R.T., putting forth a statement that acknowledged incompatibilities between Biblical teachings and the academic theory, yet upheld the reality of structural racism.

Within a week, hard-line conservatives within the S.B.C. seized upon the resolution and cast it as a threat from the left. Throughout 2020, state chapters passed resolutions rejecting critical race theory. Then, last November, on the heels of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the presidents of S.B.C.’s six seminaries issued an incendiary statement calling C.R.T. “incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” This outraged many pastors of color; none had suggested applying the teachings of C.R.T to the church, but they felt that its blanket rejection was being used by white leaders to dismiss the realities of racism. “Y’all are arguing over a theory that is just trying to accurately describe the reality I live in,” John Onwuchekwa, a Nigerian-American pastor in Atlanta who left the S.B.C. last July, told me. “It’s like someone is bleeding out on the floor and these guys are fighting over how many pints of blood a person can lose.”

In Texas, McKissic read the statement with dismay. “It’s putting lipstick on racism,” he told me. As he saw it, the fight over C.R.T. was also the fight for the future of the S.B.C. A cabal of reactionary, aging white men was trying to maintain control of the organization, and, in order to hold on to power, those men were stoking people’s fears of creeping liberalism. (A spokesperson for the S.B.C. said that it was a sprawling organization whose members held a wide range of viewpoints.) In January, 2021, McKissic wrote an article titled “We Are Getting Off The Bus,” denouncing the rejection of C.R.T. in the November statement and explaining that he was leaving a Texas chapter of the S.B.C. “I am not willing to allow them to dictate what the belief systems, definitions and authoritative binding, academic and ecclesiastical decisions [are] regarding how race is to be communicated in the local church,” he wrote.

McKissic’s decision took place alongside a larger campaign called #LeaveLOUD, which is led by the Witness, a Black Christian collective urging Christians of color to abandon white churches that continue to condone systemic racism. For decades, people of color have been quietly leaving conservative, majority-white churches and faith-based communities; the Witness hopes to prompt change by encouraging people to make more noise. No denomination is immune to the scourge of racism, but congregants of color say that the problem is particularly visible in the S.B.C. “I have had endless meetings, one-on-one conversations, meetings with the elders, letters to the church, pleading for the barest minimum of dignity and respect when it came to church practices,” Jemar Tisby, the author of “The Color of Compromise” and a leader of the #LeaveLOUD campaign, told me. “And I have been met with gaslighting, denial, minimization, ostracization.”

On Twitter, the backlash to McKissic’s announcement was severe. Several days after he spoke out, he received a letter in the mail from a former S.B.C. member named John Rutledge, saying that Black people had “invaded the church” and that the issues were “beyond the Negroes’ intellectual capacities.” The letter said, of Black people, “Like two-year-olds, they know only how to whine and throw tantrums. The SBC should bid them goodbye and good riddance!” (S.B.C. leaders condemned the letter. Rutledge could not be reached for comment.) McKissic told me that, when he read it, “I was shocked”; he posted it on Facebook “as an example of a real live racist.” Still, McKissic found the letter instructive. “What I appreciated about Mr. Rutledge is that he had the nerve to stick his name to what a small group of people feels in the S.B.C.,” McKissic told me. “To a certain extent, that’s what the anti-C.R.T. crowd reflects, and it’s on those grounds I can’t stay.”

Dwight McKissic holding a Bible. For McKissic and many pastors of color, the Southern Baptist Convention’s future rests on what happens next week in Nashville.

For now, McKissic has remained a member of the national Southern Baptist Convention. Next week, at the group’s 2021 conference, in Nashville, its members will vote on the Convention’s next president. The choice likely lies between the three most viable candidates. One candidate is Mohler, the seminary president who was the face of the charge against C.R.T. He told me recently that C.R.T. goes against “both Christianity and modern political, classical liberty.” Another contender is Mike Stone, a pastor from South Georgia who is even more conservative than Mohler; when we spoke, he called C.R.T. a “weapon of division.” The third is Ed Litton, a soft-spoken pastor who has been involved in racial-reconciliation efforts in Mobile, Alabama, and who believes that the fight over C.R.T. has become a way to avoid talking about the need for structural change in the Southern Baptist Convention. “We have to exercise the muscle of Biblical truth, and also extend compassion to those who have suffered injustice,” Litton told me. If either of the two hard-liners wins, McKissic will leave the S.B.C. “The trajectory of the S.B.C. will have proved to be anti-woman, and hostile to race in a way that can’t be justified by the Bible,” he said. “I just can’t, in good conscience, remain a part of a fellowship like that.”

The Southern Baptist Convention was founded, in 1845, to safeguard the institution of slavery. Northern Baptists had recently ruled that men who owned slaves were no longer permitted to serve as missionaries, and slaveholding Baptists decided to form their own group in protest. Founders of the new organization claimed that, according to the Bible, slavery was “an institution of heaven.” They pushed the idea that Black people were descended from the Biblical figure Ham, Noah’s cursed son, and that their subjugation was therefore divinely ordained. “They were one bad marketing meeting away from calling themselves the ‘Confederate Baptist Convention,’ ” Onwuchekwa, the pastor in Atlanta, told me. In 1863, the Southern Baptists pledged to support the Confederacy in the Civil War. According to a 2018 report put out by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on the role that slavery played within the organization, one early leader believed that “slavery was no mere necessary evil, but rather a God-ordained institution to be perpetuated.”

In the twentieth century, the S.B.C. went through a period of relative opening, allowing for wide-ranging readings of scripture and letting its academic institutions flourish. In the twenties, for example, at the time of the Scopes trial and the attendant controversy over the teaching of evolution in schools, the organization left room for its members to accept the conclusions of science. In 1971, the S.B.C. went so far as to say that women should be allowed some measure of choice regarding abortion. But, in the late seventies, there was a backlash within the organization that came to be known as the conservative resurgence. Hard-liners took over the S.B.C., and, in the name of returning it to the teachings of the Bible, pushed back on several social issues. They fought efforts to diversify the leadership and pressed for stricter scriptural interpretations, arguing, for example, that women must submit to the will of men. Before the conservative resurgence, some women were ordained as pastors in the S.B.C.; afterward, that practice largely ended, and hard-liners argued that women also shouldn’t teach Sunday-school classes or even work outside the home.

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The Musical Mysteries of Josquin

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The singer and composer Josquin Desprez traversed his time like a diffident ghost, glimpsed here and there amid the splendor of the Renaissance. He is thought to have been born around 1450 in what is now western Belgium, the son of a policeman who was once jailed for using excessive force. In 1466, a boy named Gossequin completed a stint as a choirboy in the city of Cambrai. A decade later, the singer Jusquinus de Pratis turned up at the court of René of Anjou, in Aix. In the fourteen-eighties, in Milan, Judocus Despres was in the service of the House of Sforza, which also employed Leonardo da Vinci. At the end of the decade, Judo. de Prez joined the musical staff at the Vatican, remaining there into the reign of Alexander VI, of the House of Borgia. The name Josquin can be seen carved on a wall of the Sistine Chapel. In 1503, the maestro Juschino took a post in Ferrara, singing in the presence of Lucrezia Borgia. Not long afterward, Josse des Prez retired to Condé-sur-l’Escaut, near his presumed birthplace, serving as the provost of the local church. There he died, on August 27, 1521. His tomb was destroyed during the French Revolution.

The murkiness of his existence notwithstanding, Josquin attained an enduring renown of a kind that no previous composer had enjoyed. In 1502, the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci, the chief pioneer of movable-type music publishing, issued a volume of sacred motets, with Josquin’s four-voice setting of “Ave Maria . . . virgo serena” (“Hail Mary . . . serene virgin”) at its head. The piece must have cast a spell, and the beginning shows why. The highest voice, the superius, sings a graceful rising-and-falling phrase: G C C D E C. Each of the lower voices presents the motif in turn. After it arrives in the bass, the superius enters again on a high C, forming an octave pillar. A second phrase unfurls in similar fashion, then a third, with the voices staggered so that only two move together at a time. Eventually, the scheme changes, the texture thickens, and the descending order of vocal entries is reversed. About a minute in, all four voices coalesce to form a gleaming C-major sonority. The entire opening gives the illusion of breadth and depth, as though lamps have been lit in a vaulted room. Music becomes a space in which you walk around in wonder.

Interest in Josquin was strong enough that Petrucci released three volumes of the composer’s masses—settings of five sections of the Roman Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). Posthumously, the flood of publications only increased, to the point where an observer wryly said, “Now that Josquin is dead, he is putting out more works than when he was still alive.” Extravagant claims were made. The humanist Cosimo Bartoli described Josquin as the Michelangelo of music; Martin Luther called him “the master of the notes.” In subsequent centuries, performances of his works all but ceased, yet his name remained one to conjure with. In 1782, the historian Charles Burney declared that Josquin had achieved “universal monarchy and dominion over the affections and passions of the musical part of mankind.” For August Wilhelm Ambros, in 1868, he was the first composer in history “who makes a prevailing impression of genius.” In the twentieth century, the early-music movement brought Josquin’s scores back to life, and the revival continues five hundred years after his death. The Tallis Scholars, the best known of Renaissance vocal ensembles, recently completed a recorded survey of eighteen masses attributed to Josquin. Such groups as Stile Antico, Cappella Pratensis, Blue Heron, and the Huelgas Ensemble are participating in a Josquin festival in Antwerp in August. The “Ave Maria” is a staple of choirs around the world.

With Josquin began the cult of the great composer—a mind-set that has left a distinctly ambiguous imprint on classical-music culture. And his rise to superhero status brought with it a curious paradox. Although commentators across five centuries have agreed on Josquin’s preëminence, his works can easily be confused with those of other gifted contemporaries. Two anecdotes from the early sixteenth century illustrate what might be called the Josquin mirage, in which the lustre of his name warps musical perceptions. Baldassare Castiglione, in his treatise “The Book of the Courtier” (1528), made note of the composer’s snob appeal in aristocratic settings: “When a motet was sung in the presence of the Duchess, it pleased no one, and was considered worthless, until it became known that it had been composed by Josquin Desprez.” The opposite fate befell a piece by Adrian Willaert, one of Josquin’s most accomplished successors. When Willaert first came to Rome, he found that the papal choir was singing one of his motets, under the impression that it was by Josquin. When Willaert corrected the mistake, the singers lost interest in the work. Such stories help to explain why attributions to Josquin proliferated after his death: affixing his name to a score was guaranteed to stir interest. The same syndrome has long haunted Renaissance art, where an emphasis on the singular profile of canonical artists has led to violent debates over authenticity and a thriving marketplace in forgeries.

Well over three hundred pieces were ascribed to Josquin at one time or another. In recent decades, musicologists have been culling dubious items from the catalogue. This spring, I followed the work of two leading Josquin authorities, Joshua Rifkin and Jesse Rodin, who are preparing a drastically pruned list of likely Josquin pieces—a hundred and three in all. Some scholars worry that the deattribution process has got out of hand; the half-joking fear is that Josquin will end up disappearing almost completely, like the Cheshire Cat. Thanks to the pandemic-era phenomenon of the Zoom seminar, I was able to watch some of the deliberations, which kept raising bigger philosophical questions: How does an aura of infallibility come to surround a figure like Josquin? What becomes of the music that lapses into anonymity, just as “The Man with the Golden Helmet” seems to have fallen out of the Rembrandt canon?

There is nothing fake about that aura: Josquin was an astonishing composer, one whose contrapuntal dazzlements can make Bach look clumsy. But he dwelled within a comprehensively astonishing community of creative artists. To explore Renaissance choral music is to enter a forbidding forest of names: Dunstable, Power, Binchois, Dufay, Busnois, Ockeghem, Regis, Faugues, Compère, Weerbeke, Agricola, de Orto, Obrecht, Isaac, de la Rue, Mouton, Brumel, Févin, Richafort, Ghiselin, Gombert, Pipelare, Martini, Clemens non Papa, Morales, Willaert, Lassus, Palestrina. Every one of them wrote music worth hearing. The period bears witness to the emergence of composition as an art: Josquin becomes the patron saint of an essentially new profession that is struggling to gain the level of recognition long accorded to painters and poets. Distinct personalities materialize from the historical mist. We hear the sound of the self, singing toward a kind of freedom.

The term “composer” began to enter general circulation only in the late fifteenth century. The practice of naming the authors of musical works was still catching on. Documents of the period usually call Josquin a cantore, or singer. Yet his rise to fame helped bring about a change in status. In 1502, a courtier to Ercole I, the Duke of Ferrara, wrote a letter evaluating candidates for a musical appointment. One of them, Heinrich Isaac, was “easy to get along with,” the courtier said; another, Josquin, “composes when he wants to, and not when one wants him to.” Also, Josquin asked for two hundred ducats, Isaac for much less. Ercole I hired Josquin.

Composers were a new phenomenon because written music was itself a relatively recent innovation in the long history of the arts. The earliest examples of fully decipherable staff notation, from the early eleventh century, record Gregorian chant; multivoiced sacred music was written down at Notre-Dame, in Paris, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Troubadours, trouvères, and other poet-composers produced a beloved corpus of song, though the words tended to receive more attention than the notes. The most formidable figure of the age was Guillaume de Machaut, who lived from around 1300 to 1377. Celebrated chiefly for his sung poems of courtly love, Machaut also wrote two dozen motets and the earliest mass cycle for which a composer is known. Such large-scale elaborations on canonical texts sustained careers in the following century, as Popes, princes, and other potentates sought to flesh out courtly ceremonies with splendid sounds. The history of written music is inextricable from structures of worldly power, even if the composers occupied a low place in the hierarchy.

Josquin exemplifies the art of polyphony: the interweaving of multiple voices according to strict contrapuntal rules. The primary mandate was to control dissonance—a term that was understood differently in medieval and Renaissance times than it is today. It indicated not just discordant combinations of tones but also problematic relationships between notes. The octave, the fifth, and sometimes the fourth were considered to be “perfect” consonances; thirds and sixths were “imperfect”; other intervals fell into the “dissonant” category. A wariness of thirds partly explains why medieval music can sound stark and strange to modern ears. Thirds are at the core of tonal harmony, defining major and minor keys. In the early fifteenth century, English composers, led by John Dunstable, began using thirds in abundance. Their lush, chord-rich sound became known as the “English countenance,” surprising and delighting listeners on the Continent. English sources are also the first to name composers in large numbers.

“And that, son, is where wealth comes from.”
Cartoon by Robert Leighton

Geopolitics had a hand in what happened next. King Henry V of England, who may have dabbled in composing, won at Agincourt, in 1415, and soon took over northern France. English officials brought with them their favorite choristers; Dunstable evidently served John of Lancaster, Henry V’s brother and military commander. Thanks to Joan of Arc, England’s holdings soon shrank, but not before its music had seeped into northern France and Belgian lands. Coincidentally or not, this region brought forth the next major wave of musical activity. A vast number of fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century composers, Josquin included, belonged to what is today called the Franco-Flemish School.

Leading the procession was Guillaume Dufay (circa 1397-1474), who brought dancing elegance to exalted masses and streetwise chansons alike. His motet “Nuper rosarum flores” was written for the consecration of Florence’s cathedral, in 1436, its stately sonorities echoing against Filippo Brunelleschi’s octagonal dome. Other mid- and late-fifteenth-century composers expanded the field of possibility. Antoine Busnois specialized in a lucid interplay of motifs; Johannes Ockeghem in opulent, unpredictably flowing designs; Johannes Regis in intricate structures that gather narrative energy from the calculated addition and subtraction of voices. (Josquin may have based his setting of “Ave Maria” on Regis’s motet of the same name.) By 1500, dozens of Franco-Flemish singer-composers had radiated across Europe, establishing a virtual monopoly at certain Italian musical centers, the Vatican included.

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College, but for Influencers

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A Harvard for influencing does not yet exist—it’s only a matter of time—but the school of Tina Meeks comes close. Want to know what to do with your hands in a photo? She’ll send you a link. Want your interiors to look more Nancy Meyers and less “C.S.I.”? She’ll tell you what light bulbs to buy. Want to quit your nine-to-five and become the sort of trusted personality who makes six figures a year documenting and distributing your life? She’ll coach you, for five hundred dollars an hour.

“Not everyone can make three hundred thousand dollars a year,” Meeks said the other day, referring to the sum that she earned in 2020, “but if you can make an extra three thousand, or an extra thirty thousand, that’s still life-changing for many people.” She was videoconferencing from her house, in Virginia, and had on a white tank top, her hair in two high pigtails. “So many moms and wives get lost in their family life, but you can still do really big things for yourself in the midst of that.”

A former Army reservist, Meeks, who is thirty-four, intended to be “the cool auntie who travelled the world with her military career,” she said. “Then I got pregnant.” She became an insurance adjuster, first for cars—“very fast-paced, because people literally get into accidents all the time”—then for property. “Aside from the police, you’re the first call that most people make,” she said. “It’s not like I was a brain surgeon, but to be able to talk them off the ledge—it was fulfilling.”

She joined Instagram in 2012, to share family photos. Then house photos. Then food photos. Five years and another child later, her husband told her,“If you’re going to spend as much time on social media as you do, you should find a way to make money from it.” She dove deep into YouTube. “That’s how I learned photo composition, how I honed my aesthetic,” she said. She tagged brands. “The day that Children’s Place shared my post was, like, the best day ever. They didn’t even pay me.” She came up with formulas for equitable compensation: her baseline rate for a single photo is the number of dollars equal to four per cent of her following on Instagram, which is currently sixty-seven thousand five hundred. Sponsorships allowed her to quit her fifty-five-thousand-dollar-a-year day job, at the end of 2019, by which time she had three kids. The drama of 2020 was good for business. “After the social unrest and the amplify-Black-voices movement, brands that had offered me five hundred before suddenly had a two-thousand-dollar budget,” she said. “No one wanted to be called out for not paying influencers of color their worth.” Why share her trade secrets? “It’s a fourteen-billion-dollar industry,” she said. “They can’t give it all to one person.”

“It’s not as much fun now that they’re starting to take us seriously.”
Cartoon by Mick Stevens

Meeks occasionally offers free advice over Zoom. Her last session, in May, was derailed by traffic. “I’ve been stuck on the interstate, in park, for forty-five minutes,” she told her Zoom guests. A child wailed in the back seat. She fielded questions anyway.

“How do you become comfortable with pics and videoing?” Tana Almerico (942 followers) asked.

“Look in the mirror and practice,” Meeks said. “Learn your best angles.”

“I don’t have a place in my house that’s really pretty,” Toni Jones (3,620 followers) said. “Is it worthwhile to rent an Airbnb?”

“Once you start, you’re going to have to keep up with that,” Meeks said. “Work with the space you have. The main thing is good lighting.” She continued, “Most homes have very muted yellow lighting. Go to the store and get daylight light bulbs. It is going to change your life. It’s also going to blind you, just a little bit.”

“I only have one child, who’s one year old,” Kourtney Marsh (22,400 followers) said. “Does family size matter?”

“It’s a factor,” Meeks replied. “But you have a baby. Babies just make us spend money on everything.”

After a brief spell of dead air (a tunnel, a few plaintive cries of “Mommy”), Meeks announced, panting slightly, that she was home. Next question.

“I’m almost fifty. My kids are ten and twelve,” TaJuana Robinson (927 followers) said. “My day-to-day life is not that exciting. What do I even talk about that would be of interest to anybody?”

“Your experiences with tween and teen-age girls,” Meeks said. “People get caught up in needing to have this exciting life. The most exciting thing to happen to me today was being stuck in traffic and having to tell y’all about it.” She added, “On a very surface level, I’m just home with my kids.” ♦

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Cynthia Ozick on Never-Never Lands

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Your story “The Coast of New Zealand” revolves around a group of friends from library school who make a pact to meet for a meal once a year, and not to communicate between meetings. Did you know from the start what the outcome of the pact would be?

Photograph by Ulf Andersen / Getty

“The Fanatic” was my original title, and it was this notion that ultimately compelled what was to come, both what I knew beforehand and what turned up, all on its own, to surprise. I have always been drawn to the idea of the fanatic, the zealot, the proselytizer, the Johnny One-Note, the deceiver, the false explainer—the enemy of the ordinary. Sometimes his name is Bartleby. Sometimes his name is Gilbert Osmond. Sometimes his name is Aylmer, practitioner of the relentless science of perfection. But here his name is simply George.

The four characters are, to some degree, anachronistic, drawn together initially by their old-fashioned names—Evangeline, Olive, Ruby, and George—and their old-fashioned choice of profession. Is that aura of fustiness essential to the story?

Fusty, yes, but not in the way of moldy or decaying; rather, in the wafting purity of a forgotten innocence. Even Olive’s attempt to replace her name with the more up-to-date Susan only reinforces her almost maidenly self-consciousness. And the pre-digital library, with its fans and date stamps and ancient wooden cabinets, declares long-ago simplicities. George alone, despite his commonplace name, is looking for fiery dragons to slay.

Yet if their agreement—“the Pact”—is the opposite of fusty, what is it really? “To live in the whirlpool of the extraordinary. To aspire to the ultimate stage of fanaticism.” What did you (or George) mean by that?

Walter Pater’s famous credo is also George’s: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” But the story questions whether George has, in truth, lived up to this passion. And whether the rest of us ought to—and, if not, then what is “success in life”?

George’s rules for the Pact make a real impression on Evangeline—to the point that she almost rejects a loving relationship that she doesn’t think is in keeping with those rules. Why do you think she is so affected by George’s prescriptions while the other women aren’t?

Evangeline’s partners in the Pact are entertained by George’s outrageous pronouncements, but they do, as we soon learn, have their feet on the ground, and look to the future—suitable jobs, marriage, children—as a pragmatic progression appropriate to any normal life. But Evangeline is mesmerized by the exceptional, a vision of transcendence; she has an avarice for the peaks of experience that George inspires. The others are too quickly satisfied by the everyday.

Why did you dispatch George to New Zealand? Simply to get him as far away as possible?

Evangeline’s trust in George’s extraordinary spirit is at first absolute. Like him, she sees New Zealand as the acme of what he calls his “solitary will.” (As for me, I never for even a minute believed that George went to New Zealand.) So immersed is she in George’s tenets that she takes the preposterous for the truly original, while we can see (or maybe not?) that New Zealand is no more than a never-never land.

But only look at his history as he tells it: his parents a double suicide, à la Stefan Zweig and his wife; his great-uncle and his great-aunt vaudevillians, their closets stuffed with costumes (is his showy jacket one of these?); his having his supper in the wings while the show goes on; his sojourn at the Waldorf; his claim that New Zealand is the founder of the digital age; and so on and so on. All this excites Evangeline’s imagination. The proof of her devotion is her revelation of what might account for his not showing up: “He meant to shock her, he meant to undo her expectation. . . . The shock of his disappearance was not a negation of the Pact; it was its electrifying fulfillment.”

Why do you think he does break the Pact in the end? Does he lose interest? Is he ashamed of not having lived up to it? Or is it impossible to know?

My guess is that he is as mercurial as his inventions and gets tired of his one remaining acolyte, and moves on to find fresh ones. There may be other reasons: whatever they are, they are sure to be implausible. (Ultimate implausibility characterizes fanaticism.)

The story has an ornithological theme: Nate Vogel, a devoted bird-watcher, has a name that means “bird”; George has orange elbow patches the color of a parrot; he and Evangeline meet on a park bench covered in owl droppings. How did birds become a motif for this story?

Birds, yes, but also other creatures of pedantic interest, including seals and sea lions, and evolutionary wonders such as dinosaurs becoming birds, and hippos deriving from dolphins. All this, as it happens, comes under the rubric of George’s dicta “that eventuality is always inevitability, that the implausible is the true authenticity.” These apply also to Evangeline’s marriage to Nate Vogel: Why else would a fantasist end up with a dry fact-collector?

Are these characters going to be part of something longer, or do they exist only within the confines of “The Coast of New Zealand”?

Well, Nate Vogel would be acutely uncomfortable anywhere else; he’s content in his prosaic Stamford, Connecticut—his own never-never land of quotidian desire. But Evangeline? She might turn up wherever folly lies.

Earlier this year you published your seventh novel, “Antiquities.” Are you working on another one? Or will you be sticking to shorter forms for the moment?

A story of six thousand words seems exactly the right thing just now. A story of fewer words—one or two thousand, say—yields a momentary epiphany, while a novel rides on wave after wave of a sea. But a long story, neither the one nor the other, can capture the span, and thereby the meaning, of a life.

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