An Interview With Mark Anderson

I have a tradition when I visit my sister-in-law in Minnesota: I find an interesting book and read it compulsively. Last time it was Welcome to My Planet by Shannon Olson (who has a new book coming out BTW), this time it was Jesus Sound Explosion by Mark Anderson.

Anderson, whose writing has appeared in Spout, Nightbeat, Buzz, and the Minnesota Daily, lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and teaches writing at the University of Minnesota’s General College. He has also worked as a clerk at the Electric Fetus record store, taught at the secondary level, and drummed for the House of Mercy Band, Oren Goby, Bad Trip, the Idlewilds, and other Twin Cities bands.

Jesus Sound Explosion, winner of the Associated Writers Program Award for Creative Non-Fiction, tells the story of Mark’s childhood as a pastor’s kid in the Seventies caught between Evangelical fundamentalism and his love of Rock-n-Roll. I found the book to be fascinating, frustrating, and often insightful. I hope to post a full review here soon.

Mark was generous enough to agree to an interview to discuss some of the issues he touches on in the book. What follows was conducted via email (questions in bold).


Being a pastor’s Kid (PK) is obviously a unique experience. What were some important ways that impacted your childhood.

I felt watched most of the time. I think I was more self-conscious than most of my peers. When I was around church people, I wanted to be viewed as a good pastor’s kid and a good Christian, but when I was around school friends I wanted to be seen as one of them. The double life became most pronounced when I was an adolescent. I didn’t want my school friends to think of me as a goody-goody type just because I was a pastor’s kid, so I swore and drank and got high with them. Then I had to lie and cover my tracks so that my parents and the church people didn’t find out about my “backsliding”. It was a recipe for hypocrisy. I’m glad I abandoned the evangelical Christian world in my early-twenties because I think I would have been a creepy evangelical middle-aged adult. A scandal waiting to happen.

Music was obviously became a large influence as well. When did you begin to realize that music was an important part of your life, especially in ways that might have been different than those around you?

I think I realized it when I was about 14 or 15 and I found myself wanting to go to the Wax Museum Record Store in St. Paul more often than anyone else I knew. That was around the time I discovered used records and how much less expensive they were than new records so I could afford to buy a lot more of them. Every time I went to the Wax Museum, I found a used record or two that I wanted. Pretty soon my record collection went from 10-20 records to over 100, and I didn’t know anyone else who had that many records.
When I was in California, I had a friend (Jon in the book) who I went shopping for used records with, and he bought as many as me. We were both heavily into the evangelical Christian thing at the time and our addiction started to feel strange and idolatrous. For one month in our senior year of high school we vowed not to go walk into a record store for a month. I think we gave in after about two weeks.

In a way, “Jazzy Music” (your mothers phrase) did lead you away from faith in was that your parents, and others, worried about. Is that fair? Weren’t they in a sense justified in some of their criticism?

Many evangelicals feared that rock and roll would lead their children away from their faith and further into the world, and their fears came true many times over. Some of their criticism was justified. Thoughtful criticism is always justified. The lingering fear of the world is more troublesome to me. That fear often leads to dangerous places: war, racism, etc. When I was a student at Bethel College I worked in their writing center, and a student once brought in an anti-rock and roll paper that argued that the backbeat of rock and roll was of the devil because it originated in Africa. I’d heard this argument before, and when I highlighted the racism in it, the student was surprised. He’d never even considered that.

Yes, “jazzy music” was among a number of things that led me away from the church, but I’m grateful that my parents didn’t place restrictions on what I chose to listen to when I was a teen. Compared to a lot of Baptist parents of the seventies, my parents were pretty wise. Some of my church friends had parents who banned rock and roll from their household, and this always seemed foolish to me. My parents didn’t make rock and roll their battleground. I think it helped that my friends at school and most of my friends at church listened to rock and roll.

When I started going to a lot of arena rock concerts in 9th grade, my parents didn’t try to stop me. They didn’t seem to worry much about that. If they had actually gone to a concert with me, though, I think they would have been terrified by the volume, booze, cigarettes, weed, and all of the teenage kids making out with kids they’d only known for five minutes.

You often compare and contrast the concepts “of the world” and “not of the world” yet Christian attempts to be “in the world but not of the world” seem to leave you cold. Does Christian pop culture not appeal to you? Isn’t today’s environment, where almost any musical style is available to Christians and even gets airtime on mainstream radio, an option that you never had?

I can see how Christian pop culture might become important to kids who aren’t granted access to secular pop culture, but it really doesn’t appeal to me at all. So much of what I’ve heard seems like inferior imitations of secular artists. And I can’t separate that music scene from the whole cult of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind. What I find interesting is the extent to which so many evangelicals identify with The Rapture, the belief that one day believers will be taken into the clouds with Christ and all unbelievers will be left behind to go through The Tribulation. Yet, evangelical pop culture seems like one big attempt to catch up with elements of secular pop culture that have left evangelicals behind. So now there’s Christian punk, Christian heavy metal, Christian R&B, Christian rap, and on and on. They have to be in the world but not of it, so they take the world and try to make it look like themselves. There’s a wider range of choices available to evangelical Christian kids, but I feel sorry for the kids who limit themselves to the choices that Christian pop culture offers.

When I was growing up, we had Jesus rock pioneer, Larry Norman, who was sort of a cross between John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Tim LaHaye. For a long time I idolized Larry Norman, and the first writing I did was song lyrics that imitated his lyrics. He was really important to me at the time, and I am grateful that he was around to give voice to Christian kids who loved rock and roll. I still think he’s a great rock and roll singer, and his “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” still moves me. That said, I’m grateful that I also listened to Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Yes, Bruce Springsteen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, etc.

Your care and respect for your parents comes through in the book, as does your disdain for most fundamentalist Christians. How do you reconcile your parent’s fundamentalism with their support and acceptance of you and your life choices? Is this simply the bond of family? How do you think they would view or approach you if you were a stranger? Similar to your high school friends?

I don’t think of my parents as fundamentalists. Evangelicals, sure, but not fundamentalists. There are a lot of people who consider themselves evangelicals and liberals – there’s a strong Christian left current in America, but it doesn’t get nearly as much press as the fundamentalist Christian right. I think my parents feel more and more comfortable calling themselves both evangelical Christians and liberals. Their theology is orthodox evangelical, but their views on social issues are more aligned with those of the late Paul Wellstone.

Their acceptance of me and my choices has grown naturally out of the greater tolerance for diversity they’ve developed over the years. Even when they were surrounded by fundamentalists in their earlier years, they demonstrated more tolerance than most of the people in their congregations. For example, when we lived in Galesburg, Illinois from 1966-1970 and my dad was pastor of Bethel Baptist, his most fundamentalist congregation, my parent’s best friends were our Jewish neighbors, Dan and Harriet Lew. They felt more safe and relaxed around the Lews (who were very liberal and intellectual) than anyone else in Galesburg.

If my parents approached me as a stranger, I think they would treat me as kindly as they tend to treat all strangers. Unless I was a jerk to them.
They were, by the way, angered and disgusted at how my California high school friends behaved when they visited Minnesota. Keep in mind that they also bore the brunt of some of that intolerance. Especially my mom. Stanley, the guy in my book who was griping that my sister’s wedding wasn’t Christ-centered enough, also approached my mother at the reception with the same complaint. At the reception! She just turned and walked away. Good for her. That made me proud.

California today seems like a perfect place to escape fundamentalism what drew you back and keeps you in Minnesota (surely the weather is better out west)?

One of my few regrets in life is that I went through my most fundamentalist phase when I was a California high schooler in the late-seventies. Oh, the fun I might have had. So I don’t think of California as a place to escape from fundamentalism, especially since my most fundamentalist friends live in California. Sure, there are a lot of liberals in California, but it’s also the home of a lot of fundamentalist mega-churches and end-times cults.

I returned to Minnesota when I went to Bethel College from 1979-1983. My best friends were here, so I decided to stay after I graduated. While I was living there, California provided some interesting variety, and stories, but I always felt more like a Minnesotan. Keep in mind that I moved to California in my junior year of high school after living in Minnesota for seven years.
I also stayed here after my college graduation because the post-punk/indie rock scene was flourishing in the early-eighties. I was playing in a band, working at the Electric Fetus Record store, and going to shows every night, so I put up with the cold. Or maybe all that great music just made my world seem that much warmer.

Your connection with House of Mercy seems to indicate some remnant of faith. How did you re-connect and how have you approached faith lately?

I started attending House of Mercy in 1999, in the midst of a major depression. There are a lot of recovering evangelicals at the church, and many of them are friends from Bethel College. I also met my wife, Patricia, at House of Mercy. The atmosphere there is comfortable, the congregation is embracing, not judgmental, and the pastors preach a Christian gospel of social justice, not the gospel of shame, manipulation, and intolerance. Though House of Mercy is definitely based in Christianity – the pastors preach from the Bible every Sunday, mostly the New Testament – I feel least comfortable with the Christian emphasis. Sometimes I’d rather hear from the gospel according to Walt Whitman, Muriel Rukeyser, George Clinton, Sun Ra, Linda Hogan, James Baldwin… I take communion every week and I think of that as an affirmation of my bond to a spiritual community. My faith remains a great mystery to me.
There’s also great music at House of Mercy, mostly country gospel, and I play drums in the band every Sunday. I enjoy that immensely, though I sometimes wish we’d funk things up more.

Much of the book seems a transition from faith in absolutes to a sort of post-modern (to use a probably tired and vague term) view of truth that each person must construct their own. Is there a role from Truth with a capital T?

There’s a role for Truth with a capital T, but I tend to resist absolutes. Especially absolutes that lead to fundamentalisms.

How did you end up involved in writing and teaching?

I got certified to teach secondary English in 1989, six years after I got my B.A. in English Literature from Bethel College. I had a bad time with secondary teaching, and I don’t think I ever really wanted to do it. I just didn’t know what else to do with my life at the time.

The University of Minnesota (U of M) Language Arts/Secondary Ed. program ultimately led me further into writing. When I was getting licensed to teach, I also had to declare a teaching minor, so I chose to minor in Writing. The minor required me to take some creative writing courses, poetry and fiction writing, and that’s when I started writing stories and poetry. In fact, the roots of Jesus Sound Explosion lie in a story that I wrote for a fiction writing class – the fictional version of the Trout Lake Camp bat-in-the-chapel story. My fiction teacher at the time was a great writer named Barton Sutter, and he happened to be a P.K. He loved my story and gave me a lot of affirmation. He advised me to abandon the secondary ed. program and pursue writing. I didn’t take his advice, but I never forgot it.

I started Jesus Sound Explosion after being forced to resign from an awful middle school teaching position. As I was writing the book, I also applied for admittance into the U of M Creative Writing MFA Program. I wanted to work on the book more intensely and get feedback from other writers. I also thought I’d like teaching a lot more at the college level, and an M.F.A. could also serve as a college teaching license. It took me three tries (i.e. I got rejected twice), but I finally got admitted into the M.F.A. Program in 1996. I taught composition and creative writing the whole time I was in the program, and then I got my current job as a writing teacher at the U of M General College after I got my degree in 1999. I’m in my fifth year of teaching writing at General College, and it’s been a great place to teach.

St. Paul has a rich literary history. Do you feel connected to that or music the more dominant influence (The Electric Fetus for example)?

I feel more connected to the Minnesota writing community than to St. Paul literary history. In addition to the M.F.A. Program, I took part in the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Program in 2002-2003, and both of these programs put me in contact with a lot of great Minnesota writers. This state has a great literary history, and I look forward to growing old with the writer friends I’ve met in the past fifteen-or-so years.

The Minnesota music scene has also been a huge influence, and working at The Electric Fetus was like going to graduate school for me. I was exposed to so much new music while I was there; a lot of music that I probably wouldn’t have heard otherwise. In the early-eighties, I mostly worked in the warehouse downstairs, and the guys in the warehouse mostly played punk. I’d heard local bands like The Replacements and Husker Du, but these guys were into The Minutemen, Black Flag, The Meat Puppets, Minor Threat, Big Black, Mission of Burma, and tons of bands that I’d never heard of. Then we’d all meet at First Avenue & 7th Street Entry at night to see the bands we’d been listening to during the day; and we got guest list spots and comp tickets for everything since we were Fetus employees.

The older guys tended to work at the retail counter upstairs, and a lot of them listened mostly to jazz, blues, soul, and more rootsy rock. They gave me recommendations on records by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Mingus, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and a lot of older musicians. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was getting an intergenerational education on music, and I loved all of it. It made perfect sense to go from hearing Monk upstairs to hearing The Minutemen downstairs.

The book is basically an autobiography. Was it weird thinking about writing an autobiography despite not being famous? Don’t most writers write a novel instead? What made you choose that form?

The book falls into a subgenre of autobiography, memoir, and memoirs about ordinary/non-famous people have become more and more common in the last couple of decades. One of the pioneers of the non-famous-person memoir is St. Paul writer, Patricia Hampl, who teaches in the U of M Creative Writing Program. Her groundbreaking memoir, A Romantic Education, influenced and inspired me early in the process, as did Virgin Time, a memoir in which she explores her Catholic upbringing. As I read memoirs such as This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin, and The Liars Club by Mary Karr, I felt less weird about writing a memoir. When Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes shot to the top of the bestseller lists in the late-90s, I sensed more pop culture acceptance of the genre. A lot of people who would have been writing 1st book autobiographical novels in the past are now writing memoirs. Still, I sometimes feel funny when I tell people that my book is a memoir, not a novel.

But why is this book a memoir and not a novel? Some of the stories in the book, as I said earlier, began as fiction, but I realized early on that this needed to be a memoir. The book is, in many ways, a story of personal transformation, and I didn’t want to invent fictional self to inhabit. I also think the book contains a dimension of cultural history, and memoir is a great genre in which to explore connections between the personal and the historical.

Another reason I wrote it as memoir is I didn’t want the more bizarre parts of the book to be read as sensational metaphors. Much of my evangelical experience seems sensational to me now, but that was the nature of the experience. The metaphors are organic, not invented. A bat flies into a camp chapel and an evangelist rebukes it as Satan. A youth group kid becomes obsessed with the book of Revelation starts to believe that he is The Antichrist. These things really happened, and I wanted them to be grounded in the literal realm.

Do you have plans to write more books? What is next for you?

I’m currently working on a second book, a memoir about, among other things, my years as a secondary teacher. As I mentioned, I started writing Jesus Sound Explosion after an awful middle school teaching position, and earlier versions of the manuscript contained a lot about that experience. I decided to leave that material out of Jesus Sound Explosion and use it for the next book.

Here’s the scenario I’m building the book around: Chiron Middle School hired me to be, of all things, the Technology teacher, but the extent of my technology experience was word-processing on Mac computers. That didn’t seem to matter. The principal told me that they wanted a language arts person to take the Technology teaching position so that the technology (computers, video equipment, etc.) could be used to enhance the language arts experience. It was a situation designed for failure: I was unqualified for the job, and the school was in complete chaos. The video equipment kept getting stolen, kids regularly loaded viruses and the latest blow-up-the-enemy games onto the computers, and my classes were out of control. Things got worse. The current title of that second book is Failure. I suppose it’s a tragicomedy.

I’ll probably take a break from memoir after that and work more on the poetry and short stories that I’ve accumulated over the years. I’ve also got a novel that I seem to work on every five years or so. Maybe I’ll gather all of the scattered fragments and finish the book someday.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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