Tara Isabella Burton, Fr. Patrick Gilger, and Stephen Adubato's panel at the Encounter (Ana Emilia Hernandez)

The Totality of the Question

An interview with Tara Isabella Burton, a panelist at the New York Encounter’s “Can the Soul Remain Open When Life Settles In?” in conversation with Fr. Patrick Gilger and Stephen Adubato
Emily Lehman

Tara Isabella Burton is the author of three novels—Social Creature (2019), The World Cannot Give (2023), and her most recent work, Here in Avalon (2024). She holds a doctorate in theology from Oxford University, and her nonfiction works of cultural commentary include Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (2020) and Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians (2023).

When I picked up Here in Avalon, I couldn’t put it down. Burton’s prose is electric, but more importantly she depicts modern life with both sensitivity and ruthless attention to detail. Even in the context of a novel with magical-realism overtones, her characters are believable citizens of modern New York, with the frustrated needs and desires of today’s young people. The questions that drive Burton’s work—what is our life for? Why do we love what we love? How will we find what we truly seek?—are the questions of young people today, and are manifestations of what Giussani would call the “religious sense.” Burton’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction, depicts the religious sense in action—the human drive for God as it expresses itself in sometimes-unexpected ways.

Nor is this a purely theoretical quest. Burton has written openly about the unexpected twists and turns of her journey through life, from an early childhood fascination with liturgy to involvement in the occult and witchcraft to eventually finding the depth of her Christian faith. As she puts it in an article for Catapult, “I Spent Years Searching for Magic—I Found God Instead.” After her New York Encounter panel, I sat down with Burton to discuss her vision of contemporary society, her writing process, and what motivates her journey.

Why do you write?
It’s the only thing I can do, it’s the only thing I’m good at. I have a series of obsessions—I don’t know the answer to anything, and I am not someone who can think through questions without writing them down. I don’t know what I’m going to say and then I write a book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—it is in the act of writing that I discover what I think. And so the books are often, both fiction and nonfiction, a byproduct of my trying to work out what it is I think.

You’re so prolific—in addition to countless articles, you’ve published two novels and a nonfiction book in the last two years alone. How do you write so much?
I’m a very fast writer and I do a lot of drafts, and what that means is that I’m very comfortable writing badly and then throwing it out and then doing something another time. My novels go through a lot of drafts, like five or six, often from scratch. I find that I am not someone who methodically plans out everything; in the writing I work out what I’m doing, in the next draft I do it a little better and I figure out what I’m doing a little more, and so on and so forth. But I try to alternate between fiction and nonfiction in order to give certain parts of my brain a bit of a rest.

When you’re writing a novel, do you feel that you’re communicating something that can only be communicated in that form and not as nonfiction?
My first book was a novel, and I thought of myself as an aspiring novelist who wrote some journalism on the side; over time my career became much more balanced. But I still think my passion is for novels, because I can explore the same questions I explore in my nonfiction, but by being able to present characters wrestling with the totality of the question rather than feeling like I have to come up with some sort of prescriptive solution or thesis statement. I like wrestling with the impossibility of working out the perfect answer to the questions that I find myself asking: about enchantment, and commitment, and what it means to tether oneself to something, particularly in a world where it feels like transcendental truths are not universally held. How do we find what is true against that background? That’s something that both my fiction and nonfiction deal with again and again.

I was struck by an article you wrote titled “I Spent Years Searching for Magic—I Found God Instead.” In keeping with the New York Encounter’s theme this year—”tearing open the sleeping soul”—why couldn’t you just be complacent? What drove your search?
I’m too anxious! I have been told by people in my life that I theorize in a kind of annoying way—whenever I’m enjoying something or present in a moment, or something is significant, I always want to ask, “why is this good? Why am I enjoying this?” I am told that doing this at a party is not actually, uh, cool. I could just vibe and dance at a party and not be like, “but why is dancing so fun?”—but I can’t turn off that part of my brain, even when it’s very annoying. I find pure presence very difficult. I’m never really in the moment. But I think that as a writer, that constant curiosity of “what does this all mean, how does this all tie in, is there a grand unifying theory of the things I care about and the things I respond to?”—it’s just a nonstop narration in my head. Since I can’t turn it off, I might as well turn it into a source of legitimate inquiry.

You wrote Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World about the contemporary desire for religion as it expresses itself in all these different forms. How do you relate magic and religion in your work?
This is particularly salient because my next book, a nonfiction book, is going to be a history of magic, from western esotericism and occultism to modernity. Magic has more in common with technology than religion, in a certain sense. It’s the idea that we can use human ingenuity to manipulate the world in certain ways, and the fundamental ideology underpinning it is that the purpose of things, what they’re for, is for human beings to harness and control. That ultimately our will, what we want, is paramount, and we are taking the order and purpose of things in the world—whether it’s planets, or herbs, or sigils, or what have you—and we’re channeling it towards our desired ends, rather than the ends that might be already present, already linked in the thing that it is.

People associate contemporary magic with freedom. As a convert to Christianity, what has been your experience? Are you freer as a Christian?
I have a very classical answer to this, which is to say that the freedom that I find as a Christian is a kind of freedom from certain kinds of bondage to sin—theoretically speaking; in practice I feel that I am often much more in bondage to sin than I would like to be. I think that there was a time in my intellectual development where I was knee-jerk suspicious of the idea of human freedom in the way that only a convert can be. Now I think I have a more measured view; I do think socially we are more likely in America in 2024 to overly valorize human autonomy and human freedom, but what I don’t want to do is lose sight of the fact that there is a real dignity in uncoerced human action. It is something substantively different to act out of a will to the good, a desire for the good, and to act under external coercion.

Along those lines, something that came up in the panel that I thought was really interesting was the role that your community and your friends have in helping you discover who you are and what your identity is. I’d love to hear you elaborate a bit more on that.
We are social creatures, as it were; I don’t think we can be who we are in isolation. We are made by other people as much as we make ourselves, whether we want to be or not, whether we’re conscious of it or not. So the question of how to be in community is a political question, but it’s also a question about the formation of our very selves. We aren’t autonomous beings; we are always existing, creating ourselves, being created in and through these relationships we have with other people. Which means that questions of the self and small “p” politics are never far apart from one another.

What is your perspective on irony?
The gentle irony of Jane Austen has its place. When I write characters, one of the most important things is that characters don’t really know themselves very well. As a novelist, you need to be able to capture people’s self-delusions, which requires a degree of distance on the part of the narrator from the characters.

That said, irony in terms of contemporary New York artistic discourse—I don’t like it. I am on the side of sincerity, I am on the side of cringe, I am on the side of earnestness. I think that artistic work is morally loaded and important—that there is always a moral implication to art. Not because a novel has to have a point, or the right characters have to be rewarded at the end or anything like that. But because when you ask anyone to give up their time and attention to read something, or you give up your time and attention to write something, you are taking time out of your limited life to attend to something, and that has to have a moral implication—why this and not that? I think all irony is kind of the same. It’s not actually transgressive because it doesn’t actually take risks—it doesn’t actually stake itself on anything. Whereas you can take a very great risk doing something serious and sincere, and you might write something absolutely awful, but you are taking the work of art seriously. And I think all creative endeavors ought to be taken seriously, even if I don’t think we should take ourselves as human beings too seriously. That’s where this ironic distance actually helps—being able to laugh at yourself a little bit, and gently laugh at your own foibles, is just part of being a self-aware human being.

What are young people looking for today? When you are writing, are you offering them something that they are looking for?
As a Christian, I think that everyone is looking for God, because I think that’s what human beings do, we look for God. The knowledge and love of God is the thing that we crave, and we crave it in a mediated way through the love of other human beings. It is what orients us—not because we are young or old, but because that’s who we are. I think the version of that that young people right now have, especially growing up in a culture where it is unfashionable to believe in transcendent universals, is an attempt to work out God from first principles. There is a hunger for something. Enough generations have elapsed since the idea that everyone goes to church on Sunday, or goes to their house of worship on the appointed day, is the norm, that faith is no longer something that can be taken for granted, so it takes on a new and perhaps more emotionally rooted character, precisely because it is not expected or assumed.