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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.
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.
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?
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?
How have you managed a literary life, a working life, and a family life?
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?
What are you working on now?
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?
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.