Chick, your first novel, Rooks at Dusk, follows the story of a Christian leader who has a crisis of faith and is unfaithful to his wife. In a nutshell, what’s your second book about?
My second book, The Man Who Broke into St Peter’s, is all about just that – the man who broke into St Peter’s. It does what it says on the tin!
On the Saturday morning after Christmas the church caretaker at St Peter’s finds that the church has been broken into and that the elderly intruder – who bears a startling resemblance to a portrait of Christ in His passion painted half a century earlier – is still in the building and kneeling at the communion rail. No one is quite sure what to do. But the confusion caused by the sudden arrival of this unexpected visitor is as nothing compared to the impact of his continuing presence on the church and the town. As his identity becomes clear and his story unfolds, long-hidden truths emerge, and life in the town of Penford can never be quite the same again.
It’s a story that allows me to explore a number of themes:
What would be the impact on a church and community if Jesus actually turned up?
What do we mean when we talk about someone carrying the sins of others? What’s the relationship between justice and forgiveness?
And how important is it for the church to remember that the most important thing we have to do is to tell a story to a world that needs to hear it?
You have a growing reputation as an author who’s not afraid to tackle difficult issues. How have you managed to balance the material you are working with and your Christian faith?
That’s an interesting question for several reasons:
The first answer is that I don’t set out to ‘tackle difficult issues’. My primary task is to tell a captivating story. Or, to be more accurate, my first task is to discover and follow the story that I should be telling.
When I started writing The Man Who Broke into St Peter’s I had no idea why the intruder was there, or who he was, or what had happened to him. But that’s where the story led me. We live in a broken and fallen world. And for a story to be a story it has to reflect that – to be filled with light and shade, good things and bad things, success and failure, sin and forgiveness, life and death. That’s why there are ‘difficult issues’ in my novels. One way or another, there are ‘difficult issues’ in everyone’s life and in every story. The gospel is the ultimate story of how to deal with ‘difficult issues’.
The issue of sexual abuse emerged as I allowed the story to unfold. I think that, if I’d set out intentionally to deal with a ‘difficult issue’ the book might have been a little more contrived. I’d have been making things fit with and around the issue of abuse. Instead, the issue of abuse arises naturally out of the narrative. At least, I hope it does! Readers will be the best judges of that, of course.
What sort of research did you do to write The Man who Broke into St Peter’s?
I always think that to describe what I did as ‘research’ is a little bit overblown and pretentious. But I did a fair bit of reading up on a couple of Lancashire towns on which I based the fictional town of Penford. I read a number of case studies of young female vicars. I did a bit of work on the history of local newspapers in England. That kind of thing. Enough to give the story a touch of verisimilitude. But not so much that it got in the way of the story.
How do you manage to introduce gospel themes without making your writing cringing or preachy?
Well, I don’t mean to sound dismissive or clever-clever, but I think that’s the problem with some Christian fiction that I’ve read. That’s exactly what the writer is trying to do – introduce gospel themes. If you do that, in my opinion, you’re not writing a novel. You’re writing an evangelistic tract, not so cunningly disguised as a novel. And it’ll be a clunky, cringe-inducing novel at that!
There’s nothing wrong with gospel tracts, of course. In fact, good ones are very useful. But a novel is a different thing entirely. Gospel tracts are meant to persuade and convince. A novel, on the other hand, tells a story, presents characters and depicts situations in such a way that it raises questions, and leaves the reader free – and maybe helps the reader – to look for the answers. That’s why I don’t like the phrase ‘Christian novels’. All too often, the authors fall into the trap of settling for simplistic answers and comfortable endings. There are, in my opinion, really only two kinds of writing: good writing and bad writing. I try to do good work and write as well as I can. I think that’s my responsibility before God in all I do.
I’d rather put it like this. As a novelist, my first duty is to tell a captivating story that respects the reader and allows her or him to reflect on the issues. As I do that, my Christian world-view will inevitably set the direction for what I write. And, of course, like all good stories, in so far as I am touching truth, it will reflect that one Great Story that alone makes sense of life.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
There are two things for me that are difficult and demanding.
For most of my life I’ve been a church leader and my primary calling has been that of a preacher-teacher. And while that means that you are seeking to honour God, inevitably it also means that, to a considerable extent, you are the centre of attention. You’re the guy stood in front of people and their attention is being given to you. But, in order to write fiction, I’ve had to change my stance, to fade into the back ground more, to become an observer rather than the main man. For someone with my personality that’s a difficult, demanding and entirely healthy discipline.
The other thing is that I find writing fiction both exhilarating and utterly exhausting. By the end of The Man Who Broke into St Peter’s I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. It goes back to what I said earlier about not knowing what the story is really about until I write it. There’s a lot of thinking that feels much more like listening and waiting rather than ‘making it up’ as the story emerges. And for me that’s a very costly process. I remember reading the last few pages of the book to Margaret, my wife, just before we went to sleep one night and beginning to cry as I finished it. I’d got to the end of something really costly.
Previously you’ve written books on subjects such as discipleship and holiness. How does tackling fiction differ from writing non-fiction?
It’s largely what I’ve tried to explain in my answer to the last question. My previous writing was about what I knew and believed and wanted to share with others. It was an extension of my teaching-preaching ministry. Writing fiction is about discovering and shaping a story that will draw people in. It’s a slower, more absorbing, more demanding process.
The paradox is that I think I am reaching a deeper level of truth in fiction than I ever managed to do in my previous books. Good stories touch truth in a different way and at a deeper level than abstract principles or doctrinal propositions. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by that. Perhaps that’s why Jesus usually told stories that stuck in people’s minds rather than delivering theological lectures. Imagination can take us to a level that’s closed to cold intellect.
What is the main thing you want readers to take away from your books?
The main thing? I want them to close the book having enjoyed the story, having been on an enriching journey, and feeling that they are better equipped to ask the right questions that will help them understand what life is all about.
What has been one of your most rewarding experiences as an author?
I’ll cheat here and tell you two things. Firstly, a number of people have told me that they literally found it impossible to put the book down, that they read it in one sitting, and then read it all again much more slowly. That’s a great compliment for a writer. Secondly, several people who’ve been directly impacted and hurt by abuse have contacted me to say how much it has helped them to find a path to healing and forgiveness. I had no idea when I wrote it that the book would have that kind of effect on people.
So what’s next?
I’ve written the first 5,000 words of a third novel. I don’t want to give away too much at the moment, partly because, as always, I don’t yet know where the story is going to take me. But I will say that it’s the story of a man who loves words but has a lifelong struggle to overcome a stammer. I guess it’s just another example of writing about those ‘difficult issues’…