A Writer’s Vocation

Best-selling Catholic novelist Piers Paul Read talks about his new book, The Death of a Pope

Piers Paul Read is perhaps best known for his book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. But now his new novel, The Death of a Pope (Ignatius Press), has been making waves.

Read says he was baptized by the same priest who had given G.K. Chesterton the last rites. And that was just the beginning of a life of letters and faith.

The novelist, writer and playwright recently spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from his home in London about the book and what it's like to be a Catholic writer.

Part II of the interview will appear in next week's Register.

Were your parents both British?

My father, Herbert Read, was a poet, publisher and art critic. His father had been a farmer in North Yorkshire. My mother, Margaret Ludwig, born in Aberdeen in Scotland, came from mixed German, Scottish, Irish and Italian stock. She was a professional viola player and musicologist. While studying music in Cologne, she was so struck by Rhineland Catholicism that, when she returned to Scotland, she became a Catholic. They had three sons and one daughter.

I was their second son.

Have you always been Catholic?

My father, first an atheist, later an agnostic, agreed that his children should be raised as Catholics. I was baptized in Beaconsfield by the same priest who had given the last rites to G.K. Chesterton. Later, we went to live in Yorkshire, where I was educated by Benedictine monks at Ampleforth College.

What lasting lessons did you learn from your mother and father? What was the atmosphere like in your home, given your believing mother and agnostic father?

The atmosphere in our house was artistic rather than devout. My father's study was lined with books, and he had a fine collection of modern paintings. In the drawing room there was my mother's grand piano and her viola. Artist friends of my father occasionally came to stay, but, on the whole, he had chosen to live in Yorkshire to escape what he termed "the culture vultures" in London.

My mother befriended a number of musical monks from Ampleforth, and whenever my father returned from a business trip to London, he complained that "those damned monks have drunk all my gin."

By and large, however, he gave my mother a free rein. She had great wit and vitality and kept him entertained. She was also quick-tempered and domineering, which made life difficult for her children. My father, above the fray in his study, was always wise and just and kind, which made it easier for me to conceive of God the Father. I had more difficulty forming a psychic image of Mary, "meek and mild."

What's your favorite childhood Catholic memory?

Returning home from school at the end of term, I loathed school. Although Ampleforth was only five miles from where we lived, I went there as a boarder. I adored my father and resented the monks who usurped his role in loco parentis. We lived in a beautiful house where I had a room of my own; Ampleforth involved communal living in an atmosphere of fear — beating, bullying and supposedly "character-forming" sports such as boxing and rugby & a vile ordeal for a plump, shy teenager.

Was there ever time that you fell away from the practice of your Catholic faith? If so, what drew you back?

Paradoxically, though I disliked school, I was captivated by the Catholic religion. We went to Mass every day of the week and twice on Sundays and also attended vespers and Benediction in the abbey.

I was particularly moved by the veneration of the Blessed Sacrament during Benediction. I accepted then that it was the body of Christ and continue to believe so today. Though my Catholic praxis has at times been poor, I have never doubted.

Were there any ways that your parents influenced or supported your desire to write?

My father certainly encouraged me to write, but he felt that the novel had reached the end of the road in the work of Henry James.

He was also emphatic that it was impossible for a literary writer to make a living with his pen, and so, after graduating from university, I began work as a publisher. I quickly found it irksome to work on other people's work when I was itching to write books of my own. Thus, much to my father's distress, I gave up my job and began writing.

In what ways does your present novel reflect reality and in other ways depart from it?

I like to think that The Death of a Pope is grounded in both social and psychological reality. The older characters belong to different wings of the Church — but the younger ones, in particular, my heroine, Kate Ramsey, though raised as a Catholic, has succumbed to the skepticism and relativism that prevails in contemporary Britain.

Would you be the same writer that you are today without your faith? How does your faith influence your writing?

When I started to write my first novel, I did not consider myself a Catholic novelist and certainly had no intention of using fiction to propagate the faith. I was much more interested in history, politics, sex and love.

However, one's characters have a way of taking on a life of their own and behaving in ways that one has not anticipated; when I came to my third novel, Monk Dawson, the first part of which was loosely based on my school days at Ampleforth, I found that my hero, after failing as a Benedictine monk and secular priest and falling into a dissipated way of life, ended up as a Trappist.

The themes of the novel written 40 years ago — the competing claims of social work and prayer in a priestly vocation — have echoes in my present novel, The Death of a Pope.

Are there ways that you have suffered professionally as a result of your faith?

It is all too easy for an author to blame disappointing sales on prejudice, but there is undoubtedly a mind-set in the media and among booksellers that finds Catholicism obnoxious and Catholics only acceptable if they dissent from the Church's teaching on controversial subjects such as homosexuality, abortion or birth control. The British journalist Bryan Appleyard wrote that "Catholicism is not a problem for the contemporary liberal; it is the problem ... To the modern imagination, Catholicism is the biggest enemy of all. As a result, 'I hate Catholics' is quite commonly heard in otherwise civilized circles."

A loyal Catholic is by definition "homophobic." The author Howard Jacobson did some anecdotal research on why some authors' books were displayed in West London bookshops while others were not — and concluded that the yardstick was "the Gay Reverence Syndrome."

Do you have a particular Catholic devotion or saint that you're fond of, and why?

The saints after whom I was named, Sts. Peter and Paul, have inspired me throughout my life — St. Peter for his combination of great faith and human weakness; St. Paul for brilliance, compassion, understanding and intellectual zeal.

At the age of 15, I adopted as sponsors the English martyrs Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More; and their example sustained me in my faith later in my adult life.

The challenges to the faith they faced as the new ideas of the German reformers spread to England were not dissimilar to those put forward by liberal theologians after Vatican II. And there is St. Francis of Sales, the patron saint of writers — a model of kindliness and steadfast faith.

It seems that the Church and the Pope are being attacked from every side — culturally, politically, socially, the media. What do you see as the place of the Church in the modern world?

I am always delighted when the Church and the Pope are attacked in the way you describe — because it means we are, as we should be, a sign of contradiction. Did not Jesus predict that we would suffer persecution for speaking out in his name?

Far more dangerous to the good of the Church, it seems to me, has been to make Catholicism acceptable to a secular society — making its mission barely distinguishable from that of the British Labour Party or the Red Cross.

Certainly, Catholics wish to aid the needy — and many do; but social welfare is not at the heart of our faith. Like St. Paul in Ephesus, Catholics should confront skeptical secularism with the fact that God became a man and revealed to us the reality of the human condition.

Tim Drake writes from
St. Joseph, Minnesota.