A Catholic Way of Writing
From Alive to Death of a Pope: Piers Paul Read Discusses Life as a Catholic Novelist
BY TIM DRAKE
June 7-13, 2009 Issue | Posted 5/29/09 at 1:59 PM
Last week’s “In Person” introduced readers to Piers Paul Read, best known for his 1974 non-fiction work Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors.
Now he’s got a new drama hitting bookstores, only it’s fiction: The Death of a Pope.
In Part II of the interview, Read discusses his writing techniques and what it means to be a Catholic writer.
What led to your decision to become a writer? How old were you when you made the decision to follow that career path?
With an author and publisher as a father, it was natural to want to follow in his footsteps. He encouraged me to write poetry when I was a child, but, as a teenager, I started to read the great 19th-century novelists — Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Maupassant, Stendhal, Flaubert — and thereafter was only interested in writing prose.
What writers have most inspired you or influenced your work?
Clearly, it was those 19th-century novelists who suggested that I could lead a more dramatic and interesting life through my imagination than I could in real life.
However, stylistically, I wanted to go break away from the straightforward psychological novel, as exemplified by Henry James. In this I was influenced by quite disparate authors — Laurence Sterne, Machado de Assis, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Günter Grass. My first novel, written in the mid-1960s, was plotless and experimental: That kind of writing was very much in vogue at the time. All subsequent novels have told a story.
Most readers will be familiar with your work Alive. Were there particular lessons, spiritual or otherwise, that you learned from writing that book?
I was most reluctant to write Alive — and had to be cajoled by my U.S. publisher, Edward Burlingame, to fly out to Montevideo [Uruguay] to meet the survivors of the air crash in the Andes. This was around a month after they had returned from their ordeal, and they were all in a delicate condition. As I talked to them, it became clear that their story was about much more than surviving by eating human flesh. There was strong competition from more substantial publishing houses and more celebrated authors to do a deal with the survivors. I was chosen largely because I was a Catholic, and, once chosen, could hardly refuse. Listening to their account of their ordeal during the months which followed was deeply moving and taught me much about the value of endurance, friendship and faith in God.
What inspired you to write The Death of a Pope?
Since visiting El Salvador in 1990, I had wanted to write a novel dealing with liberation theology — its superficial attractiveness as a cause that championed the poor and oppressed in the Third Word, but its actual distortion of the teaching of the Gospels. As Pope Benedict XVI put it in Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), “Jesus was not Spartacus; he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation.” There was also the vitriolic loathing of Catholic teaching that erupted over the question of AIDS in Africa, the “text” here being the view of a British political commentator, Polly Toynbee: “The Pope kills millions through his reckless spreading of AIDS.”
Because I was writing a novel, not a tract, the issues are embodied in characters who are not mere mouthpieces for the different points of view, but living characters who love and suffer and are often confused about what is right and what is wrong.
Tell me a little about your daily writing routine.
My writing routine is based upon that of my father who, after breakfast, would take a short walk, then work until lunch. After lunch, he would read in his arm chair (in my case, this usually leads to a short siesta), then take another longer walk, returning to his desk after tea, and working on until around seven.
When my children were young, I had an office outside the house. I believe that an inflexible routine is essential for writing. Particularly when it comes to fiction, I have often spent half the morning looking at a blank sheet of paper (or computer screen) before my mind begins to function.
What does it mean to you to be a Catholic writer?
Graham Greene used to say that he was not a Catholic writer but a writer who was a Catholic. It was not that he was ashamed to be known as a Catholic, but that he did not want non-Catholic readers to feel that they would not be able to relate to his work. Of course, he did not shake off the label, and, while I would share his hope that my work would mean something to non-Catholic readers, I have long since realized that any Catholic who writes, and particularly any Catholic writer who puts his head above the parapet to defend his faith, may suffer professionally as a result.
Much of your more recent writing has been on spiritual things. Are there ways that your writing has changed over time?
I wish this were true. My most recent novel, Alice in Exile, prior to The Death of a Pope, is perhaps the least spiritual I have written. One of my failings, in the eyes of my publishers, is never to provide more of the same. For example, Alive was followed by a novel about a sexually perverted Polish novelist — hardly likely to appeal to the same readership. My works of non-fiction include a work of history, a biography and three works of reportage. My fiction has included historical novels set around the two 20th-century world wars, satirical critiques of modern British social mores, and what one might call “didactic thrillers,” such as On the Third Day. The Death of a Pope falls into that category.
The sacraments convey heavenly realities through ordinary means. Are there particular realities that you’re trying to convey through your fiction?
The great drama in the world is the battle between good and evil, and that is what I try to depict in my work. The battleground is the soul of each individual, and, while a novelist cannot judge his characters, he can present the evidence as in a court of law. One of the tricks of the devil is to have us ease our own consciences by moving the battleground from our own souls back into history or into political struggles in faraway places.
When writing novels set during World War II, such as The Junkers or The Free Frenchman, I have tried to show the readers that all was not as clear-cut as it now seems; and when it comes to a critique of contemporary society, I have tried to show the ways in which we deceive ourselves about good and evil. Are there particular realities that I am trying to convey through my fiction? Yes — the reality of sin.
Tim Drake writes from
St. Joseph, Minnesota.
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