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An interview with Francis Spufford 

'I had appointed myself to try and make some things easier to understand for people outside,' the author of Unapologetic tells Alex Baker

Francis Spufford1


The Michael Ramsey prize (a prize for theological writing) – how did you feel about being included on the list and then John Swinton’s win?
I was really delighted to be included in the list…this is an unusual Michael Ramsay prize because it covers more years at one go than any previous ones have done, because the restart meant that there were four years of books to choose from. It’s about twice as flattering as usual then to be on the shortlist!

The thing I notice about the shortlist is what a lot of completely different kinds of excellence are included there. So I am extremely glad that I didn’t have to be judge to choose between them. Since the book I wrote, published four years ago now, was a kind of unsolicited love-gift to the Church of England - I don’t know how many of those they get – I had appointed myself to try and make some things easier to understand for people outside, it was extra nice to feel the Church was sending me some appreciation back again. I was thrilled and delighted therefore to be on the shortlist.
And obviously though I would have been very pleased to have won, Dementia is the one I was rooting for if it wasn’t me. It’s an extremely good book, and quite a tough minded one and a very good demonstration of how hard theological thinking can be fitted together with tender-hearted pastoral sympathy: hard-headed and tender-hearted are a very good combination. My mother had vascular dementia before she died.


What was it like writing the book Unapologetic openly as a Christian?
Nerve-wracking and liberating at the same time. If you’re British, so much of life is protected by layers of irony. It’s like covering yourself in goose fat before swimming the English Channel: covered with a thick layer irony, so you can slide through more easily.

And deliberately doing without some of those protections felt both weird and, after a bit, quite exciting actually. The book is partly written in a persona – I pretended to be somebody braver than myself and I wrote the book as him. There was a real freedom in it. Particularly as a lot of what went into it - especially the early bit - is stuff that had been on the tip of my tongue. It’s like it harnessed the part of me which later on will be a mad old man arguing with clouds…the bit which goes ‘No!’ and argues back with news broadcasts.

Probably the hardest technical challenge of writing it was how to change gear emotionally from being the liberating and (hopefully) clarifying anger of the opening chapter into other more patient and more gentle emotions later on – it couldn’t stay angry without falling into the pitfall of the stuff it was trying to oppose. The starting point of the work was recognising there is this bad-tempered public argument about religion going on in our culture which isn’t even at the right address – we’re not talking about the right stuff here, we’re talking about evolutionary biology and proof of the existence of God, which isn’t what faith consists of.

So, the job of the book was to try and carry the conversation on, or at least some part of it, back from the wrong address to somewhere nearer the right address. Back to what the ‘felt’ experience of faith is and why people actually do it, with any luck, described with nothing taken for granted, in terms so that people with outside the experience could get and could say, “Okay, I don’t think that, but now I can see why you feel that way, because actually, you’re not as weird as all that, you are people who are coming up with solutions to real problems. Maybe it’s not my solution, but I can see that Christians are people responding to the actual problems of life, rather than people who are playing tooth faeries…”

Francis Spufford2 

How did you deal with the response to your book when it came out?
I was braced for it to be much more challenging than it actually was. My experience was overwhelmingly positive, and not just from Christians. In fact, some of the reactions I valued most were from profound atheists saying, “I really enjoyed that. I still think it’s rubbish, but it was very enjoyable.” Giving a sort of brisk cerebral massage - I like that a lot.

There were two kinds of hostility. There was some atheists who clearly thought that believers were meant to be submissive, to lie down and go, “Oh, our time is over, O wise and rational person,” and I didn’t want to do that. There was a little bit of that, but not much.

The thing I found more painful and difficult was some more conservative Christians I’d managed to offend with it, which I’m seriously sorry about, because I was trying to use irreverent tools to do a reverent job and I don’t think that communicated itself to some people. I am a fairly liberal Christian, but I didn’t just want to be writing an advert for special liberal Christianity, I wanted it to be all kinds - showing my place on the place and what the shape of the map is. It’s probably impossible to try and speak for the whole of the religion, but if you’re writing for people outside, you have to try and do something like that.

And there are people for whom my version of the map just wasn’t what Christianity is, and where I gave offence, I’m sorry. Not sorry for using the word f*** a lot, but I am sorry that there were people who thought that I didn’t care about scripture or that, by coming up with a new word for ‘sin’, I was saying there is something wrong with the old word. There is nothing wrong with the old word, except that people don’t understand what it means. I invented a new term to force people to avoid the unhelpful associations of the word ‘sin’. Think of it in terms of lingerie and ice cream - people really don’t get what Christians mean when they talk about ‘sin’ and ‘redemption’.

But it’s not that I thought that the old stuff was too tough and I wanted some squishy new age Christianity and water, it’s that I wanted the old stuff to be heard and I was trying to come up with enjoyable, ruthless, irreverent-sounding, but fundamentally faithful ways of doing justice to the old stuff. The same old stuff, the ancient old stuff, the necessary old stuff, the stuff that hasn’t changed for 2000 years.

You’re here with your new historical fiction book Golden Hill. What do you think of modern writers who seem to ignore the role that religion and church going has played in everyone’s lives in the pre-modern era?
Quite, that seems to me profoundly anachronistic and, actually, to be bad in terms of plain old literature as well. The difference of the past is part of what makes it exciting to write about. But every historical novel is a compromise in some way or another. Every writer who sets a novel in the past is having to come to some kind of compromise between the sensibility of ‘then’ and the sensibility of ‘now’, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to understand it. There is always a sort of secret stepladder being provided to the present day reader to help them into the past, and Golden Hill is no exception.

But I didn’t want to do that thing of saying that the religion of the past is part of its primitiveness - or to say that every sympathetic character in the past must have uncannily modern attitudes towards it. My book is deliberately a book about the beginnings of the modern world. It’s set in an America which isn’t quite revolutionary America yet, the characters have no idea that’s what’s going to happen, but as readers, we can see it’s going there. It’s about the beginning of modern times and faith has a large part in that story.

I was usefully gobsmacked by a piece of historical research I read before writing the book which said that the single greatest predictor for which side the American colonists took when the revolution came was religious denomination: Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists tended to be for independence; Episcopalians tended to be for the king.

And we’re not understanding the past if we don’t let that be part of people’s motives then. So I made a resolution that I wouldn’t quietly down pedal the awkwardly religious aspects of the past, but where I used it, it would have something to do with the story – it would carry its weight in the drama. And that my mysterious protagonist should have something recognisable as a spiritual life, even if the book is set up to keep you as the reader in the dark about it for most of the time.

But by the time you reach the end, it ought to make sense what he’s struggling with and why. However, it’s got to work even for readers who don’t get any of that stuff, it’s got to be part of the compromise between the past and present I’m making: I hope I put in everything in terms of mood and atmosphere that will let a person who is completely indifferent to religion enjoy those bits and get something dramatic out of them.

Do you think that you should have started writing fiction sooner?
Yes, but I know that that’s an illusion, caused by the fact that I’ve finally nerved myself up to have a go and it seems to have worked out alright. So therefore, I now know I should have been doing it 20 years ago. But actually, 20 years ago, I was much too nervous and not ready for it yet, so I’m just going to have to be one of those writers who has a productive 50s when it comes to fiction.


So do you already have the inklings of future novels?
Yes, I have two more novels and a piece of non-fiction. Not yet ready, but ready to begin, because everybody cooks differently, but my experience is that I need a way in, and a sense of the kind of thing that it is and probably a destination. I don’t need to know how to get to the destination, but I have enough to know how to begin…


Francis Spufford is an author who has specialized in works of non-fiction for most of his career, but published his first unambiguous novel, Golden Hill, in 2016. Golden Hill has won three major literary awards.
His 2012 book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense described his Christian faith.
 The interview took place at Greenbelt 2016. 

More Greenbelt interviews:

Alex Baker is the former sub-editor and movie reviewer of The Baptist Times who now works as a photographer www.alexbakerphotography.com

Baptist Times, 03/08/2017
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