DiversifYA: Nicole Wolverton

NicoleWolvertonThe wonderful Nicole Wolverton joins us at DiversifYA today! Nicole is a young adult and adult novelist and nonprofit fundraiser from the Philadelphia area (which she’ll discuss in an upcoming DiversiTheme).

Her debut novel, THE TRAJECTORY OF DREAMS, is an adult thriller published in 2013. Her short fiction has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, Penduline, and The Molotov Cocktail, among others. Nicole is represented by Michelle Witte of Mansion Street Literary Management. Find her on her website here, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook!

1. How do you identify yourself?

A person of tremendous privilege. I’m a white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes—cisgender, straight, no disabilities, middle-class, educated, feminist. I’m extraordinarily lucky in many ways. Typical white girl, I guess. You’ll notice that the label atheist isn’t included in my immediate identity, and that’s because my religion (or lack thereof) is the last thing I think of when describing myself. It’s not important and yet it is. It’s certainly something that many people perceive as critical because they think they know something about my character.

2. What did it feel like growing up as an atheist?

My family is Methodist, and I was baptized in the Methodist church. My grandmother was an every-Sunday-to-church kind of a woman, and in elementary school I stayed at her house a lot on the weekends. She went to church, and so I went to church with her. I attended Sunday school, and in the summer I attended vacation Bible school. My mom is more of a Christmas and Easter church goer, but she most definitely still identifies as a Methodist. We are products of family history and tradition, and if I was perhaps less prone to questioning everything, I would still consider myself Methodist, too.

But that’s not the case. I was never the kind of kid who blindly accepted anything. I think when I found out Santa was a scam, I assumed Jesus and God were part of the package since all of them are wrapped up together in Christmas. I never found a reason to start believing in a higher power—I wasn’t comforted by the idea of religion or better things to come in heaven, nor did I need the threat of hell or post-death punishment to ensure that I behaved.

I’ve heard that if you study one religion, you’re hooked for life; if you study two, you won’t be religious for long. I read The Bible, The Koran, and several other religious texts when I was in high school. I caused quite a ruckus when I carted around The Satanic Bible for a few weeks. You can imagine the kind of stuff that was said about me after that—it was a small school in a tiny, rural town, and you might know how small towns can be. I followed it up by appearing in class with The Modern Witch’s Spellbook. Oh boy. Just like the saying goes about studying religions, I settled on atheism about that time. And reading a lot of science and history really cemented it for me.

Believing in universal human ethics just seems simpler, you know? That’s proof I can see—of course not every person is good or ethical or even nice, but the vast majority of people are, with or without religious beliefs.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

Philadelphia is a big place. Lots of people, lots of religions, lots of opinions. It makes it easy to be who you are . . . publicly. That’s probably true in all major metropolitan cities. Being an atheist as an adult has been easy for me. It’s not an issue at all—really, it rarely comes up unless my friends and I (some of whom are deeply religious) are debating the finer points of religion or talking about politics.

Interestingly, it’s politics where the challenges of being an atheist are most obvious. For whatever reason, the conservative movement has really done a lot of work to tie Christianity to Republicanism and atheism to the Democrat party. It’s always struck me as kind of weird. The backbone of the conservative movement is the idea that you shouldn’t rely on help from others, that when you’re poor you should be able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and find success independent of anyone else. The basic tenet of atheism is that you don’t need to rely on the threat of hell to make you behave, that you can think independently. It seems like atheism is a better match for Republicanism at its core. But that’s a bit of a tangent. The bottom line is that Republicans have painted atheists as the enemy, the faceless heathens at the heart of the movement to remove Ten Commandment plaques from courthouses and all that. Some groups of people loathe me simply because a radio host or a politician tells them atheists are as dangerous as Hitler. It kind of sucks.

Are there perks to being atheist? Maybe. Atheists don’t really have a spokesman, so there’s no one to tell us that we have to believe in or support something that may run counter to common sense, common decency, or scientifically accurate facts or theories. Okay, sure—there’s no short-handing about making decisions. I have to dig up information, weigh the pros and cons, etc, for myself, but in the end I always feel like I’ve made a good, informed decision based on fact . . . instead of based on a book written thousands of years ago and then recopied and translated a zillion times. There’s a lot of room for error there, you know? Plus, I can also change my mind based on new evidence, which is incredibly important to me.

4. What do you wish people knew about being an atheist?

While I know this isn’t true of all atheists, for me (and all the atheists I know) . . . I simply don’t care what your religion is. You’re an evangelical Christian? A Hasidic Jew? That’s great. You go ahead and be that. Just leave me out of it. Not that I want to be the voice of atheists everywhere since we’re all so different, but generally speaking, the atheists I know don’t care about trying to talk you out of your religion. But we (and again, this is not the royal “we”—just me and atheists I know) do get a little testy if you try to cram your religion down everyone’s throats, and then we might take a little bit of delight in poking you (see: the Flying Spaghetti Monster. RAmen).

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

Preacher Billy Graham recently wrote in a column for Tribune Media Services that “people who claim to be atheists don’t reject God because they’ve examined all the evidence and concluded there is no God. Instead, they reject God for one reason: They don’t want anyone (including God) to interfere with their way of living.” He also said, “some of the worst atrocities in human history were committed by regimes that were based on atheism.” As for his latter claim, that ignores the myriad wars fought and atrocities committed in the name of his own religion, does it not? I’m not saying Christianity is the only religion with blood on its hands—I’m just saying some folks have short memories, and judge not, lest ye be judged. Which brings me to my second point and the first of Graham’s claims: that I know nothing about religion and have chosen to be an atheist because religion interferes with my way of living. Almost every atheist I’ve ever run into knows more about religion than most religious people. It’s because so many of us are fans of science and the scientific method. I’ve read all the major holy books, taken classes in various religions, and studied gods and goddesses. It’s anti-atheist to reject something you know nothing about, and so many of us are incredibly well-versed in the biggies: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. Some of us know quite a bit about a lot of religions around the world.

For the most part, we—atheists and religious folks—all want the same things: to live our lives in the best way we know how and leave the world a better place than we found it. The difference is that I and the atheists I know do it because we want to, not because we have the threat of punishment in the afterlife hanging over our heads or because a book lays out the rules. I’m a novelist, but I’ve also spent the last decade or so of my life as a nonprofit fundraiser. I do it because I want to make it possible for people to improve their lives and be happier, not because I’m trying to win points with my god of choice.

A stereotype about atheists that gets played up is that we’re socially tone-deaf assholes with hard-to-find hearts of gold. Look at the atheists in popular television and film—Temperance Brennan from Bones, Gregory House from House, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy, and Dexter Morgan from Dexter. It’s kind of ridiculous. We’re not all misanthropes or jerks or serial killers. We’re just like anyone else . . . except we believe that a god doesn’t exist and isn’t necessary to be a good person.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

For me, writing diverse characters is about avoiding stereotypes and understanding the difference between a cliché and a cultural truism. A recent book I wrote has a fairly multi-cultural cast of characters. The protagonist is a second generation Chinese-American girl. Yeah, she looks the part, and her mother is a practicing Buddhist, but the character avoids stereotypes—she’s not ridiculously book smart, nor does she spend her life trying to meet her parents’ super high expectations. She’s just a typical American teenager with a congenital heart defect trying to rebel against her mother a little. She also avoids a lot of clichés about people who are disabled or differently abled or whatever term you prefer. And so to make believable characters who are different than your own experience, learn the clichés and throw 95% of them out the window. Make a straight girl look like Jenny Shimizu instead of Scarlett Johansson. Let your physically disabled character save the day, not with their brain power but with their actions. Your characters should never be exactly who we think they are based on their skin color, gender identity, or religion. Give your characters surprising personalities, but know as much as you can about their backgrounds—whether they’re Amish, stripper, or atheist—as possible to make them as believable as possible.

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