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Susan Howatch's Second Journey page 27

Susan Howatch, 57, is author of many novels, including most recently The Wonder Worker. She spoke with B&C from her home in London.

While you now live in London, for a time you lived in Salisbury, which is the background for the Starbridge novels. The town seems to have had a profound affect on you.

When I was down in Salisbury I had a very small apartment which was about a hundred yards from the west front of the cathedral. So for about three years I lived with that building. It had the most extraordinary effect on me. I was hypnotized by seeing it in all weathers and times of day and night. Gradually it got to me.

I wasn't a churchgoer. I wasn't particularly religious when I went down to Salisbury, but I became interested. Various things happened in my professional and personal life that were quite upsetting, and I began to wonder what life was really all about. I wouldn't call it a midlife crisis. I always think a midlife crisis is when you cling to your youth. I would say instead it was the beginning of what they call a "second journey." This is when you reach a crossroads in life and you're keen to move on. I began to read about Christianity and the church, and I was living with this enormous architectural monster outside my window, so there were many things that fused together and produced the Starbridge books.

It was quite a change from your previous writing.

My personal life was a wreck at the time, and I'd come to the end of the kind of books I used to write. When I wrote the last of my long sagas and it was just treated like another airport book, I was discouraged. I felt I was just beginning to say something interesting, but nobody wanted to know. So when I wrote the first of the Starbridge books, I didn't submit it to publishers. I put it away in a drawer because I wasn't actually sure whether I wanted to publish it. I wasn't sure whether God wanted me to publish it. Should I go on writing novels or should I go back to college and do a degree in theology and teach, or what was I supposed to do? So I wrote this one just for my own personal pleasure.

Then I found that I really had to begin a second Starbridge book, and it was only after I was almost finished that that my American agent came over from New York and asked if she could have a little peek at the manuscript. I showed it to her, and then I had to show the two novels, of course, to my British agent, and both agents advised me to publish. That was like a green light saying, "Okay, go on, continue writing novels, but you will go on in a very different way."

When beginning the second journey you reach the crossroads, and you can either turn aside and do something quite new or you can go on but in a very different way. It wasn't as in the old days in which I just wanted to make a lot of money and be famous. This time I felt that it didn't matter. If this was what God required me to do, then my job was just to write them as well as I could, and then he would use it in whatever way he thought best. It was very liberating.

In your novels, spiritual direction is extremely important. Were there any mature Christians in your life at this time who were giving you any comfort or advice?

No. I was living as a recluse. I was not a churchgoer. I knew no one. I had a religious conversion in about 1983. I didn't become a regular churchgoer until about 1988 when I left Salisbury and was living in London.

How would you describe your own faith stance today?

I would say I'm a conservative liberal. I believe in holding to the tradition, but I like to experiment outside it, or at least speculate.

I expect one of the things that makes some of your conservative church fellows nervous is your interest in psychology and religion.

I think some parts of the Christian church are wary of fun, whether it's psychology or physics or whatever. But it is all God's world. Every facet of knowledge leads to God, and therefore science and religion are two facets of one truth.

The great breakthrough for me came in 1989. I came across the writings of an Anglican monk called Christopher Bryant, whom I quote in the fifth Starbridge book. He was a revelation to me because he made a study of Jung, and he wrote several books on the interface between Jungian psychologies and Christianity. He showed that some of the medieval Christian mystics said the same things as the psychologists. The same thing could be described in two languages: the language of religion and the language of psychology.

Do you find Jung most congenial among psychological theorists?

I think there are various psychologists who have interesting things to say. But I do think Jung is interesting. Jung said that most of the people who came to see him were troubled with spiritual illnesses. I think spiritual illness is the great underrated-even ignored-thing of our time. I think Jung had a lot of religious awareness.

There is no question about that. The question is, "Which religion?"

In some ways he was a gnostic, a quite unconventional Christian. But many pioneers are odd in some way.

Why did you fund a lectureship in Christianity and science at Cambridge University, rather than, say, in Christianity and literature?

I felt very strongly called to do this thing for science and religion. I came across Christopher Bryant's books. Then I came across the hooks of John Polkinghorne, who wrote about the interface of physics and cosmology with Christianity and religion in general. I was absolutely staggered by these books, and I saw how important it would be for Christian apologetics to have science reinforcing Christianity. I had met Polkinghorne several times and finally, when I said to him that I would like to endow a lectureship on this subject, he said the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and he had just asked the university authorities to fund the post. It all seemed very "meant."

So how do you feel about contemporary Christian literature?

When I write my books I don't sit down and say, "Now I'm going to write a Christian polemic." I'm going to write a novel. I think the danger with so-called Christian novels is that they are really polemics in disguise and consequently bad novels. Of course the novel should have a message, but it should grow out of the plot and the characters.

How much Romanticism is there in this, in the sense of inspiration just coming to the novelist? How much craft and discipline and intentionality really do lie behind the finished work?

I've given the wrong impression! I'm not one of these writers that say, "Oh, I just sit back and let my characters speak." Of course there's a craft; of course it must be immensely disciplined. But creation is a very mysterious process. For me the characters always come first and the message will grow out of them. Of course I'm going to write about what interests me and what I believe, so the Christianity will come from me. It will work itself out by the creative process. You've got to write about human beings, about the human condition. Unless that rings true, the Christianity won't emerge because Christianity is about how real human beings respond to God.

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