David Schickler talks Catholicism, TV writing and 'The Dark Path'

David Schickler talks Catholicism, TV writing and 'The Dark Path'
The cover of "The Dark Path" and author David Schickler. (Riverhead Books; Martha Schickler)

Since childhood, author David Schickler has been torn between his aspiration to become a Catholic priest and his intense desire to sleep with women. In his new memoir, "The Dark Path" (Riverhead Books, $28), Schickler relies on raw honesty and humor to recount his struggle to find his way between two conflicting paths.

This may be his first memoir, but Schickler is no novice to the literary world: His story collection "Kissing in Manhattan" hit the bestseller lists in 2001. Since then, Schickler has kept busy as co-creator and executive producer of Cinemax's dramatic television series "Banshee," currently in its second season of production.

We caught up with the New York author by email to discuss religion, family, television writing and finding humor in the truth. Schickler is scheduled to read from "The Dark Path" at Skylight Books on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

What inspired you to write a memoir at this point in your career?


I'm writing a suspense novel now, but in the years while that was still just percolating, I wrote "The Dark Path." I had suspense on the brain, because the memoir is the story of my early 20s, which for me were very suspenseful years: I wanted to become a Catholic priest, but I was also in love with a woman named Mara.  I always felt on the edge of my seat back then, wondering whether I'd end up wearing the collar or getting the girl. It was a tough struggle, but I think it makes a good, wild read, especially since I met many wild people in that time (e.g. a psycho student who wanted to kill me, and a nympho hotel concierge who wanted me to kill her in bed).

The memoir also has a father-son story that I have long wanted to tell. My father is fairly traditional -- a churchgoing engineer -- whereas I write screenplays and books full of murder and sex.  But, despite our differences, my father saves [me] in this book and I wouldn't mind if the world learned that and maybe bought him a few drinks because of it.

Were you ever hesitant to write about subject matter that was so personal?

There are many memoirs with plots like "I was raised by coke-snorting child-beaters" or "I have no pancreas, but I climbed Mount Everest." I didn't have a tabloid-ready past, but my struggle of whether I would become a Catholic priest or end up a writer/lover of women still felt high-stakes, and I think it will resonate for people: a story of ideals, temptations and a crisis of heart. I saw no way to write it except frankly ...

For the last year, you have been working as a writer and executive producer for the Cinemax series "Banshee." How did it originally feel to make the switch from writing fiction to TV writing? And how did it feel making the switch back to the literary world?

Screenwriting moves faster and is more collaborative than literary writing, but overall I approach all my writing in the same way: I try to tell urgent, original stories where the audience can't wait to see what happens next. "The Dark Path," "Banshee" and most things I write all have sex and violence, because I like high-stakes situations where people's bodies, hearts and futures are in dire jeopardy.

This may be because in my devout youth I felt that my own soul was always on the line. In any case, I get bored with writing filled with a character's thoughts or musings, unless that character is also taking dire public action, usually against great odds of failure.

For example, Ken Follett's "Eye of the Needle" is a perfect novel: There are keen descriptions of nature, and romantic sex scenes, but it's all hung on a tense plot where one man holds the key to defeating Hitler. "The Dark Path" doesn't have Nazi villains, but I tried to write it with pace and an overarching question: Will this guy get this girl?  The same question lives at the heart of "Banshee." My TV writing has only helped my literary writing become more propulsive.

How do you strike a balance between remaining candid and raw, while still finding the humor?

Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” That may be self-aggrandizing, but it’s also apt. I hate overly earnest memoirs, and most of my favorite TV shows are candid, real comedies like “New Girl” and “Parks & Recreation.” The truth is often just very funny. It certainly was in my case, since I spend much of “The Dark Path” as an injured, drunk quasi-virgin limping around New York City and northern Vermont ...

You grew up in a family of practicing Catholics. Have they read your memoir yet?

Out of nerves, I waited until a day before publication to give the book to my devout father, but he read it in one night and loves it, as do my sisters and mother. ... I can tell you, though, that the hardest day of my life, which appears in the memoir, was 20 years ago when I showed my father my graduate school thesis novel, which was full of sex and darkness. He didn't love that one!n But over the years, especially after my first published book, "Kissing in Manhattan," did well, my father and family came to an understanding that I think goes like this: David Is Weird, But There Are Lots Of Others Like Him ...

Do you ever have moments when you regret your choice to not become a Catholic priest? Do you still ever entertain the idea?

I don't regret my choice, I never entertain the idea, and I would have made for a miserable celibate Catholic priest.  I love women too much for that ...

I have known many Catholic priests for whom celibacy was and is an authentic calling. I recognize how their lack of family life or sexual/romantic relationship frees them up for unique commitments to others, especially the poor and bereaved. But I still hate how devoid the Catholic priesthood is of not only women but the vibe of women. Women move and live in ways that many Catholic priests I know lose touch with or stop trying to fathom.  They check out of the magic and riddle of men and women together. They might do it for noble reasons, but there is paucity to it. And I couldn't accept that.

Have you reached a place now where you've been able to make your religion your own? 

St. Paul says in the New Testament: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." I believe we're all trying to do that in our own ways, and since my path can never completely be someone else's, yes, I think my religion is to some extent my own. But I still go to Mass and I don't believe that my prayers and spirituality are purely my own affair. I'm not sitting in judgment on anyone who does feel that way. I just know that my prayers and my own spiritual peace or rage affect my actions, and my actions can hurt other people.

One thing I love (and yet sometimes resist) about Christianity is that, at its best, it is truly "other-centered," demanding that you always put others' concerns and pain ahead of your own. That is so hard to do that it's almost laughable, but it remains my goal each day.

How would you like your children to approach religion?

I'm a Catholic, my wife is Protestant, and our children go to Catholic grammar school. We're raising them Catholic, but when it comes to approaching religion -- their own and anyone else's -- I hope my children will always remember that each one of us is a broken, sorry basket case in some way or another, each of us is somehow poor or hurting, and that it's cruel to heap sorrows or burdens onto another person's pile of woes, whether those woes are held in secret or in plain view. This might amount to my own reiteration of the Golden Rule, but it's still the one I hope my children will follow.