Interview: Jeff Sharlet, Fundamentally AWESOME!!!

Today, a treat!  An interview with Jeff Sharlet, longtime Buddha-killer, NYT Bestselling author of The Family, new father, and all-around awesome guy.

Though other interviewers (smarter than me) generally ask Jeff about the intersection of politics and religion (most often about the “Christian Mafia”), today, he’s agreed to talk about books for KIDS!  Because, as Jeff says, he’s “All into books for kids now.”

Me: I’d love to know what your favorite picture book was as a kid?

The amazing Jeff: Ferdinand the Bull. I had a sturdy hardcover pink edition, which I remember going through many times before I was able to read. My mother would read it to me, but the pictures did the work. Even now, that’s how I remember the story. I was big when I was very little, but shy in pre-school, afraid of the kids who already had the basics of baseball and roughhousing. Ferdinand seemed just right to me. I remember it as a small salvation.

Me:  Is there a new one you like, now that you’ve got a daughter?

The amazing Jeff: I’m ashamed to say we don’t have Ferdinand yet. We’re still putting together our library, which is mainly composed of gift books. So, of course, we have about half a dozen Good Night Moons. Our daughter is four months old, but one friend, worried about the predominance of boys in children’s stories, loaded us up with a great little library of chapter books starring girls. And I found myself pulled back into the book that made me a writer, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. But as for picture books, I’m so far mostly re-enchanted with the classics — In the Night Kitchen and The Lorax. Which, come to think of it, are both about boys. So it’s a good thing we have some great heroines ahead.

Me: Are there any you hate? (this is a theme I like)  Any you find revolting? Why?

The amazing Jeff: Madeline now seems to me to have a taint of Vichy France, though I know nothing about the author.

Me: What about novels or chapter books you liked or identified with?  Hated?

The amazing Jeff: Well, Harriet the Spy, obviously. And the Great Brain books, which were perfectly poised between ambition — your hope that you might be as smart as the Great Brain — and reality — the wonderful sequel about his little brother, Me and My Little Brain. And then there was The Thirteen Clocks, which you reminded me of when I first met you in person in Iowa City back in 2004. I resolved to revisit the book, but only if I could find it used. Not because I’m cheap, but because the book seemed magic like that, a discovery to be made in a dusty old bookstore. Only, it’s a difficult discovery — I think copies get snatched right up. So here I am, five years later, without a copy. Vacationing with my sister and her family this summer, I see that my 7-year-old nephew has a copy. It’s the same one I read! It was my sister’s. For a moment, I contemplate stealing a book from my nephew. Fortunately, he’s very strong, so I figure I wouldn’t even get away with it if I tried. These days, I’m excited about a fabulous little novel for young readers that you really need to check out, Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains.

Me: <blush>

The amazing Jeff: “Hated” is too strong a word, but I remember being consistantly disappointed by the books that were bestsellers at the yearly school book sale — Bunnicula, How to Eat Fried Worms. They seemed condescending to kids. They were like watching bad children’s TV — even if kids don’t comprehend the shabbiness, they pick up on the cynicism of products manufactured by tired old hacks who long ago forgot what it was like to be children.

<Jeff appears to be finished, I appear to wrap up blog post, and then!>

Oh, wait, an addendum: The reason I write about religion and politics is because I started reading The Hobbit in first grade, and plowed, very slowly, through the whole Lord of the Rings. Those books are as important to me as Harriet. What’s funny about that, or, at least, ironic, is that so many of the fundamentalists I write about today had that same experience. When I was living in Ivanwald, the house for men being groomed for leadership in the right-wing religio-political sect that’s the subject of The Family, I took solace from a framed quote from Bilbo Baggins one of my “brothers” had hung by the door. And as I travel around the country talking to ordinary religious conservatives, I’m always struck by the fact that while Mel Gibson’s Passion may enjoy pride of place on their movie shelves, it’s the Lord of the Rings they watch over and over. My favorite fundamentalist, a regular guy known as Commander Tom for his role in the Royal Rangers, the fundamentalist equivalent of the Boy Scouts, pegged the now infamous Ted Haggard, his own pastor, before anyone else when he told me that Ted wanted to be an honest man, but he struggled with arrogance and power lust — said he was like Gandalf wrestling with the Balrog.

Wow! Wowee wowee wow.  You heard it here first, folks.  Maddow, Gross, Maher– eat your little hearts out!

And for those of you living under a rock, this is Jeff’s incredible book, THE FAMILY:  The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power

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3 Responses to “Interview: Jeff Sharlet, Fundamentally AWESOME!!!”

  1. Barbara Bietz Says:


    Thanks for sharing this terrific interview. It’s so compelling to read about the impact of children’s books on someone who writes for grown-ups!

  2. laurel Says:

    It’s true. I’m always interested in the particulars of what books were involved/important in the formation/education of any real thinker.

  3. Tracy Riva Says:


    I really enjoyed this interview specifically because its contents lay outside of those normally expected with a personage of Jeff Sharlet’s stature.

    To hear how Jeff Sharlet was influenced by his earlier reading, and how that reading has strenthened him in his current career was heartening.

    In an era where funding for libraries, both school and public, are being cut it falls on us, the writers to remind those in power how truly powerful and life-changing books really are. This interview is one of the paving stones along the way.

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