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
Tokyo University, 3 June 2004
Was there someone or something in particular that motivated you to write Angels and Men?
I have wanted to write novels for as long as I can remember. The first ideas for Angels and Men came to me in 1986 when I was reading 17th C Quaker tracts and investigating the phenomenon of religious fanaticism. The other motivation was my love affair with the city of Durham. It struck me that there was a gap in the market, and nobody had done a kind of Brideshead Revisited about student life there.
When writing this novel, did you have a primary reader-group in mind? Did you expect the readers to be mainly female? And, with the readers in mind, did you hesitate to concentrate so specifically on religion for fear of turning readers away?
In the first instance I was writing for myself with total 100% commitment — the way first novels often are. I had to decide fairly early on, however, how to pitch the style. I wanted to make it accessible to as wide a range of readers as possible. I wanted it to be enjoyed by professors of Theology and by my childminder. This meant that I ruled out anything too experimental in style, although I believe the book engages with important ideas. I hope it can be read a different levels, both as an exploration of fanaticism and salvation, but also as a cracking good read. I suppose I’m still a bit surprised that so many men appear to enjoy it, though I wasn’t trying to write a ‘women’s book’.
I don’t think readers are necessarily turned off by religion if it’s handled well. My image of a novel is low budget virtual reality. It offers readers the chance to experience a different world for the space of however many hours or days it takes to read the book. My inspiration was the orthodox Jewish writer Chaim Potok, whose novels are a window into the world of Judaism.
In Angels and Men, the male characters seem idealised. Why is that? And which one do you like best?
I think the men are bastards, actually, in their different ways. Both Rupert and Johnny are different takes on the cliche of the romantic hero, which was something I was exploring. Andrew is my favourite male character.
Do you think there is a distinction between Romance novels and serious novels? Which do you consider Angels and Men to be?
There’s a lot of snobbery about genre fiction, much of it undeserved. My intention in Angels and Men was to write serious contemporary fiction, though the book can be read at the level of a romantic yarn. The thing about genre fiction is that it has certain conventions, which I didn’t try to follow in Angels and Men. The romance myth is hugely dominant in our society. Despite all of us knowing its limitations, we still feel its influence, and it is one of the narrative frameworks we tend to impose on our own experience. I think the novel is an ideal literary form to examine the myth.
Did the characters develop during the writing of the novel, or were they all planned out in advance? Did they ever take on a life of their own?
Yes, the characters developed. My books are character- rather than plot-driven. The more you write and think about them, the more subtle and ‘real’ they become. They react to one another in unpredictable ways, and to the situations you place them in. The best example from Angels and Men is the character of Andrew. He wasn’t part of the original plot. I realised early on that there was a danger of Mara being too prickly and difficult for the reader, so I thought it would help her cause to put an even more unlikable character in the room next door. As the action developed he became more complex and interesting. I began to think there was a love interest there, so I kept trying to contrive a scene between him and Mara, but it kept not happening. I was halfway through the book before I wondered if he was gay.
Are you a painter? In this novel, you use painting to express Mara’s feelings. Why painting, and not music or poetry?
When I was 18 I had to choose between art college and university, so although I’m not a painter now, I was then, and was making use of that experience in my fiction. While I was writing the book I had a close friend who was a painter, and we used to exchange ideas. In fact, she was reading the novel chapter by chapter as I wrote it, so there may be some of her input in the pages.
We’re interested in the level of autobiography in the novel. How far do the events of the novel correspond to your own experience at University, with sects, with men? Are you Mara? And if the novel is not autobiographical in this way, do you have other models for the characters?
The bottom line is that my writing comes out of my own head, not out of somebody else’s, so to that extent it is the product of my own experience and reflection. Some of the broad contours are autobiographical — yes, I went to Durham; yes, the college with the theological college next door is unmistakably the one I attended; yes, I did a thesis on women and Quakerism; yes, I have firsthand experience of charismatic Christianity, though not as extreme or as unpleasant as Mara’s. No, I’m not Mara, thank God, though it might be fun to be that rude to people now and then. My characters aren’t modelled on real people. I will take little bits of people — their experience, anecdotes, hair, mannerisms, attitudes, speech etc — and use them as starting points. But the real thrill of writing traditional fiction is when this mish-mash of bits suddenly starts living and breathing as an utterly believable character.
The book displays various opinions towards homosexuality and feminism. Which opinion is closest to your own? Do you think of yourself as a feminist?
Most thinking women are feminists, in the sense that injustice and discrimination on gender grounds is always unacceptable. My feminism finds its expression within the context of my Christian faith and the two inform and inspire one another. The issue of homosexuality is highly contentious in the Anglican Church at the moment. This was true, though less urgently, when I was writing Angels and Men, which is why I have groups of theological students sitting in bars arguing about it. The character most closely expressing my views would be Johnny.
Love, sex and marriage – do all three have to go together?
No. In earlier generations of fiction-writing a lot of drama revolves around the characters’ struggles with sexual temptation/immorality. You could say that the sexual revolution removed at a stroke one of the richest seams a novelist could mine. If it’s OK to engage in sex outside marriage, and adultery is bad behaviour rather than ‘sin’ — what is there left morally for the writer to get her teeth into? Tess of the D’Urbervilles couldn’t have been written in 2004. This is why I enjoy writing about religious belief — it’s one place where acute ethical and sexual anguish is still very much alive.
Have you ever witnessed a miracle? Or a spiritual visitation of any kind? Angels? Did you have any intention of converting your readers?
No, I’ve never witnessed a miracle, though I know otherwise sane normal people who claim they have. It’s an idea I can easily accommodate within my world view. Angels — no, only once in a dream. I don’t intend to convert my readers, so much as open a window onto the mysterious world of faith. Occasionally I read other people’s novels and get the feeling that they are on their own personal crusade. If the agenda of the writer is too obvious, then the fiction tends to be compromised. The novel doesn’t make a good vehicle for preaching.
The novel deals with many delicate issues, such as religion, feminism and homosexuality. Is there anything you would refrain from writing about, either by your own decision or persuaded by an editor?
While writing, have you realised any limitations to your writing ability? What do you see as your weaknesses as a writer, and is there anything you have to conquer to improve your career?
Every time I write I come away with a sense of the gulf between what I intended and what I ended up with. My main weaknesses are probably a narrowness of subject matter, a temptation towards flippancy and the pathetic need to make people like me. Currently I’m struggling with a lack of confidence and direction, which I will clearly need to conquer if I’m going to write another novel.
Why is the title of this book Angels and Men? Why not Women and Men, which might be more appropriate?
The title comes from the prayer for St Michael and All Angels in the Book of Common Prayer, which begins “O everlasting God, who hast ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order…” “Women and Men” sounds boring. I intended the novel to resonate with a sense of eerie otherness, and the image of the angels watching over the city was central to that.