illustration: a black silhouette of a perched bird against a background of flames
Detail from the cover of "Shaken Loose" by Ilana DeBare

Q&A: All Jews go to hell in Oakland writer’s ‘irreligious’ novel

Annie Maple is a 29-year-old San Franciscan, and she’s dead. At least she thinks she’s dead. She’s certainly in hell — a bleak, desert landscape punctuated by lakes of fire where the damned burn in unspeakable torment.

In this dystopian debut novel by Oakland writer Ilana DeBare, the damned includes everyone who did not, in life, accept Jesus as their personal savior. Sorry, Jews.

“Shaken Loose,” set for release on July 5, follows Annie as she meets a motley band, including a first-century Hun, a pre-colonial West African, a housewife from the Deep South and a Chinese revolutionary. Together they search for a portal that will return them to the land of the living, while they encounter rampaging murderers, capricious demons and a pathologically depressed Satan.

It’s a book of torment and agony, yes, but also of humor, adventure and love. As Publishers Weekly wrote, “Not a word is wasted in DeBare’s intense and challenging existential horror debut about a college dropout navigating a decaying Christian hell in search of redemption and justice.”

Ilana DeBare
Ilana DeBare

DeBare is a former reporter at the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle, a former J. board member, and the co-founder of the Julia Morgan School for Girls in Oakland. She and her husband, Sam Schuchat, are members of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in Oakland.

J.: What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing setting your book in Christian hell?

Ilana DeBare: I often start a book with a “what-if” question for myself. And the what-if question for this one was what if everything I knew about the world was wrong? What if the fundamentalist Christians are right? That is a nightmare scenario.

Your main character is not Jewish. She’s a lapsed Christian. So what makes this a Jewish book?

I feel this is a profoundly Jewish story. It’s basically asking, how can a supposedly just God tolerate or run a universe with so much injustice in it? It’s a Holocaust story that never mentions the Holocaust. It’s set in a hell that I’ve created, which draws on a lot of Christian views of hell over the centuries. It’s a hell that includes everybody from throughout history who is not a baptized Christian, which is to me a truly unjust scenario.

cover of "Shaken Loose"Yet God never appears in your book, kind of like in Megillat Esther. So who’s running the joint?

My characters never know who’s running the joint. It seems to be running itself, although someone certainly set it up. It also seems to be falling apart. That’s what allows them to try and escape. There are devils there, there’s Satan, but there’s no sign of God. And that’s something I can relate to personally.

I’ve never had any contact with God. We don’t live in an age of the kind of miracles that are described in the Torah. We don’t see God manifesting God’s self in our world in any direct fashion. So we’re left trying to make sense of it all for ourselves. God’s absence in the hell of my book leaves the characters in a very similar situation.

Your description of hell is very visual, very disturbing. Even unbaptized babies languish forever in a “marsh of limbo.” How did you come up with such an image? 

There is a Christian tradition that includes that. Today, liberal Christian denominations would not accept it. But historically if you were not baptized as an infant, you went to hell or to limbo. Obviously I don’t agree with that. And my main character is appalled by it. It’s part of the injustice that characterizes this version of hell.

You’re very involved with progressive causes, including Activate America and New Israel Fund. Is this a political book?

Not directly. First of all, my goal was to tell a good story. Secondarily, I would like people to think about justice and their own belief system, as well as religious belief systems that condemn people for not following one particular religion and, in particular, the idea of divine punishment, which I don’t particularly like, and which a lot of people today find disturbing and unsatisfying.

You had trouble getting the book published. Many publishers, including small presses, turned it down. Finally you placed it with an atheist publisher based in Scotland. How did that happen?

This is a book that falls in the cracks between genres. It’s a fantasy book, but it’s not “Game of Thrones” with dragons or epic heroes. It’s character-driven and revolves around the personal growth of people stuck in this hell, but it’s not a contemporary psychological family drama. It raises big issues like literary fiction, but it’s not literary fiction. So it starts out being kind of neither fish nor fowl. And then I think the publishing industry is uncomfortable with books that write about religion but don’t advocate a religious point of view.

I would not call this an atheist book, but I certainly would call it an irreligious book. It challenges a lot of religious assumptions. This is a book that takes some of the tenets of religion, particularly Christianity, regarding hell, the afterlife and judgment. It takes them seriously, and it asks readers to think about those issues and confront them.

“Shaken Loose”

By Ilana DeBare (Hypatia, 418 pages). Free launch events: 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 12, Green Apple Books, 1231 9th Ave., S.F., and 7 p.m. Thursday, July 13, Montclair Presbyterian Church, 5701 Thornhill Dr., Oakland.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].