acts and omissions, alison barr, catherine fox, christianity, fiction, kate charles, kel richards, spck, unseen things above
Readers of Quite Irregular will probably be familiar with the wide range of theological and devotional books which SPCK publish, as quite a few end up being reviewed here. One of the more intriguing developments in British publishing over the last year or so has been the appearance of a fiction imprint from this venerable Christian house. So far the novels of Catherine Fox and Kate Charles have been the best-known output from this list, and they don’t seem to quite fit the established categories of “Christian” fiction. Alison Barr, the publisher in charge of the new list, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the origins of Marylebone House, what it’s doing and where it might be going.
What is Marylebone House, and where did the impulse for this imprint come from? Why was now the right time to launch it?
Marylebone House is the fiction imprint of SPCK. It had a very clear moment of conception – in a tent at Greenbelt in the early evening of 24th August 2013! I had been listening to Catherine Fox discussing with her fellow novelist, Gregory Norminton, what it meant to put faith into fiction. In the question time afterwards, Catherine explained that she wasn’t making any money from the novel she was currently blogging, Acts and Omissions. Anyone could read it for free. ‘It’s an act of love,’ she said, ‘but if there are any publishers out there . . .’ and the audience laughed. I had the exhilarating feeling that I’d just been given an invitation I couldn’t possibly pass up. The fact was that SPCK didn’t publish fiction, but the other commissioning editors knew and loved Catherine’s books too – Angels and Men, The Benefits of Passion, Love for the Lost – and it seemed in that crucial moment that things might just come together, somehow.
Two years on, with 20 novels now signed to the Marylebone House imprint, it’s intriguing to look back on how they did.
Catherine and I met again in Liverpool a few weeks later and by the end of lunch, the sequel to Acts and Omissions – Unseen Things Above – had been envisioned and sketched out. (Obviously if we were going to launch a fiction list, we needed to have a few books in the pipeline.) The SPCK editorial board and governing body could see the potential of the novels to further the mission of the Society, though everyone was aware that the liveliness of Catherine’s writing might not be to the taste of some of our established supporters . . . We decided to label Acts and Omissions and the reissue of Angels and Men (Catherine’s first novel, published by Penguin in 1995) ‘SPCK Fiction’ and to release the books in July 2014.
Around then, I was in touch with Kate Charles, another established novelist, about the possibility of acquiring her new Callie Anson mystery, False Tongues (fourth in the clerical crime series), and reissuing the popular Book of Psalms mysteries. Our new CEO, Sam Richardson, had just arrived and was keen that SPCK should publish not just for people in the church but for a mainstream audience too. A visit to the SPCK archives in Cambridge the following month, confirmed this to be reassuringly consistent with the vision of our founder, Thomas Bray (1658-1730). Under Bray’s guidance, SPCK presented the Christian message in ways that were appropriate for his time and society. It seemed to us that the fiction list could help us connect with people we could never hope to reach through prayer books, hymn books or Bibles.
By autumn, the Fox titles were selling well, but we felt the expanding list would be more readily accepted by secular shops – and displayed in the fiction rather than the religion section – if the imprint name did not lead booksellers to assume the books were explicitly Christian. It wasn’t difficult to come up with an alternative. We had been based at Holy Trinity Church on Marylebone Road for over 60 years, so had historic links with an area known for its literary connections, such as the original Daunt Books on the High Street and the much-visited home of the fictional Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street. (It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles that inspired the choice of font for the Marylebone House logo!) The first book with the new imprint, The Benefits of Passion, was published in February 2015, and was followed by Unseen Things Above, The Corpse in the Cellar (A 1930s murder mystery by Kel Richards), and Kate Charles’ False Tongues and Book of Psalms mysteries in June and July.
The titles advertised so far don’t fall into the conventional genres of “Christian” or “inspirational” fiction, though they clearly all have connections with Christianity (more specifically the Church of England.) What are the principles you’re building this list upon?
Marylebone House aims to publish fiction that offers an insight into a Christian worldview and an element of redemption. We hope the books will be enjoyed by Christians, by those on the fringes of the church, by those with an interest in spirituality (however vaguely defined) and by those who would profess no Christian faith at all.
The response to the new list from our major customers, Bertrams, Gardners and Waterstones, has been heartening. All have remarked personally to our sales reps that this is a side of Christianity that makes them sit up and take notice. These books are reaching literate people, some of whom may have a rather un-thought-through view of Christianity. As Catherine Fox remarked in an extensive article, ‘Christian fiction in a novel form’ in the Church Times (12 September 2014) people want to read intelligent, compassionate writing about human experience: ‘There’s a hunger for it.’
The potential appeal of the list to both the Christian and the secular market may be illustrated by the fact that, in the same week, Acts and Omissions was chosen as a Christmas Book by the Church Times and as one of the Best Books of 2014 by The Guardian.
How does Marylebone House fit into SPCK’s larger plans for the next few years? How does it relate to your other lists? Is it light relief, works which will deal with the same themes, or books which you think will appeal to your audience?
One of SPCK’s strategic priorities is to broaden its publishing, and the launching of the Marylebone House list is a leap forward in our efforts to produce books that communicate Christian values to a wider public. As it’s important that the list feels accessible to people wary of anything too overtly Christian, MH has its own Twitter account (@marylebonehouse) and a dedicated website, www.marylebonehousebooks.co.uk, will go live in October.
Over the next few years, we aim to develop a range of literary, middlebrow and accessible titles, following the SPCK model of publishing books for all sectors of the Christian market. We already have titles in several categories.
Catherine Fox’s Acts and Omissions and Unseen Things Above are set in the contemporary fictional diocese of Lindchester and intended as an affectionate homage to Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles. (By popular demand, a third volume, Realms of Glory, will be blogged during 2016 and published in 2017.) Part of their appeal lies in the fact that Christians and non-Christians alike tend to be fascinated by what really goes on in clergy communities behind closed doors, as evidenced by the great commercial success of Susan Howatch’s Starbridge novels. Those books enabled people in different wings of the church to understand each other better, and as Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, has commented on Acts and Omissions:
‘Catherine Fox writes so well about the Church of England that she can make sense of a world in which the salacious and the sacred are intimately entwined. This is a novelist who is never frightened to enter ecclesiastical territory where bishops fear to tread. She writes not merely with affection but with love for an institution that is creaking under the weight of its own contradictions. Acts and Omissions will help people in the church who already pray for one another daily to like one another a little more . . . [its] intertwining stories . . . throw a welcome ray of light for those who find it hard to understand why an institution made up of good, caring people has become better known for hypocrisy than for happiness.’
Catherine’s books clearly have a serious contribution to make in the way they address contentious theological issues. But they are also witty and hugely engaging, and for those who know and love her earlier trilogy, there’s the pleasure of seeing characters – like Andrew Jacks, Mara Johns and Johnny Whitaker – reappear as their middle-aged selves . . .
Kate Charles’ novels also stem from a deep affection for the Church of England. The clerical detective, Callie Anson, first appeared in Evil Intent (Alison and Busby, 2005) as a young curate facing male colleagues bitterly opposed to the inclusion of women in the priesthood. In False Tongues, she is largely removed from the scene of the crime – the brutal stabbing of a young teen caught up in a world of cyber-bullying. While her police officer fiancé supports the victim’s family through a bewildering investigation in which nothing is as it seems, Callie attends a theological college reunion with her clueless ex in Cambridge – and finds herself confronted by the equally challenging mysteries of the human heart.
Kate’s Book of Psalms novels have delighted reviewers and many thousands of readers over the last 20 years:
‘No one is more skilled [at the modern ecclesiastical mystery] than Kate Charles.With the lightest of touches, she weaves the goriest murders into a convincing and provocative backdrop of clerical politics . . . Thoroughly entertaining, even to those of no religious bent’ (The Times).
Each of the five volumes comes with a new introduction, explaining its original context: the outing of a priest with a hidden gay past (A Drink of Deadly Wine); a visit to Walsingham for the National Pilgrimage (The Snares of Death); the vote to ordain women (A Dead Man Out of Mind); the early 1990s goings-on at Lincoln Cathedral (Appointed to Die); and the Church Commissioners’ losses through unwise investments (Evil Angels Among Them). As Kate writes, ‘The Church is the perfect setting for a crime novel precisely because human nature at its ugliest is most evident set against the ideal which the Church represents.’
This observation may be seen as equally relevant to Simon Parke’s murder mysteries, which feature Abbot Peter, described by the Daily Mail as ‘a true original’. Simon and I worked together 20 years ago on Desert Depths (Scripture Union, 1995), the first novel in which Abbot Peter appeared, offering wise but quirky counsel to a succession of broken-down souls visiting the monastery of St James-the-Less in the desert sands. Now retired to an English seaside town, Abbot Peter has assumed the role of sleuth and partners with his police inspector niece, Tamsin, in solving a murder in a classic enclosed community setting – though with a suitably out of the ordinary approach. A (Very) Public School Murder, publishing in May 2016, is Simon’s fourth psychological mystery, following on from A Vicar Crucified, A Psychologist Screams and A Director’s Cut (all DLT).
A more light-hearted approach to crime is taken by Kel Richards, a veteran Australian journalist, in a murder mystery series which beautifully evokes 1930s England. The books are already attracting a substantial following, possibly due to nostalgia for a ‘simpler’ age, possibly because the mystery in each case is tackled by ‘the brilliant mind and larger-than-life personality of Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis (beloved creator of Narnia)’. Woven throughout The Corpse in the Cellar (June 2015), The Country House Murders (September 2015) and The Floating Body (January 2016) are engaging conversations between a young former student, Tony Morris, and Lewis, which offer readers easily-digestible insights into Lewis’s Christian worldview. Possible future volumes may include an Oxford-set book focusing on Lewis’ friendship with Charles Williams, one that takes place during the Second World War, and another featuring Tony Morris playing host to Lewis in London for the latter’s legendary BBC radio programmes.
Kenneth Steven is one of Scotland’s leading poets, and his new novel, The Well of the North Wind, is in complete contrast to anything Marylebone House has published so far. A lyrical, timeless story which unfolds amidst the elemental beauty of Iona during the last days of Columba, it is an exploration of doubt, faith – and the brokenness of spirit that finally releases us into love. The world-renowned spiritual writer Richard Rohr, who we’re proud to have as an SPCK author, has said: ‘One of the non-dual gifts of Celtic and Native traditions is their openness to inspiration and wisdom from nature, beauty, and signs and symbols that speak deeply to the unconscious.’ We hope The Well of the North Wind will touch people on many different levels – and that we’ll be able to follow it up with other strong novels with non-contemporary settings.
In fact, we are delighted to reveal that we already have a second, and that it is none other than Silence by Shusaku Endo, ‘One of the finest historical novels written by anyone, anywhere . . . Flawless’ (David Mitchell). Never in its 317-year history has SPCK published a tie in of a major motion picture, but a still from Martin Scorcese’s film, featuring Liam Neeson as Father Ferreira and Andrew Garfield as Father Rodrigues, will be on the Marylebone House cover! The novel is set in the seventeenth century and tells of two Jesuit priests facing violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor and to spread the gospel of Christianity. John Updike described it as, ‘A remarkable work . . . sombre, delicate and startlingly empathetic’; the Daily Telegraph as ‘A masterpiece. There can be no higher praise.’ The book and the film, which is already being tipped for an Oscar, will be released in late 2015 or early 2016, and we are thrilled to have a title on our list with such wide secular appeal.
As well as publishing established authors, Marylebone House is keen to promote new writers, and we have just signed up a first novel by the journalist and feature writer, Sarah Meyrick. After Anna is a powerful emotional and spiritual drama set on the pilgrim path to Canterbury, in which a group of walkers, each bearing secrets, search for clarity and forgiveness. It will be released in June 2016, and we have exciting plans for working with many other first-time writers over the next few years.
Finally, in thinking of a strapline for the Marylebone House list, the most fitting seemed to be ‘Books that beguile’. We very much hope that people find great pleasure in these novels. We also trust that they will find elements which enthral . . . perhaps leading to the contemplation of a more expansive world.