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Author Talk with Christos Tsiolkas
31 October 2019
We are despised, yet we grow. We are tortured and crucified and yet we flourish. We are hated and still we multiply. Why is that? You must wonder, how is it we survive?'
Listen to Christos Tsiolkas discuss his latest masterpiece of imagination and transformation, Damascus, with Genevieve Jacobs.
Taking as its subject the events surrounding the birth and establishment of the Christian church, Christos Tsiolkas’ new book, Damascus, is a work of immense power and epic scope. Based around the gospels and letters of St Paul, it is a historical novel exploring unflinching dissection of doubt and faith, tyranny and revolution, cruelty and sacrifice.
Author Talk Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas 31-10-19
*Speakers: Kathryn (K), Genevieve Jacobs (G), Christos Tsiolkas (C)
*Location: National Library of Australia
K: Good evening everyone and welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name is Kathryn Favelle and I am the Director of the Community Outreach Branch, Engagement Group. It is my great pleasure to introduce this event tonight and welcome you all to the Library.
As we begin, I would like to acknowledge and pay my respects to the first storytellers on whose traditional lands we meet tonight, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I celebrate their culture as one of the oldest continuing cultures in the world and I pay my respect to elders past, present and emerging for caring for this wonderful country that we have the privilege of calling home and living and working on every day. I’d also like to extend my respects to the traditional owners of the lands upon which our audience both online and here tonight might have been born on, might live on, if you’ve travelled, thank you for joining us in Canberra this evening.
Now it’s my very great pleasure to welcome Christos Tsiolkas back to the Library and to Canberra this evening but in doing so I am experiencing a very small amount of deja vous. Some of you may have been here with us exactly six years ago to the day and the hour, Halloween. Here I was standing at this lectern and welcoming Christos to the Library to talk about his then newly released book, Barracuda. If that wasn’t coincidental enough on that night six years ago Christos was joined in conversation by none other than the person joining us this evening, Genevieve Jacobs. So we’ve brought the band back together again for another round and hopefully it won’t be six years before we do it all over again.
We're saved from a complete Groundhog Day experience, though, by the fact that Christos and Genevieve aren’t going to be talking about Barracuda this evening but about Christos’ new novel, Damascus. Set far from the Australian suburbs Damascus is vivid, visceral and ambitious. It’s taking on nothing less than the birth and establishment of the Christian Church and drawing on the letters of St Paul. Damascus is turning its lens to class, religion, masculinity, patriarchy, colonisation, refugees, the ways in which nations, societies, communities, families and individuals are united and divided. Such a very small topic, really, isn’t it? There’s going to be a lot for us to talk about tonight and Christos and Genevieve are going to lead us on the journey not just through the ancient history of the Christian Church but I think also on Christos’ own journey in how this wonderful book came to be. Please join me in welcoming Christos Tsiolkas and Genevieve Jacobs.
G: Well thank you very much, Kathryn, and I have a vivid memory of talking to Christos about Barracuda but I hadn’t actually realised until just now that we were same day at the same time and what a pleasure it is to be back with one of Australia’s most interesting and thoughtful authors with a book that is quite the departure or is it from the world of Barracuda and The Slap because as Kathryn says, Christos has chosen to write about the world of the very early church. For those who knew Jesus or hear Yeshua, when they were alive where religion was about radical outsider beliefs, things that were deeply threatening the status quo and Damascus of course because the common thread is that fascinating figure, Saul, the persecutor, who becomes Paul, the great evangelist. Christos, wonderful to be back here.
C: Wonderful to be with you and wonderful to be here with all of you including old friends. It’s lovely to see you in the audience.
G: Oh it’s a very Canberra thing, old friends, absolutely. Tell me what drew you to examining the world that Christianity came out of. Now there’s been a lot of historical fiction, some of it is just terrible about the time of Jesus. Why did you want to enter into this early Christian world?
C: It’s always difficult to give one answer to that question because I think there are different paths and streams to where a work that obsesses you come from. But if I was to give you one answer and one answer that actually connects all my writings is the idea of faith and what is it to have a faith? I think that in different ways all my books have been struggling with that theme because I’ve been struggling with that all my life as well. I was talking with Kathryn just before and she was saying oh you bastard, you’ve made me want to read St Paul and that reaction is my reaction. I grew up in the east, an Orthodox faith. My first encounter with Paul really wasn’t until I moved from an inner-city school that was highly migrant with a lot of people who shared my parents’ faith and then moved to an outer suburban school that was quite Anglo.
I felt quite lost and it was at a time when I just realised I had these sexual urges and feelings that I did not want to have. I wanted to make a deal with God that if that got taken from me then I would be a good Christian. A lot of people have experienced something similar. I couldn’t read Paul at that point, all I could read was the prohibition against homosexuality that is in 1st Corinthians. Where this is linked to the question of faith is I had joined an evangelical Christian group. It only lasted 15 months. I got up one day from Bible class, it was a really clear memory and I said I cannot believe in this God. This God will not want me so I am going to stop believing. But what I did was I replaced very, very quickly when I look back on it, it felt like it was a much longer period but I replaced my faith in a Christian god with a faith in something called socialism or Communism.
Then going right back to your original question, Genevieve, I only realised this just the other day talking to someone about why I wrote this book. It just suddenly - the clarity came to it. I had my own road to Damascus moment where I had to deal with another loss of faith and that was the loss of faith in Communism, in socialism when I went to eastern Europe very soon after the collapse of Communism and I had to take into account the horrific damage that ideology and belief had done to peoples that came from instincts that were positive about justice, about changing the world, about equality. That was not an overnight process but the connection to the Christianity I grew up with is it made me realise that maybe I was blaming the institutions for a history and maybe I should just go back right to the beginning of what were the ethical precepts that were there at the beginning of a prophet’s journey in the middle east 2,000 years ago.
G: That is absolutely the remarkable and the surprising thing about this book, that it draws us back as 21st century Australians into this remarkable early Christianity in a world that’s filled with violence and I want to discuss more about that in a moment but tell me about what surprised you when you went back deep into these years when Jesus had been dead only a few decades, when people still lived who had known Yeshua, who had seen his extraordinary charism.
C: So what I did with this novel, when I came to the decision that I would like to try and write a book about Paul, and I didn’t know at that stage what the form of this book would be, I didn’t actually know whether it would be a fiction, I just knew that this was something I wanted to pursue. I made a decision that for the first year I was not going to put pen to paper and I was just going to immerse myself in research and reading and I set this goal which I was not going to read anything written before the 4th century BC and nothing written after the 3rd century AD except commentary, theology and philosophy and history about that period.
Of course what I also needed to do was go back to the Bible and going back to the actual Biblical text, and by [third] 9:37 the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible was really hearing Paul’s voice, really hearing how radical it was to say that the first will be last and the last will be first. How radical it was to say that one of the greatest ethical duties is to love a stranger as much as you love your mother or your partner or your sibling. They still sound revolutionary and radical in our world today. Then there was a kind of an anger that these ethical ideas which must have sounded so shocking in the world would I think have been corrupted by the history of the churches in that we have paid so much attention to two or three lines written about sexual morality and very, very little to the hundreds of lines that are about our duty to the stranger, our duty to one another.
G: It is all the more remarkable because this is a world that is filled with violence. The book opens with a woman being stoned to death, the lives of many of the characters are underlined with violence, not least the absolutely common practice of leaving unwanted female or disabled children out to die. There are dreadful scenes in here of the circus where people are literally killed for the amusement of the crowd. It feels so blood-drenched. Where does that come from?
C: Oh look, that goes to the previous question you said, what did I find? I found that brutality in doing the research. I love reading the ancient Greek text, I love reading the philosophy but what I found was that this was a slave society and that the accounts of what happened to people in the arena are just horrific, for people’s entertainment. So that if you were born a slave, if you were captured in war, for the delight of an audience like this. You could be a young girl or a young boy and you could be torn apart and that was for our delight and that was because your life had no value because you were a slave.
The other thing I found was that the slave voice had been omitted from the history because the history we have is the history of noble people, the history on what we would maybe call an aristocratic class.
G: Well history’s written by the victors -
C: Exactly, yeah. I guess that became really important to me in terms of writing this novel ‘cause I'm a novelist, I’m not a historian but I think what was radical at the heart of the Christian message was that it spoke to the slave and that it made the slave the centre of ideas of ethics and justice.
G: This idea of compassion for the broken and suffering is absolutely remarkable in this world, it is in no way commonplace and that was a real challenge in reading this, to think of a world in which the idea of compassion for the vulnerable was entirely absent for people for whom that was just simply not in their ethical mindset. It did not occur to them that those who were damaged, disabled, dishonoured had a value of any kind.
C: Yes, I mean one of the things that came out clearly in the reading I was doing was that Christianity emerges from Judaism and the novel is set in a period where this is not a Christian faith, this is a Jewish faith. What is the best way to explain this, ‘cause I owe this understanding, so this is a novel that has been forming I think in my mind for a long, long time. There’s a friend of mine I’ve got, [Forthius] 14:03, who’s an amazing student of history. This is a long time ago and we were sitting down talking in one of those long conversations you have right ‘til dawn about these ideas. We were talking about what was happening to these people in this world, how brutal it was and how there's so little reflection in the Roman and Greek text about this suffering and it is what it is, suffering.
He went imagine being that girl or that boy in the arena where just because of your caste or your class someone can do whatever they liked to you. They can throw to you animals, they can rape, they can use you to mine until you die on your feet from the exhaustion of work and that is not being melodramatic, that is the world we’re talking about. You hear what to us sounds like a savage code now in 2019. Justice is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If you’re that young girl or young boy you would go that’s a faith I can believe in because at least that makes sense whereas I guess what I’m saying is the world these people were living in in that sense of what we understand as compassion and justice was senseless. It was absolutely senseless.
G: Absolutely and so right at the very beginning we have a Christian woman who’s being stoned to death who says let he who is without sin cast the first stone and in the context you have just described that is a profoundly challenging statement because it says to people, look into your own heart, look not at yourself as someone from a caste, a class, a race with the ability to command, it says look into your own heart as a human being on an equal level.
C: Oh Genevieve, you know this book went through a lot, a lot of drafts and I mean it was terrible and I’m being genuine about that, it’s what happens. You're trying to find your way into this work that you want to do and for anyone who is a writer in this room you know that, you know that the first draft, you just have to get it out no matter how bad it is, you need to do that work. But right from the beginning the stoning was how I wanted to open the novel and I wanted to actually do justice to – you know this has not just come out of myself, this does come out of people who’ve been really important in my life and what they have taught me. Very, very early on I was a boy in primary school and I had this teacher who was one of those wonderful teachers that really actually listened and we were in a very migrant school and there was a girl, her parents were from what was called Yugoslavia then but they had been divorced and one of a group of boys were calling her a slut because this was the ‘70s, people were cruel and these kids, they just were parroting what they heard from parents. This teacher sat us down and told us the story of Jesus coming into this circle of men who are about to stone this woman for being an adulteress -
G: The woman taken in adultery.
C: - and she made us feel what it was to be that woman terrified. She made us – we were only nine or 10, made us really think about what it meant to say if you are without sin then raise a stone and just hurl it. That message had stayed with me for four decades now and I owe it to Miss Lunamen, I really owe that and that’s what I’d forgotten when I turned my back to Christianity, that that was something so radical in that message. You know guys like I’m writing this over the last six years and what is Twitter if not the hurling of our bloody first stones? This morning coming on the plane I was just reading this essay someone had written about contemporary culture.
They said something really interesting about – sorry, I know it’s a tangent but it just really fascinated me. You know in George Orwell’s 1984 there’s a two-minute hate where you stand up and hate for two minutes. He went is this social media? Have we actually created the – I wanted to be faithful as a writer to the world I was trying to communicate to you and what it was like to be a slave, what it was like to be a woman, what it was like to be a Jew, what it was like to be someone who had given up family, given up their life to follow these words of a prophet 2,000 years ago? But I did want what I was writing about to echo to our contemporary moment.
G: So let’s then talk about Paul, Saul, a man who is driven by shame and guilt about himself. He is absolutely eaten up with self-loathing. Tell me who he is as a character in this book and why you hang this novel around him. So Saul, Paul as the character who is the centre of this novel rather than the historical Paul.
C: Yeah. Look, I will say about this novel that people ask you what are you writing about and you go St Paul. They go really?
G: Is there a television series in that, they ask you.
C: Unfortunately they often go who was - but I’m actually not writing about a saint. The first two drafts, I think they were real failures and that was because I was still trying to be faithful to the kind of mythological superstructure of Christian faith. So on the road to Damascus did this man, Paul, see the physical Jesus resurrected?
G: Well you make that very real, you make the light a very absolute. It’s not a metaphor when Paul is struck on the road to Damascus, it is a profound, physical experience.
C: But we never see the body of Jesus and that was very, very conscious. It was only in the redraft I thought this is not the story I want to tell so to your question about Paul, reading his letters and Paul, he’s very honest in the letters. For those who haven’t read the Pauline epistles like he talks about his struggle, the whole of Romans is the struggle of how do you come to faith? How do you deal with the burden of faith? I thought I’ve got to create a character who is not a saint. I’m not talking about a myth here, I don’t want to talk about that myth so I have got to create a Paul that is at a moment of crisis when we see him because what would make someone give up their family, give up their religious background, give up everything to follow someone? For me the only way I could find him was through a point of crisis.
I think the other choice I made was when it came to Saul all the other characters are written in the first person but Saul is written in the third person because the other characters I think are doing - this is always where you’re a bit wary about the author describing their own work but what the other characters are doing, what I am still struggling with doing, is to try to make sense of what Paul is saying, who Paul is and what Paul means to me. I love his letters and this novel, that’s its true beginning is that I found at a moment of crisis in my life, in my late 20s, I returned to Paul’s letters and I found a voice that offered me – and I hadn’t been able to hear the voice when I was 13, 14, 15 because I thought his words were saying you are cut off from God.
In this moment of crisis what I did was heard a voice that was saying there is a way to find peace and solace, that it is possible. It is a struggle but it is possible. Because of my own journey I wanted to make Paul’s understanding coming from his own struggles with his body, sexuality, his desires, and his passions. I thought that's how I wanted to paint him.
G: On that firstly the doubts don’t leave him. Right until the very end of his life when he’s old and he’s imprisoned and he’s raving and calling on Jesus and saying why don’t you come back, you bastard? Because Christianity at that point is almost like an apocalyptic death cult. I mean the end times are very close, they are absolutely fervently believing that Jesus will return. So first of all there’s the doubt, the huge doubt that riddles this extraordinarily charismatic and powerful figure. He’s still wrestling with what Yeshua means.
C: Yes and I mean that question of doubt is central. You can’t write a novel about faith without also writing a novel about death. You can’t actually have a system of beliefs without actually having to deal with doubt. I think one of the things that I do find difficult about the present age is that we have made doubt suspicious and I think doubt is essential. We keep having to ask those questions.
Look, so one of the struggles for this man, Paul, is that he has been moved and shaken. He has felt the light, he has seen the light, he has embraced what is I think best in the prophet’s, Jesus’, teachings. He’s taken that. But he’s taken that, believing that this man will return at any time. That didn’t happen, it has not happened and so what I also wanted to explore, and I do this through a character called Timothy who also lived and was Paul’s companion, is to go what happens to this faith when Jesus is not on the horizon? What does happen to the commandment to be celibate? What does it mean for the commandment of leaving all material possessions aside when this is a prolonged future? That’s a much harder struggle and that moment that you talk about when he’s in Rome, I think all of us who are Christian now or who have been Christian in the past, we’ve always been at that moment, I’ve been in that moment where I’ve banged the floor going when will this end? When will this suffering end?
G: You say speak, God. If you believe you say speak, where are you? Where are you in the midst of this? Timothy is also a fascinating and pivotal figure in this book because Paul has an electric obsession with Timothy and Timothy himself is entranced by Thomas who is the mysterious figure of Yeshua’s twin. There is a certain cult-like eroticism about these relationships.
C: I mean look, actually being involved in both evangelical Christianity and being involved in sectarian Communism, they both – it’s a lot of regress – there’s a lot of repressed sexuality in both those experiences in my experience of it. I think the question of love is so central to Paul’s words and to explain something about that because I think Thomas is the character that is the most heretical in the book. So I hope it’s alright if I just do a detour to explain -
G: Absolutely. We’re going to talk heresy in a minute, you go at it.
C: So what happened, there were so many currents when you do the research, what was happening in Anatolia and in the Middle East in that first and second century after the death of Christ, of this figure called Christ and there were so many currents of thought about what his message was. From my understanding when this faith became the religion of the Roman Empire a lot of those paths, because they were more troublesome, they were difficult, became erased from our history.
Then there was an astonishing moment in 1948 where in Egypt in Nag Hammadi, a place in Upper Egypt, a young shepherd boy discovered some texts that had been hidden from history for 1,700 years and they were gospels, they were letters from the early Christians. There was a gospel of Mary Magdalene, there was a gospel of Judas, there’s a gospel of Peter, there are ancient Greek texts and Roman texts and one for the gospels is the gospel of Thomas and Thomas means twin and he’s referred to in the Bible as [Formas Vivimos] 29:15 which is the Greek word for twin. There’s an apocryphal legend that he was Jesus’ twin brother.
It’s a Gnostic text so it’s a difficult text but what’s astonishing about Thomas is that there is no resurrection story. So Jesus does not return from dying on the cross. So when I read that, Genevieve, I thought what does this mean for this faith that I grew up in? What does it mean if there is no resurrection story?
G: You are absolutely prefiguring that fundamental divide in the Church. You’ve got Paul, the great evangelist, and Thomas who is an equally powerful and compelling figure in and of himself but it’s that split between the intellectual soldiers and the people of the earth that then dominates hundreds of years before it’s resolved, really, and we were just having this conversation earlier by Rome, by the might and the power of Rome and the Church being founded in Rome. But it’s just occurred to me as you’re speaking that of course when we write the gospels it’s an attempt to claim history because the idea that’s implicit in the gospels is that these are the people who were there and therefore they know.
C: Yes. So when you suddenly encounter these versions that say this is our version of this history, we were there and I mean it was one of the exhilarating moments. I’m thinking like I wanted to do the [proceed] 30:57 but I want to answer your previous question too which is about that relationship then between Thomas and Paul and Timothy. One of the things that I think is really dangerous in all belief systems is fundamentalism where you believe that – and you do it because you are angry at the way poverty and equality is in this world, you are angry the way misogyny is in this world, you are angry about the way racism in the world, that you believe you know what is righteous and you know what is right and you efface the human, the individual human.
If there’s a moral lesson that means anything to me at this stage of my life, is that that’s a really dangerous thing and I do not believe that the ends justify the means no matter how righteous. Sorry, to answer that question and for me Paul is charismatic and Thomas is charismatic and Timothy is the figure who is trying to do the dance of understanding what is important about the ethics of these two men. That’s why I’ve created that [tryptic] 32:16 if you like.
G: This is actually where I made the connection with books like The Slap and Barracuda because I thought about your examination of what drives people to believe that they are right against all odds, what makes them push through for what they rightly or wrongly believe in.
C: Look, I mean my very good friend, Angela Savage, who’s a writer and I adore, she made that connection just the other day to Barracuda ‘cause again you’re not actually thinking about but I’d said in this space when we were talking six years ago to the hour that I had a card above the desk which was how do you be a good person in this world? That that was the motivating drive to understanding Barracuda and she said well this novel is still connected to that, it’s just that you’ve gone right back to first principles, you go right back to the Christian world, to when it formed.
G: But I think the other thing that struck me is a lot of your work previously has examined things like class hierarchies and here in Damascus there’s a great deal about how we define what is right, wrong, good or bad and who fits there. So one of the things that’s really striking about this, for example is the passage about [Vrassus] 33:52, the crippled ex-Roman soldier who lives in this world where slaves are raped, where people literally bathe themselves in blood. One of the things that you do very well in this is make us understand what it is to be [Vrassus] who is revolted by the Christian rituals. Here is a man who literally covers himself in the blood of animals so that his wife will -
C: Have a son.
G: - conceive and bear a son but he looks at the Christian rituals, their equality by their communion in every sense and he finds it filthy beyond belief what those Christians are doing.
C: I’m going to continue because this is fundamental to [Vrassus], this character, to a conversation we began just outside, Genevieve, that people have asked me for a long time and will keep asking me, are you a Christian and I’m not. I think the important reason is that I don’t believe in the resurrection. Of course I do believe this figure existed, I do actually believe in so much of the gospel message but no, I don’t believe in the resurrection. The other thing I do not believe in is - I think for me was a damaging thing about Christianity - is the separation of our humanity into a pure soul of spirit and a corrupt flesh.
I think that’s done a lot of damage historically and I’m writing this under the shadow of what’s been happening in the Catholic Church. I think that’s a really destructive tendency, I think, in Christianity and what puts me at a remove from it. [Vrassus] is a character who is so impossible for us in our contemporary mentality to understand. But what I wanted to do as a writer was be honourable to him and do that just because I do not share his code, because it is so antithetical to who I am and to what I believe but if I'm going to create this character I want us to actually think he is a man of conviction and I hope that’s what I’ve done.
G: I think he is, I think he is a man of honour and principle and the capacity that you have here is to let us sit in that world and not be disgusted by his beliefs but to understand the power of them, the belief in the god, in the son, in the power of blood and earth and brothers bonding in war. It actually was a moment of really stark insight for me into the whole cult of the soldier in Roman religious beliefs so you gave us that insight.
C: I remember years ago, Genevieve, one of my favourite – I think he’s a remarkable writer of the 20th century is the Japanese writer, Endo and for those of you who are familiar with his work but for those of you who are not, one of his great novels is called Silence and it was made into a film a few years ago by Martin Scorsese. Endo’s interesting ‘cause he’s a Japanese Catholic so that it’s a very -
G: There’s a long history of martyrdom there, there’s a lot of blood in Japanese Catholicism.
C: There’s a lovely passage in one of the essays he wrote about what it was as a person growing up in the Japanese world, to actually confront the crucifixion and his visceral nausea at the dead god, all he could see was the flesh. I carry that through to writing [Vrassus], it was really important for me to try and strip as much as I could away of the last 2,000 years when I was writing this novel and to try and go back and to see what it would mean for these people to be confronted with the idea of – and the crucifixion which has become something that we take so for granted now. If you can step back into that world, that was the most vile of tortures, that was meant for the runaway slave, that was meant for the rebel. That was meant as a symbol for the Romans that you were the most abject of – this is the worst thing we can do for you. So imagine then saying your god is a crucified god. That’s what Paul writes of it as an outrage and a scandal.
G: I’m tempted to go down a whole other rabbit hole about Japan and samurais and Bushido and the idea of the death cult and the pursuit of death as the highest form of honour but let’s park that for a minute. I said at the very beginning that often books about this period in history have been dreadful and that’s because they’re weighed down by the history. Now you could have made this into a very worthy, weighty book but in fact this is very much about the emotions so I wonder about the process of writing it and getting that tone right so what we do enter into is an historically informed but emotionally purposeful and accurate understanding of people’s motivations.
C: I mean, Genevieve, as a writer that was really the paramount question. How do I convince you that you are in this world 2,000 years ago? What language do I use? A friend, Gina Vafulka, said a really smart thing years ago, said don’t make it sound like Life of Brian which it’s stayed in mind, don’t let them talk like that. But there are two things and they sound like they are opposing but they really came through in the research, that one is these people are not us, they do not have a consciousness, they do not have our histories so they are strangers to us. To go back 2,000 years ago is to – I use the term derangement. If you could go in a time machine and you are to meet someone from 2,000 years ago, it doesn’t matter where they were, they could be from here, it would be derangement because how do you communicate?
But what we have in that Anatolian, Greek, Roman, Persian, Judean world is we actually have writing of people. You cannot read the Jewish Bible and not read about justice. You cannot read the Jewish Bible and not read about love and you cannot read the Jewish Bible and not read about shame. So what I tried to do with every draft, just tried to do is stay true to both those things. To go you’re going to have to use a language that is in part contemporary because you don’t know how people spoke back then. That’s impossible but do not forget that these were actually human as we are human and I guess what I discovered in writing this book are that there are universals. That I think people loved family. I think people loved each other, whether that was a platonic love or a – erotic love 2,000 years ago. I think people did experience suffering and that just became something that I had to hold really close to me all the way through structuring this book.
G: Well certainly one of the very powerful parts for me was in the second part of this book, the story of Lidia who is the first non-Jewish adherent to as they call it the Nazarene sect and she’s a woman who becomes an outcast because her first baby has been taken away from her because it’s a girl. She casts everything to save her second baby who is terribly disabled and the power with which you manage to imbue that sort of desperate maternal feeling of utter connection, the blood calling to blood, the heart to heart of being a mother was to really sort of say it was never okay to put babies out to die. Even if it was socially sanctioned and even if you could construct a world in which people understood the reasons for putting babies out to die no mother is ever going to feel that that was something that passed without emotional contact.
C: Sorry to be a bit wanky here but I think for a while when I was a young man I was influenced by a lot of postmodernism which would have said that all moral and ethical principles are relative. Again what was enlightening about going back to actually reading these texts was that actually you hear the words of people who were stricken by the abandoning of children and the only faith in the Roman world that spoke against that act or did not participate in that act at least in principle like in terms of its lore, l-o-r-e, were the Jewish people.
So Lidia’s – she comes to Paul through what she hears from the Jewish people around. Her voice is essential because what was essential right from those early days when you sit down and work out how you’re going to – once the research had finished and I could pick up the pen I knew that the woman’s voice had to be in this novel because the other thing I discovered in the research is that Christianity has effaced, has scratched out how important women were in this early faith. A lot of you may know this but you can go into eastern Turkey, you can go to caves where the early Christians were congregating when it was still a dangerous sect, an outlawed sect in large parts of the Roman world and there are what we would call icons, representations but of the early Christians and the women have been literally scratched out from those images. That was done by the later church fathers.
In the book of Acts of the canonical Bible we’re told that Lidia was the first Greek convert or person who took up the way, the Nazarene sect. That’s all we knew of her. But I just kind of thought she will be the character but initially, Genevieve, I was going to write through her slave, Goodness. I wanted to make her slave the central character. So the first two drafts were kind of doing this battle to make Goodness work but what I discovered was that the hierarchies, the divisions of caste were so bitterly strong that I couldn’t actually have her as a character interacting in the way to write the kind of novel I did. I really tried, I really did try but it just was not working and on the third draft I just went maybe what I should do is write through Lidia’s voice herself. I mean it was very rough as guts but that happened in like two weeks, I actually wrote 35,000 words because suddenly it freed me up. I could have her there with Paul, I could have her there with Timothy.
G: Yeah, she’s an extraordinarily powerful figure. I'm going to open up to questions in just a moment but before I do so it just struck me when Kathryn was introducing us and she mentioned all sorts of themes like masculinity, refugees and so on and so forth and I thought I have read this book in completely a Christian prism. I have read this as somebody who is still a Catholic. We had a talk about religion and faith before we came on. Has anything changed for you in the way that you view Christianity today and the Church through the process of writing this and immersing yourself so deeply in this world?
C: Look, I think that I feel much more confident now of what value there is in Christianity so yes, I feel a confidence about that. I mean one of the things I’d really like is to actually talk and argue and debate with Christians about this book ‘cause I keep saying about it, it is heretical but I don’t think it’s blasphemous. You want any reader of your work, whatever their faith tradition, wherever they come from, I hope that they come to it and realise what I’m trying to do is something sincere and I will just say that I’m writing it from this time and this place and this context and we keep talking about the Judeo-Christian foundation of the western world we inhabit now. I think it’s actually Judeo-Christian-Roman-Greek and so to your question of what I’ve discovered is that that aspect of history is not talked about often enough.
That’s why Timothy is one of the paramount characters in the book because he is born to a Greek pagan father and to a Jewish Greek mother. That also existed in the ancient world and the question of the refugee, the question of the stranger, the question of how do you build a multicultural world? We’re still struggling with these things and what’s astounding going back 2,000 years is people in different ways were struggling with that back then.
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