Cassock Rippers and Ecclesiastical Fiction: An Interview with Catherine Fox

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Catherine Fox was educated at Durham and London Universities and has a degree in English and a PhD in Theology. She is the author of four novels, Angels and Men, The Benefits of Passion, Love for the Lost and Acts and Omissions which explore the themes of the spiritual and the physical with insight and humour. In 2007, Yellow Jersey Press published Fight the Good Fight: From Vicar’s Wife to Killing Machine in which Catherine relates her quest to achieve a black belt in Judo. She teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University and lives in Liverpool, where her husband is dean of the cathedral.  Catherine is currently blogging her latest novel, Unseen Things Above, in weekly instalments at http://unseenthingsabove.blogspot.co.uk/  She kindly agreed to be interviewed on a subject she has strong feelings about: the relationship between fiction and religion, and her objection to being categorized as a writer of “Christian fiction”.

JB:  Many thanks for discussing this with me, Catherine.  You’ve said in the past that you dislike being put in the category of “Christian fiction”, both in literal terms (by your books being shelved in the “Religious” section rather than under “General Fiction”) and in literary terms.  Could you explain why?  Do you think this leads to people misreading your works?

CF:  It means that sometimes my novels fall into the wrong hands, and people who are expecting to read Christian genre fiction are upset.  I never set out to write novels for a Christian market.  They were intended to hold their own in the big bad secular marketplace and be read as contemporary fiction.  To write ‘Christian fiction’ seems to imply a theological stance towards ‘the world’ that I find troubling; that the world and popular culture are something Christians need to insulate themselves against.  This strikes me as a profoundly anti-incarnational line to take, and possible something that tends to bedevil recent Evangelical thought more than other flavours of Christianity. 

JB:  Your books have reached high spots in Amazon rankings in subgenres which many readers might consider slightly unusual: “Christian romance” is one thing, but “Christian Futuristic” and “Religious Science Fiction and Fantasy” are a bit more niche.  Do you think these make sense as genres?  How do religion and genre interact in fiction?

I have no idea what these Amazon categories are about!  It looks as though some of the labels have seeped across from my teen fantasy novel Wolftide.

JB:  Since you don’t write “Christian fiction”, what is the best way of describing how your novels differ from other people’s, in setting and approach?  More particularly, does the fact that many of the characters you write about are clergy or their families, and many of your plots revolve around Christian institutions, mean that you write “ecclesiastical fiction” (for want of a better term)?  Given the fact your university life also appears in your work, is it a total coincidence that you write about people in and around churches, and would any other institution do as well?  Or is there something about the depiction of people’s religious life which engrosses you as a writer?

I hadn’t thought of ‘ecclesiastical fiction’ before.  That might work, as a sort of equivalent to the campus novel.  When my earlier novels came out I described them as ‘cassock rippers’.  Penguin always found my novels a bit tricky to market, because of a perception (this is nearly 20 years ago now) that people weren’t interested in reading about the C of E.  It was suggested to me that I was essentially writing about people within an institution, and that this did not necessarily have to be the church, and could I find an alternative?  I tried and failed (hence, partly, the long gap in my fiction-writing career).  Looking back, the answer was No.  Because it’s not just the institution; it’s the big themes of salvation, sin and forgiveness that absorb me.  I can’t leave them alone.  Fortunately, with things like Rev, the C of E is no longer seen as the kiss of death to sales figures.

JB: How do people react to your work, and how does that relate to the question of genre?  (When I said I was writing about your work, a colleague of mine mentioned she had always enjoyed your novels, and valued the assumption in them that it is normal to go to church or wonder about God, just as it is normal in other novels to have a job or wonder about the future.)  What are the typical positive and critical responses people have to your books, and have any of them surprised you?  Is there any topic you consciously don’t write about because you know it would be misunderstood or criticized harshly?

I get a range of reactions.  I have a lot of very devoted fans, many who are church people, others who are not.  What seems to unite them is that they really care about the fictional characters and what happens to them.  I also have people who get very angry about my novels (one person destroyed his copy of The Benefits of Passion).  The complaints tend to be on grounds of the bad language, the explicit sex, and the portrayal of Christians behaving badly.  There’s a feeling that I’ve let the side down, and should somehow be using my fiction as a stealth weapon to get under people’s radar and commend the gospel. 

This is a strategy I rejected right at the outset of my novel-writing career.  I spent some time pondering what it might mean to be a writer and a Christian, and coming as I do from an Evangelical background, the question of whether fiction might be a vehicle for the Christian message was bound to occur.  On the other hand, there was the imperative to write well (I’m an English graduate after all).  How might the two be held in tension?  What role models were there other than Tolkein and C.S.Lewis? Or were faith and fiction separate enterprises?  Maybe my task was simply to write the best fiction I could and trust that beauty was truth etc?  The way ahead was lit up for me by the novels of Chaim Potok.  He simply portrayed his orthodox Jewish world without either seeking to mitigate or apologise on the one hand, or proselytise on the other.  It seems to me that this is the best model.  The novel can be a very hospitable space.  It says ‘Welcome to my world’.  This is really what I’m doing in Acts and Omissions.  Fiction is low budget virtual reality: here’s what it feels like to be an Anglican.

There is no taboo subject really.  You always run the risk, especially if your work is at all satirical, that the authorial voice will be read as your personal opinion.  But there’s a get-out clause with fiction that isn’t there if you write a personal blog or feature.  The only subject matter I avoid is the misery of actual people I know.  I don’t feel that the ‘sliver of glass’ theory gives me permission to ransack other people’s awful biography simply to serve my fiction.  I’m aware that my books are often read as romans a clef, so I do my best to fictionalise my world.  The fear is that in my efforts not to make a character like X, I end up accidentally spilling the beans about Y (who I have never heard of). 

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