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Salley Vickers author

by
02 November 2006

Finishing a manuscript and sending it off feels a bit like sending your child to school. It's a terrible wrench. You've been living, eating, and sleeping with these characters. They are closer to you than even your intimates. You have to learn detachment as a novelist to deal with what can happen to your book, but, honestly, I have never truly acquired this.

When I was a nine-year-old at primary school, an inspired teacher observed me looking a little too often out of the window. Rather than punishing me, he realised that I needed something more. So he put me in a classroom with another similar sort, and told us to write a book. My first novel was thus not Miss Garnet's Angel, but a story called The Door into Time - and it laid down a pattern for all my later novels.

I'm no scholar. I was brought up in a strictly atheist household where every book was available to me (including Lady Chatterley), except the Bible. When my parents attended the first parents' evening at my secondary school, they were startled to be met by the scripture teacher (as it was called then) who greeted them with "You must be a very devout family!"

I absorbed the Bible hungrily - partly, I dare say, because it was forbidden, and partly because I have always been drawn by the cadences of the language. But also it is the best story. I would be perfectly content on my desert island with only the Bible and Shakespeare. I love the audacious Kipling idea that Shakespeare had a hand in "translating" the King James Bible. For me, the KJB is the only Bible. And, yes, I know it isn't accurate, but I don't care a rap, as I think the divine language makes that count for nought.

I know a book is on track if synchronicity occurs. This happened especially with Mr Golightly's Holiday and Miss Garnet's Angel. I knew the Book of Tobit, but had no idea about its Zoroastrian origins. I had already written the scene where Miss Garnet is prompted to visit St Mark's by the Epiphany celebrations of the coming of the Magi, before I learned that the Magi were the priestly tribe of the Zoroastrians.

All my characters are based on me. I never take from others ' lives, but from elements, usually unlived ones, I find in myself. The most successful characters are probably aspects that I have best come to terms with and made most conscious. But none has my history, though I tend to give to one character in the novels my own world-view. In the case of Miss Garnet, it is the Monsignor; in Instances, it's Sister Mary Eustacia. I shan't say who it is in Mr Golightly.

I have the most thoughtful readers who write to me via my website, and who are a source of comfort and delight. Many people have written to me with personal stories that mirror the themes of loss and consequent reward in my books - and the mysterious continuum of life and death, which is my dominant thread.

One very kind person, after reading Mr Golightly, sent me a little silver spoon with a cross on it. Her late husband had brought it back from Jerusalem. It is in my silver salt-cellar. Every time I use it, I think of the power of a book to make connections across the world. It is thrilling, and humbling, to learn that a book has touched a chord or made a difference, and makes writing worth while.

I'm engaged in a non-fiction book on the Book of Common Prayer. It is a harder task than fiction, for me anyway, since with fiction you can at least make it up. But, as Mr Golightly so pertinently observes, Cranmer's prose is to die for. I would have the BCP on my desert island, too. I am rewriting the myth of Oedipus for the Canongate series on myth.

I don't believe in regret, though I do believe in remorse. It's healthier.

Books are like people: the good ones improve with deeper acquaintance. I love Homer, the Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Trollope, Henry James, Dostoevsky, Conrad. . . I also love poetry, my principal source of replenishment, particularly the poet Michael Longley, who shares my love of nature and the ancient world.

My children are my best works. Almost everything I know of value in human terms I have learned through them. They make me laugh more than anyone else in the world, they know me inside-out, are wise and kind in their counsel, and hold values I admire and aspire to. I'm exceptionally lucky in that, so far as I can tell, they seem to enjoy my company, and we are the best of friends.

Too many people have influenced me. The great child-analyst Donald Winnicott affected me. And a very original living analyst, Neville Symington, has influenced my current thinking. I admire Rowan Williams for his challenging, and often witty, theology. Penelope Fitzgerald was easily my favourite contemporary novelist, and gave the first, crucial, and never-to-be-forgotten support for Miss Garnet.

I love good sermons: almost anything by Donne. But perhaps, if I had to choose, his 1622 sermon on that most poignant verse in all the Bible, "Jesus wept." I'm a Sydney Smith fan, and thoroughly approve of his philosophy of cheerfulness: his sermon on Charity is terrific. And Martin Luther King cuts to the quick on evil.

My favourite parts of the Bible? Genesis, a mighty mythic work; Ruth, a touching love story; Job, a powerful and puzzling drama; the Psalms, matchless in their haunting poetry and lament for life's quiddities; the Gospel of Mark, for its stark power; and John, because that's the Jesus I respond to: anyone
who turns water into wine is OK by me.

I'm too lazy to be often angry -which is a blessing. But I was angry, and remain so, over the Iraq war. I was angry that we went to war, and angry that the alleged reasons were insultingly fudged.

I am happiest, like most people, when absorbed in something or other, and thus not thinking about myself.

I love fairtrade coffee beans - I am an untreatable coffee addict.

I am foremost a mountain person, but with a fair dose of sea-fever in my blood: my Liverpudlian mother had a pirate ancestor. I don't flourish on the flat.

I'd most like to get locked in a church with Jesus of Nazareth.

Salley Vickers ( www.salleyvickers.com) was talking to Rachel Harden. Her latest novel, The Other Side of You, was published this month by Fourth Estate at £14.99 ( Church Times Bookshop, £13.49); 0-00-716544-7.

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