1) What made you pick the fourth commandment for your story?
It’s always struck me that there’s something of a problem involved in no one being allowed to work on the Sabbath. I always pictured things like a woman about to give birth and the midwife telling her, “Sorry, I can’t deliver your baby until tomorrow. Just hold it in until then.”
There’s also the fact that the fourth commandment is so innocuous, especially when compared to the others. I mean, adultery’s pretty bad, and murder’s an obvious no-no but working on the Sabbath? What’s so bad about that? So there was the challenge of taking possibly the fluffiest and least sinful of the commandments and turning it into the most serious commandment of all, the one that dare not be broken.
2) There’s a strong religious influence within your story. Was this a deliberate choice to fit with the theme of the anthology?
That was just me being totally obvious and deciding that a story about one of the commandments pretty much had to have religion in it.
Plus, I just enjoy writing about religion. I like making up extra bits of religious lore to resolve the paradoxes and contradictions in religious thought. Not that I’m expecting anyone to take my explanations too seriously; I’m aiming for intelligent entertainment rather than an unveiling of some great Ultimate Truth. After all, if some of the greatest minds in history can’t figure this stuff out it’s pretty unlikely that I’ve managed to solve it while scribbling away at a short story. That said, if I have inadvertently uncovered the secret of existence I’ll quite happily take the credit for it, along with any money and groupies that are on offer. But frankly, I’m just hoping people enjoy the story.
3) The detail within Confessions is really impressive. Did you have to do any research before getting started?
Before we go any further I think I should make it clear that Confessions is the name of my story. Otherwise people might think that I give such detailed confessions to priests that I actually have to do research. People will be imagining me sitting in the confessional with an encyclopaedia on my lap saying, “Hang on, Father; I’m just looking up the correct term for performing erotic asphyxiation on a goat whilst injecting oneself with heroin.”
As for the story, yes, I did a fair amount of research. Although I’ve probably got most of it wrong. I perused several religious encyclopaedias and umpteen websites and tied myself into theological knots trying to understand them.
I also browsed the pocket edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Confusingly, the index had numbers corresponding to the relevant passages on specific aspects of Catholic doctrine, but the numbers beside the passages weren’t in numerical order, they jumped about all over the place. I just couldn’t figure out the system so it took me forever to look anything up. This went on for an entire week before I realised that I was looking at the numbers on the right-hand side of the passages when I should have been looking at the numbers on the left-hand side. That gives you some idea of the keen intellect and fine eye for detail I brought to my research.
4) Are you – or have you ever been – religious? What’s your view on religion?
I took the whole Church of England thing quite seriously for a while as a kid. Then I turned hardcore atheist before settling down into being an agnostic. This suits me because although I don’t particularly believe in religion I do find it pretty fascinating.
On a practical level religion has done some wonderful things: promoting love and tolerance, inspiring great works of art and literature, providing ethical frameworks by which people can live their lives. But it has also done some terrible things: wars, inciting bigotry and hate, spreading racism and misogyny, The Vicar of Dibley. And atheists have a similarly spotty record when it comes to their achievements and failings.
On a philosophical level it seems fairly absurd to believe that the universe was created by some form of guiding intelligence, be it God, Allah, the Tao or whatever. Because if there is some great creator He/She/It did a pretty slapdash job. Let’s face it, if a restaurant served you a meal that’s as messed up as the universe is you’d send it back to the kitchen. Either that or risk some pretty serious food poisoning.
Still, it also seems fairly absurd to believe that the universe suddenly appeared out of nothing purely by accident. One minute there’s nothingness and it is, obviously, doing absolutely nothing and then, boom, there’s the universe. So nothing + nothing = something. That’s the kind of arithmetic that used to get me into trouble with my maths teacher.
While I’m at it, I think it’s pretty arrogant for people to say that their religion is the one true religion. Especially as some of these people admit that God has never spoken to them directly, they’re just quoting holy books and praying in the hope that they’re not just addressing empty space.
Equally, I think it’s pretty arrogant for people to say that God definitely doesn’t exist just because they haven’t experienced direct spiritual contact with the Almighty. “Never mind about Moses and the burning bush, if God hasn’t spoken to me then God can’t possibly exist.” Come on, it’s not like God goes around friending people on Facebook. Although admittedly, Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand is the one time I would’ve been impressed by someone posting a photo of their dinner.
Ultimately though, no one can prove God exists and no one can prove that God doesn’t exist. All they can do is offer their best guess.
That’s the kind of stuff that my story’s about. An exploration into whether it is possible, or even desirable, to balance faith and disbelief; an examination of whether religion is genuinely a force for good; and an inquiry into what counts as an authentic spiritual experience.
But, you know, with jokes and some scary bits.
5) Tell us a bit about your writing outside of this anthology – where can we read more?
I’ve got a story coming out in The Eleventh Black Book of Horror. My collection, The Mask Behind the Face, was short-listed for a British Fantasy Award and the title story won a British Fantasy Award for Best Novella. My latest collection, Reflections in the Mind’s Eye, is available in paperback from Pendragon Press and as an ebook from Amazon. I’m currently working on some novellas that contain elements of Kabbalah and Tibetan Buddhism. Because I didn’t confuse myself enough trying to understand Catholicism.