New Q&A

NewQ&A is a fearless dialogue about literature and the life of

It is also an intimate chronicle about the adventures of reading
“Great Desires for Absent Things.”

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RON McAVENE | introduction

Ron McAvene is blue-collar ambassador of faith and grace. In the old days of following the old ways, he was a party machine. But he got clean. And now in midlife he is cruising the meaning scene.

A real estate developer in a Texas resort town with two grown sons and a wife of 28 years, he has no interest in preaching but only in reaching with his trademark good nature and his no-nonsense humor.

He is a rare stand up guy in a land of reclining men.

New Q: You were raised in suburban Chicago, moved out to northern California where you married your high school sweetheart, and not too long ago you made the move to north Texas to be closer to the Cowboys. Is that correct?

Ron: Make that from Chicago to southern California and then to northern California and to then to Texas.

New Q: Do you consider yourself a second chance man?

Ron: Oh yeah.

New Q: How much does service play into your life today?

Ron: I take care of my family first. My family is my highest priority. For me to be out dilly-dallying around taking care of other people’s problems without taking care of my family is a problem. If everyone would take care of their family we wouldn’t have so many problems. I have rental units, so that is where I do my service or my ministry, or I help if someone needs a mentor. Wherever God places me I try to be faithful without being phony.

New Q: It is easy once you have faith to say you have faith. The more real something is the less it has to be defined. But it is a harder task to explain how you got your faith or what your faith consists of. How would you explain the faith you have?

Ron: That is a toughie there. Oh, God. I have faith in the unseen. God created a way for me to have a relationship with him and to be forgiven for my sins. I have faith in a future. I have hope.

New Q: When you reach middle age and you have enough life to look back on, you begin to get a picture of this interesting thing called grace where you have been preserved from the worst in spite of your own self-destructiveness. Have you had that experience with grace?

Ron: I have. And even more so most recently. Prior to this year I had only been to one funeral, and that was in 1982 to bury a good friend. Recently one of my only friends in Texas died in his sleep. A great kid. A wonderful, giving kid. Unknown to this day what happened. Then right before my last trip Adam’s best friend’s little brother died.

It is something that has been going through my head an awful lot lately. No doubt I should have died many times. I also have the extended grace of my kids being healthy. The older you get the more fragile you feel life is.

New Q: Where does forgiveness fit in your life and where did forgiveness fit in your life when you were struggling the most?

Ron: It is all about forgiveness man. I know I am forgiven. Like it says right there in the Bible, you are forgiven, so you have to forgive. It is not easy to do. For me forgiveness is huge.

New Q: If you could only have one, would you rather have millions or answers to your questions?

Ron: I am not interested that much in answers. If you asked me before I knew the Lord, my answer would be different. But now I would take the millions. I have a simple faith now. It used to be complicated. I almost feel selfish wanting answers.

New Q: Would you say that suffering is the most difficult obstacle to faith in a supernatural power?

Ron: I think it is the opposite. I think suffering causes people to reach out and to realize that they are not God. The ones who are successful are the ones who don’t reach out to God.

New Q: So many men our age and so many men in the decades of young adulthood are absolutely consumed with the idea of a career, and consequently, with the cultivation of the material life. Have you ever been that way?

Ron: I was the quintessential yuppie in my 20s before I met God. I was all about nice cars, a nice house and a boat and a perfect family. After I got to know the Lord, none of that mattered.

New Q: We have already traded a few lines of text about your reading experience so far with Great Desires for Absent Things, so this will not be a one-hundred percent pure Q&A where you are hearing every single question for the first time and I am hearing every single answer for the first time, but it will still be mostly pure. I’m not sure if there is a good word for that – mostly pure.

For example you initially texted to say that you were about 75 pages into it, to the point of the car crash on the train tracks, and you said you were hooked. Now that you are about three fourths through, you texted to say you didn’t care or connect with any of the characters.

Ron: I am not used to reading fiction. I am a non-fiction guy. I read non-fiction for information. I watch TV for my escape. So this is different for me. I should have slowed down more in the beginning to get the stories straight. I kept thinking these were poor people, but Cissy is a psychologist.

New Q: Reading at your own pace is a big part of reading serious fiction but the other big part is respecting your reaction to what you are reading. If you are feeling not connected or turned off, it is for a reason. Maybe there is something offensive to you in the story.

Ron: We all have our own biases. It’s funny because in the beginning of the novel I hated Origen. Actually he is one of my favorite guys now that I found out what happened to him. But he hasn’t been around for a while. I am assuming he probably killed himself.

New Q: There is a book out there called Art and Fear, and one of its suggestions is that by inviting us to experience the world through the very different lens of the artist, good art inevitably calls the viewer’s own beliefs into question – and this is in a society where people rarely see a reason to question their own beliefs – so the more effective the art, the more likely we are to have anger be our first reaction. Would you say there are definitely some ideas that are offensive in the novel?

Ron: Ideas? No. I am not a sheltered man. I haven’t been shocked by anything. Nothing turned has turned me off.

New Q: In your mind is something important at stake in terms of the novel?

Ron: A couple things. I am intrigued by the family dynamic. It is a really tough situation you have created with Cissy raising her sister’s kid that her sister had with Cissy’s husband. That is really brutal. I am interested to see how they fare. I am a happy ending guy. That is less and less popular in movies today than it was in the 40s and 50s. I want to see how the relationship works out.

I have a wife and some of the knucklehead things I did pre being saved still cause friction once in awhile. For Cissy to be raising her husband’s child with her sister, that is brutal. I also want to see if Cissy can get off God’s back.

New Q: Get off God’s back?

Ron: Yes. Get off God’s back. Those are the biggies. All the personal relationships are interesting but those are the most interesting ones.

New Q: Is there a certain ineptitude or angst that the characters have where you can see the solution but they can’t?

Ron: I think I can see the solution. Even though I am not the greatest communicator, their communication is bugs.

New Q: What can you say so far about the hero?

Ron: I wouldn’t call him a hero.

New Q: The main character.

Ron: He’s an average American man in so many ways. He’s screwed up. He does not have a good internal compass. He is not a great communicator. Obviously alcohol played a big part in his life, and it will continue to in a different way. Alcohol is always going to play a factor in his life. It seems like he is always trying to take the easy way out.

It is so typical of us American guys. I believe we try to take the easy way out to try to run away from our problems. It still goes on post drinking and post knowing God.

New Q: Could you give a one-sentence plot summary of what the hero is trying to do, or trying to avoid?

Ron: I don’t know if I could say what he is trying to do. He is trying to navigate his new life without alcohol and with God. He is stumbling around a bit. That is up to the point I have read right now. It looks like the fogginess is clearing up a little bit for him maybe. What he is trying to avoid is the pain in life. He tried to check out on the tracks, right?

New Q: Is the dilemma that he’s faced with one that he can get out of himself?

Ron: No.

New Q: Is this a world you recognize or one that is a little bit foreign that these characters are living in?

Ron: Unfortunately I recognize this.

New Q: Would you call this a modern novel?

Ron: I would say this is America anytime in the last 100 years.

New Q: Would you say it is entertaining or something other than entertaining?

Ron: I would say it’s entertaining.

New Q: Where do you think this character is going? Is he going on the right path or is he deceiving himself, even though he is sober and full of faith?

Ron: I think both. I think he is on the right path but I do think he is deceiving himself. I don’t think he understands the gravity of what he did. I feel like the guy should be so humble to his wife and it seems like he is asking too much. to be continued… 

KEVIN WALSH | introduction

Kevin is an American original. A salesman for a national flooring company and a father of two high-schoolers, Kevin is non-judgmental and yet discriminating, collegial and yet independent. In high school Dubbs was one of the few in a class of 1,000 who was truly cool because he was himself. And now at 47, with a world of ideas in his head, he says life really comes down to two things: enjoying it and helping others.

At work, where he can spend as much as nine months or a year on a big deal, Kevin delivers on his relationships. “Following through on what you say can separate you from a lot of people,” he says.

At home, in a western suburb of Chicago called Libertyville, Kevin is looking ahead to his 19th wedding anniversary. The work that goes into his relationships with his wife and kids is the most rewarding labor he has. Music continues to be the place he goes to connect with great ideas and powerful emotions.

NewQ: Remember when we were just out of high school, listening to the Violent Femmes and the Psychedelic Furs and The Smiths and the Cure who nobody knew and nobody played on the radio but we found their albums and went to their concerts and found the clubs in the city where the DJs knew them?

Kevin: The Femmes, yeah. I do know The Smiths were definitely under the radar, but the Furs were pretty well known. And The Cure was sort of established. We could take credit for The Smiths if you want.

NewQ: What was it about those days when we could seek out music that was the most important to us without being told what to listen to – was it just the lyrics or just the music or was it the idea that we were discovering something and experiencing a connection with art?

Kevin: It was just the sound. They all had a certain vibe and rhythm and beat that was so different from what we were used to hearing that it kind of struck a chord for people our age. Now unfortunately I don’t go to as many shows. I think back ‘Why is that?’ I think there are a lot of reasons. But when you hit that age where you’re from 14 to 25, music is a really important part of your life.

NewQ: Do you believe it is still possible to go out and find the things that inspire us without being told what to buy?

Kevin: I totally think that it’s possible. I do it all the time. I am not really following the grain. Fashion, music, the car I drive. I am not easily persuaded by marketing, but unfortunately my kids are bombarded by it, and there is no escaping it for them whether they know it or not.

NewQ: Do you believe in a calling, as in certain people are called to do certain things?

Kevin: A small minority are. The majority of people take what is given to them. There are a few that are definitely called to do the good work.

NewQ: Do you have a calling?

Kevin: No not really. Not lately. Nothing professionally. Socially, yeah.

NewQ: What do you mean?

Kevin: To raise my kids the best I can. To be the best husband I can be. To be the best role model I can be. I hope that classifies as a calling.

NewQ: What about destiny? Is calling and destiny the same thing?

Kevin: I would have to think so, yeah. I guess there is a slight difference. One has more to with time, maybe. Destiny is towards the end. Calling comes at the beginning.

NewQ: What about purpose? Is purpose another word for the same idea we have been talking about or is it different?

Kevin: It runs along the same lines. It makes you think about things. It’s a pretty heavy topic. These are pretty heavy words in my world. It is something to think about. I haven’t thought about it in awhile, so I’m glad you ask.

NewQ: What do you think happens to a person who doesn’t follow a calling, either because the person isn’t aware of it or because the person avoids it?

Kevin: I don’t have a good answer. It kind of makes my head spin. (Laughs) Let’s keep it on simpleton plane please.

NewQ: Have you ever had any direct experience with suffering that was so bad that you said there is no good?

Kevin: I have had a lot of suffering. I wouldn’t say that I have looked back to the Almighty and said ‘There is no good.’ I have never despaired that much. I have had a lot of suffering.

NewQ: Have you ever heard of someone else who has?

Kevin: I would have to think the guys who end up going on a murdering spree. They feel there is no good. Evil finds them. Those two don’t mix. Next thing you know you have a John Wayne Gacy or somebody.

NewQ: There are people who came out of the Holocaust and said ‘God is dead.’ There are masters like Dostoevsky who came up with these really memorable characters who are atheists because of witnessing one brutal act of human cruelty. But the great proof against God is the existence of suffering. The proof goes that if God sees suffering but is unable to stop it God can’t be God because God is not all powerful. Or if God sees suffering but chooses not to stop it God can’t be God because God is not good. Do you believe that?

Kevin: No I don’t. I don’t. Can you read the second part again?

NewQ: If God sees suffering but chooses not to stop it God can’t be God because God is not good.

Kevin: The second time I heard it, it makes me think. I am going to let it rattle a little. Maybe I will go as a no comment.

NewQ: Do you think most men our age read serious fiction or would you say most men do not?

Kevin: They do not read serious fiction.

NewQ: Do you think it makes much difference one way or the other?

Kevin: Yeah, I don’t think it makes much difference to me. It is becoming less and less popular, I know that.

NewQ: What do you think are the one or two most important reasons that more men like us don’t read more?

Kevin: I think it comes down to the time and just not carving enough free time for yourself. And if you do get free time, reading is not on top of list, but it is becoming more and more. I see my wife burning through things to read. As the kids get older maybe it is something I will do more.

NewQ: I am really interested to hear your thoughts no more than 6 or 7 pages into the novel where the main character has a problem. He has his sights set on a better life and his wife is calling him to it, yet he has this bad past life that threatens to break up everything that he has worked hard for. So his dilemma is does he go back to that old life to repair some of the bad stuff he did and risk losing everything or does he pretend like the old life doesn’t exist and just keep moving forward?

Kevin: All that in the first 6 pages?

NewQ: (Laughs) I think so…

Kevin: Didn’t you write it?

NewQ: The short version is the hero is in the most uncomfortable spot possible to see what kind of character he is. But before he acts, I want to know what you think he should do.

Kevin: Okay.

NewQ: And that is the only request I have.

Kevin: Okay.


JIM WOLLENSAK | introduction

JIM is a great childhood friend, a father of two, and the vice president of sales of a $13 million family business near Chicago. He maintains a good balance of work and leisure that includes everything from a Cubs game to getaways with his wife. And he really enjoys the challenge of improving his golf game.

Jim does not pretend to have all the answers at midlife, but he says that providing stability for his family and staying close to his parents is a good start. He admits that reading literature is not his top pastime, but he has agreed to read “Great Desires for Absent Things” and share his thoughts. His reward is a NewQ compilation of punk music.

NewQ: What do you think is the secret to avoiding the midlife crisis that hands so many people their hats?

Jim: I don’t know what the secret is. Staying happy and healthy. So far, so good. Do I have any “Oh, my God, I gotta get out of this situation” feelings? No, I don’t. You can’t get out without crushing your kids or walking out on your wife or leaving your job. You can’t do that. It’s not just about you anymore.

NewQ: Have you found a way to deal with suffering, whether it is day-to-day suffering or the larger kind that deals with death and dying?

Jim: I don’t know if I have found a way. Looking at kids who are 29 or 30, they’ve got the world… Me, I’m closer to 50. That is a crazy thought. I’m going to be 50. Wow. It pops into my head from time to time but at this point I’m not overwhelmed.

NewQ: When you need to feel strong, where do you go for strength?

Jim: That’s easy. I go right to my kids. The other night M called. She can sometimes act bitter and there wasn’t much I could do to make her feel better. Anything I said would have made her feel worse. So I felt really shitty. Charlie had just gone to bed. So I went up and lay down next to him. We just started talking and I forgot about everything. I felt great. I felt like I was lifted up into the air. That unconditional love. No matter what, I am still his dad, he is still my son.

NewQ: When was the last time you saw a book title and said “Man I want to read that” and you actually did?

Jim: There are not a lot to choose from, but one was a book called “A Million Little Pieces” by James Frey. I heard about it somewhere and said “I gotta read that.” I got through it fast. It was a good story. He called it an autobiography but he made up a bunch of it. He was in rehab and he supposedly killed somebody. It was pretty good descriptive writing – something you could sink your teeth into. He should have just said it was fiction.

NewQ: Any trepidation about reading a novel that you would not read under normal circumstances?

Jim: I look at it as a referral. I will always take a good referral.

NewQ: What are you looking forward to more – reading the book or getting your punk compilation?

Jim: What am I more excited about? The book.

NewQ: We’ll see…two suggestions (and we apologize if we are preaching to the choir) Number one, Read at your own pace. Pick up the book when you want to. There is no race. You can get just as much out of reading a few pages as you will forcing yourself through a few chapters when you are tired or distracted, out of some idea that you are supposed to read books quickly.

Number two, respect your reaction to everything in the book. If you are confused, if you are bored, if you are distracted – these are valid reactions brought on by the story. Don’t think it’s you who doesn’t “get” it. It’s possible that the author wants you to be confused to keep you in suspense. It’s possible the author wants to let the tension out of the story at times. It’s possible the author wants to throw a diversion at you to detract you from getting too close to the truth too soon.

Jim: As a reader, that’s good to know.

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