Please welcome Lauren B. Davis to the blog! She stopped by to talk about her new book, Against a Darkening Sky, and more!
Congrats on the new book! Will you tell us a bit about Against a Darkening Sky and what inspired you to write it?
Thanks so much. Against a Darkening Sky is set in the 7th century – at the moment when Christianity swept across England. It’s the story of Wilona, a young woman who survived the plague that wiped out her village. She stumbles off the moors into Ad Gefrin, one of King Edwin’s royal compounds and is apprenticed to Touilt, a revered healer and seeress. When King Edwin arrives, proclaiming a conversion to Christianity, life becomes very dangerous indeed for Wilona and Touilt, as their faith in the old gods puts them in defiance of the king’s desires.
Never a good thing to go against the wishes of kings.
It’s also the story of Egan, an Irish monk sent to oversee the development of the new religion. Egan is a young man of deep and simple faith, who experiences God in nature as much, if not more, as in the politically theologies of Roman Christianity. Of course, this puts him at odds with the institutions of power as well. Egan and Wilona have more in common that one would first think.
The book is really an examination of what happens when one’s personal experience of the Sacred – whatever that may be – finds itself in opposition to institutional dogmatic theology, as relevant a question today, I hope, as it was in the seventh century. At least, that’s what I say about the book. My publisher tends to say it’s Outlander meets The Mists of Avalon meets Game of Thrones. Snort. I can live with that!
Tell us more about Wilona. Why do you think readers will root for her?
In Wilona I tried to create a character who worked on two levels. First, I hope she’s a fascinating, smart, funny, brave, entirely human character, one who struggles as we all do with what it means to belong, to grieve, to be afraid, to be faithful, to love and to strive for agency over our own lives. Second, whether the reader is male or female, I think Wilona appeals on a subconscious level as a sort of animus, a representation of one’s soul. I intend for the reader to experience a journey, which entertains, of course, and has the reader deeply invested in what happens, but also a journey which invites readers to question what they believe, what gives meaning to their own lives. I have a friend, a Catholic nun, who suggested this novel was an allegory for the journey of my own soul. I didn’t realize that as I was writing it, but I think she’s right, and would go further: I think it’s an allegory for the reader’s soul as well. How could one not root for that? Besides, there’s love at stake, and life itself!
What are a few of your favorite supporting characters?
I love all my characters, of course. So, apart from Egan, Touilt and Wilona, I’m also very fond of Margawn, a warrior in the chieftain’s hall who falls in love with Wilona, risking the wrath of Lord Caelin, chief of Ad Gefrin. Strong and brave and loyal and handsome – what’s not to like? Although he is too stubborn, and perhaps too loyal to the wrong things. Then, too, Ricbert, the Druid priest is a lovely man. I’m drawn to his wisdom and clear-eyed practicality, even if his political ambitions disturb me. And then there’s Bana, the dog. Dogs are my weakness and Bana is a Most Noble Hound.
You see? I talk about my characters as though they’re sitting round the kitchen table, which in a way they are.
Why did you decide to set the book in 7th century England, and what kind of research did you do for the book?
Madness, some might say! Snort.
The book came out of a rather dark time for me. Back in 2007, I was suffering a pretty significant depression. As I am a person who believes in a power greater than myself, I turned to the Episcopalian church I was attending at the time (I no longer attend any church) for comfort and direction. One night a priest was at the house for dinner and of course the talk turned to faith. He was extremely rigid and narrow in his theology and I found it disconcerting. I said something about my own experience with faith, at which point he slammed his hand on the table and said, “No! You cannot use the word ‘my’ when talking about religion. There is only the truth and error.” He then told my Jewish Best Beloved that it was regrettable that when we died we wouldn’t be reunited in heaven, to which my Best Beloved replied, “Care for more peas?” Because really, what else can you say?
Eventually, with little help from that church (although a great deal of help from my friend Sister Rita, whose experience of God is so wonderfully all-embracing and as open as it is deep) I recovered from this depression, and during my time in the dark abyss I can truthfully say I found a number of gifts and invaluable insights for which I am grateful. However, that clash between one’s personal experience of The Ineffable and what folks in authority allow is permissible and valid haunted me. I was also being barraged, as we all are these days, by strident shriekers of various faiths insisting they have the one truth — which, it seems to me, hides an agenda more political than spiritual.
I began to read about other moments in history when faiths clashed, when the powerful shifted religious allegiances. I wondered what that would mean for the average person just living their life, worshiping what they held to be sacred in a way that felt proper to them. One of the periods that intrigued me was the early part of the 7th c. in England — then a collection of kingdoms not yet united — when King Edwin turned from paganism to the politically more powerful Christian religion. What might it have felt to have the king appear in one’s village on a fine spring morning and declare the old gods are dead, long live the new God? I read a great deal about St. Hild, born pagan, a ward in Edwin’s court, who went on to found the great double-monastery at Whitby. I thought I might write about her… After all, she is said to have turned all the snakes on the monastery land into stones (the area’s full of ammonites), and not only did popes and kings come to seek her guidance at Whitby, but apparently wild geese bowed down before her. Good blend of the pagan and Christian there, I thought! I began to study, and then decided I’d have to head off to England for a month or so and do some research, which I did in the fall of 2008. You can read a bit about that trip on my blog… here and here and here and here…
It was on that trip, however, that I realized — as fascinating as Hild was — my interests didn’t lay in the heady atmosphere of kings and queens and court politics. Transition interested me, and power, yes, but not among the aristocracy. It was in Northumbria, in a place called Yeavering (known as ad Gefrin in the 7th c.), at the end of what My Best Beloved called “The Forced Anglo-Saxon March Northwards” that I began to imagine Wilona, an orphan girl adopted not only by a seeress in one of Edwin’s scatted compounds, but also by the gods and spirits of ad Gefrin and the sacred mountain there. The land felt full of power, and this story was born of that place. Later, the character of Egan the Irish monk appeared, and he is Wilona’s counterpart — both as filled with experiential sacredness, and as confused by political dogma, as she is.
Both characters are outsiders, and I have always written about outsiders. Writing about a pagan orphan girl and a monk at odds with the political power of the church hierarchy felt proper for me.
You have more than a few titles under your belt, and you teach creative writing as well! Have you wanted to be a write since you were young? What is one of the first things you remember writing?
Being a writer is the only thing I ever wanted to be and writings the only thing I do even remotely well. I wrote a lot of short stories when I was younger, including one about a witch burned at the stake with whom I sympathized. It caused quite a stir with my eighth grade English teacher and I couldn’t figure out why, until someone told me he was a Methodist minister as well as a teacher. Oops. I also wrote a lot of horrible poetry well into my twenties, which was refused by all the best literary magazines, only proving what excellent standards they had. I didn’t write anything worth publishing until a year or so after I got sober, which I did on March 21, 1995.
Who are a few of your biggest literary influences?
Oh, so many. James Baldwin. Gabrielle Roy. Marilynne Robinson. Alistair MacLeod. James Agee. Raymond Carver. Kent Haruf. David Adams Richards. Daniel Woodrell. Muriel Spark. Jane Gardam. Margaret Laurence, Tolstoy…. that’s a start.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, what would it be?
Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute, or Kent Haruf’s Plainsong or perhaps No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. All three are so full of compassion and beauty they’ve inspired me for years.
What are you currently reading? Is there anything you’re looking forward to this year?
At the moment I’m reading Alan Bennett’s memoir A Family Like Other People’s, which is sad and funny and incredibly moving without being in the least sentimental. Quite brilliant.
I’ll never reach the end of my to read pile. There are 438 books teetering around in various piles and since I add to the piles faster than I read, I’ve accepted the fact I’m going to die one day without reading most of the books I want to read. But I am looking forward to these ones making their way to the top – Heaven and Hell by Icelandic writer Jon Kalman Stefansson, The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, Lila by Marilynne Robinson and Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just finished a new manuscript in to my agent. It’s a novel inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s THE SNOW QUEEN, about the insanity of the addict’s skewed perspective, the power of love and the power of story. And there’s a bookstore called, “The Grimoire”. People rarely come to this bookstore because only those meant to find it do so. It’s that kind of shop. It’s that kind of story.
About Against a Darkening Sky:
A new novel from one of Canada’s most acclaimed and celebrated writers, Against a Darkening Sky is set in 7th-century Northumbria and follows Wilona, a seeress and healer whose life and way of being in the world are threatened by the coming of Christianity; and Egan, a young monk from Eire whose visions may have brought him to Christ, but whose experience of the sacred puts him at odds with the Roman church. Full of magic and mystery, Lauren B. Davis’s new work explores what happens when one’s experience and beliefs clash with those of the people in power.