by Dixon Hearne
After publishing a memoir and two poetry collections, David Armand, an award-winning Louisiana author, has released a new novel, titled The Lord’s Acre.
Much like 2015’s The Gorge, The Lord’s Acre tells a dark tale, delving into the sinister side of humanity. The novel centers around a 12-year-old boy, named Eli, who watches a charismatic religious leader known as “Father” manipulate his parents after they lose all hope for the future. But when “Father” suddenly vanishes, the family is forced to find a new sense of purpose.
Armand said he believes cult members are often mislabeled as gullible and simpleminded. In The Lord’s Acre, he explores this concept to better understand the minds of cult members and their seemingly blind faith in their leaders.
Dixon Hearne: So you’ve just published your fourth novel, The Lord’s Acre. Tell us about it.
David Armand: Well, this book is a little bit different from my other ones in that it’s told in the first person, for one, which kind of prevented me from using a lot of those stylistic flairs of language and punctuation that I was used to. It was difficult for me to rein that in and still have the book feel poetic, which is always so important to me. But it was a challenge worth trying. I just hope I pulled it off.
DH: I think you did. The narrator is very realistic and relatable. What made you come up with the idea to tell this story?
DA: Like all of my books, this one came forth from an image, which was of two teenagers watching a man whip one of their friends in the woods. I had no context for that image, but just started writing that scene to see what was going on. I discovered that the man was a preacher punishing one of his congregants for some infraction. The teenagers who witness this start to question this man and everything falls apart, like you’d expect.
DH: But that scene’s not in the book. What happened to it?
DA: It got cut, along with about 25,000 other words. The original novel was around 100,000 words, then I cut it to 50,000 for a special project it was a part of. The final published version is just at 75,000 words.
DH: Wow, it’s amazing how many drafts a book goes through, all the parts that readers never see.
DA: Oh, I know. But I still save all that stuff. It might find its way in another book at some point, who knows?
DH: So when you started, you didn’t know that you wanted to write a book about a cult? It just grew from that one image?
DA: Yeah. Every book I’ve written so far started like that. I never write from an idea. It’s always an image and then the story just unfolds organically from that. I don’t know how other people do it, but that’s what has worked for me so far.
Of course, after fleshing out that image a bit, I started reading about cults. I’d already had an interest in them before, so it was nice to delve into that again with a sense of real purpose this time. I read a lot about Jim Jones and David Koresh, Charles Manson, people like that. But I wanted to make this book less about them and more about the type of person who would fall under their spell, you know?
I always hear people talk about how stupid cult members must be, how gullible they are for getting involved in that sort of thing. I don’t believe that’s true, so I wanted to explore that myself. What kind of circumstances might lead one to that place, where they’re willing to give their freedom, money, and even their lives, for someone else’s vision of things?
DH: Yes, that’s an interesting question. And you definitely seem to paint a sympathetic portrait of your characters. Even the cult leader, Father, has qualities that make the reader conflicted about how they should feel about him.
DA: Definitely. There are still people who speak lovingly of David Koresh, and maybe Jim Jones, too, I don’t know. No one is that one-dimensional in my opinion. We’re all complicated, and I think it’s the novel’s job to explore that. Otherwise, what’s the point?
DH: Oh, I agree. All good art should try to capture those nuances of the human character.
DH: So tell us a little about the books you read while writing The Lord’s Acre.
DA: Man, there were a bunch, but I can list a few here: The Girls by Emma Kline; Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson; The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux; White Oleander by Janet Fitch. I could probably list 30 more, but the main thing I was looking for beyond the obvious subject matter was narrative voice, how writers tackled first person without it seeming bland or gimmicky. Some nonfiction I read was The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn; A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres; Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington. Jeff Guinn also has a great book about Charles Manson, which I also read.
DH: Thank you for sharing that. I’m always fascinated by reading lists like this, to see how other writers gather their influences. Beyond reading, what else did you do while working on this novel?
DA: Listen. I listened to people talk, I listened to advice from people who read the manuscript over the years: editors, agents, other writers, you name it. I think that’s so important for all artists—to sit back and listen sometimes and not say anything. Then let the writing do your talking for you. I never talk about writing, never tell people I’m a writer. I just don’t like doing that. But I love to listen. Maybe all writers are really just that: good listeners.
DH: Well, that seems to have paid off for you. Because another thing that struck me about this book was the dialogue, especially the long sermons that Father gives. They sound musical but realistic at the same time. Is that something that you listened to as well? Church sermons?
DA: Sure, a little bit. I even went to some church services and interviewed former members of what you might call a cult so that I could get a feel for the language, all the stuff they say and how they say it. Which also reminds me of another book I read that influenced some of what you’re talking about: All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. I loved those speeches that Willie Stark had in that book.
DH: That was a great novel.
DA: Yeah, and it got me interested in Huey P. Long and the sort of cult of personality he had. I read this other great book called Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long by Richard D. White Jr. that was good, too, and which also helped. All these things build up, I think, and help you make new books.
DH: So, I suppose the takeaway from all this is that writing requires a lot of reading.
DA: For sure, and listening.
The Lord’s Acre is one of our 2020 Summer Reads. View the full reading list here.
Dixon Hearne is the author of seven books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. His fiction has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and numerous other awards.