We continue to count down to the opening of our new home and the first preview of Sixty-Six Books, just 6 weeks to go!
Celebrating the 400th year anniversary of the King James Bible and featuring a remarkable range of playwrights, poets, songwriters and novelists, Sixty-Six Books will fill every corner of the building with contemporary responses to some of the oldest stories ever told.
We are counting down with a different blog each week written by one of the creatives behind the production. This week the blog is brought to you by the talented novelist, broadcaster and playwright Kate Mosse who is writing a response to the Book of Revelation
1) Have you ever encountered/read the Bible before? If so, what is your first memory of it?
Standing in the wooden pulpit of a Norman church on the edge of the salt marshes in Fishbourne, nervous and with cold legs and toes, reading the Sixth Lesson in the Nine Lessons and Carols (Luke 2:1). I had an old fashioned, quiet kind of C of E upbringing in Sussex in the 1960s. Modest and gentle, church going was a part of things and something most people in our village did in those days. There was nothing aggressive or tub-thumping about it, nothing that spilled over into everyday life. My paternal grandfather was a priest, my godmother (still going strong at the age of 100) is a nun, and my aunt, Margaret Booker, was one of the founders of MOW (the Movement for the Ordination of Women). My sisters and I went to church on Sundays, went to local C of E primary school and secondary school, so had assembly every morning. As I got older, I had to play the piano for hymns and concerts. But though the Bible was always there, in the background, it wasn't something we read or studied. It just was.
Only as an adult, wrestling with the grim social and political consequences of faith - and struggling to understand the uses to which Christianity had been put - did I actually begin to read passages for myself. All that aside, I think now - as I realise I did then - that it's the most extraordinary collection of writings. A book of myths or a book of faith, the imagery, the characters, the sheer epic nature of the stories can't be beaten.
2) Was there a particular word/image/passage or hook from the Bible that you used as a springboard for your piece?
'Revelation' is one of the most intriguing and beguiling books of the New Testament, beautiful and disturbing and transforming. A gift to a writer ... It's also one of the most controversial, and most abused of texts, so I started with a series of questions.
First, the narrative voice. The authorship of 'Revelation' is disputed - there are three Johns in the frame - and there's a great deal of scholarship suggesting that, although the text was written in Greek, it was probably not the author's first language.
Second, the tone of 'Revelation' is at odds with pretty much everything else in the Bible. It's an inspirational and poetic text, rather than a statement of theological record or a series of instructions or commands. It's a matter of conjecture as to how it came to be included in the New Testament at all. Following the struggles in the 2nd century CE between Bishop Athanasius and his opponents over which texts were orthodox (canonical) and which texts were not and thus deemed heretical, all other apocryphal texts had been rejected (although there are some apocryphal passages in the Gospels and other sections) and some Bibles used in the Eastern Orthodox Church, even today, don't include 'Revelation'.
Third, there is debate as to how 'Revelation' should be read. Interpretations fall into four distinct camps - the historicist, seeing the text as a broad record of history; the preterist, referring specifically to the events of the apostolic era; the futurist, foretelling what is to come; and the idealist or symbolic, considering the document to be allegorical. Was the fact the text could be read in such different ways a sign of brilliance or a writer not in control of his or her material? I came to the conclusion that this slipperiness at the heart of things was deliberate. So the author chooses to use images and ideas that appear in other books of the Bible to suggest a conformity that is not there and as a way of obscuring a symbolism taken from other apocryphal texts (such as those found at Nag Hammadi in 1945).
By thinking around the history and controversy of 'Revelation,' 'Endpapers' started to take shape: I imagined a character trying to conceal his or her identity; I imagined the character smuggling in so-called heretical ideas under the guise of orthodoxy; an author who was, first and foremost, a poet rather than a theologian, someone concerned with metre and rhythm and the pattern of the words. As I began to write and 'Endpapers' found its shape, I realised it was in fact a meditation (albeit a rather surreal one) on the nature of faith and gnosis.
3) What’s the first thing you did when starting to write your response? (eg made a cup of tea, read the passage over and over, wrote a particular line, figured out the structure…)
I read 'Revelation' over and over again, to catch the cadence and pattern of the words. It's a remarkably clever text, patterns of repetition of words and numbers, a sequence of similar prophecies, dreadful images of destruction and wrath and vengeance. I spent a fair few months researching the historical and theological background to the piece, before going back to the text itself once more. Even then, there were two final questions I needed to answer for myself before I began writing: first, which images stuck with me and which faded away? There are so many notorious characters, so much extraordinary and vivid description, that there's a danger that it all becomes overblown and too melodramatic to be emotionally powerful. Second, what did I feel the true character of 'Revelation' to be? Was it about vengeance, punishment, a philosophy of just deserts? Or was it a text about peace, quietness, redemption? Only after months of tiptoeing around the piece, did I feel ready to start writing.
Then, no not tea, but white wine ...
4) Did the creative process for SIXTY-SIX BOOKS differ from your usual writing process? If so, how?
I'm a novelist (and a fledgling playwright), so I'm used to having a large cast of characters to play with and to having the obligation to create an entire world as the backdrop to the plot. Writing a theatrical monologue was about capturing a single moment, that one, sharp click of the fingers, about imagining one character capable of carrying the weight of the narrative on her shoulders. Small canvass stuff rather than large, even if a novel is a sequence of individual, small scenes. It was challenging - exciting, too - to have no one else to hide behind, just that single voice.
But if the atmosphere felt different, the preparation wasn't: research, think, research, think, read, read, read. Start, start again. For me, the actual writing always comes at the end of a long process of researching, planning, thinking, and so it was with 'Endpapers'. Nothing works unless the characters comes to life in your head and lead you by the hand through the story: one character, or twenty, it's not so different.
And 3000 words rather than 180,000, that was good ...
5) Is there a response that you are particularly looking forward to seeing - why?
The line up of authors for Sixty-Six Books is so extraordinary, so impressive - Carol Ann Duffy, Wole Soyinka, Kamila Shamsie, David Edgar - it's hard to pick out one. But I suppose I'm most keen to see those responses based on books I've the strongest affection for: so, Jeanette Winterson reinterpreting 'Genesis', Anne Michaels writing 'Exodus' and Owen Sheers tackling 'Ezekiel'; in the New Testament, Billy Bragg on 'Luke' and, of course, Rowan Williams responding to 'John'. It will be fascinating to see how similar (or different) our two texts turn out to be.
Kate Mosse: Novelist, broadcaster and playwright, Kate Mosse, is the multi million bestselling author of Labyrinth, Sepulchre and The Winter Ghosts. Her next novel, Citadel, will be published on 1st September 2011. Her debut play, Syrinx, won a Broadcasting Press Guild Award in 2009. The Co-Founder & Honorary Director of the Orange Prize for Fiction, Kate is also the Joint Director of the Chichester Literary Festival, one of the authors leading the campaign against library closures, is involved with several literacy organisations and is on the committee of WOW - Women of the World Arts Festival, which took place at the SouthBank Centre in March 2011. A Trustee of the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex, she has recently joined the board of the National Theatre.