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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Julie Maxwell is Fellow and Lecturer in English at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. She has published articles on Shakespeare, and on the English Bible, and is currently working on a book about religion in the life and works of Ben Jonson. You Can Live Forever is her first novel.
Mark Thwaite: Julie, what gave you the idea for You Can Live Forever?
Julie Maxwell: A four-hundred-year-old-play that everyone should read: Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. It features a puritan loony called Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy who proclaims the sinfulness of cakes. Very much like my novel, the daughter and son-in-law of a puritan matriarch have to get around the rules of the religion in order to do what they want. I decided to write a modern story about Christian extremists (in my novel they are an invented sect, the Worldwide Saints of God) because I thought it would be funny. And particularly because I was interested in the psychology of a person trapped in a bizarre religion.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
JM: When I first got the idea I wrote for about a year, but what I wrote was no good. It took about 50 pages of preliminaries, for instance, for my heroine even to get born, and as I wasn’t writing Tristram Shandy I thought I’d better start again. In the re-write I decided to get straight to the point. In fact, the book begins with the ending of the story. I can’t remember how long it took to get those first few chapters right, but after I’d done them the rest followed quite quickly. Most of the book was written in three months in the summer of 2005.
MT: What were the main challenges you found in writing You Can Live Forever? How did you overcome them?
JM: At first I couldn’t write readable sentences. They were all torturously convoluted, like the doctoral thesis I’d just finished writing. Academic writing can be horribly bad. I showed a few chapters of the draft novel to a writer, who explained where I was going wrong. He said that if I looked after the ‘pennies’ (that is, the sentences of the text) then the ‘pounds’ (the plot and structure of the book, etc) would look after themselves. I was very skeptical about anything looking after itself, but discovered that what he had said was true. Once I learned to write a decent sentence, everything followed.
MT: Your novel is about sex and religion. The battle between the body and soul is old, but still highly relevant. Why and it what way do you think a novel is a good place to investigate these issues?
JM: I think literature can make ideas interesting, because literature is much more interesting than ideas. Yesterday was I reading C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism (1961) which says that we don’t need the ideas of critics in order to enjoy literature, but literature in order to enjoy the ideas of critics. Literature wins hands down. There’s much more of it, too. Interesting ideas seem pretty thin on the ground to me compared to the number of, say, interesting lines of poetry there are. An example would be Marvell’s A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body. A title like that makes you approach the poem with weary dread – you’ve heard it all before. But then you read a line about the speaker’s soul, which, ‘stretcht upright, impales me so, / That mine own Precipice I go’. You can see he’s trying to visualize the idea of the soul tugging upward – making his body bolt upright, crucified, the steep edge of a cliff. And if you put ideas into a novel, then other things can happen too. That’s because a novel has got a lot more interior space than a poem. It can take you vicariously into the minds of characters as they experience sex, or religion.
MT: What place does religion play in your own life, Julie?
JM: None at present.
MT: You are currently working on a book about religion in the life and works of Ben Jonson. What do you make of the current wave of the New Atheism from the likes of Richard Dawkins?
JM: I have mixed views. I found Dawkins’ open letter to a ten-year-old in A Devil’s Chaplain touching. And in my novel the heroine finds Dawkins’ books intellectually helpful, if alarming. But when I watched Dawkins’ documentary about religion as the root of all evil I started to doubt. I wondered if he had not become as intolerant as the zealots he was investigating. The root of all evil isn’t religion, it’s intolerance.
MT: How do you write, Julie? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
JM: All of the above. When I was writing You Can Live Forever I adhered strictly to a 500-words-a-day rule. Sometimes when I’d achieved the word count I’d write new paragraphs in a notebook, to be typed up the following day, so I could feel like I’d already made a start on the next day’s work. (I know, it’s sad.) Also I like writing in notebooks because computers sometimes make me nervous. (I know, it’s sad.) When my computer’s thinking it makes a sound like swallowing. Sometimes that’s off-putting.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing or teaching?
JM: Sleep! And I even eat. I also like walking and looking at trees and water.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
JM: No. I was writing it for anyone reasonably intelligent with a GSOH. (I’m hoping that’s quite a big market.)
MT: What are you working on now?
JM: I’m revising my Jonson book to make it accessible to a wider readership. It now tells you things like Ben Jonson invented steamy sex (or at least the expression) about 450 years before the Oxford English Dictionary says it could be done.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
JM: The first question reminds me of a joke in a Wendy Cope poem. It goes something like ‘you’re my favourite poet – and I like your poems too’. My favourites are the ones I’ve known a long time, like the Bible. When I was 17 I read T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and other poems, and Ian McEwan, Black Dogs – both my ‘own’ discoveries because I didn’t know anyone who knew about books. I really thought I’d stumbled onto something! (I was right.) The authors/books that have stayed with me since I was a student are: Shakespeare/Hamlet, Milton/Paradise Lost, Richardson/Clarissa, James Joyce/Ulysses.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
JM: Be interesting and clear right from the very first sentence, otherwise it’s a disaster. If you think of an opening like:
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me ...
Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers
Ever since his young wife had given birth to a cat as an unexpected consequence of his experiments in sexual alchemy ...
Louis de Bernieres, Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord
don’t you just want to read more? Well I do.
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