Faith and its Manifestations: A Conversation with Francesca Kay

Dear Reader,

Founded sixteen years ago, the Orange prize “celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world,” and Spring 2012 Discover Great New Writers’s selection The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay, was named to the longlist for this year’s prize.  Deeply personal, often fluid, sometimes inexplicable, faith can connect people as easily as it drives them apart, uplift as soon as destroy.   Faith—in its many manifestations–define the characters and their conflicts in Kay’s shocking, yet slyly funny new novel.

(This is the second time Kay has been longlisted for the prize; her first novel, An Equal Stillness, won the prize in 2009, but is not yet published in the U. S.)

Francesa answered some questions about The Translation of the Bones and the nature of faith, and we’re sharing her responses here.

Did you set out to write a book about faith? Are you a particularly faithful person yourself?

The position of faith in contemporary society is an interesting subject and yes, I did want to look at the distance we have traveled, from a time when religious belief was culturally normal to where we are today. Sometimes it seems that we have forgotten the middle ground, where there was complexity and metaphor and room for shades of meaning, and given in to literalism, to fundamentalism, of both the believing and the atheist sort. But even more interesting than faith in modern times, is the timeless relationship of the human to the divine. My novel is not so much about faith in the abstract, as about the different ways in which individuals believe –or don’t believe – and therefore how they relate to this world – a world of interconnected beings –and to a world beyond.

The book is not a manifesto, a religious tract or a polemic, and the forms of faith that it explores are not necessarily mine. For my own part, I’d echo the man in Mark’s gospel who said: ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.’ I think true faith is a gift to envy, for the certainty and consolation it provides.

The novel has an impressive cast of characters who see the world in very different ways and yet you treat each of them with real compassion—which characters were most difficult to write and why?

As is true of any human being, all the characters in this book have flaws as well as strengths. Each posed a particular challenge. Without due care, would Father Diamond come across as desiccated; Stella as spineless and vapid; Mrs Armitage a do-gooding busybody; Fidelma a selfish monster? As the story developed, and the characters took flesh, I watched them becoming more rounded and more complex. I saw how their needs and their past experiences would shape them. Almost as if they had lives of their own, independent of my pen, they obeyed an interior logic, and at times I felt that all I had to do was to follow the flow of their thoughts. This was especially true of Fidelma O’Reilly, whose voice rang clear in my head from the very beginning. But it was harder to hear Mary-Margaret at first. I didn’t want her to emerge as an object of ridicule, at best a credulous and comic fool, at worst a maniac. She might be simple-minded, and she is certainly misguided, but at the same time she is generous, imaginative and warm-hearted. She is a woman who is desperate to give and to receive love. Her tragedy is that she can’t find the right ways to do so. It’s her mother’s tragedy as well. However, her mother’s fluency is a key that lets the reader into the self that lies beneath her unprepossessing outer layers. Mary-Margaret is much less self-aware, and her language is necessarily more limited than Fidelma’s. I needed to find the right key for her; one that would give her an authentic voice but would also communicate the essential goodness of her nature. Perhaps it was more difficult in the beginning to see her as a whole person, and therefore to love her, than it was to see the other characters.

What is the significance of the title?

Technically speaking, to translate bones is to move holy relics from one resting place to another. I misappropriated the term for its resonance and its poetic suggestiveness. I wanted to know what the bones that were translated might have said in the original, and what they might be saying now. In other words, can the dead speak? Or, as Ezekiel has it: ‘can these bones live?’

You write so beautifully about the ways in which people connect—be it within a family or through the church or a neighborhood—and you write with particular passion about the bond between mothers and their children. What about that relationship, and the different forms it takes, is so compelling to you?

Well, the connection between mother and child is the original connection for all of us; the first, and in obvious ways the most intimate, of bonds. When, on Mothering Sunday, blessing is invoked on all mothers and their children, it’s a prayer for everyone who was ever born. This is true even for children who never knew the woman who gave them birth. That bond can stand for the deepest and most unconditional form of love. But, because it is so crucial, the relationship between mothers and their children can cause great pain and do untold damage, if it goes badly wrong. Fertile territory, then, for a writer interested in connection and its obverse – loneliness and isolation.

Another reason for writing about motherhood is that for years it was the single most defining aspect of my life. It still is, in many ways. Much is written about the hardships of motherhood; rather less about its joys.

 The Orange prize will be awarded on May 1st in London.  More about the prize is here.

Cheers, Miwa

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.