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Interview With Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer loves Italy and has lived there for over two decades. He is married with a son and a daughter. He has written a play about Italy called "A Place in Italy", published in UK in 1992, and has set two of his novels partly in the country -- Chimera, his first novel (1989), and now his latest novel, The Gospel of Judas. His last novel, Mendel's Dwarf, dealt with the biology of genetics. Mawer's latest novel, The Gospel of Judas, is a literary suspense thriller, a love story, and a reimagining of modern-day Christianity told with brilliant twists and revelations that takes readers on a haunting quest for the truth. The story involves Father Leo Newman's discovery of a lost papyrus scroll near the Dead Sea which might contain the text of a fifth gospel, one that tells the story of Jesus' life and crucifixion from the point of view of Judas Iscariot.

Cover of The Gospel of Judas by Simon Mawer
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What was your inspiration for The Gospel of Judas? On one level it's such a conceptual book, but at the same time the characters are so utterly particular and fascinating.

Books are like journeys. Some are planned well ahead, some are just creatures of chance, some are deliberate voyages of discovery. The Gospel of Judas is perhaps that latter kind of book. It was born out of an abiding interest in the New Testament story, out of a conviction that the Gospels can be treated as historical documents and out of a question: What if? What if another text were found, one that told the story of Jesus from an entirely different viewpoint? What if a papyrus scroll discovered in a cave beside the Dead Sea purported to be the personal account of Judas - what would happen to it? How would people appraise it? What would the Church do?

Such speculation is not a novel. Yes, of course, you have to fill in the details. Without writing a textbook, you have to make things convincing. So I spent many hours with a Greek New Testament in parallel translation (I'm no Greek scholar!) and I read anything that I could find about papyri and their preservation, about Dead Sea archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls. I've seen some of the scrolls at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, I've climbed the Snake Path to the desert citadel of Masada, I know something of the religious tensions in the tortured city of Jerusalem.

But novels are about people, and The Gospel of Judas took off when I had to face the matter of who would be the person to experience this discovery at first hand. Thus was born Leo Newman, the priest who is called to interpret the newfound scroll. With Leo came his own history, his own present, his own future. So The Gospel of Judas is really about Leo - Leo as new-man, Leo as Everyman. What would he do? How would he feel? How would the momentous impinge upon his own life? There is often talk about characters taking on a life of their own, outside the control of the novelist. This is more a metaphor than a reality, but if the character is convincing then the illusion may be strong: I saw Leo walking through the streets of Rome, I felt him tussle with the conflicts between love of God and love of a woman, I felt his mixture of fascination and horror as he pored over the Gospel of Judas and realized that there was, maybe, another version of the Jesus story. As much as anything The Gospel of Judas is the Gospel of Leo.

You've lived in Italy for many years. How has your own life, your own family informed your writing?

Indeed I have lived here for more than two decades now, and I'm married with a son and a daughter. I suppose those facts must define me in some way. I love Italy and have written about it directly in A Place in Italy, published in the UK in 1992, and I have set two of my novels partly in the country -- Chimera, my first novel (1989), and now The Gospel of Judas. Italy has given me, or at least nurtured in me, a strong sense of history: the effect of history on the present and following that, the effect of personal history - memory and experience - in the life of an individual. But I am not a historian by training; I'm a biologist, and have taught biology for thirty years now. It was with the biology of genetics that my previous novel, Mendel's Dwarf, dealt.

Then there is my family. Most of the families I write about are dysfunctional, but my own family is assuredly not. I have a marvelous wife, who holds down a full-time job as well as doing all the things that a mother does, and a son who is now working in Germany, and a daughter who does what most daughters of fifteen do. Perhaps the greatest gift that my family, and my wife in particular, have given me is support and security. They have never complained. When so much of a writer's free time is spent sitting in front of a computer keyboard rather than contributing directly to family life, that means a great deal. They've never complained about those lost weekends and they've always followed my writing career with interest and tolerance (especially on the part of myson, who found himself turned into a daughter on the jacket flap of one of my books), and without them I would have written much less. Or much more. Who knows?

How has your teaching affected the novels you write, or indeed has it?

Teaching obviously directly affected my previous novel, Mendel's Dwarf. One of my great loves has been the science of genetics, and in the book my narrator does explain a few bits of genetics for the lay reader. Former pupils have remarked that some parts of the book remind them of lessons that I taught - I think this is intended as a compliment to the lessons rather than as an insult to the novel. But apart from Mendel's Dwarf, none of my other writing has had anything directly to do with what I teach. Yet teaching is a great learning experience. You learn how to communicate in a variety of voices, those appropriate to different ages and levels of ability. You learn to use clear and logical language. You learn how to hold the attention of a group of people who perhaps would rather be somewhere else. You learn a great deal about people. It's not a bad preparation. And, of course, there are long holidays - that's not a joke, it is a serious point, because what a novelist needs is time, and there are few jobs these days that give one such large amounts of time. Time for a fiction writer is far more valuable than money; I doubt that I could have achieved the novels in any other profession.

How have you managed a literary life, a working life, and a family life?

First, by having an understanding wife. She did marry me knowing that my main ambition was to write novels so she had been warned in advance, but it took over a decade of married life before that ambition was realized. She never grew impatient with my poring over the typewriter or, later, the computer. Then came the children. They never seemed to complain either, although in their case they didn't know any better. But they were also a help. Cyril Connolly famously suggested that the most sombre enemy of good art is the pram in the hallway. He was wrong: rather than being a hindrance, a family is a huge advantage to a writer. The three great human experiences are birth, love, and death. Quite aside from changing nappies and trips to the zoo and arguments over homework and unsuitable boy/girlfriends, a family provides opportunity for all three of these life-changing experiences.

Secondly, I chose a job that gives ample free time. This was quite deliberate. Sure, my evenings may have been taken up with marking pupils' work, but the one material benefit of the teaching profession is the length of the school holidays. That was when I did most of the writing. Weekends were useful, but it was the weeks of the summer holidays that really enabled me to get words down on paper, and that is one of the major achievements. How often has one heard someone saying, "I've always wanted to write, but I can never find the time"? The truth is that someone who really wants to write makes the time. Words on the page are the first necessity, and you need time to get them there.

Is there a character in your novels you've most identified with, and why?

There are bits of me littered everywhere throughout the novels. Leo Newman suffers some of my crises of spirituality and religious belief. Benedict, the narrator of Mendel's Dwarf, sees the world through the eyes of the geneticist and cynic that is within me. And a half-decent novelist has to be androgynous in mental makeup - when, in A Jealous God, fifteen-year-old Helen Harding steps out of an airliner into the middle of Cyrus summer and confronts the Mediterranean world for the first time, that was me doing the same thing at the earlier age of ten. In fact, I enjoy writing from a woman's point of view. Gretchen, Leo's mother in The Gospel of Judas, is one of my favorite characters, with her tortured conflict between sexual passion and religious fervour. Whether she resolves the conflict in the best possible way is another matter, but then one is meant to like someone for their virtues and love them for their defects, and maybe I am a bit in love with Gretchen - at least as she was as a young woman. And she plays the piano beautifully. Oh, how I would love to be able to play the piano like she does!

What are you working on now?

I have just finished my next novel, set partly in the anarchic world of British rock climbing and mountaineering of the nineteen-sixties. It is a story of two complex love triangles, and a number of falls - into love, off mountains, from grace. I used to climb, both rock and ice climbing. This was in the early seventies, when Scottish winter climbers were showing the rest of the world how to climb steep ice. I wasn't very good and I gave up after a rather serious argument with an avalanche, but I still hanker after the thrill of climbing. Writing about it enables me to recapture something of the thrill, and in my imagination climb to a higher standard than I ever could in reality! Of course, there is much more than just the climbing. This isn't a second Cliffhanger or another Eiger Sanction. It is a novel about people, about their motives and their loves and their jealousies. It's an exploration of how they discover not just the mountains, but themselves. And now it is finished (although there is still editorial work to do) and I am beginning to think about the next book, and worrying whether there is anything waiting to be pulled out of the imagination. It's a bit like attempting a conjuring trick without knowing whether there is a rabbit in the hat.

I know that this is rather a general and hopefully not too annoying question, but what would you say are some of the themes and ideas that link your novels?

Religion and religious faith. I am intrigued by belief in God, although I no longer possess it. I love the ritual of religion, and the art that Christianity in particular has given birth to. And I am fascinated by the relationship between religious ecstasy and sexual love. The tension between these two appears in much of what I have written and many of my characters suffer the conflicts of sexual desire and religious devotion, not just Leo Newman or his mother, Gretchen.

History, both personal and collective. Relics such as family photographs fascinate me. On the wall in my study I have a framed photograph of my grandfather taken in Belgium in the First World War. He is sitting with other members of his RAF squadron. Parked behind the group are two Sopwith Camel biplanes. My grandfather has a swagger stick resting against his knee - and that very same stick stands in a corner of our sitting room today. That kind of detail thrills me. I know the stick; from the photo I know that it was there in the Western Front in 1918; from family memory I know that the squadron workshops turned it out of a Camel propeller. But who was my grandfather? And who were the others in the squadron? The onlooker might wonder for a moment, before passing on; the novelist wants to create an answer. It is such echoes of the past that I can hear in the present. That is why my novels so often move between different time frames. There is a modern tendency to belittle the past, to think that what matters is the future, and that the past is dead and should be buried. But the past is all we have. We are our past, whether as a nation or as an individual. There is only that momentary, evanescent thing called the present, and lying behind it, the past. There is nothing else: the future doesn't exist. And in a real sense every novel is history.

Language. To write decent novels you have to be in love with the language. You have to feel the texture of it between your fingers, mould it like clay, carve it like marble. Despite all the creative writing programs in the world, I am sure this ability cannot be taught. So I try to use the meanings of words, of place names, of personal names, to inform the narrative. In Mendel's Dwarf I used the language of science, even employing footnotes as in a scientific paper. This was not because they were necessary in the way they might have been in a textbook. It was because the language of science intrigues me. Similarly, in The Gospel of Judas language becomes part of the book - echoes of that greatest work of English literature, the King James Bible, snatches of the Greek of the New Testament, place names and plays on personal names, all that kind of thing. It doesn't take over the narrative (at least I hope it doesn't) but it is always there. Magda is Madeleine is Magdalen. Leo is the new man, twentieth-century man, on his own.



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