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Tolkien and the Dyscatastrophe

Having succeeded in destroying the One Ring, Sam and Frodo are rescued from the slopes of Mount Doom and carried to Ithilien. Sam awakes in a scene that takes place in the chapter ‘The Field of Cormallen’.

When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled scent.

He remembered that smell: the fragrance of Ithilien. ‘Bless me!’ he mused. ‘How long have I been asleep?’ For the scent had borne him back to the day when he had lit his little fire under the sunny bank; and for a moment all else between was out of waking memory. He stretched and drew a deep breath. ‘Why, what a dream I’ve had!’ he muttered. ‘I am glad to wake!’ He sat up and then he saw that Frodo was lying beside him, and slept peacefully, one hand behind his head, and the other resting upon the coverlet. It was the right hand, and the third finger was missing.

Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: ‘It wasn’t a dream! Then where are we?’

And a voice spoke softly behind: ‘In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you.’ With that Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. ‘Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?’ he said.

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’

‘A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears.

This is one of my favourite passages in all of Tolkien’s work, and these paragraphs encapsulate some of the best things in Middle-earth. The gentle reassurance of Gandalf’s presence, the beauty of the natural world, the simple honesty of Samwise Gamgee and Tolkien’s sublime use of the English language.

For Tolkien the eucatastrophe is not as simple as a happy ending. He describes the joy it is intended to deliver as being ‘poignant as grief.’ Neither does it deny ‘dyscatasrophe … sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance.’

Dyscatastrophe is an essential part of Tolkien’s writing. Readers are often divided on whether Tolkien’s vision of the world was fundamentally optimistic or pessimistic. Loss and death are central themes in his work and this perhaps has some autobiographical basis. Tolkien himself was orphaned by the age of 12 and lost a significant number of close childhood friends in the Battle of the Somme.

On the Field of Cormallen, a Great Shadow has indeed departed from the world. Sauron is defeated, and Gandalf has even has returned from death. Sam’s question, ‘is everything sad going to come untrue?’ is often used by Christians as a kind of apologetic for what life will be like in the age to come. I believe Tolkien’s answer is a complex mix of yes and no, and perhaps this is why he frames it as a question. As Sam looks to his master, peacefully asleep, he notices the finger that is missing. There are some things that are lost forever, and evil leaves its mark.

Readers are often divided on whether Tolkien’s vision of the world was fundamentally optimistic or pessimistic.

The doom of Frodo Baggins is the prime example of this. Though successful in his quest, the wounds of that journey; the Witch-King’s knife on Weathertop and Shelob’s sting in Cirith Ungol, cannot be healed in this world. ‘We set out to save the Shire,’ he tells Sam, ‘and it has been saved – but not for me.’ The destruction of evil also comes at the cost of Gollum’s redemption, one of the greatest causes for hope throughout the story. Arwen’s marriage to Aragorn is an occasion of some joy that will be for the enriching and enoblement of the whole world. But it comes at a cost; one day, she will die.

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are comparatively cheery compared to much of his other work. Tolkien famously abandoned a sequel called ‘The Return of Shadow’ because it was too depressing even for him. Those of you who have read The Silmarillion, which was published by Tolkien’s son Christopher after his death will know from those mythic tales that Tolkien’s world is filled with enormously sorrowful and permanent loss. Beren and Lúthien, itself a very sad story primarily concerned with love and mortality is comfortably uplifting compared to the tales that frame it, in which the forces of evil seem to be inexorably stronger than those of good. The Battle of Unnumbered Tears, The Fall of Gondolin, The Tragedy of Túrin Turambar. There’s a story where a spider attacks two trees; it lasts for about a page and it is genuinely one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.

This sense of loss is perhaps a reflection of Tolkien’s own familiarity with death, and his particularly premodern Catholic faith, which itself mourns the loss of an Old World and worships a saviour who, though fully glorified, still bears His wounds. Tolkien states that eucatastrophe ‘denies … universal, final defeat’, but admits that it does so ‘in the face of much evidence.’ Is there a better description of what discipleship of Christ should represent?

I’ve felt myself growing closer to what Tolkien describes – a continual denial of universal final defeat in spite of all that we read of in history and continue to see around us.

I have spent most of my life in a very respectable, modern, evangelical protestant church tradition. There are a significant number of Tolkien fans in this sphere, perhaps a surprising number given his status as a Catholic and a general distrust of all things Roman (spoken or otherwise) amongst English protestants. I was encouraged within this tradition to believe that there is tonnes of very credible evidence to be a Christian; that in a Holmesian sense I only needed to remove the impossible to discover the risen Christ; the final remaining option. Over time, and as I’ve seen more of just what the world is capable of inflicting, I’ve felt myself growing closer to what Tolkien describes – a continual denial of universal final defeat in spite of all that we read of in history and continue to see around us.

This is different to the certainty of the blind optimism that ‘everything will all be fine in the end’, but is also different from the certainty of that very orderly and rational basis for faith that was once my own. Both represent a kind of despair – a surrendering to something because it is the only option. Tolkien’s faith and the work it fuelled communicates something far less coercive, yet full of grace even in the midst of devastating sorrow.

The Lord of the Rings isn’t really an apologetic for anything – Tolkien left the proselytising to his close friend CS Lewis. Nevertheless, the beauty, goodness and truth of his work have been profoundly compelling for me during a dark and difficult couple of years. They have certainly contributed to a renewal and refreshment in my faith. Tolkien’s treatment of the dyscatastrophic has played an enormous role in that.

In the margin of a small notebook I have scrawled the lines ‘nice puritan-ness is confused as Christianity. We prefer a G-rated lie to an R-rated truth.’ There isn’t any reference for who said this (although they are clearly Americans), but I think it rings true as a conclusion here. So much of Christian cultural output is depressingly safe and upbeat when compared to a scriptural tradition and a real world that are profoundly messy, equivocal and riddled with dyscatastrophe. The eucatastrophe doesn’t deny the reality of sorrow and failure, nor does it swoop in all deus ex machina and just fix everything. The beautiful disaster doesn’t abolish the catastrophe but redeems it, incorporating even its most discordant notes into a greater music. In this, Tolkien claims one can glimpse the ‘far-off gleam of echo of evangelium in the real world.’

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Tolkien and the Eucatastrophe

Eucatastrophe is a made-up word (I know, all words are made-up words) used by J.R.R. Tolkien at the very end of his 18,000-word mega-essay On Fairy-Stories, which we will be referencing a lot in this series. It attaches the Greek prefix eu, which means ‘good’, or ‘beautiful’ to katastrophe; meaning ‘disaster’ or ‘destruction’.

Originally a much shorter lecture delivered in 1938, On Fairy-Stories has become Tolkien’s most famous and important piece of writing outside of his famous legendarium. Of all his famous stories, only The Hobbit had been published when Tolkien gave the original lecture at the University of St. Andrews. Nevertheless, it forms a manifesto for Tolkien’s views on the role of imagination in literature as well as providing the philosophical underpinning for work like The Lord of the Rings and the posthumously published Silmarillion, which J.R.R. had already started work on some 20 years earlier in the trenches of Northern France.

In the essay, Tolkien takes issue with the existing definitions of ‘fairy-tale’. He was frustrated that these kinds of stories had become something foisted exclusively on children, and that the fairies themselves had become domesticated and physically much smaller in size than what elves had represented in ancient mythology.

Fairy-stories didn’t even need fairies in them, said Tolkien. And they certainly shared little with traditional ‘beast fables’ or travellers’ tales that were popular in the Victorian period. The true fairy-story was one that involved not a specific people, but a place – an enchanted realm that Tolkien named ‘Faërie’.

It is easy to forget that fantasy and the entire genre of speculative fiction, was at this time in its infancy. Science-fiction writing pioneered by the likes of H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley had come close to resembling what Tolkien was working on, as perhaps did the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, but neither achieved what Tolkien did—stories set nominally within the history of our own world, but with their own constructed mythology created by the writer.

On Fairy-Stories covers much of the creative heavy-lifting required by Tolkien to begin this journey. This includes a philosophy of sub-creation, the construction of a ‘secondary world’ imbued with a sense of reality present in the ‘primary’ one. All of this is achieved through mythopeia—the secondary world’s language, mythic history, material culture and the customs of its people. But its crowning glory and vitality is found in the eucatastrophe.

The unexpected turn

There’s a lot of debate as to how the eucatastrophe differs from a ‘happy ending’. Tolkien argued that true fairy-stories have no ending. The eucatastrophe is the ‘sudden, joyous turn,’ located at the point when all is at its bleakest. It is unexpected, uncalled for, in a sense miraculous; in the words of Tolkien ‘never to be counted on to recur’.

This will be incredibly familiar to anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings, because the ultimate climax of that entire epic story is founded upon an archetypal eucatastrophe. The treacherous Gollum in his moment of triumph slips, falls into the Cracks of Doom and the quest is saved. But it is not the only eucatastrophic moment; smaller examples spring up throughout the entire narrative. Tom Bombadil’s rescue of the hobbits from Old Man Willow; the arrival of Gandalf and Erkenbrand at the Hornburg; the unfurling of Aragorn’s banner before the Corsair fleet; the coming of the Rohirrim upon the Pelennor at dawn.

When the eucatastrophe’s sudden turn isn’t executed well, it is conspicuously unsatisfying, and can feel like ‘deus ex machina’; the all-too convenient solution of an impossible problem. But delivered properly, the eucatastrophe causes the heart to skip a beat and produces joy; joy Tolkien says ‘poignant as grief, joy beyond the walls of the world’. And, he adds, it is something that affects adults and children alike. Tolkien’s eucatastrophe at the end of The Lord of the Rings (or towards the end, anyway) does all of this. It is sublime. 

Delivered properly, the eucatastrophe causes the heart to skip a beat and produces joy.

Frodo, who it must be said was never very likely to succeed in his task in the first place, finally succumbs to the ring’s malice and claims it as his own, having resisted its power for much of the narrative until this point. At this very moment, Gollum—the wretched creature who has accompanied the hobbits on their journey into Mordor, much against the better judgement of Sam Gamgee—bites the ring from Frodo’s finger and dances in victory on the very edge of the Cracks of Doom.

And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell.

Multiple characters have the opportunity to kill Gollum, in situations when such a decision would have been more than justified. Bilbo has the opportunity when he first discovers the ring in Gollum’s cave way back in The Hobbit, but is stayed by pity for the creature. In the opening chapters of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Gandalf reflect on this decision. Frodo, realising Gollum’s treachery, expresses regret that Bilbo hadn’t killed Gollum when he had the chance. But Gandalf rebukes this sentiment, suspecting in his heart that ‘Gollum still has some part to play… for good or evil, before this is over.’

In On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien states that one of the marks of the eucatastrophe’s ‘joyous turn’ is that it ‘reflects a glory backwards,’ and it is this quality that sets it apart from deus ex machina. Yes, the conclusion is unexpected and even unlikely, but it does not emerge out of nothing. The glory of the quest’s consolation is reflected onto each moment a character, through the exercising of their free will, chooses in mercy to spare Gollum’s life. In doing so, they each—Bilbo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Faramir, Frodo, Sam, even the Dark Lord himself in releasing Gollum from the dungeons of Barad-dûr—unknowingly contribute to the destruction of evil.

That said, none of them could have predicted that their pity would have such monumental consequences for the entire world. In most instances, their decisions to spare Gollum’s life make little utilitarian sense, reflecting another of Tolkien’s favourite narrative themes; that the supposedly foolish things of the world should shame the wise.

In each of these apparently unrelated and insignificant decisions dwells chance, or luck—Tolkien’s stand-in for divine providence at work in his subcreated world —the unseen hand of Eru Ilúvatar. Often a character will not even know why they are sparing Gollum, but for the voice deep within that compels them to do so.

The eucatastrophe hangs on this thread. It is in Tolkien’s words ‘a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.’ Many have noted that Frodo cannot possibly have been expected to have thrown the Ring into the fire—in The Fellowship of the Ring he is unable even to cast it into the small fireplace in his living-room at Bag End. But Frodo is obedient to the wisdom Gandalf gives to those living in dark times, at the very start of the story, before he has even left the Shire; that the times we live in are not ours to decide. ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

Frodo is faithful in delivering the Ring to such a place where chance, or fate, or whatever name we give it intervenes.

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Tolkien and the Christian Imagination: A Primer

Jonny asked me a while back if I’d adapt some writing I’d done into a series of articles for Sputnik on the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien, what his work and legacy can tell us about the Christian Imagination (a recent hot topic on the Faith in the Arts podcast) and what we as Christian artists can learn not just from reading his writing, but from participating in an incredibly rich and consistent fantasy world that provides escape, recovery and consolation.

I collapsed from a cardiac arrest on the evening of 13th February this year. I stopped breathing for around 14 minutes, got put into a coma and was finally brought round a week later. About 5 weeks after that I was finally well enough to go home. There was a lot of mental, emotional, spiritual and physical catching up to do after a shock like that, but perhaps none more significant than this: the 13th February was the Night of the Superb Owl, an important ritual event in American culture. To coincide with this, a trailer for the Amazon Corporation’s Rings of Power television series was released.

So yeah, turns out I’m only just realising that people really didn’t like it. Reddit forums and the YouTube comment sections are never the best place to learn anything particularly instructive, but it seems most of my fellow Tolkien nerds are already mashing the panic button. Fortunately, my favourite Tolkien nerds of all over at the Amon Sûl podcast are keeping their heads. Amon Sûl consists of a couple of Orthodox Christians from the United States who host a variety of guests and discuss what Tolkien’s work has to say about their Ancient Faith. Both hosts are former prots whose journeys to Orthodoxy were heavily influenced by the enchantment and sacramentality present in Tolkien’s writing. They also played an enormous hand in dragging me through the experience of suddenly losing my Dad in 2020.

Do what Tolkien would have wholeheartedly endorsed – get out there and make your own stuff.

In an episode which aired on 10th March, co-host Richard Rohlin, one of Amon Sûl’s co-hosts and a Germanic philologist like Tolkien, addressed some of the chatter concerning ‘Rings of Power‘:

“If we can learn anything from Tolkien, it’s the importance of going out and telling our own stories, of being sub-creators acting in the image of our God and Father who made and loves us. Most of the noise around the new Amazon series amounts to consumers expressing their pleasure or displeasure at how an enormous corporation will or will not provide entertainment to their tastes.”

Hear this; Amazon can’t ‘ruin Tolkien’. His writing is there for as long as any of us want to read it. So, instead of falling for the dumb culture war trap of getting angry about stuff we are utterly powerless to change, it would be a much better use of our energy and time to do what Tolkien would have wholeheartedly endorsed – to get out there and make our own stuff. Stories, soup and art.

My hope and prayer is that these reflections on Tolkien’s work and the discussion and community they can foster would help us in doing just that.

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Chibundu Onuzo’s characters show a powerful hope in humanity

Social pressures are a recurring theme for author Chibundu Onuzo; unsurprising, you might say, considering she was the youngest female author to be signed by Faber & Faber, aged 19. That debut novel, The Spider King’s Daughter, was published two years later, and went on to win a Betty Trask Award.

Chibundu has described the experience as overwhelming, making her follow-up that much harder to write. Nonetheless, the ensemble novel Welcome to Lagos gathered critical acclaim, drawing on her childhood years in Nigeria while managing to show a nuanced, challenging, entertaining and hilarious range of human experience.

Faith is a notable feature of Welcome to Lagos, but so is injustice, inequality, and the social pressures that meet successful young women. “[Lagos] is not a place you can romanticise,” Chibundu has said, but one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel is an optimism about human nature, and our ability to better ourselves. Its Afrocentrism and the roundedness of her characters has put her at the forefront of a movement towards decolonising our literary scene, breaking old stereotypes and re-presenting the Nigerian diaspora in their full, human complexity.

Ironically, Chibundu was raised on British classics – eg. Great Expectations, Pride & Prejudice etc – and only read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart after moving to an English boarding school at 14. “When I meet other African writers now we talk about sharing this feeling that our lives were provincial and the white experience was universal,” she says. “We felt that the world was happening elsewhere.” If the next generations of young authors feel differently, it will be thanks to the likes of Chibundu Onuzo.

Don’t miss Chibundo Onuzo in our brand new ‘Spotlight On..’ series in 2021 – with a live talk and Q&A discussing her journey and practice. Get tickets here!

Chibundu is great to follow on Instagram, too. 

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A tribute to Huw Evans, one of Sputnik’s founding artists

Huw Evans in 2017

While 2019 has been a great year for Sputnik, like 2018 before it, it was tinged with deep sadness at the loss of one of our founding artists, Huw Evans.

I became friends with Huw Evans in a rather strange way.

In 2014, I had the bright idea of compiling an anthology of writing from people in the Catalyst network of churches. It was an open submission project, and after getting word out, submissions started to come in. It was only then that I realised that I had a problem: I didn’t really know anything about poems or short stories. How on earth was I going to work out which ones should go in and which ones shouldn’t?

While thinking this through, I received a series of poems that even I could tell were of a particularly high calibre. I decided to take the plunge. I replied to the poet to congratulate him that we would love to feature his poems in the anthology, but also to ask him whether he’d kindly be the editor for the entire project. Amazingly, he agreed!

That poet was Huw Evans.

From that point, Huw became Sputnik’s writing guy. He edited another anthology the following year, and featured in a number of other Sputnik events and publications. He also provided valuable informal feedback to writers across the network as well as coaching both of our Sputnik interns, Tanya and Jess. On top of all of this, Huw became my friend.

In late 2017, Huw was diagnosed with terminal cancer and in March 2019, he died. He is sorely missed.

Huw had much wisdom to share, but the piece that has shaped me the most was maybe the simplest. Just turn up.

We can get ourselves in such a fuss about how to create, different techniques and methods, but so often the thing that stops us doing anything is that we don’t do anything. If you ever asked Huw how you could get better at whatever art form you were practising in, his response would be the same: just turn up. Just put in the hours. Just write. Just draw. Just paint. Just perform. Just keep doing it over and over again, until you start to get good.

Huw had much wisdom to share, but the piece that has shaped me the most is the simplest: just turn up.

He lived this out. As a young man with a desire to write poetry but not a lot of spare time, he decided to set aside 2 hours every Saturday, from 11-1, to write. It didn’t matter if he felt like it or not, if he felt inspired or not- he would close himself in his room, so he told me, and write.

When his four kids got a bit older and he had a bit more breathing space, he did a creative writing Masters, but it was the disciplined ‘just turning up’ that had kept the candle burning, so that he could really hone his craft with more concentrated focus when the time came.

Huw Evans Minor Monuments Poetry Sputnik Faith Art
Huw Evans’ Minor Monuments

And like an experienced runner, when he knew that his race was coming to an end, he put all those years of ‘just turning up’ into practice and ended with a sprint regarding his creative output. Since his diagnosis, he published a poetry anthology (Minor Monuments) and a children’s novel (The Goblin of the East Hill) with other works still likely to surface.

The psalmist writes in Psalm 139:16 ‘All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.’

I really wish God had given him a few more, but Huw was a man who used those days very, very well. He loved Jesus, loved his natural family and was faithfully committed to serving his church family and he has left behind a body of work and a body of wisdom that will go on for many more days yet.

In a sense, he has passed the baton on to us.

Huw Evans performing Not Long Now

Thank you, Huw, for the inspiration and encouragement, and for introducing me to RG Collingwood, and for being the only over 50 year old I could have a meaningful conversation with about Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman, and for being the first person to perform a sex poem at the Catalyst Festival, and for ‘just turning up’ both to your writing desk and to your church when almost everyone else in our family of churches was choosing one or the other.

Alongside the poetry and novels, in Huw’s creative purple patch of his last years, he also wrote and staged a one man show, Not Long Now, which was his response to his cancer diagnosis and the drastic shortening of his life expectancy that came with it.

I saw a preview of the show at the Catalyst Festival 2018, but after that, Huw honed the show further, and officially premiered it at Shilbottle Community Hall in November 2018. Fortunately for us, he produced a video of this performance, and whether you knew Huw or not, I’d thoroughly recommend putting aside an hour and giving it a watch. It will do you good.

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Watch a new posthumous film of uncut Huw Evans wisdom

Back in 2017, when we first launched our Sputnik Patrons scheme, we commissioned a small handful of projects by Sputnik friends. One of these was a book of poetry by long-time Sputnik legend Huw Evans, our resident writing and poetry mentor.

At that time, Birmingham filmmaker Joel Wilson headed out to talk with Huw about the poetry project. It turned into a wide-reaching conversation about Huw’s practice, his influences, and the artistic process at large.

Huw had already received a terminal cancer diagnosis at this point, and sadly, he passed away in 2019. We already shared our tribute to him, here – but a year on from his death, with this footage dormant in the cupboard, Joel took it on himself to finish a cut of the interview and share the various gems within.

We’re hugely grateful to Joel for his work – and whether you’re a writer, poet, or another kind of artist entirely – you’ll find plenty to relate to and dwell on in Huw’s thoughts.

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‘Bad’ Language: Communicating in a Profane World

Huw Evans Bad Language Profane Sputnik Faith Art
Huw Evans Bad Language Profane Sputnik Faith Art

In this, the second part of my post, I am stepping out from behind my C S Lewis-shaped stalking horse to address my final question: how do we as artists represent and reflect a vulgar and profane world, particularly as much of our business is directly concerned with its vulgarity and profanity? Or, to be fairer, how do I, as an artist, create work that interacts with this world and its people with their (and my) profanity and vulgarity?

Before I go any further, let me get two things out of the way. First, niceness, pleasantness, loveliness and keeping everyone happy are not the primary business of the artist: we have a job to do, and success is not measured by contentment.

Neither is the opposite true: offending for the sake of offending is pointless. I have no interest in Épater la bourgeoisie (shocking the bourgeoisie). That is not to say that no one will be offended: some people might, but that should never be a primary consideration.

Secondly, the boundaries of offence also change, with words, expressions and representations moving from one side of the line of acceptability to the other as society’s attitudes change. When George Bernard Shaw wrote his play Pygmalion in 1913 ‘bloody’ was a shocking enough word for the stage: when they came to film My Fair Lady, the musical based on the play, in the 1964 ‘bloody’ wasn’t enough: it had to be ‘arse’. (We can, in passing, note the hypocrisy of men in the audience who between themselves would use language far ‘worse’ than ‘bloody’.) Those boundaries are never entirely logical, and often seem counter-intuitive: currently film-makers can show grotesque killings, but cannot show a penis.

So how do we go forward?

Communication is the Context

As I have written elsewhere on this site, our fundamental business is with language (again, language, not merely speech or words). We are attempting to use language to communicate emotional truths to the audience: and the truths are no less true for being emotional. The communication is not exactly the feeling, which is too deep to be transferred to another person, but what R G Collingwood refers to as ‘the emotional charge’. It is that ‘something’ in Elgar’s cello concerto which we know as a deep melancholy, or the ‘something’ in Dylan’s Tamborine Man which evokes a near-unidentifiable longing for a world beyond the song.

That is what lies behind the frequent injunction to writers to ‘show not tell’. Telling (‘Carl was angry’) places Carl’s experience outside ourselves. Showing (perhaps how Carl has been subject to subtle persecutions throughout his childhood) enables us to receive the emotional charge of anger. As the Sung Dynasty poet Wei T’ai put it: ‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.’

That understanding of what we are about as artists supplies an objective, communication, and a methodology for evaluating an artistic expression. We can interrogate a piece of work and ask of any aspect of it ‘does this contribute towards the intended expression or away from it?’ We can address that question to a style of costumes, a choice of instrument, the casting of an actor, a particular slash of colour, a movement of a hand. Each of those will tend to work with or against the communication.

As we create, we grope towards the expression of that inner ‘something’ which is nagging us for existence. We ask whether that particular word, image, scene, contributes to the communication of that ‘something’.

That may sound like a tick-box approach, but in practice, the questioning of the work by the artist is embedded in the creative process. I may not explicitly ask myself whether this word or that word is right or wrong, but in the course of writing a poem I will use one word instead of another, replace a phrase, strike out an expression, and so on, until I get to something that is ‘finished’. Yet if I was asked to explain those decisions there would be many points where I could not say much more than ‘that word wasn’t right’ or ‘that’s a better phrase’, where ‘right’ or ‘better’ are my occult (ie. hidden), subjective judgements of how the word or phrase contributes to the overall thrust of the poem.

As we create – painting, sculpting, choreographing, filming, writing – we grope towards the expression of that inner ‘something’ which is nagging us for existence. We find the means within our practice to give that ‘something’ a form. Along the way we assess what we have made to see if it is ‘good’; that is, whether it adequately conveys that ‘something’. The growth of this faculty of evaluation is an essential part of every artist’s development and makes the difference between the ‘this will do’ of the beginner and the perpetual dissatisfaction of the mature artist.

We engage this faculty when we look at matters of vulgarity and profanity, and either explicitly or implicitly ask whether that particular word, image, scene – even though it may be vulgar or profane – contributes to the communication of that ‘something’, or does not. If it does, it stays. If it does not, then it goes.

Protecting the ‘Weaker Brother’

‘That’s all very well,’ you may say, ‘but what of the “weaker brother”?’ Ah yes, the person whose faith may be shaken by my use of vulgarity or profanity in a work (see Corinthians 8). Well, bluntly, they shouldn’t read the poem, see the film, look at the picture. Such a work of art is unlikely to be displayed in church, so there isn’t much chance of them coming across it accidentally. If they deliberately seek it out, when they have been warned not to, well, that’s their look out.

However, that does not preclude someone asking whether my artistic judgement was correct: that is a reasonable question, one which may be most helpful for artists who are getting to grips with their craft and are still developing their evaluating faculty. (Note that asking question ‘does this contribute to the work?’ Is not the same as saying, in an anguished tone, ‘why on earth did you include “that” in the work?’)

In the end, I think I am not that far from Augustine: love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.

See the first part of this blog post, here.

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Huw Evans’ ‘Minor Monuments’ comes to life

Huw Evans Poetry Minor Monuments Sputnik Patrons

Newcastle-based poet and author Huw Evans has been an integral part of Sputnik for a long time, as our resident expert on writing and a regular contributor to our blog.

He’s also a fantastic writer and performer, and we were greatly pleased to support Huw’s work by helping him publish his debut poetry collection Minor Monuments with the help of our Sputnik Patrons.

Huw Evans Minor Monuments Poetry Sputnik Faith Art
‘Minor Monuments’ by Huw Evans

Minor Monuments is a collection of poems inspired by the district of Ardudwy in North Wales, the works of Sir Thomas Browne and the Welsh mythologies of the Mabinogion. You can read more about it, and buy a copy, from Huw’s website. You can also attend the official launch event at the Holy Biscuit in Newcastle, next week – more details here.

Minor Monuments is also available at:, Blackwells, Book Depository Ltd, Waterstones; (USA), Barnes and Noble; (AUS/NZ) Booktopia.

Subscribe to Sputnik Patrons to help more work like this to get made.

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Develop your craft, study the Bible & work with us as a Sputnik intern

Would you like to spend a year developing your art practice, getting to know the Bible better and working alongside the Sputnik team in Birmingham?

We are offering up to three Sputnik internships, starting in September 2018, linked in with the Newfrontiers Impact training program.

What does the year look like?

Developing your own art practice.

Spend time working on your own artistic projects, with supervision and mentoring from artists in your field. We’ll help you strategise and find some key goals to accomplish by the end of the year.

Studying the Bible.

There will be 30 days of practical theological training throughout the year, as well as an accompanying programme of study – in association with Newfrontiers’ Impact programme.

Working with the Brum Sputnik Team.

You’d be working closely with Jonny & Jemma Mellor, and the Brum Sputnik team to broaden your creative horizons and to help with the week by week running of the Sputnik arts network.

Getting stuck into a local church.

Part of the year would involve serving at Churchcentral, Birmingham, and getting stuck into the wider church community.

Who’s it for?

This is potentially for any Christian who is serious about their creative practice, and who wants to create work for a universal audience (not just for Christians).

The internship will be based in a church from the Catalyst Network, but you don’t have to be from a Catalyst church. You just need to love Jesus!

While we will take applications from creatives of any discipline, the internship would be best designed to serve writers, musicians, songwriters, rappers, photographers, graphic designers, fine artists or filmmakers. (If you’re not sure whether you fall into any of these pigeonholes but are still interested, contact us directly through Facebook or Twitter, and we can talk it through).

Applying for the internship

The cost for the year will be £1,350 (for the residential training). We will need to see examples of work, and there will be an interview. Check out the application form for more details.

Be advised, you’ll have to arrange a means of funding your living while interning with us. The internship is technically full-time, but if you’re working a part-time job we have a certain amount of flexibility to make that work for you.

The deadline for application is 20th July.

So, are you interested? Download the application form here.

Featured image: students at Leeds School of Theology, another training programme affiliated with Impact & the Catalyst Network.

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Help Patrol to kickstart their next array of illustrated stories

Patrol are an illustration studio in LA dedicated to publishing fiction and non-fiction that is loosely inspired by the Gospel. They’ve just announced a new range that they’re looking to fund via Kickstarter.

Here’s some information about the books they’re hoping to prepare and print:

The Gospel in Color

“Designed to equip parents and kids to have helpful, honest conversations on racism. These two books give a biblical perspective on race and how the good news of Jesus Christ brings about reconciliation, through rich illustrations and approachable text.”

The Moonman Cometh

“A children’s Christmas fantasy unlike any other, vividly told with rich illustrations and an engaging narrative. This book depicts the story of a boy and his dog as they seek to save their dying Christmas tree farm.”

See more about Patrol’s previous output, or see the new Kickstarter campaign here.

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Writer and poet Sharon Clark launches new website of her work

Sharon J Clark Website Sputnik Faith Art

Sharon Clark contributed work to our first Sputnik writing anthology back in 2013 and it was great to see her new blog appear towards the end of last year. is the online home for Sharon’s short stories, poetry and blog – it’s already filling up with quality work, and that’s likely to continue apace.

Sharon recently spoke to us about rearranging her working schedule to set aside at least a day a week to her craft: something that’s especially significant when you consider Sharon is one of the leaders at New Life Church Milton Keynes and is a key administrator in the Catalyst network of churches. It is wonderful to see someone who continues to be committed at the heart of her church and family of churches, at the same time committing herself to her artistic practice.

We know that many Christian artists feel that when it comes to church and art, it’s become a ‘one or the other’ sort of deal. Sharon gives credence to a ‘both/and’ approach. So, when you’ve next got half an hour spare, give the website a thorough perusal and get to know a really promising new writer.

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A Handy Introduction to Church & The Arts by Keir Shreeves

Don’t be put off by the utilitarian overtones of the title: ‘Art For Missions Sake: Announcing the Gospel Through The Creative Arts’ is a very succinct but surprisingly thorough introduction to the importance of the arts for local churches. Written by Brighton-based church leader Keir Shreeves, the booklet is published by Grove Books – whose aim is to stimulate and equip Christian community by providing clear and concise explorations of Christian living and ministry.

Shreeves draws from his experience (and that of his wife Jessamy, who runs the Brighton art festival ‘Thou Art’) to tackle the ‘why’, but also the ‘how’ questions for churches thinking about meaningful engagement with the arts. If you’re in church leadership and would like a good introduction to this topic that will only take you about half an hour to read, then this is for you. If you’re not in church leadership, but would like to be encouraged again about the place of the arts in the 21st century church, this may well be for you too. Click away to purchase a copy for a mere £3.95.

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Does Our Work Have A Future?

I have a soft spot for a little story of Tolkien’s: Leaf by Niggle. It strikes me as a piece written by someone who is engaged on creative projects which he knows some people question and others despise; creative projects which seem to be futile and fragmentary.

Niggle is a painter, continually distracted from his painting by the demands of his neighbour, Parish (who, in his name conveys the ever-present demands of social obligation – and, I think, going further back, the law itself: and is Niggle’s own name a hint at that creative itch, that desire to make which keeps coming back, however often it is suppressed?) He finds himself become obsessed with painting a great tree; he works on each individual leaf, making it as detailed as possible, but finds that even using all his skill he cannot make the tree match his vision. Eventually, with his painting unfinished, Niggle dies. He spends some time in purgatory, and then finds himself creating a garden, which has as its main feature an enormous and beautiful tree, rich with birds and animals. It is also the true embodiment of what he was attempting to convey in his paintings.

As someone firmly in middle-age, who has many more creative dreams unrealised than realised, Leaf by Niggle gives me hope: hope that my creativity is not wasted, that things attempted on this earth are not wasted.

And there, apart from noting the latent platonism in the story – which is also there in Lewis’ Last Battle, I left it. Until this evening. I was continuing my theological equivalent of swimming the Atlantic, pushing a few pages further into N. T. Wright’s Paul and the faithfulness of God, when I came across this, in a section on Paul’s re-definition and re-working of Jewish worldview and praxis:

The only time in Galatians that he specifies the content of this klēronomia, it is ‘the kingdom of God’. I suspect it is the subtly false reading of this in the whole western tradition (where ‘kingdom of God’ has been flattened out into a synonym for ‘heaven‘, and ‘heaven’ has been thought of as ‘the ultimate destination of God’s people’) that has thrown readers of the scent. For Paul, God’s kingdom is not a non-material, post-mortem destination, but is rather the sovereign rule of the creator over the entire created order, with death itself, which corrupts and defaces the good creation as the last enemy to be destroyed. In other words, the final ‘kingdom of God’ is the whole world, rescued at last from corruption and decay, and living under the sovereign rule of God, exercised by the Messiah’s people. [PFG 336-7]

While the main thrust of Wright’s argument is the inheritance of the land and Paul’s re-thinking of the Jewish land of promise to the promised inheritance of the whole world, it was not that which caught my eye, rather it was that flattening out of kingdom of God to post-mortem paradise, and the implication of a reflated kingdom for Niggle.

Niggle was in a platonic universe, perhaps not as overtly platonic as the one Jill Pole and Eustace Scrub found themselves. He lived in the Shadowlands, where the great realities were only manifest in the dark outlines cast onto the cave wall. After he died, he found himself recreated and face-to-face with those great realities: a tall tree and brightly-coloured birds. The small things he attempted in this life were lost, forgotten and destroyed (astonishing to note how different the fate of Tolkien’s own work has been, with carefully curated editions of his myths and stories, and now his translation of Beowulf); they were unimportant, because they were only the shadow.

Paul, although sharing the Eastern Mediterranean with many real-life platonists, did not live in a platonic universe. Paul could not have envisaged the death of Narnia, the blowing of the great horn and the closing of the door. If Paul had written The Last Battle Aslan would have come roaring out of the stable and put Narnia to rights; more than that, made Narnia what it was fated to be from the very start of the song before the beginning of time.

If Paul had written Leaf by Niggle those little leaf paintings of Niggle’s would not have been fragments lost in a nineteenth century civic art gallery; they would have been transformed, taken up, with their promise and their heart fulfilled in a new and astonishing way. Paul’s story gives me even more hope than Tolkien’s. Paul’s story teaches me not that my work is a faint penumbra of something great, but that it is the start of a greater thing: a thing which will – when Christ has returned to claim his inheritance and put everything under his feet – grow, like the mustard seed into the biggest of shrubs, with the birds of the air roosting on its branches. In Paul’s story, the work of creating the garden is already in hand.

(And if you’d like to read the actual story, ‘Leaf By Niggle’ is available to here)

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Introducing Sputnik Patrons: 4 Projects to Support

Artists need patronage. Christians used to be at the forefront of funding artists in this way. They’re not any more. We’d like to change that.

To that end, we are very excited to announce that we are launching our Sputnik Patrons Scheme. We would like to gather a team of patrons (maybe including you!) to help fund specific projects by Christian artists who are connected with the Sputnik network.

From 2018, artists can apply to receive grants from this fund, but to kick off the scheme we have selected 4 projects that we’d like to make happen in the following year. Money you give into the Sputnik Patrons Scheme this year will help to…

Expand Strange Ghost’s audience

Strange Ghost are the husband-wife duo Christopher & Ayomide Donald, who write and produce politically-charged neo-soul music. In early 2017, they released the excellent ‘Stagger’ EP and developed the Strange Ghost sound into a four-piece band.

Strange Ghost 2017

The money raised through the Sputnik Patrons scheme will help them with strategic marketing, particularly with their live shows through local gig and festival promoters. Live performances will build their fanbase, provide a platform for dialogue with audience members and help fund future releases.

To find out more about Strange Ghost, click here, and you can see/hear their debut EP ‘Stagger’ here.

Put on a Benjamin Harris Exhibition

Benjamin Harris is a hugely talented young conceptual artist, based in the West Midlands. He is planning to put on a solo exhibition in Birmingham’s art district, Digbeth, which will feature both past work and new work, made specifically for the exhibition.

Benjamin Harris 2017

The money raised through the Sputnik Patrons Scheme will be crucial in making this exhibition happen (especially in hiring the space), helping Ben to push along his practice, and engage with Birmingham’s art scene in a dialogue around art, faith and life.

Click here to investigate Benjamin’s work, and here to check out his blog.

Produce an anthology of poetry by Huw Evans

Huw Evans has been honing his craft as a writer for many years, writing scripts and verse drama, children’s books, YA novels and poetry. He is planning to release an anthology of his poetry in the following year and we would love to help him make this happen.

Huw Evans 2017

The money raised through the Sputnik Patrons Scheme will help with the printing costs and to provide Huw with graphic design assistance to ensure the look and feel of the publication comes at least close to matching the quality of the content.

To get a taste of Huw’s work, click here, and check out his blog for more of an introduction to the man himself.

Support Phil and Harri Mardlin’s new writing festival, Stage Write

StageWrite is an annual new writing festival that is based in Bedford and run by Phil and Harri Mardlin in collaboration with No Loss Productions. Writers submit their scripts, 4 of which will be selected and put on over 2 nights in script in hand performances, with the potential for one of the scripts to be fully realised.

Phil & Harri Mardlin 2017

Each piece is followed by a Q&A with the writer, actors, director and audience to give the writer developmental feedback on the work. The aim is to allow the writers to see their work on its feet, performed by professional actors and seen by an audience.

The money raised through the SputnikPatrons Scheme would enable Phil and Harri to pay the actors to properly rehearse and fully realise one of the pieces in the festival, a first for StageWrite.

If you’d like to find out more about Phil and Harri, click here, and for more information about StageWrite, here.


To become a SputnikPatron and make these projects happen, go to our patrons page and sign up for one of our donation tiers.

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Introducing Sputnik Patrons

Christians are very generous people.

This is widely acknowledged by those inside and outside of the church, and rightly so when you consider how much God has given us.

But for most Christians there would be some forms of giving that are seen as more appropriate than others. Giving to your church seems to get a universal thumbs up, as does giving to foreign mission. Supporting individual evangelists is very much par for the course in some circles, while planting churches gets people to reach into their pockets elsewhere. And of course, nobody would question someone who gave in response to a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis.

But as for the arts? Well…

Most Christians have some sort of appreciation for the arts, but in the church in the UK as I’ve experienced it, it would be rare for anyone to put the case for giving financially to ‘the arts’. Funnily enough, I’d like to make such a case here and in the following few weeks, and as I do,also provide a practical way to apply all of this.

How we use our money highlights what we consider important. We’ve been making the case since Sputnik began that the arts are important. We’d now like to join the dots from theory to wallets. So let’s kick things off with three simple reasons why we think Christians should give to the arts…

Art does people good

The arts play a far more important role in our lives than we often realise. The arts are one of the main ways that a culture comes alive. A thriving arts scene sets the tone. It can be the difference between colour and black and white. The arts point towards a transcendence and an otherness in the human experience that has the potential to bring joy and hope, even if the practitioners involved don’t believe in such a reality.

Whether it’s through your Spotify playlist, your Kindle library or the pictures you choose to decorate your living room with, for almost all of us, the arts add significant value to our lives.

Therefore, as we respond to human need in giving our money to relieve suffering (a noble cause), shouldn’t we also give it to attending to general human flourishing and building a foundation for life and vitality in our communities?

Art shapes culture

The arts don’t just bring colour to life though, they also play a vital role in fashioning and shaping the values, presuppositions and ideas that are cherished in a culture. Artists take the big ideas of the thinkers, and they make them accessible to the masses, not just by communicating information to our minds but resonating with us emotionally, so that we are warmed to ideas, whether we agree with them or not.

For a worldview or philosophy to take root in a culture, it needs the arts to prepare the way, otherwise, for all its good ideas, it may well find itself shouting loud, but going completely unheard.

Perhaps that sounds a bit close to home, as Christianity is a case in point here. While many worldviews and ethical positions have engaged with the arts very effectively in recent times, the church has systematically withdrawn from this field.

We need to help a new generation of Christian artists to make art of excellence that has the power to speak subtly and authentically into our culture. To do this, it will take a number of things. One of these will be money.

Artists need patronage

So far, so Sputnik. However these two reasons alone won’t necessarily motivate someone to support the arts financially. I mean (the thought goes), why should we fund artists, when they should be able to fund themselves? Teachers and doctors don’t ask for handouts to help them do their jobs- if artists can’t make a living from what they do or make, surely they’re just not good enough.

This way of thinking isn’t helped by the fact that many people see artists through the lens of celebrity, and therefore assume that to be a successful artist it doesn’t just mean to make a living, but actually to become rich.

While, of course, this may be true for a few, they would be the tiny minority. The reality is that most artists who are producing interesting self-initiated projects are operating in a very similar way. These projects (particularly the ones that may shape culture in the way discussed) are not making them any money. On the contrary, they are trying to fund these through their day jobs- which are often much more mundane.

To put it quite simply, artistic excellence doesn’t necessarily mean getting paid, and artistic integrity often very specifically means not getting paid!

This is why systems of arts patronage are so crucial to the development of the arts. In the past, the Christian church has been a key patron of the arts, but in modern times, the government has taken on this role through grants, lottery funding, etc. Of course, the government is presently finding this burden too great to bear and is slashing arts funding left, right and centre.

artistic excellence doesn’t necessarily mean getting paid, and artistic integrity often very specifically means not getting paid!

I think that all of this may be telling us something: it’s time that the church took up such a role again. And we have a suggestion of how practically you can get involved in that.

Join us as an Arts Patron

In response to all of this, Sputnik is starting the Sputnik Patrons Scheme.

This is a fund set up primarily to help Christian artists get specific projects off the ground: from art installations to book publishing, theatre events to music releases. Each year we’ll commission several of these projects with the help of our network of Patrons, who donate monthly.

Who are in this mysterious network you may ask? Well, potentially, you! Next week, we will be kicking off the patronage scheme and if you’d like to support the arts and see more quality art out there made by Christians, we’d love it if you could get involved.

Sputnik Patrons will receive back benefits for their support, at three levels, gold, silver and bronze. These benefits will be outlined further when we launch the scheme, but in short, the more you pledge each month, the more you receive back.

For 2017-18, we have selected 4 projects that we’d like our Sputnik Patrons to invest in. We will give you more information of these in our next post, after which we’re going to explore this topic more on the blog, especially what patronage is, why it’s necessary for artists and what it looks like in the modern world.

So, we think that the arts are important enough for Christians to support financially. If you agree, why not become a Sputnik Patron and let’s see the church start to step back into its role as a patron of the arts.

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Author Mike French Creates Unorthodox Sci-Fi Narratives

When I first started sniffing around for artists in our particular network of churches in 2012, it was pretty tricky to find artists in any discipline who were making work that would be viewed as credible outside the church.

When it came to fiction writers, this scarcity was most pronounced. A few children’s authors slowly crept out of the shadows, but for about 3 years I failed to find one published novelist in any of our churches who was writing for an adult audience outside the church. Now, I in no way want to undervalue children’s authors- writing well for kids is at least as hard as writing for adults. However, this imbalance is worth reflecting upon.

A culture is shaped by its stories and its storytellers. If my experience is indicative of the wider Christian scene, our vacancy from this area should be a cause for considerable concern. To put it slightly differently, what does it say about us, as Christians, if we can only write stories that engage with children? Is it true that modern evangelical Christianity cannot engage over 18s who don’t follow Jesus in imaginative conversation?

I’d been perplexing myself with such concerns for some time when, with some relief, I met Mike French last year. Mike was the owner and senior editor of the prestigious literary magazine, The View From Here, and is the author of the novels, The Ascent of Isaac Steward, Blue Friday, Convergence and An Android Awakes (all published by Elsewhen). He is also amazingly a real life follower of Jesus and was part of a Catalyst church!

Being of such a rare breed, I’d recommend any of us who have an interest in making art that engages with a universal audience to consider what Mike has to say very carefully. I’ll be honest with you, some of you guys will struggle with his style and content (we’ll get on to what I mean by this shortly) but it’s a struggle I think it would be well worth undertaking. The choice is reasonably stark in this area: we can either continue to play it safe and remove ourselves completely from the main plot line of our culture’s evolution or we can, like Mike, seek to navigate the treacherous path of honestly and authentically sharing our stories in a way that people will hear.

With all that said and done then, Mike, over to you…

How does writing fit into your life? 

I work normally between nine in the morning to about three in the afternoon. Outside those hours I keep busy in home dad mode running the house and looking after my three kids. Although of course secretly my subconscious is at work 24/7 on my latest writing project. It normally wakes me up at 3AM and downloads all the stuff it’s been working on. It’s basically highly annoying.

Since reading Android, I’ve also read ‘Isaac Steward’ and hugely enjoyed them both. They seem similar in structure in that there are quite defined alternate stories going on in both books that actually tie in to a larger narrative. What comes first- the alternate stories or the narrative that pulls them together and how do they work together as you write? Are there particular influences that you draw upon in this specific style of writing? 

Normally the larger narrative is the starting place. With An Android Awakes this was definitely the case, although after I started I realised that I had made a lot of work for myself: Each story contained within the overall story is very short and so I frequently had to come up with a whole new concept and story to go with it.

I’m not aware of any influences in this format other than concept albums from bands like Pink Floyd, which have had a big influence on me. The Dark Side of the Moon for example has very distinct musical elements within it but they become more than the sum of their parts by feeding into a larger conceptual landscape.

The thing that makes you different to any other Christian writer I’ve read is the amount of sex in your novels! This is something that most other Christian writers wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, and many Christian readers would find really unsettling. How would you respond to a Christian critic who thought that your novels were too graphic in this regard (or even in terms of violence or swearing)?

Well I wouldn’t call myself a Christian writer, rather a Christian that writes novels. I think there is a difference, certainly to me.  When I first started writing I got professional help from a literary consultancy and they liked my style but pointed out that I used very flowery Christian language whenever I covered adult themes. I studied other writers like Julian Barnes and Iain M. Banks and after a lot of soul searching decided that if I wanted to be good at my craft then I should use clear language when describing sex or violence. Always making the right word choice is something I try and do as a writer and if you can’t do that because you are afraid of what people might think of you, then you are probably in the wrong job.

As to going there in the first place…

I think as a writer you are trying to emotionally connect with people and deal with human struggles and challenges and a major part of being a human is your sexual identity and desires. If as a writer that is off limits, then that severely restricts a writer’s ability to cover the whole spectrum of what it is to be a human on this planet.

I also think as Christians we should really be in this arena, rather than being afraid of it.  Part of the problem is we often confuse the cultural sensitivities of the society we live in with Christian ethics. Often they have nothing to do with each other.  It was culturally acceptable for example for the Minoan woman in Crete thousands of years ago to wear clothes that left their breasts exposed. If we were to time jump them forward to today then people would find that highly offensive. At the time it wasn’t.

Your 4 novels have all been published by Elsewhen. What advice would you give writers looking to be published or looking to self-publish? 

Prepare for rejection, pain and heartache. Visualise a wall before you and then run repeatedly into it until you become unconscious.

If you can survive that then good, you are made of the right stuff and the following might be of interest.

  1. Don’t scatter gun all the agents and publishers with your novel. Approach it like a job application. Do some research on who might like your kind of work and then contact two or three of them.
  2. Look for junior agents that have just started their own lists of clients.
  3. Email specific agents and publishers and ask if they would like to see your work. (Make this very short and do not attach your work.) If they don’t advertise their email then take a leaf out of Sherlock’s book and do some detective work.  Many editors are always looking for new work even if their company says they do not take unsolicited work.
  4. Make sure you have a decent one page synopsis.
  5. If you are considering self-publishing then do not believe any of the hype you might read. Unless you already have an established fan base the chances of you selling loads of copies is very small.

You are presently working on the sequel to Android. How’s it going and can you give us any teasers?

I’ve finished the first draft and I’m very excited about it! It’s called Fictional Alignment and will be out early next year.  I’ve really enjoyed writing it and it deals (amongst a lot of other things) with the importance of stories in shaping and forming our society. In the novel, androids have decided that fiction is evil and they want to eradicate it.  What follows from this really pits fiction against fact.  They are two very different world views and so I throw them at each other – what happens isn’t pretty!


Thank you Mike. To get hold of any of his work, there is a South American River that can help you. If that doesn’t ring any bells, just click here.

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Reading and Writing (The Second Bit)

In the first part of this mini-series I explored something of how reading can connect us into earlier writers, who may well be making their own contribution to a conversation that has been going on for a while. In this second and concluding part I want to consider how we can make use of that in our own writing or creative practice. (Again, I’m writing about writing, because that’s what I know: you can cross out ‘writing’ and put in ‘my practice”.)

One recent example I came across was W E Gordon’s collection of poems The Shining Path, which he read from at last year’s Catalyst Festival. The poem Taking Leave begins:

‘Less than halfway through

my tempestuous life I awoke

to find myself far off the beaten track…


I was all alone …


I quickly lost my bearings

and wandered into a

forest so strange and dark …’


Does that sound familiar? Yup, we have an echo of the opening stanza of Dante’s Divine Comedy (here in the Sean O’Brien translation):

‘Once, halfway through the journey of our life,

I found myself inside a shadowy wood,

Because the proper road had disappeared.’


When Bill Gordon wrote his poem was he just wanting to increase his quotation score, or wanting us to think he’s a brainy kind of guy because he’s read Dante? No, he’s using that phrasing to tell us something about what he is writing. Dante narrates a journey from earth, through Hell, up Mount Purgatory and then up into Heaven: a spiritual journey which confronts sin and redemption. As you read on in The Shining Path you find that this is also a spiritual journey: he is not simply bolting Dante on, but joining the conversation to speak of his own experience of spiritual crisis.

The power of a conversation of this sort is that just a few words can conjure a mood, an event or an entire story which we read alongside, with and under the actual words on the page. (If you are a particular sort of academic reader you will find all this talk of authorial intent either distressing, passé or hopelessly naive: do I care? I do not.)

Of course, like any artistic strategy, there’ll be people to object (some people wondered why Dante was writing in Italian, instead of using Latin, like all good poets before him). The main objection to this conversational approach to reading and writing is that your reader (viewer, audience) may not be familiar with the work you are referencing? Surely if you put all this clever clogs stuff in then you are just being elitist?

No, we are not being elitist (although we might be being a bit difficult – and why should everything in life be simple?) Do you really want every book to be at a Janet and John level? (That’s Biff, Chip and the magic key for younger generations.) Should every film be like Transformers or a rote recitation of Campbell’s hero’s journey? By no means.

Think of it like visiting a really good garden. If it’s done right you should be able to go in and enjoy it, without knowing the name of any of the plants, or their preferred habitats (the kids will enjoy balancing on the edge of the pond, and they know zero about gardening). But if you know a little bit about plants and garden design you’ll get a bit of a kick from identifying hostas (we’re reaching my limit here) and understanding how the gardener has selected and deployed plants to get a certain effect. Knowing a bit more enables you to get more out of it.

There is, though, a more hidden danger: you can stuff your work so full of allusions, hints and nudges that it becomes a rag-bag of fragments and no complete THING emerges. There are so many parts, shooting off in so many directions, that none of these conversation partners can get a word in (that for me is a subset of the writing problem labelled ‘too many ideas’: that is perhaps worth an explore in another post).

So what to do? It’s easy really: find out who are your conversation partners. Odds are, they will be the writers you read and respect. Writers who speak to you, who make you want to speak. The writer who stops you short with wonder, revelation and insight, who brings you joy (and also the sense of despair embedded in ‘I’ll never be able to write like that’). Also, don’t limit yourself to artists in your own discipline: there’s no reason a writer shouldn’t speak with a composer. (And don’t listen to the ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ crowd, they probably don’t understand dancing or architecture: trust me, dancing about architecture would be a brilliant thing to do.)

Once you’ve found out who your conversation partners are, talk to them.


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Reading & Writing (The First Bit)

My artistic practice (and yes, I can just about write that without laughing myself off my chair) depends on two things: reading and writing. Reading, because what I write is connected with what has gone before, and writing, well, because I mainly write. (And before you filmmakers, musicians and visual artists turn off, you can substitute other pairs like watch and make, listen and compose, look and paint.) In this two part post I want to poke at each of those in turn to get a better understanding of how they interact: let me start with reading.

In my haphazard way I read the second Bridget Jones book before the first one. I was ambling through Bridget Jones – the Edge of Reason enjoying the diarising and the self-disgust  when I came to this passage in which Bridget is stuck, kneeling down at a party with a small boy clinging to her neck and refusing to get off:

‘Then suddenly William’s arms were released from around my neck. I felt him being lifted away … I turned to see Mark Darcy walking away with a writhing six year old boy under each arm’

I stopped reading. I had recognised something else in there. I was not just reading Helen Fielding, I was also reading Jane Austin’s Persuasion at the same time:

‘In another moment she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his sturdy little hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was being resolutely borne way, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.’ (Persuasion, Chapter IX.)

Two hundred years apart, two different authors, but the same scene at the same structural point in each story, as the heroine rescued from an annoying boy by the man she has been/is still in love with. Identifying that incident unlocked the book for me. I read on with more attention and found other pieces of Austin’s plot and fragments of her characters under Fielding’s twenty-first century clothing (although Bridget Jones is no Anne Elliot). The trip to Lyme Regis and the fall on the Cobb became a weekend house-party and a foolish jump into a shallow lake. The books which drew two lovers together were no longer the romantic poets, but self-help books.

As I read, my familiarity with Persuasion (which for personal reasons is my favourite Austin novel) coloured and deepened my enjoyment of Bridget Jones. By drawing on Persuasion Helen Fielding put Bridget Jones into the continuing conversation among the other romantic heroines of lost, and sometimes recovered, love from Ophelia onward. I had travelled from Kansas to Oz. From black and white to colour. Or perhaps it was the difference between hearing someone whistle the tune of Ode to joy and hearing that same melody embedded in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

We need to read: it is a courtesy we owe previous writers, in the same way we should listen to other people in a conversation, and not just selfishly formulate what we are going to say next, irrespective of what they have said. We don’t need to read everything, just as we don’t need to to listen to every conversation going on at a party, but we do need to pay attention to the conversation we choose to join: it will make our writing better.

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Sputnik Stocking Fillers

Jemma, my wife, is a force of nature when it comes to Christmas shopping. She started about a month ago and I think has pretty much nailed it already.

Now, I like to think that she is the exception rather than the rule in this regard, and if this is true, then most of you reading this will still be in search of some prezzies for your loved ones this Chrimbo.

Well, Sputnik can help. It’s great to see the quality work out there emanating from guys connected to our collective, and it could just be what you need to complete your gift buying mission.

Here are 6 Sputnik stocking fillers that we’d thoroughly recommend:

An Android Awakes by Mike French

filmcomicconbrightonJust over a year ago, Mike French released this, his fourth novel- a collaboration with illustrator Karl Brown. It’s set in a future where our culture is shaped by machines, and part of that shaping is done through the Android Publishing Program. In short, robots provide people with their reading material. The catch is that each android only gets 42 attempts to get their work published before they are deactivated.

‘An Android Awakes’ is the story of Android Writer PN121928  who, after a series of rejections, only has 14 attempts left before deactivation. What follows then are these attempts, intertwined with the narrative about the android novelist’s life and particularly his fears as he gets closer and closer to the potentially definitive rejection. Therefore, it’s partly a short story collection and partly an extended exploration of a dystopian future.

And it scores on both fronts. The short stories are consistently bizarre, funny and poignant and give Mike full rein to let his imagination really go to town. On the other hand, the whole set up is coherent and well fleshed out and both serves as an interesting and disturbing vision of the future and a fable about the plight of very human writers in the here and now.

“The questions of what makes us truly human and what life means isn’t anything new within the genre, but the presentation of those timeless questions here is exemplary and fresh” (AMO MAGAZINE)

Who’d like it in their stocking? Anyone into Philip K Dick or 2000AD. I’d also probably better add a 15 rating on to it too, in case some over eager parents were expecting Hagbane’s Doom with robots (anyone remember Hagbane’s Doom? Oh, it’s just me then).

How can I get it? An Android Awakes is available on paperback or on kindle from amazon, and if you want to find out more visit the website.


The Parables of Pythagoras by The Praying Mantis

The Praying Mantis is an exceptional wordsmith and vocalist. His lyrical ingenuity and authoritative delivery have been apparent for years both in his live shows and through his previous releases, but I don’t think that they’ve ever been showcased as effectively as on The Parables of Pythagoras, his latest album. The beats are gritty and hard hitting (lots of ominous strings and snapping snares) and the rhymes are classic Mantis.

Who’d like it in their stocking? Within the rap genre, there is an opportunity for in your face unapologetic statements of faith and Mantis seizes that opportunity with both hands. However, whereas many Christian rappers fill their verses with such theological detail that they ensure that only Christians will connect with their material, Mantis crafts his work in such a way that anyone into gritty, street hiphop a la late 90s Wu Tang Clan will be happy to see in the New Year to The Parables of Pythagoras.

How can I get it? It’s on band camp. It’s also available on a physical CD (I know because I’ve got one) however Mantis is hiding them all away in his warchest, so you’ll have to put some work in to get your hands on one.


Humanization (Issues 1 and 2) by Josh and Steve Whitehouse


Nothing says Happy Christmas like some dystopian sci fi. An Android Awakes is a case in point, as are the first two issues of Josh and Steve Whitehouse’s Humanization comics. Issue 1 came out about a year ago, but the second issue has crept into being under most people’s radar. Not any more!

Humanization is set in a world where humans are extinct, but the internet that they left behind has developed consciousness. Servers, websites and programs of all kinds have become living beings and the comic follows their adventures focusing on CADRA, a common farm girl working on the code fields and her pet dragon, Mutt.

The story opens up in an intriguing manner and, as you’d expect from Josh, the illustration is crazily good. And as for detail! Seriously, if you ever get the chance, get him to talk you through the bar scene in issue 2- for every item on every shelf has a meaning and significance. Every item!

Who’d like it in their stocking? Um… who wouldn’t like it in their stocking? It’s got a cute dragon sidekick, a a zombie Paul Simon, and Google, Twitter, Microsoft and Apple personified as dictatorial overlords. Can I narrow it down? People who like things that are good. (Actually, people who like things that are good who are over 15. Same reasons as above)

How can I get it? You can get issues 1 and 2 for a mere fiver from jowybean’s etsy page. Bargain.


Sojourner by Stewart Garry

If you’ve been following this blog at all this year, you should have caught up on this one already, but if not, Sojourner is one of my favourite projects of the year full stop. Stewart is an insanely nimble fingered acoustic guitarist par excellence and was ready to record his second album some time a year or so back. However, it wasn’t coming together in a recording studio. Cue Chris Donald, head honcho of Minor Artists, musical super producer, and more often than not a man with a plan. Chris suggested that the two of them should record the album in some of the places which inspired Stewart in his craft. So they did. One song is recorded in a whiskey distillery, one in a lighthouse, another in an old church. And all the songs are recorded visually too, making the album actually a series of music videos, with commentary from Stewart, letting us in a little on his creative process.

The music is beautiful. The visuals let us into the physicality of Stewart’s skills. The whole package is a wonderful example of how to do a creative project properly.

Is it a film? Is it an album? Both, of course, and Sojourner is also a unique presentation of an artist and his music. (

Who’d like it in their stocking? I’ll be honest, I’m not usually a fan of instrumental acoustic guitar music, but I love this. The videos made Stewart’s music accessible to me, but even without these, it is a great album. ‘Patience is a virtue’ even made it on to a Mellor Holiday mix CD. That’s a high bar, right there!

How can I get it? It’s available from Minor Artists’ website either as a download or as a physical CD/DVD.


Ocean by Joanna Karselis

img_2803Did I say mix CD? Well, if you, like me, partake in the creation of such things for holiday jaunts to see family or just to compile favourite tunes of the year, this is a shoe in. Jo has never sounded more vital and arresting. Just listen to the intro and it will come as no surprise that this is the lady whose brutal strumming was responsible for slicing the top off one of her fingers while performing earlier this year. Hardcore!

Who’d like it on their Christmas mix CD? The intro reminds me of early Ani Defranco, and anyone who likes their music passionate and authentic will value this highly.

How can I get it? Bandcamp once again. Don’t be shy to give a bit more than the required amount either. (You don’t want 3 ghosts to visit you at night do you?)


Customised pencil sketches by Benjamin Harris

img_3013In september, Ben’s bike got nicked, so to fund a new one (and his upcoming volunteer work in Tanzania) he has started doing pencil sketches of basically anything you’d like. Rather geekily, we got him to make a piece of GK Chesterton. My mum got him to draw my sister’s dogs (yes, he really will stoop that low). They range from £30 (A5) to £40 (A3) and you won’t be disappointed.

Who’d like it in their stocking? We commissioned a piece of GK Chesterton (see above). My mum got him to draw my sister’s dogs. So basically anyone.

How can I get it? Here’s the deets.



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Wolf in a White Van: Effective Escapism

Last year I read John Darnielle’s novel Wolf in White Van. Though his first major literary work, I have been a long-time fan of Darnielle’s band the Mountain Goats, through which his ability to craft short but emotionally nuanced stories has been consistently demonstrated through his role as the songwriter and lyricist.

As such, I approached the book with high expectations and was pleased to find it did not disappoint. The story Darnielle has crafted is one which is psychologically incisive and strangely unnerving. Yet what stayed with me the most was the way in which the novel examines the power of escapism.

Wolf in White Van focuses on the first person experiences of Sean, a young man recovering from a violent incident which left him hospitalised and requiring facial reconstructive surgery. As a way of passing the time and distracting himself from his injuries, Sean develops Trace Italian, a play-by-mail, choose-your-own-adventure game. Players are tasked with surviving a post-apocalyptic desert landscape whilst searching for the titular Trace Italian, a vast fortress which provides refuge from the brutal conditions outside.

Trace Italian provides Sean with an escape from his immediate surroundings and a coping mechanism for the painful and constrained situation he finds himself in, but even despite Darnielle’s love for all things fantastical, he is not afraid to explore the negative side of such escapism through the book. Sean seems to be aware that his creation offers no ultimate solutions other than a temporary distraction from the player’s immediate surroundings. He confides to the reader that reaching the centre of Trace Italian (the eventual purpose of the game) is impossible, leaving the experience one of endless searching, with no hope of a satisfactory conclusion. Furthermore, when one of his players decides to give up half-way through by committing suicide he treats his decision with a respectful admiration, noting that “He had made the right move.”

All of this got me thinking about the purpose and value of escapism. Defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘The tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy’ escapism can come in many forms. Arguably sports, espionage thrillers and romantic comedies can all fulfil this role. However, when I think of the term it’s often Dungeons & Dragons or science fiction that comes to mind, possibly because their fantastical and otherworldly settings provide a more obvious counterpoint to our own. And whilst nerd culture is becoming increasingly commonplace, it’s hard to ignore the old stereotypical view that the champions of these genres have traditionally been stigmatised as people who escape to fantastical realms to gain a degree of power or worth not afforded them in ‘the real world’.

The point of criticism is obvious. Such entertainment amounts to a kind of ‘emotional fast food’, artificially fulfilling our hunger (for power, importance, nobility, adventure) whilst providing nothing of real substance.

However, there is another way to look at it. JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, for example, espoused a very different kind of escapism. Few would deny the artistic value of The Lord of The Rings and Narnia series, but what elevates them above the cheap and short term fixes many associate with escapism in general, and the genre of fantasy, in particular?

Firstly, I would argue that though the settings are fantastical and otherworldly, The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series portray real human conflict and emotion within their fictional settings. Although Tolkien has argued that The Lord of The Rings is not an allegory for either of the world wars, the epic battles he portrayed mirror the actual conflicts which occurred during the writing process. Other real-world concerns echoed in the novels include the corrupting influence of power, the dangers of industrialisation and the importance of courage in the face of evil. Relatively speaking, the Narnia series has tended to operate on a smaller scale. However, the conflicts faced by the protagonists have remained engaging, relatable and believable, despite the inherent fiction in their premises. For instance, in discussing The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe fellow fantasy writer Lev Grossman notes:

“Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they’re exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.“ (Source)

However, if the true value of these works is in the re-framing of ‘real’ conflicts and concerns within the context of a fantasy setting, what worth is the setting itself? Is all the talk of elves and dragons just a hook to get people invested? For Lewis, the role of fantasy was much more than this – it allowed for the suspension of disbelief, the entering of ‘another space’, removed from that which is familiar. Following this, Lewis (whose books were plainly but not offensively evangelistic -a rare thing indeed) used the space to communicate to the reader a ‘higher’ truth, one regarding the nature of good and evil and the presence of spiritual forces, without the reader becoming defensive and disengaging due to their own preconceptions on such matters. In discussing the value of using ‘Fairy-Stories’ to communicate spiritual truth, Lewis writes:

Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to. I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of the stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.” (Source)

Arguably most modern readers would lack a sense of obligation to reverence concerning spiritual matters. However, most will have their own (often negative) preconceptions of Christianity, often dismissing its more fantastical elements (e.g. Jesus’ divinity & resurrection) offhand. However, I would argue that in wilfully choosing to enter an otherworldly space such as Narnia, we abandon our vice-grip on the need for complete rationalism and become accepting of events which make sense not according to strict scientific and logical consideration, but rather those which have an aesthetic and emotional cohesion. (FOOTNOTE 1)

Therefore for Lewis, the question is not ‘Is escapism acceptable?’ but ‘Where are you escaping to?’  For Tolkien, the answer to this was ‘to Joy’. In his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ he writes:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale) in its fairy-tale – or otherworld – setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” (Source) (FOOTNOTE 2)

However, Tolkien also gave thought to where people were escaping from and why they had need to escape at all.

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”  (Source)

The ‘Prisons’ Tolkien primary discussed were the forces of fascism and communism operating at the time of writing. However, they could just as well apply to our own dominant world-views. Indeed, for Lewis himself, the fantasy writings of George MacDonald caused a ‘baptism of imagination’ which allowed him to ‘break free’ from the prison of his materialist world-view.

In an age in which materialist and post-modern narratives dominate, we need art to divulge truth about the world, ourselves and the nature of good and evil. The need for good to triumph over evil in our fantasy stories is because we have a sense deep down that this is true, yet it is not something that is necessarily self-evident from the world around us. Being honest in the workplace can earn us the ire of our superiors, making self-sacrificing purchasing decisions on ethical grounds can feel like a token gesture and a relative drop in the ocean. Bad things happen to good people and evil prospers. If there is truth to our basic instincts that a coherent and moral structure to the Universe exists, we need it to be validated by the art we engage in. Taken in this context, the ‘escapist’ literature of Tolkien and Lewis (among many others) becomes, in fact, a kind of ‘hyper-realism’ transporting us away from the illusory hallucinations we find ourselves confronted by (‘Humans are just DNA replicating machines’ / ‘truth and morality are socially constructed’) and into a place of emotional and spiritual truth surpassing that of our immediate surroundings. In the words of Lewis, effective escapism will give the reader a desire for “They know not what”:

“It stirs and troubles [the reader] (to their life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond their reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new ‘dimension of depth’. They do not despise real woods because they have read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. (Source)


FOOTNOTE 1 Though we still like to think of ourselves as logical and scientific, in a ‘post-truth’ world, we are quickly abandoning the notion that people are driven primarily by rational thought and are re-learning the importance of emotion in people’s beliefs and decision-making. If we are to champion Christianity, the arts’ ability to portray this aesthetic and emotional ‘sense-making’ is something which will be undeniably valuable. After all, can anyone truly say that the idea of penal substitution is ‘logical’ more than it is beautiful?

FOOTNOTE 2 Interestingly, this quote echoes Sputnik favourite Flannery O’Connor and her discussion of ‘the moment of grace’ in her writing. However, in the stories of O’Connor, the ‘moment of grace’ operated on a much more individual and personal level than the cosmic event which Tolkien seems to be referencing.



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An Interview With Author Tom Avery

A few years ago, I heard on the grapevine that a friend of mine, Tom Avery, had won a competition with a novel that he had written. That’s funny, I thought, I didn’t know Tom wrote. All I knew was that he was a good bloke and seemed like a very good primary school teacher. But that’s the thing about fiction writers in Christian circles isn’t it? Unless you write about Christian stuff exclusively for Christians, there are very few platforms in most churches to showcase your skill or test out your ability.
Well, it turns out that this wasn’t just a ‘pat on the back’ diversion for Tom, but the start of a new career which has been going from strength to strength ever since.

Just 5 years on, he writes children’s fiction full time to critical acclaim and has won the Diverse Voices Book Award and been nominated for the 2015 Carnegie Medal. He has just published his third novel, Not As We Know It, and so I thought it was long overdue that we caught up with him and got inside his head a little.

So, for all you closet writers out there who think that Tom’s story seems a bit like a dream come true, hopefully this will provide some encouragement and wisdom.

So, Tom…

For readers, a novel from a new author comes out of the blue, but this is seldom the case for a writer. What was your experience of writing before your first novel ‘Too Much Trouble’?

That depends what you mean by writing.  If you mean putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, my experience was slight.  I’d never attempted a novel.

As a reader, you pick up a book by an author you know and there is an expectation of the quality of prose, originality of concept, of character.  For a debut, your expectations are lowered.  You step into the unknown.  I might suggest that your expectations in some regards should be higher.

Most novelists will have been conspiring to write and thinking about that first tome for years, if not decades, directly or indirectly, before they chisel their ideas in stone.  This was my experience.  I had years of working with young people logged in the back of my head when I started writing.

Sure, an author learns their craft through experience, through the write and repeat cycle of creating and shaping, deleting and re-forming.  Sure, a debut, for most, will not showcase their writing, plotting, storytelling at its polished, mature form.  But a debut novel says what an author has been waiting to say for years.  The ideas should be original.  The voices fresh.

Having said all that, if someone asks me which book of mine they should read, I don’t recommend Too Much Trouble.  I usually plump for my latest.  My latest book is what I want to say now.

What do you hope to achieve through your writing?

My working life aside from writing has been in education, working in schools in London and Birmingham.  Everyone is different and this truth becomes evident when you have thirty little lives squashed in a classroom.  Everyone is different but children’s books are not.

Tropes of course are necessary.  We want to connect story to our previous experience.  We want a frame of reference where we can see Frodo Baggins in Harry Potter, James Bond in Alex Ryder.  But children also want to see themselves and their lives in the books they read.  Some of the great names in children’s fiction like Jacqueline Wilson and Malory Blackman have shown that children want diverse protagonists.

All of my books were borne out of a desire to write about a real child’s circumstances.  My aim is never to write an ‘issues’ book but a ‘real’ book.  What I want to achieve is hope spoken into the real challenges that children face.

How does your Christian faith affect your writing?

Occasionally, when Christians hear of my profession, they jump to the conclusion or make the suggestion that I write great allusive books like C.S. Lewis.  But with all respect to the great don, I don’t feel called to this allegorical way of presenting Christianity.

I alluded to it above.  I want to present hope.  I want children to see that circumstance can be redeemed.  The Christian message is that God is in the business of renewing all things.  I want my books to be ones of renewal.

Lots of Christian authors, maybe especially those writing for young adults, have a tendency to become very didactic and moralistic in their writing. Do you feel this temptation and if so how do you deal with it?

I guess I don’t.  Not to any great extent.  I’m in the business of telling stories.  Stories carry message.  Stories have impact.  Without setting out to preach, stories convey a world view.

I take care to write about what I feel convicted to write about but in the same way that I would not set out to write an ‘issues’ book, I don’t set out as an apologist.

On your website, you give some really helpful writing tips (here). If you could give just one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?

Keep writing.

A novel is 40,000, 50,000, 60,000 words (unless you’re George R. R. Martin).  That takes a mighty long time to write – more than enough time to see the magnificent flaws in your writing, your plot, your characters.

Keep writing.

It takes perseverance to write through the time when your own writing makes you laugh it’s so bad.

Keep writing.

One day you’ll have those tens of thousands of words with a beginning, middle and end (or something like that).  One day you’ll have the novel that only you could write.

It is painful but keep writing.

You’ve got a new book- Not As We Know It. What is it about and do you know what your next project will be?

Not As We Know It is a tale of mermen, Star Trek and fraternal love set in the early 80s.

Jamie and Ned are twins. They do everything together: riding their bikes, beachcombing outside their house, watching their favourite episodes of Star Trek.

But Ned is sick.

When they discover a strange creature on the beach, Jamie begins to hope that the creature might bring some miracle, and stop his brother from going where he can no longer follow.

My next project – I’ve recently moved with my family to Amsterdam and I am working on a book that takes inspiration from this – a girl and her father move to the city where they want to find a fresh start.  I’ve also been writing some retellings of folk tales about giants from around the world.

You may or may not see them in bound book form.



Thank you Tom. Please keep an eye out for Tom. Buy his books and support him in any way you can. To find out more or get hold of his books, click here. Traditionally Christians have thought that influential Christians are the ones who speak to other Christians on a Sunday morning or write books to fill other Christians’ book shelves. This guy is bringing hope into the homes of the 90% who would never come to church or buy any Kingsway paperbacks. We need more Tom Averies!