Heretics Anonymous is the debut novel from Katie Henry, who grew up in Berkeley. Photo: Chris Macke

When the 16-year-old atheist protagonist of new young adult novel Heretics Anonymous is forced to transfer to a Catholic high school, he bemoans “switching from a public school that observes ‘winter break’ to a school whose motto is Deus Meus et Omnia—My God and My All.”

Author Katie Henry is a graduate of Berkeley High School, so she knows many of her readers will be more familiar with the former sort of institution than the latter. But most teenagers, and plenty of adults too, will identify with her narrator’s conflicting desires to both fit into, and self-righteously reject, a strange new environment.

Luckily, protagonist Michael Ausman quickly falls in with the sort of students who’d be called “misfits” in a typical YA book — but who proudly refer to themselves as “heretics” at their Catholic school. Together they come up with a series of pranks to expose the hypocrisy of the administrators at St. Clare’s Preparatory School and give their peers the education they’re not getting in class. When one of Michael’s escapades offends even his own friends, he’s forced to figure out what, and who, he really believes in, after all.

Heretics Anonymous (HarperCollins) is Henry’s debut novel, but her work is already familiar to many in Berkeley. The author made a splash here when she herself was a teenager — with two pieces that won Berkeley Rep’s teen playwriting competition and were produced on that stage when Henry was in high school, and earning the attention of local literary figures, including Dave Eggers, whom she worked with. The stinging, sarcastic, self-conscious voice she was already perfecting at that young age is even louder in Heretics Anonymous. 

You can hear some of that tonight, Friday, at Mrs. Dalloway’s at 2904 College Ave. at 7 p.m. Henry came back to her hometown for the book launch event — and to eat some Zachary’s deep dish — and gave Berkeleyside a taste of what she might talk about there.

Berkeleyside: You chose to write your debut novel about high school, and for high schoolers (though adults will enjoy it too). You spent your high school years here, in Berkeley. What experiences during those years influenced your writing, and this book in particular?

Katie Henry: Growing up in Berkeley and the Bay Area, in general, gave me lots of great opportunities to explore writing from a very young age. As a teenager, I had plays performed through the Berkeley Rep’s Teen One Acts festival and loved it so much I ended up getting an undergrad degree in playwriting. I was also lucky enough to work with Dave Eggers on The Best American Nonrequired Reading, an anthology he compiles and produces each year with local teenagers. That was my first experience seeing a book go from first draft to finished product on a bookstore shelf. It was amazing, and I feel so lucky to have grown up in such a creative, literary place with access to things like that.

Sometimes people ask me is if my own high school was like St. Clare’s, the rigid Catholic prep school in Heretics Anonymous. I went to Berkeley High, so my answer is always, “it was the complete opposite.” My high school experience involved no dress codes, no religion and very few rules. So while I didn’t draw on my personal experiences to create the world of this book, I definitely drew on the way that I felt as a 16-year-old: restless, frustrated and unheard, but also brimming with excitement and hope for the future.

Was it easy to access that very teenage tone of sarcasm, defiance and angst?

Embarrassingly easy. It should probably be more difficult for me to imagine myself back in that 16-year-old headspace. I saved almost all of my notebooks and diaries from high school, so if I ever feel like it’s too distant, I can rely on that writing to get me back in. It’s some pretty mortifying stuff, but I’m glad I have it.

In the novel, “heretic” is a label given to, and embraced by, a boy who’s gay and Jewish, another who’s vaguely Unitarian but more religious about wearing cloaks, a girl interested in paganism, and another who is actually Catholic, but wants to become a female priest. Heresy is a concept they are each drawn to and identify with in different ways. Can you talk a little about why and how you explore the idea of heresy in this book?

“Heresy” is a really interesting word. Originally, in Greek, it simply meant “choice.” But it came to be used in a religious context, particularly within Christianity, to mean ideas that defy the established belief system. For much of the Catholic Church’s history, being a heretic was a serious charge that could result in a person being ostracized, excommunicated or executed. Now, it’s a lot more likely to result in some weirdo on the internet writing blog posts about you than anything else. But at its core, hersey is and always has been about non-conformity. The choice to believe something other than what was prescribed for you. Being a teenager is a time when people make lots of decisions about who they are, what they believe in, and what they don’t. And I think a lot of teenagers feel outside the mainstream, in one way or another. The “heretics” in my book have all made choices that are meaningful and right for them. They embrace those choices, and so they cheerfully embrace the label of “heretic,” too.

For the atheist narrator of Heretics Anonymous, the Catholic Church comes to represent many of his personal gripes and questions, writ large. He projects his issues with authority and his own parents, as well as his struggles to understand himself, onto the religion. (In one exchange with a teacher, he even compares himself and his neglectful father to Jesus and God.) What role has Catholicism played in your own life and formative years?

My family is Catholic, though religion didn’t play a big role in our daily lives. I was baptized, had my First Communion, and attended Mass at Newman Hall on College Avenue. I had a very positive experience there, but I don’t think I realized then just how good and affirming a place it was, compared to some other Catholic parishes. As a kid, I had priests who openly identified as gay, referred to God using female pronouns, and just generally welcomed the whole community with open arms. They showed me the absolute best of what religion can be, and I’m forever grateful for that.

In high school, I pretty strongly distanced myself from the Catholic Church and religion in general, much like my atheist narrator. But in college, I discovered feminist and liberation theology and saw how Catholic social teaching and Biblical stories I thought could be used to uplift women and other marginalized people. Religion — Catholicism included — is much more nuanced and complex than I understood as a child, or could fully appreciate as a teenager. Now, I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle.

You have a background in playwriting. Did that structure and process inform how you wrote this novel?

Yes, absolutely! This was my first fiction project after writing many, many plays, and I tried to take what I like best about dramatic writing and see if I could translate it to a novel. In their very first drafts, my books look a lot like plays. Most of the text is dialogue, with brief descriptions of action and setting. I rely more heavily on dialogue than a lot of authors and that definitely goes back to my playwriting background.

Theater is a big collaboration from start to finish, and having had the experience of working with actors, directors and designers taught me a lot about how to negotiate someone else’s artistic vision for your work, how to be open-minded and willing to compromise, but also how to push back when necessary. Knowing how to effectively collaborate was a huge asset when going through the editorial process for Heretics Anonymous.

You’re back in Berkeley for your West Coast book launch. What were your first stops? Any local food you’d been craving?

Every time I come home, I have to get a burrito from Gordo and a slice of deep dish from Zachary’s. It’s absolutely non-negotiable. And if it ever gets warm enough this week, I’ll add a cone from Yogurt Park to the list.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...