Merging fact with fiction: Interview with Helen Brown
NOVELIST AND academic Ann Swinfen has taken the story of Jesus and, with a mixture of scholarship and creative imagination, presented her readers with a very human tale of real yet extraordinary people living in equally extraordinary times. Her new novel, The Testament of Mariam, grew from a fascination with the life of someone who, whether you are a believer or not, was a very remarkable man. Ann Swinfen told Helen Brown about a book she has enjoyed writing more than any other.
MIXING the known with the fictional and making the resulting story not only believable and compelling but also with an integrity of its own is no mean feat. But in her latest novel, writer and academic Ann Swinfen has taken what has often been called the greatest story ever told, that of Jesus Christ, and given it a place, a context in history and in the human heart that opens up a new world of thought-provoking story-telling.
The Testament of Mariam is set in the distant world of the first century, in lands that existed and still do exist, and is a tale peopled by real figures and their fictional counterparts whose lives and times come together to create a compelling vision of what was and what might have been.
It also, in its scope and vision, holds up a mirror to the present day and the continuing turbulence of a world in almost continuous transition.
The Mariam of the title is a fictional sister of Jesus, here known as Yeshûa, giving a woman’s perspective of a time where women’s place in society and active contribution to it was severely limited and circumscribed.
It’s a huge subject and one partly inspired by the notion that regardless of your religious faith or lack of it, the figure we know as Jesus was by any standards extraordinary.
Ann explained, “The root idea, the seed of the book, was in my desire to get at the real people behind 2000 years of accumulated ritual and church hierarchy. Jesus was remarkable, coming from a peasant family and a community in turmoil, and what first interested me was finding out more about where he came from, what was happening at the time, what his family might have been, how that moulded and shaped what he became and did.
“Jesus’s siblings are mentioned in the New Testament and the Apocrypha—including two sisters who are named Melkha and Eskha—but I wanted to create a fictional sister, one whose life could encompass the period of Jesus’s life and also, as a later refugee living in another land, create a way for her and us to look back on it all from a different perspective.”
As an academic—a graduate in Classics and Mathematics at Oxford who brought up her children while studying for a Maths MSc and a BA and PhD in English literature—the research, the “detective work” was riveting for Ann.
“There has been a lot of recent research done and a lot more in the last couple of decades which has come to public knowledge, like the translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls (written, copied or collected by the Essene community in Qumran in Judea) and the recent work of Geza Vermes. It wasn’t only the public side of events, either — details of things like diet, social customs, the whole history and culture of the first century are there and fill in some of the many gaps that there still are in knowledge of the times and the life of the people.
“I hadn’t realised, for example, that there was a great north/south divide at the time between Judea in the south and the Galilee in the north which was the bread basket of the region, farmed by peasants and fishermen. Taxes meant that many of these people became landless labourers working on wealthy estates owned by absentee landlords from the south and that as a result, Galilee was regarded as a real hotbed of subversion and centre of rebellion.
“When you see Jesus—Yeshûa—in that context, it makes you realise where he came from and what an amazing story his ministry was.”
It is very much a novel, she insists, not a history. Ann wanted to tell a story, a work of the imagination, just because there is so much inspiration for the imagination in this place, time and the characters who peopled it. Her writing certainly captures this, painting an amazingly detailed and vibrant picture of flesh and blood human beings, not only the symbols many of them have become for so many of us but real and believable and understandable.
If she has, as she cheerfully admits, taken the liberties any novelist of imagination is allowed in creating a work of fiction, she has taken many of the clues for her choices from original mentions, ideas and fascinating details from the period itself and the writing that emerged from it.
Alongside the primary sources like the Apocrypha—the 14 books of the Bible usually omitted from the Old Testament—and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Ann also read the recently translated Coptic Gospel of Judas.
“It takes the position that Judas was carrying out Jesus’s wishes and not betraying him. So I made him a childhood friend and lover of Mariam, close and dear friend to Jesus and not the hate figure most of us know. That’s why there are three figures in the cover picture [designed by Esther Harding].
“I got the idea of two time-lines—Mariam as an old woman at the end of her life and the memory drift back to the past where she re-lived her childhood and the story of Jesus’ ministry—because I wanted to hint at the wider story, the upheaval of the times that continued into rebellion, exile and elements that are still relevant today.
“I did wonder whether the way I had written the book would offend devout Christians and I Emailed the manuscript to a friend in the States to see what she thought of it. She responded that she found it ‘absolutely fascinating’ and that it had made her go back to the original sources!
“The woman’s perspective interested me hugely—at Gethsemane, when Christ was taken, the men ran and the women didn’t. Having women followers in a society where girls were at home till they married and then tended to stay within the domestic sphere is amazing. And for a woman to wander, instead of staying put in her place and to undertake ministry is unbelievable for the time. Women were equals in the early Christian church before the church fathers pushed women into an inferior position.
“The idea of a courageous woman, a sister figure, seemed to me to be a good imaginary way to address some of this. I don’t know if some will be too happy with my treatment of the Virgin Mary, but there you are!”
Ann, who lives in Brought Ferry with her husband David, former vice-principal of University of Dundee, worked previously as a lecturer, translator, freelance journalist and software designer, with nine years on the governing council of the Open University and five years as a manager and editor in the technical author division of an international computer company.
She is also chair of Dundee Book Events which promotes books and authors to the general public and which has brought many distinguished literary figures to the city since the mid-1990s.
Having given up her full-time job to concentrate on her writing, she has received high praise for her previous books, The Anniversary, The Travellers and A Running Tide. This is her fourth novel and one, she admits, that has really left its mark with its author.
“Some of the lines of research were so powerful, so fascinating, it would be difficult to match that, I think. I found it very compelling to write.”
Ann also reckons that it’s the kind of book that will be good for reading groups to discuss—“ I’ve been speaking to librarians and book group leaders in Angus and Dundee about it. I hope it’s something that people will enjoy but it also has the potential to invite argument, stimulate debate and really get a discussion going.
“It’s the book I’ve enjoyed writing most so far.”
Courier and Advertiser, 18 December 2009