The Dispatch: More from CWR Books A new Catholic literary revival?

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by K. V. Turley

During Lent 1998, a teenage girl, having just left an English convent school, knelt at the grotto of St. Jerome in the Holy Land. She prayed fervently, asking that through his intercession she would one day become a writer. More two decades later I traveled from London to Surrey to meet that girl—now a grown woman and with five published novels to her name. It is apparent that the prayers of her younger self had indeed been answered.

It is now 10 years since Fiorella de Maria published her first novel, The Cassandra Curse. It won an award and launched her career as a novelist. She still remembers the thrill of being published for the first time. Now firmly established, she admits it is easy to forget how hard getting that first book out was. The Cassandra Curse had taken only six weeks to write but it was another four years of re-writes, agents, rejections, and edits before it was introduced to the world, and that had happened quite by accident. De Maria mentioned to someone at a dinner party that she had written a novel; he was curious, and he knew someone who was in publishing. The manuscript was sent soon after. First lesson for any aspiring writer: get out there and meet people—someone will help you.

The first thing one appreciates about de Maria is that she is a very busy woman. She is married with four children—ages ranging from nine to two—and she works with a UK pro-life charity. In addition, she is popular on the speaking circuit as feminist speaker with a difference—she is a faithful Catholic, and a very articulate one at that. I’ve heard her speak and can testify that this is a formidable woman with a sharp intellect. And then there’s the writing…

When did she first know she was a writer? As far back as she can remember, it seems. She needed little encouragement, but encouragement came. There was the English lesson where her pastiche of a Wordsworth poem was so good the teacher substituted it for the real thing. No one noticed except one classmate who knew this was definitely not a Wordsworth poem—it just had to be Tennyson. And so, it started.

When she graduated from Cambridge University, de Maria had a summer free, and that was when she sat down and wrote The Cassandra Curse. She wasn’t conscious of anything other than the need to write; quickly she settled on turning her hand to novels after a friend read something she had written and told her she was “born to write.” Lesson number two for aspiring writers—surround yourself with critics who take the long view.

Initially, de Maria had no conscious sense of vocation. That came later, when she jettisoned the mistaken idea that a “Catholic writer” wrote polemics about clerical matters. Slowly the idea of writing fiction took root, and she began to see the potential of the gift she had been given. Five novels later—We’ll Never Tell Them was published by Ignatius Press last year—it can be seen that her “embrace” of her vocation has been a fruitful one.

What advice has she for aspiring Catholic novelists? Grow a very thick skin. There is the very public—and often short-lived—joy of seeing a book come into existence, but there is another side to the process. Writing a book takes a lot of time and hard work, to say nothing of a single-minded dedication in the face of one’s personal demons telling you not to bother. That is before there is the contact with agents and publishers, editors and proofreaders, with it all ending in possible rejection—or worse, poor sales and then rejection. And so, de Maria is clear, just as with any vocation: it is better to be prepared. Of course, when she first set out she wasn’t. Still, for any aspiring novelists out there, it’s better to be forewarned, even if one feels impelled to pursue this dream come what may.

De Maria is one of a number of novelists who have found a home with Ignatius Press. The California-based publisher is at the forefront of a quiet revolution now taking place, namely the next Catholic Literary Revival, which de Maria maintains is just about to materialize. What are the signs? Ignatius Press and its stable of fiction writers are reaching an ever-wider market—both Catholic and beyond. For any literary revival to happen there are two prerequisites: writers and an audience. We now have both.

Things were different a generation ago. The Catholic publishing houses were a mixed bag and not interested in fiction. The prospect of a distinctively Catholic voice emerging in the world of fiction seemed unlikely—then or at any time in the future. There were those who remembered an earlier period when the names of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, Tolkien and others were as much as part of the mainstream as their contemporaries but still, to varying degrees, identifiably Catholic. This had been preceded by an initial English renaissance spearheaded by such luminaries as Chesterton, Belloc, and Benson. Could we really be on the cusp of another, with the likes of de Maria, Michael O’Brien, and others about to become The Third Wave?

Time will tell. What is clear, however, is that something is beginning to happen even if it is still embryonic in form. De Maria points to the recent Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction, something unheard of even five years ago. She is clear that the danger in all this would be creating some form of “ghettoized” faith-based literature that essentially preaches to the converted. Here is the dilemma facing any Catholic novelist and it is not new. Is the writer a Catholic novelist or a Catholic who writes novels? Perhaps it doesn’t matter anymore: the culture is so far removed from the Christian ideal that it needs any real creativity it can get to help it come back from the abyss. The world needs faithful Catholic artists—in whatever medium—now more than ever; it also needs Catholics willing to support those artists.

A priest friend of de Maria’s once noted that the modern novel tells us a great deal about the human mind but not a lot about the human soul. This, she maintains, is where the Catholic novelist in particular comes in. Dostoyevsky wrote: “Beauty will save the world.”  Those who know the truth about that beauty need to communicate it in a myriad of ways, including storytelling.

De Maria is adamant that those aspiring to becoming novelists must be as professionally proficient as anyone else—if not more so, given the attitude of mainstream publishing to those who write fiction with even a modicum of faith. To that end, she is devising a creative writing course, one specially designed for Catholics who want to be equipped to carry out this mission in the world. This is the sort of thing Catholic universities and colleges should consider. It shall be the arming of future generations of professional writers as well as giving an apostolic thrust to that calling.

It was becoming clear that the person sitting opposite me was redoubtable. Not only determined but focused, sure of what needs doing and her part in it—just like the protagonists in her novels, who are often feisty, strong young women. When the comparison was drawn she laughed; there are elements of who she was in all her books but any similarity to the living and the dead was purely accidental, she said. I had come expecting to meet an intellectual and thoroughly professional writer, no surprises there, what I hadn’t been expecting was an agent—one primed and ready—for a new Catholic literary revival.

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