Ann Swinfer lives in Scotland  and is one of the wonderful people I  virtually met in the blogsphere. She  is an author who has published four historical novels so far. I read and reviewed her "The Testament of Mariam" (my post HERE) last month to which I gave 5 well deserved stars out of 5. I'm glad she has  accepted to answer some questions about her novel and  very happy to announce that  she has granted you , readers of FLY HIGH,  a free copy of this extraordinary story. Leave your comment + e-mail address. This giveaway is open worldwide and ends next Saturday 19th February.
      First of all, Ann, I want to congratulate you on writing such a wonderful novel : poetic, gripping, touching and at the same time so credible. How did you come to the brave decision of writing such a risky story?
      It wasn’t so much a decision as a compulsion. I suppose for many years there has been at the back of my mind the feeling that there was a real man, Yeshûa ben Yosef, a peasant from Galilee, behind the figure which is clothed in 2,000 years of theology and entrenched church doctrine. So many things have been done in the name of Christian orthodoxy, like religious wars, the Inquisition and the burning of heretics, which seem to me totally at odds with that real man’s intentions. However, I had never gone further than a vague unease until one day Mariam walked into my head and began to talk. After that, there was no going back, as she simply would not leave me alone until I wrote her story down. It is a common experience for writers to find that their invented characters take on a life of their own, but I did not invent Mariam. She simply appeared, fully formed, speaking to me both in her voice as an old woman and then reverting to the voice of the child and girl she had been. There was no escape!  
      Sorry for this blunt one, Ann, but …didn’t you think your version of Jesus (Yeshûa) could anyhow be considered “offensive” by the rather conservative Christian world? 
       Yes, I was worried. Really very worried. I’m not a religious person, though I believe there is more to life than crude materialism. However, I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But here is the really strange thing. Some of the warmest praise I have received has come not only from serious practicing Christians but from men of the cloth. Here is an example, from an Anglican vicar: “I valued the way you allowed your novelist’s imagination to be controlled by respect for the sources – and for Jesus himself. I have been given a number of books recently about Mary Magdalene and early Christian origins whose failure to do so and ignorance of the historical development of the tradition infuriated me. The Qumran influence seems not unlikely since clearly Jesus had some Biblical – and ascetic? – training which enabled him to make such a radical re-interpretation of the Law and the Prophets…The long friendship with Judas Iscariot is an intriguing idea. Is there any suggestion of it in the apocryphal writings? The tradition behind the gospels cannot find a good word to say for him but I am puzzled about his motivation. Did you know that the Ethiopian Church has made him a Saint because he did God’s will in bringing about the crucifixion? Thank you too for showing the importance of women in the Jesus movement. It must have caused considerable scandal when even respectable women went off and used family money to support him. I am sure that women did occupy positions of influence and authority in the early church.“
      I’ve been both astonished and gratified by many comments like these.

     How long did you research on the historical, cultural and geographical contexts?
     Altogether, the book took about a year to write. I didn’t spend a separate period researching and then a separate period writing. I did quite a lot of general background research, both in the New Testament and in modern studies of the period, and then, as I was writing and needed information on some particular topic, I would hunt it out. For example, what was the diet of peasants in Galilee? At what time in the year were the various agricultural activities carried out? What route would Yeshûa and the others have followed from Capernaum to Tyre, and what would the terrain have been like? I always had a map open beside me. (I tend to have a very strong sense of place.) I loved the research. Until I started, I had no idea that we knew so much, that modern scholarship had enhanced our knowledge of the period to such a great extent. As a former classicist, the background on the Roman Empire was very familiar to me, but – for example – the complex politics in the Roman province of Palestine were new to me, as were all the fascinating details of the practices of the Essenes, their medical knowledge, their philosophical and religious outlook, and their rituals.

Mariam is such an admirable female figure! So modern but living in such a distant time, so brave in a male-oriented society. Was she inspired by other heroines you read about or to a great woman you met in your life?

As I’ve said elsewhere, Mariam appeared as a fully realised person. However, I was struck by all the women who followed Yeshûa. At the time, a woman in this culture was expected to remain at home, under the total control of her father, until handed over to the power of her husband. Yet these women left home, wandered about the countryside, some even bringing money to support the mission. They must have been regarded as scandalous according to the conventional views of the time (as my correspondent above observed). This is why I have Ya‘aqôb accuse Mariam of being a whore. That is how these women must have appeared. I think they were all extraordinarily courageous.
      Your Yeshûa is very human and little divine. A visionary rebel, a dreamer, a healer, a charismatic leader with a mission: to radically change the world at any cost. Where did the inspiration for such a fascinating credible character come from? 
       It perhaps sounds a little simplistic to say so, but if you go back to the sources, isn’t that the man who comes alive for us? He must have been quite extraordinary, with great charisma. We know that he was a healer and modern research suggests that he could well have spent time amongst the Essenes and learned their skills, though their intolerance of those outside their sect would surely have been anathema to him. He must have been not only literate but learned, considering the detailed knowledge he displayed of the religious texts. Interestingly, I discovered that Galilee had been for a couple of generations a hotbed of rebellion, producing earlier leaders who fought against the Romans and those of the Jews they regarded as collaborators. And if you read the New Testament attentively, you can see that Yeshûa often showed very human characteristics – he could lose his temper, become impatient or irritated or depressed, and, at the end, he experienced terror at the thought of crucifixion and death. As for his divinity, remember that we see him through Mariam’s eyes. One of the ideas I was addressing was: What would it have been like to be the sister of such a man? Could you believe that he was divine? Wouldn’t that be very difficult to accept? Mariam knows that her brother is exceptional, but . . . divine? At one point she becomes quite angry with him when he says his father is in Heaven. She points out that their shared father is in his workshop. It’s akin to the anger his fellow villagers feel when he tries to explain his message to them. “Who does he think he is, this carpenter’s son?” A very natural human reaction. Mariam keeps trying to rationalise his “miracles”. When she can’t quite explain things away, she edges away from the thought of  them.
      Another character I like much is Yehûdâ. You redeemed him as a friend and as a human being. His apparent betrayal was inevitable, he accepted to love his best friend until the extreme act of loyalty and obedience. He will be forever “the traitor” to accomplish Yeshûa’s will. What are your sources in his case?
      I was aware of the tradition of the Coptic church, that Yehûdâ was carrying out God’s will, and I had read the recently discovered and translated Gospel of Judas, in which Yehûdâ is not a traitor, but Yeshûa‘s dearest friend, carrying out his wishes. Above all, I’ve always felt that the traditional story doesn’t make sense. I tried to understand how the “betrayal” might have come about in reality, through a promise unwisely made and unwillingly fulfilled. By going to Jerusalem at Passover and deliberately drawing attention to himself, Yeshûa must have been knowingly courting disaster. As I’ve said, Galilee had already produced a number of rebel leaders. Passover was a time when Jerusalem was packed with excitable crowds and the Roman authorities always took the precaution of bringing in extra troops. An outspoken preacher, from the Galilee, leading a crowd of followers, and being proclaimed by some as “king of the Jews” would instantly have been seen as highly dangerous. I think Yeshûa was deliberately setting himself up for crucifixion.
      The love bonds in your story are exceptional and lead to extreme sacrifice. Do you think real love always implies longing and sacrifice?
     Fortunately, perhaps, most bonds of love are not tested to the point of sacrifice, but there are certainly situations where people will sacrifice much, even life itself, for those they love. Think of a mother confronted with choosing to save either her own life or her child’s. In most cases, she will save the child. Think of those who will give one of their own kidneys to someone they love, although it is likely to mean impaired health for themselves. In war, many men have died to save their comrades. Secret agents working in occupied Europe died under Nazi torture rather than betray their friends. So although most of us are not put to the ultimate test, I do believe that people will and do sacrifice themselves for others they love. 
      Something I couldn’t totally understand was… Mariam’s choices in her adult life. Her married life. She seemed to have led a totally different life, almost betraying her ideals. Why?
     Mariam has been so traumatised by her experiences, particularly seeing her brother crucified and being torn away from Yehûdâ and her homeland, that she just needs to smother the memories of her past life. She arrives in Gaul as a destitute refugee and settles for a quiet, kindly husband. She loves her sons and is content on the farm. Many people who have suffered greatly in their youth want to blot out that period of their lives. For example, men who fought in the first World War almost never spoke about it afterwards to their families. As for betraying her ideals, she has seen what happened to her brother. And she is not altogether happy with the path the new church is taking. She is horrified that the cross – which to her is an instrument of torture – should be set up as some kind of emblem to be worshipped. For someone who was present at the crucifixion, it would have quite different and appalling connotations.

      I think you’ve done an excellent job at coping with such delicate themes and events. Did you receive much criticism from religious people? How would you convince a non-religious person ( I am not, actually) to read your book?
     This really links up with your second question. No, I’ve actually not received any criticism from religious people. As for the non-religious, I would say that this is not a “religious” book. It does not preach. It does not try to convert anybody. It is an attempt to explore the historical events and the real people who lived through those events, to understand the human man who was a son, brother and friend to ordinary Jewish people living uneasily under Roman occupation.
      What other books have you written?
      I’ve published three other novels: The Anniversary, The Travellers and A Running Tide. None of them are historical novels. However, although they have, primarily, contemporary settings, they all have historical layers. You can read more about them on my website, www.annswinfen.com The first two are now out of print, though a few copies are available through my website. A new edition of A Running Tide has just come out, and I decided to release a Kindle edition of The Anniversary, just to see what happened! I myself really love solid, physical books, though I can understand the appeal of ebooks for those who have to do a lot of travelling. Rather to my surprise, my Kindle book seems to be selling well! 

      What’s your next adventure in the publishing world? Are you working on a new project? 
      I never talk about the work-in-progress – too risky! When a new book is still in that tenuous, fragile
      state, talking about it might just destroy it. Call me superstitious if you like!
    Good Luck, then, Ann. Many thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. It's been a   pleasure to discuss your beauiful novel with you.

       Good luck to my readers for the giveaway, too!


Mystica said...

Thank you for a most interesting interview.


buddyt said...

This sounds as if is quite a different slant on the story of Jesus and I would be interested in reading it.

Thanks to the author for the giveaway and if it is open worldwide, please enter me.

Carol T

buddytho {at} gmail DOT com

Maria Grazia said...

@mystica & buddyt
Thanks for stopping by and commenting, as usual. This is really a great read and an interesting non-religious look at the story of Jesus. And YES! Thanks to Ann Swinfen, this giveaway is open WORLDWIDE!!!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting interview, I've learned quite a few new things.

Please enter me in the draw.

patti-wolit at tiscali.it

Maria Grazia said...

With pleasure, Patty. Welcome on Fly High and Have a good Sunday!

Anonymous said...

Maria, thanks for this interesting interview!


JaneGS said...

That was an incredible interview about a book that appeals to me so much. I am definitely reading it this year!


Anonymous said...

I read Ann's book through January and found it a wonderful read. From the beginning, one immediately feels empathy for Mariam and to look at the greatest story ever told through such subjective eyes was fascinating. I am neither religious nor deeply knowledgeable about Christian theology but I like the freshness of this book and its alternate view.

Kelly said...

Thank you for the interview!

Claudia said...

Very fascinating work. I'm very intrigued by the description you give of your character and story. Although I've read several historical novels, I never thought such elements could be used this way. Best regards,