When only the impossible will do
Newsletter: February 2019
Dear Web friends
Greetings again, it’s raining here, and I arrive at your door needing help. (When was it otherwise?)
I’m starting out on something, with both path and destination unknown… but I sense I have to push at the gate and set off, half-knowing but whole-hearted. You may or may not think it a good idea. But if I tell you about it (even though I don’t know quite what it is), it may help me understand this journey a little better. And it arises from a story of failure.
Some backstory: When writing historical fiction, or indeed any fiction, it’s always been important to find the character, to know them absolutely, whether a major or minor figure. I must know them way beyond their appearance in the narrative. It’s important to do this in the Abbot Peter series, and in Pippa’s Progress, when I’m making it all up; and even more important in my historical fiction, when I owe a real-life, true representation.
So from their behaviour and their words, I know Cromwell, Robert, Jane and King Charles very well in The Soldier, the Gaoler, the Spy and her Lover. They are entirely real to me, not hidden; and in The Secret Testament of Julian, I sense Julian of Norwich clearly from her life and her writings; she gives so much away. I invent – but I invent from a strong sense of character, emotional truth.
It was the same with my Conversations series. I had a clear sense of Tolstoy, Van Gogh, Eckhart, Conan Doyle and Mozart. Again, their lives and their words reveal them. But now we reach my failure. In my Conversations with Jesus of Nazareth, I never felt I knew him. It may have value as a book, it does possess life, I think; but I felt it was the weak link in my Conversations series.
As with the others, I used only the recorded words of my interviewee, but there always seemed to be a glaze between them and me, a distance. The words of Jesus are impressive words – he’s a rare combination of prophet, teacher and poet, but somehow unattached to personality. I read Tolstoy’s diaries and I met Tolstoy. I read Van Gogh’s letters and knew Van Gogh. I read Jesus’ words, but never sensed the person behind them… or only occasionally.
So to cut a long story short, I’d like to write a novel about Jesus in the first person – similar, in that respect, to my Julian work. This was my first thought… while my second thought was: It’s quite impossible. And it is, of course. How can anyone do justice to Jesus? How can an emotional pygmy such as myself enter the spirit and marrow of such an emotional giant as Yeshua? The task has its own sense of hubris and terror. But I still push at the gate.
It won’t be a re-working of the gospels, for that has been done in various forms; but clearly the narratives will overlap generously at particular points. But I want to find Jesus, his sense of the world around him, the people around him, the work given to him, his spirit. Like the woman in the crowd, I need to touch him in some manner. We know he got angry and sad, for instance. But did he ever regret anything he did, as I do? Did he ever say sorry? The Gospel of Phillip says he kissed Mary Magdalene on the lips – so does that make sense? And was his perception of things different in his resurrected state? That has always interested me.
So many questions, and maybe I just need to write this for myself; I suspect I need to, to proceed. I don’t presently have a publisher and that is fine. For now, it’s just about the writing… and the encounter beyond the religious and historical glaze. And of course any clues or tips from your deep wisdom, whatever your views of the man, are appreciated.
In the meantime, away from Palestine and the impossible quest, two particular encounters stand out at the beginning of this year. It was a great honour to offer a weekend retreat to the retreat-givers at Sheldon, on the edge of Dartmoor, as they prepare themselves for another year of brilliant care. Remember them.
And then last week I was with a group of NHS consultants as they reflected on how they behave towards one another and their staff. There is a particular glory in a community daring to ponder the scars and fault-lines that appear in any team, and need only kind attention to make well.
Meanwhile, if your interest is stirred, or your fancy tickled, by any of the books I’ve mentioned, they can be found here.
But for now, I close with an opening. Before I’d had any time to think about it, I sat down and wrote the first paragraph of the Jesus novel I’ve been describing in this letter. It’s barely even a first draft and will no doubt change completely. But as I say goodbye and good hunting to you, I end with the start of this impossible adventure.
‘Perhaps others will write, they say they will. They said all sorts of things on the beach this morning, amid their astonishment, Peter promising a book, ‘I will write a book of all this!’ though Peter cannot write, as James pointed out, ‘You cannot write’, but then Peter does say things…
Though their astonishment scarcely equals mine, I laugh inside so much, I cannot quiet it. I laugh as they leap from the boat, splashing and wading towards me, half-swimming, I cannot believe it, this scene, I’m making a fire, the fire is all I need, it is everything, smouldering wood, smoke and embers, heat in the morning, and the splash and the rush toward me, these mad idiots, my friends. I am quite ripped apart by joy and sadness, sadness that I must go, that it has to be this way.’