Questions for Catherine Fox on the novel Angels and Men by Kiyoka Yamagami, Takahiro Kiya, Mai Enomoto, Tomoko Takeda, Yuko Kato, Shunsuke Hiratsuka, Tomoko Masuda, Kate Morris, Zoe Koh, Adriana Hristova, Erika Yamauchi, Jun Ohashi, and Wakana Arai.
Tokyo University, 25 June 2004
First of all, many thanks for your generous and detailed response to our previous interview. Your answers were very fluent and informative, though there seemed an (almost) general agreement that we’d like to know more about the relationship between feminism and your Christian faith, and how this plays out in the novel Angels and Men. Do you agree with the view ‘equal but different’ for male and female social roles? What is the difference between Christian feminism and other types of feminism?
The first thing to say is that I didn’t have a feminist or church agenda I was trying to give voice to in the novel. The main imperative was having a story to tell, so any bog theories are always played out in the action, through the characters.
Historically the church has been (and remains) a patriarchal organisation, although the gospel message itself is extraordinarily liberating for oppressed groups. The oppressive passages in the epistles (mainly Paul’s) need to be held in tension with the underlying message. The heart of it is interpretation. In Angels and Men the clashes and agreements between feminism and Christianity are explored as they have an impact on the experience of the main character.
Equal but different? Clearly there are fundamental biological differences between men and women, but it the extent to which they ought to dictate social roles is an open question. Biology isn’t everything. I may find I have more in common with a man from a similar background and education than with a woman whose experience has been different from my own. In the church, I can’t see any theological reason for differentiating between men’s and women’s roles. So ‘yes’ to women bishops, for heavens sake.
Difficult to say if there’s such a thing as ‘Christian feminism’. A form of feminism that excluded the possibility of a male messiah figure would cease to be distinctively Christian, obviously.
Although Mara is described as ‘prickly and difficult’, her likeability is not in doubt. You talk about inventing Andrew to make Mara seem more sympathetic. Is there a danger that she then becomes too likeable, and therefore unbalanced for the reader in the other direction?
A skilful writer can seduce you into sympathising with a complete monster. I remember reading John Lancaster’s The Debt to Pleasure, and although the protagonist is a raging egomaniac and indeed a serial killer, it wasn’t till the closing pages that I was finally alienated from him. This is what fiction can do. It invites you into the head of the character to share their experience. This is especially true of first person narratives, but also of books where the viewpoint is closely tied to the protagonist. If you step back you can see that the character is objectionable, but somehow while you are reading, you are still on their side. My aim is to get the reader to understand, and therefore to care. In my next two novels you get to see Mara from the viewpoint of two other very different protagonists, and this corrects the impression of the first book, I think. And incidentally, not all my readers find her sympathetic.
There’s a striking resemblance between Mara and the early-Christian figure Hildegard Von Bingen (as described in the case-study in Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat). As well as having visions of angels brought on by migraines, Hildegard was also a writer with liberal views about sex. Is Mara a modern religious icon, a twentieth-century Hildegard?
Hildegard of Bingen was committed to the life of a religious community and that was the context for her actions and achievements. I think Mara is too self-absorbed and isolated to function as a 20th C Hildegard.
You say that the angels in the novel are supposed to create a sense of ‘eerie otherness’. Could you explain what you mean in more detail?
I think I mean that I was conscious as I was planning the novel that its geographical and political scope was very limited, and that I was in danger of writing a small domestic piece about the lives of a tiny group. I wanted to make the book bigger than that. It occurred to me that what I had at my disposal was the whole of the Christian tradition. After struggling to get the first chapter right, at some stage (though I can’t now remember when or how — possibly I’d read a review of the film Wings of Desire) an image came to my mind of angels over the city of Durham. Suddenly this created an extra tier of action which created the depth and resonance I was looking for. Initially there was a lot more of this writing in the book, but it got cut.
Was the ending of Angels and Men surprising to you? Or did you always aim, even before you started writing, for the book to end this way?
I always saw it ending with her father waiting for her, with echoes of the parable of the prodigal son.
Looking back at the novel now, how do you feel about the ending?
I think it ends well, though not tidily. Judging by the number of people who have asked me “What was in the letter?” it was more of a cliff hanger than I’d intended it to be. You get a sense, while writing, (or perhaps I should say that I do), of the whole thing moving inevitably towards the only right fitting conclusion, and when you get there, you know it. Then you sit back and say,That’s it. I’ve done it.
You mention the sexual revolution destroying a common ethic which was often exploited by previous generations of writers. If this is also true in other fields of behaviour, so that the common ethic is much weaker than it once was, is it still possible to write novels which can be accepted by a ‘wide range of people’?
Well, we have the phenomenon of the bestseller, so either it is possible to write novels accepted by a wide range of people, or else people don’t read novels simply to have their own world view affirmed, but for a variety of other reasons. I think there is still a shared sense of what constitutes a good way of living, and what is by contrast cruel, or shallow, or self-serving. Maybe we like to read about a world in which these values are upheld? But many great novels have the satirical function of challenging prevailing views and attacking the status quo.
In both the novel and your replies to our earlier questions, you allude to classical works of English literature. Do you have any model English writers in your mind when you’re writing?
I think it is inevitably true that writers are to some extent shaped by what they read. I would love to write a novel as good as, say, Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, but it isn’t true to say I model myself on her.
Your depiction of Mara is in some ways an attack on society, and its attitudes to religion and gender-roles. If you could change society, how would you do it?
At the heart of it all for me is grace, the undeserved kindness and generosity of God. Any lasting change of society I can envisage would have to spring from that — a personal acknowledgement in gratitude, which then plays out in generosity towards others. Plus I would have women bishops.
The novel described the process of Mara’s recovery from depression and isolation. What do you think of the therapeutic value of writing stories?
There’s no doubt that many people are helped by writing down some of their traumatic experiences, maybe in the form of stories. This is a separate process from writing a novel, though, which is a public form, not private therapy. It’s possible as a writer to work through various issues while writing, but that is probably a by-product. If you set out to lay a ghost by writing a novel, it may or may not end up being a good book.
Do you see a clear connection between commercial success and reader approval? How important is it for a writer to be commercially successful?
Writing a novel pre-supposes an audience. It is not a private journal. The crude measure of success is sales, yes. If the readers approve of me, why aren’t they buying my novels? Commercial success is, in theory, less important than artistic integrity. So what we want is critical acclaim and obscene wealth. There is an unkind natural law which states that it is the people most absurdly sensitive to criticism who feel the most driven to write and put their stuff out there where it can be attacked. I don’t know why we bother, really.