Jack Carrigan enjoys coffee and carrot cake with Francesca Kay, the award-winning novelist who is fascinated by religious fervour Before calling on novelist Francesca Kay in the civilised, leafy streets of north Oxford, I drop by at St Aloysius church in Woodstock Road. I notice the sculpted form of the dead Christ entombed beneath a side altar. It is a fitting image to take along with me for my meeting, because the author’s second novel, The Translation of the Bones, which has recently been published, centres on an ambiguous encounter between a simple-minded woman and a life-size crucifix in a Battersea church.
The novel, which I strongly recommend, is not easy reading; the other characters bring their own entangled lives to MaryMargaret O’Reilly’s supposed mystical experience and its tragic outcome. So what, I ask, as we enjoy coffee and carrot cake at her kitchen table, gave Francesca Kay the idea of exploring religion and psychosis?
“I had the idea, followed by an image,” she replies. “I wanted to explore the position of faith in our society. To have faith today is counter-cultural.” I remind her of her reply to another interview in which she had stated, “In the West – or in this country anyway – we have very quickly got to a position where faith is an aberration rather than the norm.” She nods vigorously. “I don’t see myself as a ‘Catholic writer’, as perhaps someone like Piers Paul Read does. But whether you have a faith or not the relation of the human to the divine is a crucial subject. Writers have to raise the big questions: you can’t shy away from them.” There is a pause and she adds, “I wanted to explore in this novel how certain individuals believe.” I mention my visit to St Aloysius and the figure of Christ. Kay asks me if I saw the exhibition of Spanish religious art at the National Gallery last year; entitled The Sacred Made eal it showed that the art of the period was intent on making religious images – especially the crucified Christ – as realistic as possible. For Kay, the exhibition had confirmed her own search in her novel, “to make what is abstract corporeal”.
Her first novel, which won the Orange Award for New Writers (“that made a huge difference to my confidence as a writer”, she comments) is not on a religious theme, which is why she is not keen to be pigeonholed as a “Catholic writer”. It is the fictitious biography of a great artist who is also a wife and mother and was inspired by Kay’s interest in the life and work of Barbara Hepworth. For Kay, it was about “how to live one’s life; how to make sense of one’s vocation to art as well as cope with practical demands”.
So does she feel she has a vocation to be a writer? Her response is very self-deprecating: “‘Vocation’ is too grand a word. It would feel self-important to use of myself.” Another pause: “Yet you must feel you have something to say.” Having launched straight into a discussion of her writing, I decide to backtrack: what is Francesca Kay’s background? She tells me she is half-Indian and that her mother, who came from a very old Catholic community on the west coast near Bombay, read English at Oxford where she met her father, an Englishman studying Chinese. Was it a devout household? “No. My father had stopped practising – although as a boy he had fond memories of serving Mass for Fr O’Connor, the priest who inspired G K Chesterton’s Father Brown.” In a peripatetic childhood – her father was a diplomat specialising in South-East Asia, where they lived in various countries, ending up in Laos – her Indian grandparents’ home was what she most remembers.
“In my childhood India felt like home. My earliest memory is of my Indian grandmother clicking her beads and softly murmuring her prayers as she said her rosary at night.” Kay still has warm memories of a tolerant culture “where different faiths were respected and where people still believe in the idea of the supernatural”.
An eccentric year of being home-schooled by her mother in Laos, where there was no suitable school – “lots of literature and history but sketchy in maths” – was followed by Woldingham Convent where she was sent aged 11.
Was this something of a culture shock? She laughs. “I’m sure at first the other girls thought I was a bit insufferable. Also, I arrived in the Easter term when everyone had already made their friendships. I realised it wasn’t a good idea to tell people I was reading Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.” Boarding school was a happy experience – some of the Sacred Heart nuns were unworldly, others highly educated women. Kay deplores the way nuns are sometimes mocked in later memoirs: “They are a soft target.” As a child she read “omnivorously”. So what books stand out in her memory? Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare was a favourite; also The Borrowers and books by E Nesbit. Aged 10 she was reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mary McCarthy’s The Group, though aspects of the latter were, unsurprisingly, mystifying at the time. There was no censorship from her parents. Like them Kay went on to Oxford, where she also read English.
“I always wanted to be a writer,” she explains: “A place like Oxford is not terribly good when you have an ambition like that. You read a sonnet by Donne and wonder what else there is to say.” She says, that aged 21 and fresh from Oxford, she had no experience to write about. She did not want to write about herself – “and at 21 who else can you write about”? She waited until she felt confident that she had found her voice. This didn’t happen until after she had married, raised three children and the youngest had been properly launched into the world of school. I mention the critic Harold Bloom’s book, Genius, of the few women writers he includes – such as Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor – none of them had children. For Kay. having children was itself creative. She feels she has been very fortunate to have been able to choose to stay at home when her children were young, adding: “If having children and being a writer were mutually exclusive activities, I would always have chosen to be a mother.” What is her writing routine nowadays? She laughs at the phrase. “On a good day, when there are no interruptions, I write all day, in longhand, sitting in a corner of the sofa.” Why longhand? “It gives you a more intimate connection with the page. It also slows you down; you have time to think.” She pays one of her daughters to type up the manuscript which she then corrects and edits. I ask her if she thinks one has to be selfish to be a writer.
“I prefer the word ‘ruthless’ to ‘selfish’,” she says. Another pause: “In order to make something of lasting value there probably has to be a focus that is exclusive of other people.” She returns to the inspiration of her first novel, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth: “She was a great artist and a woman – not despite being a woman.” Has she begun to think of a third novel? “Facing the terror of the blank page? No, it’s too early.” Kay makes a habit of returning to the poets she loves, such as T S Eliot and Hopkins, and to authors such as Jane Austen – “for her precision of language” – when she is writing. She quotes Evelyn Waugh’s dictum approvingly: only read 18thcentury prose when you want to write.
I ask Kay about the influence of her parents. “Perhaps my father’s was the greater. He shared with me a love of language. He would have liked to have been a writer; when he died my mother found an unpublished novel and poems among his papers.” She regrets that he died before being able to enjoy her own success.
We have been talking for almost two hours and I am starting to worry about my car which only has a twohour permit. I tell Kay I found her second novel a little bleak. She replies that she hopes readers “will see the possibility of redemption in it – to see the suffering as part of the huger picture, larger than the people in it”. Then she kindly walks me to my car.
The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson priced £12.99