The one thing I was most curious about, the one question I had to answer above all others, was the question of God and the question of faith. I realized that what I was after was an answer to the biggest question there is – and these questions, all of them, are linked – What is the meaning of a life? What is God? Is there God? It’s important to ask this first question in precisely that way. What is the meaning of a life? That one word makes all the difference. “A”. A life. What is the meaning of a life means a whole lot more than what is the meaning of life. That, is the question. Because I believe that all lives are the same. They are all equal. Every one. And when I began to see that question clearly I realized that it would be the central question of everything I would ever write, and explaining it would be the work of my life and thus its meaning, and my purpose. So you see the question was the answer.
But you don’t – you can’t – set out to answer such questions ostensibly. It would be wrong and misleading to tell you that I began writing Serpent Box in order to answer those questions.
I began Serpent Box by asking a smaller, simpler question, I wanted to know about a boy I saw in a photograph. The story, the novel and the journey of my life was sparked by a single moment captured on a thin membrane of film - a single image rendered in ink. There was, on one particular day, and in one specific moment, in this one place, a man with a camera and a boy with a box and a jar, and that moment was captured and frozen like some cryogenically preserved egg. This book was born by the same stroke of chance and fate that brings a child into the world. I fell in love with an image and fathered a story that was a mirror I could hold up to my own life, to see what it was and what it meant, and that is exactly what a child is to a father or a mother if they raise it with the right perspective. A mirror.
In this photograph I saw a boy of perhaps nine or ten years old holding in one hand a jar containing a clear liquid, and in his other hand a box containing what appeared to be a live rattlesnake. It was a black and white photo, very sharp, very clear. The boy had a look about him, an impoverished look, and from his eyes there emanated a beseeching stare, as if he wanted answers from me. That photograph, and several that accompanied it, depicted a people and a life dedicated to a brand of Christianity that was new to me – Holiness Pentacostalism, which I began to read about and understand as something real, and deep, and connected to the concept of God in the most visceral and literal way I had ever heard about. And I was drawn to them , I was drawn to the boy in the picture, and for the first time since I began writing, I saw, literally, a story begin to unfold in my mind’s eye.
So I began by asking, Who is this boy?
But I wanted to know more than that. I wanted to explore the concept of faith and God through these fervent believers who claimed that He manifests himself in them physically via the Holy Ghost. If these people were real, if what they believed was true, then I could perhaps prove to myself that what I felt and saw and believed about the world was also true. I thought that I could find God through Serpent Box, just like Jacob Flint thought he could find him by drinking lye in the first story (the short story). I thought that I might be able to prove to myself that there was a God. I wanted to believe. I needed to believe. More than anything, I needed to believe in something outside of myself that was much greater than myself, because I certainly didn’t believe in me, and could not abide the thought that there might not be anything more meaningful than my small, insignificant life. And by small I mean that I have always, personally, felt small. In stature, yes, but also in meaning and in context to place and time, and I think this is because that from a very early age I understood nature – the magnitude of it – and I had often taken my refuge in the natural world.
continued - 1 2 3