CATHERINE FOX fans will seize on her new novel with expectation
and relief. The publication of Acts and Omissions comes
almost 20 years after the publication of her first novel,
Angels and Men, and the two that swiftly followed it
(The Benefits of Passion, 1997; and Love for the
The novels explored big themes around Christian faith - in
particular, contemporary Anglicanism - and were loosely
autobiographical. Angels and Men took as its setting
postgraduate life in thinly disguised Durham, where Fox her_self
was a research student; The Benefits of Passion explored
the journey of a student at theological college (Durham again); and
Love for the Lost was about the life of a newly ordained
curate (her husband is a priest).
Since then - although she has never stopped writing, including,
for 16 years, a weekly column in the Church of England
Newspaper - she has been in something of a wilderness as a
The new book has had an unusual genesis, in that it started life
last year as a blog - a form that transformed her approach to
writing. "Acts and Omissions is the book I've been trying
and failing to write for about ten years," she says. "A novel is
ideally suited to exploring the sort of things the C of E gets
itself tied up in knots over. But it turned out that the novel form
was inhibiting me - and that's why my agent kept saying 'This isn't
Frustrated, she set herself the challenge of blogging the novel
weekly, one chapter at a time. "What unlocked the project for me,
as a writer, was adopting a more playful tone, a sort of spoof
Victorian serialised novel. That liberated me from the very correct
form I teach my students, that is all about 'showing not telling',
and absenting yourself as a narrator.
"But I am a comic writer - one of the things I do is notice
quirks - and, once I stopped taking myself seriously, I found this
form gave me full rein to do that. So rather than having one strong
female protagonist, I'm the narrator, with a cast of characters,
and a polyphonic narrative."
SHE was fiercely disciplined. She wrote 2000 words every week,
for a year, beginning in January 2013. The weekly deadline helped,
as did the inbuilt structure that the year provided. "I already had
the setting, and I also had the church calendar, the school year. .
. I just had to get on and do it."
And she was happy to give the book away free, online, for two
reasons: "I'd rather someone was reading it than no one," she says,
"and it was helped by the fact that for the first time I'd got a
proper job." (She teaches creative writing at Manchester
Metropolitan University.) "That takes the pressure off having to be
paid for everything you write. So I cast it on the water, promoted
it via Twitter, and waited to see what happened.
"We got to August, and I was talking about the project at
Greenbelt, and the plight of contemporary publishing, and someone
asked: 'Are you getting paid for this?', and I said, 'No, but if
there are any editors out there, let me know if you are
It turned out that Alison Barr, a senior editor at SPCK, was in
the audience - and that SPCK had a plan to move into fiction. Not
only are they publishing Acts and Omissions, but they have
commissioned a sequel (being blogged at the moment, and to be
published next year), and have bought the rights to her back list
from Penguin. The signs are that the blog-form has served as a
prolonged and productive marketing campaign.
While the primary plot-strand was already fixed before she
started (a happily married bishop, and father of four, finds
himself in a serious mess over his sexuality), many of the details
were not, and they emerged only during the year, as she wrote.
The blog has been lightly edited for publication. Some of the
revisions were fed by comments from readers (who averaged 5000 a
month), as she blogged.
"I WONDERED online what kind of car the archdeacon would drive,
and got a few unsuitable suggestions," she says. "I'd just decided
on a black Mini when, overnight, I got that very suggestion from a
reader in Australia.
"This week, I couldn't track down how many deacons were
ordained; so I put something out on Twitter to find out. And when I
asked what kind of vestments Fr Wendy would wear, I started quite
an argument. That was great fun."
One reason why Fox's novels are so plausible is that she is a
shrewd observer of the Church of England - its characters and its
many absurdities. Set in a cathedral city, Acts and
Omissions depicts a world with which she is familiar: her
husband is the Dean of Liverpool, and, before that, was a Canon of
Inevitably, readers try to recognise the models for her fiction.
"I try so hard to avoid similarities with anyone I know, that I
think they can accidentally end up rather like someone I don't
know," she says. "I flatter myself that it is because I have
created believable people."
Although she denies knowingly exacting revenge on anyone, she
admits that she draws pleasure from allowing certain characters to
"say all the things you don't if you are married to the Dean".
As for that aspect of her life, she says that she is a committed
member of the cathedral congregation, attends events, and provides
a certain amount of hospitality, "but it doesn't eat me alive".
This is helped by the setting: occasions tend to happen at the
cathedral rather than in the deanery. "People at the cathedral have
got my measure," she says. "We've had a tremendous welcome in
Liverpool, and people here don't care how mad you are as long as
you are genuine."
ACTS AND OMISSIONS is playful, certainly,
although it treats serious subjects. The sweeping scope allows her
to present a range of opinions about the Church's agonies over
sexuality. "I really wanted to show to people who are not
churchgoers why it is still so fraught," she says."I want to say:
'If this was simple, we'd have sorted it out a long time ago.' The
book is an apologetic on behalf of kindness and a bit of
understanding of why it is all so painful."
It has a different tone and texture from her earlier novels. She
says that she had to restrain her redpen when re-reading them for
re-publication. "I took out a couple of factual errors and typos,
but that was all," she says. "But [the earlier books] speak to that
time, and it is almost as if they were written by someone
What went wrong after Love for the Lost? "In
retrospect, I had used up all my autobiography, and had to go off
and do some more living. I did write a fourth book, but my agent
said 'This is so bad it is unpublishable.'"
She says that she cried on the phone, but now knows that he was
right. "He showed it to the first editor who had discovered me, and
she said the same. It was a huge shock; I hadn't realised."
This coincided with a squeezeon "mid-listers" in the publishing
world, and editors were proving increasingly reluctant to foster
young writers. Penguin also told her that they had a problem
marketing her work, and encouraged her to look for a new
"They said: 'It doesn't have to be about the Church,' but I
think, for me, it does. I'm interested in theological themes, in
forgiveness, in what happens after we die. I can't just cut that
out. But I think, now, the market has changed again - look at
Rev. Perhaps the Church is not the turn-off it was."
IN A period of what she describes as "a detour", she wrote a
handful of "larky books" on vicarage life, based on her Church
of England Newspaper column; and - against the advice of her
agent - a book about judo, Fight the Good Fight: From vicar's
wife to killing machine. When her attempt to write her next
big book about the C of E foundered, she "flounced off" to write
fantasy, before coming up with the idea of the blog.
She welcomes SPCK's stated aim to be publishers of serious
contemporary fiction rather than "Christian genre" fiction. "There
are some people who have bought my books because they think 'This
is by a Christian', and then they feel hurt and betrayed, because
they think I am not portraying Christians in the best light, and I
allow them to blaspheme, for example.
"And they ask whether, as a Christian, I couldn't have found
another way. It almost always turns out that they don't read
contemporary fiction, and although I explain about verisimilitude
and observation, and how I try to render this faithfully, they are
She muses on whether Acts and Omissions could have been
published by a secular publisher, but admits that it is pretty
"hard-core Anglican". Generally, though, she believes that people
want to read intelligent, compassionate writing about human
experience. "There's a hunger for it."
Acts and Omissions by Catherine Fox is published by SPCK at
£9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99 - use code
263 ). She is serialising her latest novelat