Interview by Ellen Gable Hrkach
Tell us a bit about yourself and your family.
My wife and I live on a fifteen acre farm in rural mid-Michigan with our kids. Our children are aged 13, 10, 7 and a newborn. My wife is a “recovering attorney,” and has been home full-time with the children since our first one arrived. We have homeschooled them all since Kindergarten, and have found a wonderful community of other homeschooling families here. I am self-employed with my own public opinion research consulting practice; I analyze survey data and conduct focus groups, especially related to politics and public policy. I am a Seattle native and cradle Catholic, but didn’t really learn the faith until I got to college in Chicago and met some friends who were much more committed to it.
What prompted you to write a novel?
A few years ago, I found my mind drifting back to when I was single, and had faced a difficult choice about dating a particular young woman. I’d liked her, but her background presented some real obstacles to ever having the traditional Catholic family I’d always wanted. Things had come to an emotional head one evening, and I’d come close to making a terrible decision. After some struggle, I chose to walk away from her — but only in looking back could I appreciate all the fruit that had flowed from that one choice, and the “parade of horribles” that could have proceeded had I made one decision differently. As I reflected on the details of what could have happened, and the seemingly-impossible hole that I would have found myself in, I realized that this could be a very compelling situation for a novel.
After agonizing over these options, Stan makes an unconventional choice that appears both heroic and suicidal. As the story progresses, and Stan struggles (not always successfully) to live with the consequences of his unconventional choice, he grows more faithful to his commitments and more committed to his faith. And he discovers a depth of joy and happiness far beyond what he or we could have expected.
Why the title?
We usually think of a passport as something needed to cross an international border. In his homily at our wedding, the priest analogized marriage as being a “passport” to heaven. My passport is named Micki. My wife’s passport is named Chris. His point was that marriage is a school of self-giving, and of learning to sacrifice oneself for the members of one’s family. That process transforms a person into one who is capable of crossing the border into heaven at the end of his or her life. It took me many years to appreciate the truth of this analogy, and it is the biggest thing that Stan must learn as he grapples to reset the course of his life.
Who is the target audience and what is the message you hope readers will take from your book?
Passport’s target audience is Catholics in their twenties and thirties, but I have heard from people of all ages and religious stripes who have enjoyed the story. Women tend to find the romantic elements and family relationships particularly compelling, but this is decidedly not a “romance novel” in the traditional sense. Men especially appreciate seeing the story told from the perspective of one of their own, and say they often find themselves empathizing with Stan’s experiences and taking inspiration from them. Although the novel’s important conflicts stem from distinctly “Catholic” sources, these teachings are incorporated organically into the plot; non-Catholics find themselves enjoying the story on its own terms, without feeling preached to.
The key message I hope readers take from the book is that marriage and family life are difficult, but it is precisely in and through those sacrifices that we grow and learn to love others the way God wants us to. And the happiness that stems from that kind of love is far deeper and much more satisfying than what we find in pursuing our own desires.
Tell us about the main character, Stan, and in what ways is he similar to you and in what ways is he different?
Stan begins the story in his late 20s. His parents are recently deceased, and left him the six-flat building that he grew up in on the north side of Chicago. He lives in one unit; the rental income from the other five units has allowed him to quit his job as an engineer and pursue his hobby of restoring vintage cars. He’s an introvert, and enjoys his time alone working on cars and watching baseball, but is lonely and wonders when he’ll find the good Catholic woman he can live happily ever after with. Stan is a faithful Catholic who attends Mass weekly, and he knows the teachings of the Church backwards and forwards, but he has no interior life of prayer. He prides himself on being a full fledged, following-all-the-rules member of the Catholic “club.” He dreams of having a large number of children — not because he enjoys or even likes kids, but because he believes it would mark him as having the ultimate Catholic marriage. The externals of Stan’s situation differ greatly from mine when I was single, and my life of prayer was much better developed, but Stan’s temperament is a lot like mine — and I shared many of his underlying attitudes, particularly about marriage and children.
The character whom I most closely resemble is Stan’s best friend, Jim Walsh, who lives on a farm outside Chicago with his wife and their homeschooled children. Jim plays a key supporting role as Stan’s confidante, and in helping guide Stan in the decisions he must make.
Your book touches on many Catholic themes. Which theme or themes would you say would be the most prominent?
Catholic teachings about the indissolubility of marriage are critical to the novel’s central conflict, and exert the biggest influences on the characters’ choices.
Your book is both uplifting and realistic and I was touched by Stan’s efforts to selflessly repair his mistake. How do you answer the criticism that your book shows more of the sacrifice and suffering of marriage than the joys?
As you note, the story is chiefly about Stan’s effort to address the effects of a bad decision. But by the nature of what Stan has done, and the situation he now finds himself in, his subsequent family relationships are inherently compromised. That limits the degree of “normal” marital joy that Stan is able to experience. However, one point the story tries to make is that every successful marriage has its sacrifices and privations; some are more extreme than others, but the generosity with which a person shoulders those sacrifices is directly correlated with the ultimate joy and interior happiness the person experiences — even if that joy and happiness are not of the usual variety.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Finally, I would add that I am in the process of writing a sequel. It picks up approximately four years after the conclusion of Passport, and Stan’s situation will include many of the more “usual” joys of family life which eluded him in the original story. Certain important things will remain out of his grasp initially, however, and he will need to make some tough decisions about what he is willing to change and sacrifice in order to reach all that God might have in mind for his family.