It begins like this. I am sitting in the front room looking down the garden. It is a day in early summer. My mind is idling. I am in the kind of lazy stillness where I am not thinking anything at all, just looking out through the long windows on the coming blossoms of the Japanese maple. Down in front of me stretches the view I have been looking at for twenty years, the big green valley that dips away from Kiltumper, where now there are rising the tips of a spruce plantation that will one day take the view. Right now I can still make out the steeple of the church down in the village three miles away. I look to it, not because it is a church I attend very often, but it is directly in the centre of the view on the horizon and I like the link that exists somehow between the dot-cattle moving in the green fields to the left and right and the still point of that church in the distance. I am looking so, no different to any other day, laptop open in front of me where I am finishing a novel I am writing called BOY IN THE WORLD. I am writing it for my teenage son, and have been sending him the chapters in boarding school. Now he is home for the holidays and I am at the last chapter. In one of those gaps in time that come in the course of a morning’s writing, when I seem to come to a stop for no particular reason, I stare out into the coming summer. A good while passes. I am no hurry. I treasure the empty fullness of such time the writing life affords; that in this life it is all right to just sit and look out. To look out long enough until you are looking in would be overstating it. I am not aware of any inwardness. I am just paused, as it were, when a phrase comes to me. It has nothing to do with the book I am writing. It has no apparent connection to anything, and comes almost literally out of the blue. It is this question: what was John doing the day before he wrote the gospel?
The question is so clear, so surprising, that I lean over and find a small notebook I keep and write it down. Just that. I write the question mark and draw a line under it. Then, to return my mind to where it should be, I read back the last four or five pages of BOY IN THE WORLD, and work on to finish it.
This was two years ago.
A couple of clarifications. First, I am not in the habit of having such questions float into my mind. Second, I had not been thinking in any conscious way of the John gospel prior tot hat day. I had not even read it fully. Nor had I read all of any of the others. I knew nothing of the possible answer to the question. But its hook became embedded. Later, I would find all kinds of prompts and hints in my earlier work that would seem to have been leading me here. An editor-in-chief would read the first hundred pages of the book I started and tell me this was the one I was born to write. But in the beginning there was a sense of mystery. I began the research not yet knowing that it would lead me to a novel. At the time, BOY IN THE WORLD finished, I was looking at the year ahead for working on my fourth play. ‘THAT WE MIGHT SING’ had been commissioned by the Abbey Theatre under Ben Barnes, and its third draft had received a wonderful response, and was now scheduled to move toward production. I didn’t know then that the new administration would after a year’s wait return the play to me praising its ambition and craft but saying no place could be found for it in the theatre’s program. In the hurt that followed I would find myself despairing a little of theatre, and thinking again of the question.
I started by sitting in the front room and reading the John gospel. Then I read it again. What I was looking for was the man not the Apostle. I was drawn to the human dimension, the idea that John was most likely the youngest of the Apostles, maybe even a teenager, and that the most significant event of his life happened then, that everything else is aftermath. His is by most agreed accounts the last of the four main gospels written. So, why does he wait so long? Why does he wait until old age to write of an event in his youth? Such questions kept coming. I read widely among the very many resources on John and the Johnanine community in the first century after Christ. I found—as any who do even minimal research into this period will—innumerable contradictions. To some there are two distinct Johns, the Apostle and the Evangelist, to others these are certainly the same person. To some the gospel is the culmination of years of preaching, to others it is the work of a committee. I spent week after week in the front room of Kiltumper overlooking the green valley while away in the thousands of pages of Raymond Brown, the acknowledged expert on the John gospel.
And somewhere along the way, realising that the research quickly reaches a place of speculation, I stopped reading further in the commentaries and theological studies. Instead I sat and tried to imagine. As Colum McCann wrote in the summer issue of The Irish Book Review,’ instead of writing what we know, we write towards what we want to know.’ SO I began with an image of an ancient man banished on the island of Patmos. I began to invent my own answer to the question.
In the nearly two years that followed there was scarcely a day that I did not ask myself what was I doing writing this book. I am no expert. I know little of theology. One evening, on the phone to a relative in America, I made the mistake of answering the fatal question: ‘What are you writing about now?’
‘The Apostle John.’
Silence on the other end.
Then: ‘You think people will want to read about that?’
The more you immerse yourself in the writing of a book the more you lose perspective. In my experience, while you bring every ounce of concentration, sheer utter focus, you don’t really know where you are or where you are going. You are trying to do the absolute best you can do. It is your life. And you are entirely alone. So then, day after day, I try to imagine John. I find the John I am writing is a man full of yearning. I find he is waiting all his life for the return of Jesus. I find it is a love story.
I work on the book here in Kiltumper and in the course of the writing feel more powerfully than before the cross-currents of doubt and rapture. Sometimes I come from the white screen thinking what I have written is not only the best I have ever written, but will ever write. Sometimes I am lost utterly. The book is hopeless, worse, pointless. I lose all faith while writing about faith.
In the big quiet where you go as a writer engaged on a novel there are always such transports of joy and despair, but this time they feel more extreme. Perhaps it is the outside world pressing, the knowledge the book is bigger gamble than any, that two years are gone into it, and finances dwindling. One day, in a fit of panic or rationality, I am not sure which, I decide I need some support in carrying on. I call the Arts Council to ask about ‘writers in residence’ schemes. I have never called the Arts Council before. Living twenty years in west Clare I mostly feel, in Seamus Heaney’s phrase, an ‘inner émigré.’ On the phone I am told I need to speak to the Literature Officer. I am put through and get an answering machine and leave a message, sounding exactly like a novelist in the mire of mid-novel, when its hard to explain what you are doing, and you feel you need to find an excuse. To the machine, I mumble something about circumstances and writers in residence and leave my number. But no one ever calls back, and I don’t call again.
Instead, I return to the strange comfort of the isolation. I am writing John’s experience of banishment, his disappointments in the world, and his long enduring. I am writing of belief from the inside where the doubts are. As, at last, I approach the ending, the galleys of BOY IN THE WORLD arrive. As always, for the four weeks or so around publication I will buy no newspapers and avoid anything that might have a review. I will try to keep my own faith, my own valuation of the strengths and weaknesses. This religion of one. But here, I rise from the front room where the postman hands me the book. I take it and give it to my son. My heart lifts as I watch his smile.