In our interview series, “Seven Questions,” we ask some very smart people about what inspires them and how their latest work enhances our understanding of the sacred in cultural life. For this segment, we solicited responses from Kelly J. Baker, author of Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces (killing the buddha books eBook and Raven Imprints paperback, 2017).
1) What sparked the idea for writing this book?
I didn’t set out to write a book about my transition from religious studies PhD to freelance writer and editor. Instead, I wrote an essay entitled, “Grace Period,” about taking a year off of academia to figure out what to do with my life after years of rejection on the academic job market. I wrote that essay to let friends, colleagues, former students, and other lovely people know what I was planning, so I didn’t have to rehearse my decision over and over again in small talk, phone calls, texts, or emails. I wrote that essay imagining that was the first and last thing I would say about my slow exit from academia, but it wasn’t. I wrote essay after essay detailing what that transition felt like in real time. My year turned into two years. I made varied attempts at other careers. I was rejected a lot, and I kept writing about what was happening. Eventually, I realized I had written a memoir spread across the internet at different publications. I pulled them all together to show that the transition out of academia is hard, so hard, but that making a life is more important than limiting ourselves to one vision of what that life can be.
2) How would you define religion in relation to your work? Where do you see the sacred or sacred things in this book?
These are tricky questions about a memoir by someone who studies religion. I don’t really define religion in relation to my work in this, but rather I write about the field of religious studies and the problem of contingent labor that religious studies and other scholars in the humanities face. Religion appears as the field that marks scholars without easy definition in my writing. I’m more concerned with what happens to the discipline and our institutions if contingent work is the majority of work available. I’m more concerned with the norms, or maybe conventions, of what academic life is supposed to look like and how impossible it is to be “conventional” when your work and life are precarious. I’m more concerned with the lives we are supposed to build within the academy and how they are supposed to relate to the lives we are building outside of academia too. I’m more concerned with the way the academic career comes to define your life and make it difficult to see other paths. What emerges as sacred, if I can even use that word, in my story is the life I’m trying to build in opposition to how I’ve been trained by advisors and institutions. Building a life matters, even if there are those who think it matters less than scholarship and career.
3) Can you summarize the three key points you’d like the reader to walk away with when finished?
I want readers to realize that there are other options, other lives, beyond the careers that academics train for. I want them to know that transitions are never easy because we’re shifting who we are away from who we expect to be. This is not fun work, but it is necessary. And I want them to know that I learned more from rejection and failure than I ever did from academic success. Rejection can be a possibility, which is a lesson it has taken me years to learn.
4) Who were intellectual models or inspirations for you as you wrote this book?
My inspirations were mostly fierce women writers who brought readers into their stories with bravery, vulnerability, and beautiful prose. I try to read every bit of nonfiction that Roxane Gay has ever written because she lays out the harshest truths of our world without sensationalism or cynicism. I read and reread Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams in the earliest stages of writing my “Grace Period” essays because she’s able to write personal essays unflinchingly. Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things gave me a language to speak about transitions and life. But often, as I was writing the essays that became this memoir, I thought of a paper Laura Levitt gave at a NAASR conference years ago. Laura was on a panel about evidence, and she began her paper describing the evidence of being raped followed by smart analysis on whether evidence can get us to justice. Her combination of the personal and scholarly is an example I strive to emulate when I write. We need more writers and thinkers like her.
5) What was the most difficult thing about writing the book? Did you encounter any unexpected problems or challenges?
Grace Period is a memoir, or something akin to a memoir anyway. It is a very different book from my previous books that are primarily scholarly works (though The Zombies are Coming! combines personal story with my research). The most difficult thing about writing this book was that I was writing about me rather than a movement or cultural fascination that I studied. I was writing my story to figure out how my life turned out the way it did. This required vulnerability and honesty about how much of a mess I was because I left academia and how much I was flailing to figure things out. This story is personal, not academic, which was difficult and unnerving and complicated to write. This wasn’t so much unexpected as it was the challenge of learning a different type of writing for a different type of story. Shifting from religious history to memoir was exciting, but not always in a good way.
6) What’s the most unexpected response, critical or positive, that you’ve gotten about the book?
I think I remain the most surprised that people are reading it and that the book resonates with them. I kind of imagined the book would be published, and all I would hear were crickets chirping in the background. I wasn’t sure if anyone would care about my story. I wasn’t sure anyone would read it. Maybe I was preparing for the worst, which is what I do best. So, I have been shocked and humbled by the positive reception and all the emails and reviews that declared that people needed to read this book whether they were in higher ed or not.
Additionally, my oldest kid thinks it is hilarious that I wrote a book called a “memoir” because of the way that word rolls of the tongue. She’s not wrong.
7) With this book done, what’s up next for you?
I’m writing a book about zombies apocalypses in America past and present, tentatively titled The End of Us (under contract with University Press of Kansas). It’s about bodies and brutality, redemption and sacrifice, and white supremacy and gender politics. Who matters at the end of the world and who doesn’t? I’m co-editing a volume on alt-ac careers for those considering alternatives to academic gigs. And I’m putting together another collection of my essays on higher ed called Sexism Ed.
Kelly J. Baker is the author of an award-winning book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (University Press of Kansas, 2011), The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture (Bondfire Books, 2013), and Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces (Raven Books, 2017). She’s also the editor of Women in Higher Education.