A Book Story
Newsletter: May 2020
A Book Story
Dear Web friend
Greetings again and no mention of viruses or lock downs here; we are free of all that, in this made-up mail-out world. Instead, something reassuringly irrelevant – a book story.
I’ve been working up to this for a while, knowingly or unknowingly. Yep, the ‘Jesus’ novel.
I once did a book called Conversations with Jesus, trying to meet him through his gospel words. It had value, and worked on a level, but left me frustrated. When I did the same with people like Van Gogh and Tolstoy, using their recorded words, I felt I met them – I knew them as people. But somewhere in the transmission, I felt Jesus had been removed, set apart from me; a mightily impressive man – but somehow unreachable. I felt I was listening to people write about him; rather than listening to him.
In an attempt to break through, to feel my way towards some lost Jesus, I decide to write a first-person novel about him. I simply must do it; and really, you can’t start an adventure like this without that compulsion; feeling only half-hearted won’t do. But while I know I must, it is the only certainty I will feel in this entire project.
From here on, much jungle, few clearings.
I had done something similar with Julian of Norwich: first-person narrative. Perhaps my most treasured response was from a member of my family: ‘I couldn’t believe you wrote it, because the character you inhabited is absolutely nothing like you.’
It is true I am nothing like Julian; and also, nothing like Jesus. I will have to de-centre; cease, in a manner, to exist. Sometimes the author will inhabit characters less spacious than themselves; and sometimes, more spacious. Both are possible but require different imaginative muscles.
Meanwhile, I don’t speak about what I’m doing for a while; and expect no encouragement when I do. Everyone has their own Jesus; he is largely fenced-off territory. And no one takes kindly, particularly his followers, to someone else’s tanks on their lawn.
Background research follows, always fun; not nearly as demanding as writing. There’s a temptation to stay here, endlessly researching; many writers say this! So, adventures in 1st century Palestine – the geography, religion and politics; and impossible to separate the last two. I’ve still got the dust in my throat from my time with the zealots in the hills.
And steady time with the six gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Thomas and Mary Magdalene. (Putting only four of them into the Bible was a significant mistake. What were they thinking of?)
Breaking news: I now decide to bring Mary Magdalene in as a main character; we will have her first-person telling of the story as well. I have always found her gospel enlightening; perhaps the heart of the matter.
Winter, spring, summer and autumn…a year of foolhardy work passes, seven drafts - dismantling, creating, dismantling; both myself and the text. But at least I find a title I like (I’m not good on titles). Gospel: Rumours of Love.
Now all we need now is the book.
And Jesus? At this point, I am mostly feeling his rage. My goodness me, he is angry. And only distantly related to the church, which they say follows in his footsteps.
I send an early edition out to some kind readers. This is an important moment; it’s possible they could end the project.
At this point, all certainty is gone. In a way, the work ceases to exist now; or rather, it only exists in community. I’d like to imagine I write alone, convinced of the worth of my work. But I don’t; and I’m not. I ask for honesty, rather than polite words… and as responses appear, phew! I find enough life in them to carry on.
More dismantling of the narratives…so much information to reduce, use, throw out, re-create. (A process familiar to the original gospel editors, of course.) Which gospel stories to use? In the end, I use nine or ten, including the Sermon on the Mount. One reader was disturbed by my telling of the story of the woman caught in adultery. ‘But disturbed in a good way, I think! It was just strange hearing it differently.’
I suppose we can all get stale in our listening…
This is historical fiction, of course; fiction with a given frame work, fixed points, real characters. But it is also fiction, which enjoys the gaps where it can come out to play. And there are plenty of gaps.
I learn from Hilary Mantel and her Thomas Cromwell series: how she deconstructs extraordinarily complex information and serves it up without our knowing. I’m enjoying it at the moment in The Mirror and the Light.
Three more drafts; it’s getting better; I’m even occasionally pleased. Steady on, Simon. I add key scenes, like Jesus waking up in the tomb and his post-resurrection visit to Bethlehem, his place of birth. I’ve always wanted to do that; always felt it important.
I also add a third first-person character, Mary, the mother of Jesus; so we now have three gospel tellings. Jesus’ relationship with his mother is such a difficult affair to handle.
But away from Palestine, how to get it published? I approach an agent I have worked with in the past. In less than 24 hours, he says no. Why? Because he doesn’t believe a big publisher will take it: Jesus isn’t the present zeitgeist.
I am reminded of Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch, when the customer, getting desperate for some cheese, asks whether the owner has any cheddar. Surely he will have some cheddar?
‘We don’t get much call for it around here, sir.’
‘Not much call for it? It’s the single most popular cheese in the world!’
‘Not round here, sir.’
So no agent; and this is a big door closed. Publishers will not read a manuscript unless it comes through an agent.
I hear from someone else in publishing. They say: ‘I think you have a mountain to climb, Simon. The question is, how can you position the book in public so it can emerge from the possible prejudices and presuppositions that I anticipate would attach to it – secular and religious? If I was your publisher, that is what I’d want to address.’
They’re right, of course. I have never imagined a Christian publisher would take it, mainly because of the ‘tanks on the lawn’ issue. ‘We have the canonical gospels, the word of God. So what exactly is this, Simon?’
So, reasons for optimism are well-camouflaged at this point, but having come so far…
After ten drafts, it is time for a professional edit. I choose Karl French who I have worked with in the past. An editor for Bloomsbury, Simon & Schuster – well, every top publisher, really – and a columnist for the Financial Times on popular culture. A self-confessed agnostic: so what will he think of this gospel nonsense? A narrative which apparently people are queuing up not to publish.
A wait ensues… there’s nothing I can do now but get out and about, earn a living and ponder the wayside flower. But just how much blood on the manuscript carpet will his edit leave? This is another possible end of the adventure.
He likes it. Well, that’s nice! He likes it very much, actually. He offers helpful insights into how it might be developed, improved. I respond to these; a couple more drafts are worked on. He also offers some public words about the book.
‘In “Gospel: Rumours of Love”, Simon Parke, a gifted novelist whose time must surely come, has set himself the task of recreating the life of Jesus leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection. The result is a wonderful and profound thing, a book in which the mundane and the miraculous exist comfortably side by side. The book itself sits comfortably alongside – indeed compares favourably to – similar re-imaginings of the life of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Philip Pullman and Colm Tóibín, but it is also a singular and distinctive piece of work, an always compelling, thoughtful and thought-provoking – and at times – a deeply moving novel.’
I return to the agent who turned it down, not in expectation; only to let him know of progress. (He’s a former Fleet Street editor; we’ve always stayed in touch.)
And he changes his mind, which is unlike agents. He can see something now and names four publishing houses he will go to.
And, well – that’s where we are today. This story has no end at present. We’re not where we were, but still against all odds; still a mountain to climb, though nothing to be done.
Here is the preamble in the book:
It is not to be doubted a man called Jesus lived and died
The more interesting question is whether he died and lived
And how he believed and loved along the way
It is not the purpose of fiction to provide answers
Only to awaken possibilities from their slumbers
Not answers; though answers which give the mind something to work on.
And not understanding; though understanding which feels the chill of the abyss and the joy of the light.
If you’d like to read the first chapter, it appeared as a blog over Easter (Jesus is ‘Yeshua’, Mary Magdalene, ‘Miriam’):
Passion Plays: Easter breakfast by the sea
And in the meantime, our lives unfold, and our lives unfold, and overwhelmingly more important than anything I’ve ever written, is your unfolding.
I’ll try and look after mine if you try and look after yours.