Would you call Virgin & Child a thriller?
I used a lot of techniques deployed by thriller writers to try to grip the reader, and create a sense of mystery and tension. But it’s a novel that works at many levels, so it’s not a straightforward commercial thriller by any means.
What was the burning issue you wanted to address in Virgin & Child?
I wanted to look at issues around sexuality and gender in the Catholic Church, and at the clash between modern scientific knowledge and ancient beliefs, which still provide spiritual nourishment for millions of people.
What was your entry point that helped get you into the mind of your Pope Patrick?
It was writing about his childhood that was the key for me. I realised he was an outsider, and a misfit, and since I’d often felt an outsider when I was a child, that enabled me to connect with him and make him more human. In writing his memories, I discovered why he was as he was.
How much did your ending surprise you when you came to write it?
I like to write without knowing the ending. One of the reasons for writing a novel is for me to find out what happens! So yes, it was a surprise, but as always, once you write the ending it seems it was that it was inevitable from the start.
What was the biggest hurdle you faced in writing the book?
I started out with a lack of self-confidence after failing to complete or publish a novel for a long time, and also knowing, from my experience in publishing, that this wasn’t going to be a book that appealed to mainstream publishers. That made me think for a long time, why go to all that effort, why write it all? Deciding to write the novel as part of a PhD gave me the motivation to get started and keep going, knowing that I would at least get a doctorate out of it!
Were you hoping for a bestseller, or do you genuinely not care?
Of course I would love the book to reach a wide audience, I think every writer would like that. But I certainly have enough experience of writing and publishing not to hope that it would make a lot of money! But it was a book I had to write for myself, regardless of whether or not it found a readership.
Is there a writer you feel yourself heir to?
It’s impossible for me to compare myself with the greats. But because of the combination of religious themes and thriller tropes, I suppose I would have to say Graham Greene and Brian Moore, both of whom I have read and admire for their readability and the clarity of their prose, along with the handling of moral dilemmas and important, often religious, themes.
Do your own books make you cry?
No. They may make me feel very strange at times, but I don’t think they have made me shed a tear.
Did your research change the course of the fiction at all?
Yes, there was a significant element that changed because the science told me my original conception was not possible. For me, what happened had to have a scientific explanation, and so I had to think again. That opened up a new thread in the narrative and helped me to develop another key character.
Having written your novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing, what advice would you give a writer starting out on such a thing?
You need to be prepared to read a lot, and to be more conscious of your writing process than you might usually be. For me what was tough was having to show my work to my supervisor at an earlier stage than I would normally have done, and receive criticism on it. So you have to be prepared for that. At times that was hard to take, although I have to say, looking back on it, all the criticism was correct and made the book much stronger. So, listen to the criticism – but don’t be afraid to argue for anything you feel strongly about, you will ultimately need to be able to defend your thesis, so practise this early!