Tuesday, 27 November 2007

About the novel JOHN by Niall Williams

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 √©migr√©.’ 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.


Christian Daugherty said...

Thanks Niall for the background on JOHN! I look forward to its publication and also to the release of Boy and Man!

My only wish is that more people knew of your brilliant work. Your insight into the yearning of humanity and the spirituality in all of us deserves a wider audience. The world needs more writers like yourself who TRULY write from the heart!

Keep up the great work!

Christian Daugherty
Tillamook, Or.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


I'm starting 'John' now and I've already found moments when I stop reading and picture the situation that you describe in your book. I can almost understand his yearning through the way that you describe him. I look forward to finishing it ... it's almost like a book to savour, not one to rush through the pages.

I have been a fan of yours ever since I read 'Four Letters of Love'. 'As it is in Heaven' is still my favourite of your works though. Please come over to Adelaide for the Writers' Week in the future (it's on even years). I'd love to hear you speak! :)

Best regards,

Arry Tanusondjaja
Adelaide, Australia

steve sles said...

The book "John" is amazing. The language is incredible. I had to keep putting it down to breathe! I could really imagine being back there in the late first century...experiencing the way Christians were viewed. I read it months ago and can't stop thinking about it. Really helped build my faith. God bless you!

--Steve Slesinger,
Melbourne, Florida (USA)

Anonymous said...

Great work.

Aidan J. ffrench M.I.L.I said...

thank you for writing 'JOHN', which I just completed reading last night, on a cold, still evening here on the Wicklow coast.

The book has left an echo with me...one that says, 'treasure your faith...live imaginatively.. and nourish the spirit this sprintime.'

As one who was 'burned' through intense political involvement over the years of the boom, I've come away slight beleagured from a morally-emmaciated Green Party and like many, I'm experience anger at the lack of social justice and egalitarianism.
Your book stilled my sould and reminded me, that though the affairs of the world may be collapsing, something new and more fruitful may be born and above, all Love abides.

Thank you once again and many blessings this year of changes and portents!
I'm be recommending your book to close friends and family; ineed to my brother who gave it to me as last Christmas' fraternal present.

Aidan J. ffrench MILI
Landscape Architect,
em: ffrenchaid@hotmail.com

twogreytoes said...

Hey Niall!
I’ve just finished reading your novel, John. I’m really sorry I finished. I wish it could have lasted until … well, you know … the second coming. As I read I was sure you were addressing issues of our time: the presumed imminence of the Second Coming (fundamentalists who applaud the idea of nuclear holocaust as a prelude to their being raptured); how people with the highest religious profile often appear to misunderstand the faith they are the custodians of; how faith is not just belief because it survives the disintegration of beliefs, and how beliefs actually divert us from faith; the reappearance of Gnosticism in the form of the New Age movement; etc. Then I read you end note and realised that you were not looking back at an event through the eyes of a 21st Century partisan, but seeking an insight into another time on its own terms. And yet, in doing so, you probably addressed the issued named more convincingly than anyone might who set out to do so. Now, how about a book on Pontius Pilate – the one man in the Gospel of Mark who actually got what Jesus was on about?
Paul Smith
Mullumbimby, NSW, Australia

Unknown said...

An American living in France, I just ended a week's vacation in Connemara - last stop Galway, where I hoped to find a bookstore still open in the evening - and did ... part of my mission : to buy whatever it was that you'd most recently written. This of course "John" - a bit of surprise like your U.S. relation - "oh, THAT John? Hmmm ..." But you have won my total trust in your writing, that it will lead me on yet another memorable journey, mostly into myself ... and to yet another reminder to live life with passion.

A question - I remember hearing about a film project of "Four letters of love" - true? any forward motion on it? I've already seen it, fully cast and played out, in my head - but would love to see it on screen (and film royalties are always nice for the author, too!).

In the meantime - looking forward to meeting "John".

Thank you for sharing your gifts
Melanie Christensen
Vigneux sur Seine, France

Unknown said...

My sister in England sent me this book.I have not read a novel in years,preferring books on philosophy & theology.'John' captivated me from the first page & I could not put it down.Best for me are the wonderful expressions of doubt.Without these there is no faith.
Thank you for this book.I did not want it to end.
John Le Cheminant
Columbia,MD US

evelyn o callaghan said...

I have just finished John which I found amazing,uplifting and beautifully written.I will re-read the gospel of John and memorize the opening "In the beginning" Truly your book is inspired!I look forward to reading all your books and seeing your plays!Thank you!
Evelyn O Callaghan