The Testament of Mariam: Interview with Marion Sinclair, Publishing Scotland
Can you tell us a little of the inspiration behind the writing of The Testament of Mariam?
I suppose I have always been intrigued by the truly great figures in history, not merely because of what they achieved but also how they came to be great. The figure of Yeshûa (Aramaic for Jesus) is surely one of the most intriguing and most enigmatic. For 2,000 years myth, ritual, theology and church hierarchy have accumulated around him, but what might the real man have been like? For I do believe there was a real man. I wanted to dig through all the accretions of those 2,000 years to try and imagine what sort of man he might have been. Moreover, we only have an account of his very brief ministry. What about his childhood? What about his young manhood? Why does he suddenly appear on the public stage at that point in his life? According to the New Testament, he was derided in his home village. How could a carpenter from a peasant village in backward Galilee have made such an impact that he changed the course of human history? As I began to think about his family, I wondered what it must have been like to be the sister of such a man. (Again, according to the New Testament, he had both brothers and sisters.) Mariam leapt into my mind virtually fully formed from the start, a sister who adored her elder brother, who knew that he was gifted, something out of the ordinary – but … divine? How could you believe your own flesh-and-blood brother was divine? It is also intriguing that several of the people who followed Yeshûa as he wandered around the countryside were women. This was a culture where girls stayed at home under the watchful eyes of their parents until they were married off and passed under the control of their husbands. To do what Yeshûa’s female followers did was both daring and shocking. They were throwing away any claim to decency and respectability, and even safety. Mariam, rebelling against the social and religious restrictions of her home, runs away to follow her brother; ultimately, she has to pay the price. In addition, Yehûdâ (Judas) fascinated me. Why would one of Yeshûa’s dearest disciples betray him? Some of the early documents, suppressed by the church, claim that Yehûdâ was carrying out the wishes of his friend. That, it seemed to me, was both more plausible and more dramatic. I wanted this to be a novel, not a history, not a religious book; however, the history of the time shaped these people and the figure of Yeshûa had to be both a real man, with self-doubt and fears, and at the same time a numinous presence. Mariam can never quite make up her mind – she is always trying to find a rational explanation for what other people claim are miracles. I have left it up to readers to make up their own minds.
The book wears its research lightly but it feels like a very authentic evocation of the period – how did you go about researching the places and way of life in the novel?
I loved doing the research – it proved so rich and rewarding. From my past studies as a classicist, I had no problems with the portions of the book set in southern Gaul which, by this period, was profoundly Romanised. On the other hand I knew very little about the province of Palestine, consisting of northern Galilee and southern Judaea. As it happens, a great deal of modern research has been done on the history and culture of the period, and I found it truly absorbing. I discovered, for example, that for many years Galilee had been a hotbed of what we would call ‘insurgency’; rebellions were constantly breaking out against Roman rule and as a result men from Galilee who built up a following were immediately suspect. Someone like Yeshûa, arriving with a band of followers in Jerusalem, at a time when the city was crowded and feverish with the emotion of Passover, could not be ignored by the authorities. Until I began my research, I hadn’t realised there were such cultural and social differences between the two areas, or that the wealthier Judaeans tended to look down on the ‘peasants’ of the north, who farmed their own lands and spoke a rough dialect. I knew there were theories that Yeshûa had spent some time amongst the Essenes, but studying the latest research into this group which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, I was astonished by their medical knowledge, their ritual meals with sacred bread and wine, their poetry and their beliefs. As one of their beliefs related to their exclusivity (they were the Chosen, everyone else was under the influence of the Evil One), I could see why, with his message of love and brotherhood, Yeshûa could never have remained in their community, although he must certainly have been trained in their medical practices. I found that the Apocrypha and many recently discovered contemporary (first century) documents helped to fill out the picture (including the Gospel of Judas). There is also a good deal of information available on houses, farming, food, trade, ceremonies, festivals, and other aspects of daily life. When it came to the writing, I was so saturated in all of this that it was easy to imagine myself back into that society.
There is a lot of foreshadowing in the novel – how did you manage to keep the events from taking over Mariam’s story?
Mariam was always my focal point. The story is Mariam’s testament, that is, both her testimony as to what happened and also her last testament, her legacy. Anyone who has grown up in the culture of the West knows at least the outline of Yeshûa’s story, as it appears in the New Testament, but a very large portion of the novel deals with parts of his life which are unknown to us, and which I had to conjecture. Besides, I wanted to show him as a man, a brother, from the perspective of a loving sister. So although readers will know from the start that there will be a crucifixion, they don’t know what will happen to Mariam – or to Yehûdâ, for that matter. I also wanted to make Mariam’s life in the ‘present’, that is her old age, an important element in the book. Events on the farm in Gaul resonate with the dramatic events of Mariam’s past. These apparently disparate strands gradually draw together and meet in the final scene.
The Testament appears, on a superficial level at least, to be very different from your other novels; is there a connecting thread there?
Certainly my first three novels had a contemporary setting, while The Testament is set in the first century, but despite that there are many links between them. In all four novels, different stories taking place at different times are woven together, because I am interested in the way our past shapes us and the way we carry inside ourselves the people we have been at different stages in our lives. Therefore the plots tend to be layered and quite complex. I vary viewpoints and tenses, while the relationship between past and present helps to create the overall structure in each of my novels. I’m also fascinated by the way the individual is related to society, whether in conforming to or in rebelling against it, so I always tend to see my characters within a very clearly defined society, time, and place. And that leads on to a curious thing I only discovered about myself when I started to write novels. I seem to be obsessed with war. I can’t escape it, it turns up in everything I write. The twentieth century, I suppose, was a century of war, so I imagine that has gone into shaping my thinking. Also the experience of war tests people in a way peace can never do, so that exploring their actions becomes more enthralling. By ‘war’ I don’t merely mean open warfare. It can include repression under a totalitarian regime. People trying to survive in Stalin’s Soviet Union or Roman occupied Judaea were, I’d maintain, living in a state of war.
Which writers have most influenced your writing?
There are many writers I admire enormously but who haven’t really influenced my own style of writing. Examples might include Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf – all writers whose work I admire, but I couldn’t say they have influenced me, except indirectly. Clearer influences are probably to be found in classic writers within the tradition of the novel in English like George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry James and Thomas Hardy. Amongst modern writers I would cite Penelope Fitzgerald, Anne Tyler, Penelope Lively.
Do you have any advice, thoughts for writers about to embark upon their first novel?
There’s a hackneyed piece of advice which is frequently dished out to new writers: ‘Write about what you know.’ This can be a straitjacket. If writers only wrote about what they knew, from first-hand experience, literature would be very dull indeed. If you are going to be a writer, you have to learn the art of getting inside someone else’s skin, seeing the world with his or her eyes. This may well take you to places and times and cultures which are quite separate from your own experience, but we have a common ground of human experiences and human emotions. A man forced to choose between loyalty to country and loyalty to family faces the same dilemma whether he lives in the twenty-first century Middle East or ancient China. A woman who loses her child suffers as much in modern Africa as in Europe during the Black Death. So my first piece of advice would be: Don’t be afraid to venture outside your own narrow experience, but try instead to live your characters’ lives.
The second point: Don’t skimp your research. If you make a mistake or guess wrongly, someone, somewhere, will notice, and you will lose all credibility. Make sure your timeline doesn’t fall apart, that your seasons follow one another in the right order, that you have a map of your locations either in your head or on paper. Details matter.
In the third place, don’t expect your first draft to be perfect. Forge ahead and get the whole novel written before you start to polish and perfect. There must be thousands of first chapters of novels sitting in drawers which have been rewritten and rewritten, edited and honed . . . and never progressed any further. The analogy I always have in mind is the sculptor, hewing a statue from an unpromising lump of marble. He does not work away at creating a beautiful right foot, perfect down to the detail of every muscle and toenail, before progressing to the right calf or the left foot. Instead, he roughs out the overall shape of the figure, with the right proportions but without the fine detail. Then, little by little, he shapes and refines his statue until he can stand back and say, ‘It’s finished!’ Writing a novel is a similar process.
Fourth, remember that we have five senses. Your prose should take all of them into account. Most writers can manage good visual descriptions, but how does a place smell? What sounds form the background to the events of your novel? You may mention taste in a scene involving food, but we taste other things – fog, sea air, smoke, a pine forest. As well as scenting the air, these things leave a taste on the tongue. The texture of objects, rain, wind, the touch of other people, impinge on our skin. This is all part of putting yourself into your characters’ shoes and experiencing what they experience.
Lastly, don’t give up. Writing is hard physical and mental work. It’s often lonely. It is hard to gain recognition – you may never gain recognition. You are unlikely to make a living. But if you care about the written word, about sharing your stories, your characters, your ideas, with others, then you will keep going.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m a little superstitious about revealing too much about a work in progress, in case everything goes wrong! Perhaps all I should say at this point is that there are two interwoven stories, both concerning refugees, but widely separated in time and space. There’s that war theme again. At the moment I’m at the research and planning stage, but hope to start writing the first draft in the summer.