The Testament Of Mariam
Who is Mariam? Her family in Roman Gaul know her only as a refugee from far-off Judah, without other relatives or friends. For more than thirty years Mariam has herself turned her back on the past, but now a series of events forces her to confront it. In her final illness, that past begins to haunt her, as she looks back on a youth and early adulthood during the turbulent events of the first century ad under Roman occupation, and amongst a people who refused to accept the yoke of the Empire. Born in the north of Judah, in the rebellious territory known as the Galilee, Mariam grows up in a hard-working peasant community, mutinous, impatient, unwilling to accept the traditional role of women in her society. Running away from home – against all conventions and propriety – to follow her charismatic brother Yeshua and his best friend Yehuda, Mariam shares in the excitement, the fear and the mystery, but at the last witnesses the apparent betrayal of the one and the tragic and brutal death of the other.
From 1995 Ann Swinfen chaired Dundee Book Events, a voluntary organisation promoting books and authors to the general public. Her first three novels, all with a contemporary setting, The Anniversary, The Travellers and A Running Tide were published by Random House, with translations also into Dutch and German. Her latest novel, The Testament of Mariam, marks something of a departure. Set in the first century, it recounts, from an unusual perspective and within a human context, what has been called the greatest story ever told.
Ann Swinfen now lives in Broughty Ferry, with her husband, formerly vice-principal of the University of Dundee, a cocker spaniel, and two Maine coon cats.
She is being discussed on the review site YouWriteOn and her book, The Testament of Mariam is being described as “something to make you think”. As historical novels go, this is one to read.
1. Tell us about your current book?
The Testament of Mariam is set in the first century, partly in the southern part of Roman Gaul, near present-day Marseille, and partly in the Roman-occupied province of Palestine, known to its Jewish inhabitants as the land of Judah. Mariam has fled her homeland thirty years before and settled in Gaul, since when she has closed her mind to what happened in her childhood and youth. Now she hears that the last of her brothers is dead – murdered – and the past begins to haunt her as she slips into her last illness. The story continues, weaving these two timeframes together, as Mariam’s past and present resonate with each other.
A rebellious child, unhappy in the restricted life of a Jewish peasant, she adores her older, gifted brother, Yeshûa. At fourteen she is betrothed to his friend Yehûdâ, but the marriage is not consummated, because Mariam and Yehûdâ both follow Yeshûa as he sets out in the hope of persuading people that they can find a new kingdom, a new dispensation, through kindness and love. ‘We were young. We were going to change the world.’ Ironically, Mariam feels they have failed, when her brother is crucified and she and Yehûdâ are sent by him into separate exiles.
The seed of the idea was a desire on my part to try to work out what the real man and his family would have been like, buried underneath 2,000 years of theology and church hierarchy. Jesus (Yeshûa is the Aramaic form) had sisters, although Mariam is fictional, and I wondered what it would have been like to be the sister of such a man. Mariam can never quite accept that he is divine and constantly tries to find rational explanations for events that others accept as miracles. This is neither a religious nor an anti-religious book, but an attempt to portray what it must have been like to live in an occupied country whose inhabitants never accepted Roman rule, but constantly rebelled, to be put down finally, bloodily, at about the time Mariam dies. I also found it intriguing that many of Yeshûa’s followers were women, at a time when a woman was expected to stay at home, under the total power of her father, until she was handed over to the control of her husband. Yet these women wandered the countryside and were present at the crucifixion (when the men had fled). In the years that followed, women were driven away from the centre of the church by the misogynistic church fathers.
The Holy Land has been a place of conflict for centuries – even millennia – and the struggles of 2,000 years ago set the pattern for what continues to this day.
2. Why that genre?
It isn’t a genre novel, unless you call literary fiction a genre!
3. What gives you the stimulus to write literary fiction?
This is the type of fiction I mainly read. I have nothing against genre fiction, it just isn’t the kind of thing I want to write, so I suppose you could say that the stimulus is that I write the sort of fiction I enjoy reading. Don’t we all?
4. Have you tried to write in another genre?
All my novels are literary fiction. The first three had contemporary, or near-contemporary, settings, but also strands from the past. This latest is historical, but it too has two time-lines, interwoven.
5. Is your book a stand-alone or part of a series?
The Testament of Mariam is stand-alone, as my previous novels have been. When my first novel (The Anniversary) was published, my editor at Random House was keen for me to write a sequel, but I felt that it was complete in itself. I had said all I wanted to say about that group of characters. I can see the advantages for both writers and publishers of series, particularly crime series, but I’m always eager to move on to something new.
6. Have your characters or writing been inspired by friends/ family?
No, not really. Though I think all writers draw on their own life experience, however much that may be modified and shaped in the course of writing. Our knowledge of people and their hopes and fears, our familiarity with the relationships between people and between individuals and society – all of these have to come from our own experience, but experience is transmitted and transmuted through the creative imagination to become something new and fresh.
7. What are you working on now?
I’m superstitious about this! I never talk about my work-in-progress until the first draft is completed. All I can say is that it is again a literary novel in which two stories are interwoven, stories which are very widely separated in time and space.
8. What is your favourite scene in your book? Can we have a snippet?
I’m not sure I have a favourite, but here is part of the betrothal in The Testament of Mariam.
Daniel and I were sitting on the ground under the fig tree that shaded our house, sharing a pomegranate. I had halved it with the knife I wore at my belt. With a small sharp twig, I speared the juicy seeds one by one and fed them alternately to Daniel and myself. We were both very sticky and very happy. Even now he loved best to be with me, though I knew that before long he would want to run through the village playing with the other children of his age. He still limped, and I feared that he might suffer for it. Cripples were not treated kindly amongst us.
I looked up to see Yeshûa standing before me. Yehûdâ was at the far side of the courtyard, apparently studying the distant hillside. My brother squatted down on his heels and opened his mouth to speak. I popped a pomegranate seed into it.
‘Every pomegranate seed, a lucky day,’ I said.
‘An old wives’ tale, but a good one,’ he said. ‘No, wait,’ as I prepared to feed him another. ‘I need to speak to you.’
‘What is my crime this time?’ I asked.
‘No crime. Good news. I think you will think it is good news.’
I cocked my head at him. I could not tell whether he was pleased or not.
My brother continued, watching me carefully.
‘Yehûdâ has asked our father if he will consider a betrothal between you. He went back to Sepphoris to ask his father’s permission.’
My jaw dropped.
‘Yehûdâ and me!’
Yehûdâ was rich, handsome, well travelled. What would he want with a girl like me?
‘You know he has always been fond of you. He even suggested it to me years ago, when you were just a little girl.’
‘What is your answer, Mariam?’ Yehûdâ asked.
I held out my hand to him.
‘My answer is yes, Yehûdâ.’
He kissed my fingers and I saw from his smile that he could taste the juice on them. Then he kissed me lightly on the lips. I was not sure that he should do this, but there was nothing furtive about it. We were in full sight of my parents.
‘Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely,’ he murmured, with laughter in his eyes, and kissed me again, not so lightly this time. ‘Thy temples are like a piece of pomegranate within thy locks.’
I had to catch hold of his arm to steady myself, for the sun, it seemed, had made me suddenly giddy.
‘Thy lips drop as the honeycomb,’ I whispered, ‘honey and milk are under thy tongue. I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate.’
9. Do you have an agent or have you gone alone?
I have an agent, I’m with Greene and Heaton (fairly recently). My original agent was Murray Pollinger, and when he retired the agency was sold to David Higham Associates. I wasn’t happy there, so I was glad to move. However, in the current economic climate my agent wasn’t able to place The Testament of Mariam with a mainstream publisher. A lot of editors were very keen, and it looked at first as though we would have an auction between three of them, but the money men gave it the thumbs-down, so I decided to go with the Arts Council subsidised YouWriteOn scheme.
10. Who is your publisher, or who do you SP with?
My first three novels (The Anniversary, The Travellers and A Running Tide) were published by Random House. The Testament of Mariam was published by YouWriteOn. On the whole, I have been happy with the latter, which gave me complete control over the appearance of the book, and the quality is very good. Also, as I have worked as an editor, that aspect of preparing the manuscript gave me no problems. There have been just two things I’ve not been totally happy with. The first is having to do all the publicity and marketing myself, which I don’t feel I’m very skilled at. The second is the fact that YouWriteOn only allows a 10% discount to retailers. In a market where 30% is considered a poor discount and 50% is the norm, this means that bookshops are very reluctant to stock your book. This low discount is supposed to ensure that authors receive £1 per copy sold, but if bookshops won’t stock your book, how many will sell? The books are available from a number of online booksellers (Amazon, Waterstone’s, Barnes & Noble, W H Smith, Tesco, etc.), but inevitably you lose out on all the people who would simply see your book and pick it up in a bookshop. No one is going to buy your book online unless they have already heard about it somewhere else.
11. Would you SP again?
Probably, but I still have the reservations I’ve mentioned.
12. Thoughts on SP? I.e. do you think the line on SP and traditional is closing?
Yes, I think the traditional publishers will find that all the new methods of publication are going to have a profound effect on the whole world of book production. At the moment, I don’t think they see SP as a threat, probably because there have been a lot of poorly written, badly edited, sloppily produced SP books in the past. That is changing. The physical quality of SP books can match anything the traditional publishers can produce. As long as authors who self-publish reach a good standard in their writing and employ a professional editor, then SP books will be a serious rival to commercial books. However, the main disadvantages will be, again, the two things I’ve pointed out already – adequate marketing and discounts to match what bookshops expect. Another rival to traditional publishing is the ebook, but, personally, I don’t like them. I prefer my books to have individual personalities, not to be just a mass of grey-on-grey on a screen!
13. How long does it take you to write a book?
How long is a piece of string? A lot depends on the amount of research involved, and I always seem to write things which require massive research! I’ve never completed a book in less than a year. Once the research and planning are completed, I have been known to write a first draft in six weeks. It’s the preparation beforehand, and the editing and polishing afterwards, which fill up the rest of the year.
14. Which comes first for you – characters or plot?
Always the characters. Generally the characters in an initial situation. The plot evolves as the characters evolve. I don’t write detailed synopses in advance, as I find that is the kiss of death to creativity. I know where I’m starting and I generally know roughly where I’m going to finish; I know a few milestones on the way. The rest develops as I write. Before I start each chapter, I usually note down (briefly) the scenes I want to cover in that chapter, though things can change in the course of writing.
15. How did you get into writing? Did you always want to become a writer?
Yes. I learned to read very early, at the age of three, and books and writing have been an essential part of my life ever since. I wrote as a child, became uncomfortably self-conscious as a teenager, then did a great deal of academic writing (lectures, research papers and the like). I also did quite a lot of journalism. Finally, I said to myself that I’d better make up my mind to get on with the creative writing if I was ever going to do it. The Anniversary was the result.
16. What mistakes do you see new writers make?
The commonest mistake is to try to write something perfect as soon as pen touches paper or finger touches keyboard. New writers will often worry away at that first chapter, or even those first few pages, going over and over them, without progressing. Eventually the words become almost meaningless, enthusiasm wanes, self-doubt overwhelms the poor writer. (And we all suffer from self-doubt.) The most important thing is to forge ahead to the end of the first draft. Never mind if you feel it’s rubbish. Finish it!
17. What advice would you give aspiring authors?
- Write the kind of book you enjoy reading.
- Read and read and read good writers.
- If you need to do research, do it before you start, but realise you may need to look things up later. When you hit such a point in your writing, make a note of what you need to check later (at the editing stage), but keep writing, unless the point is so crucial that you must look it up. However, don’t let yourself become distracted!
- Complete your first draft before editing and polishing.
- If you find it difficult to start each day, read through what you wrote the previous day. This will usually remind you of what you wanted to say next.
- If you find yourself truly stuck, either do something completely different – go for a walk or a swim, meet a friend for coffee – or else write something which is not part of your novel. Quite a good trick is to write a letter to yourself, complaining about the writing problem. Sometimes articulating it will solve it.
- It’s often a good idea to set your completed first draft aside to stew for a while, before you start editing. You will come back to it with a fresher eye. If ideas occur to you during this period, make a note of them for later use.
- Polish your manuscript until you cannot make it any better. If there are any passages about which you feel uneasy, you are probably, instinctively, right. Cut them or rewrite them.
- When it’s as good as you can make it, try to find some one who is not emotionally close to you to read it. You need someone with good literary judgement, who isn’t afraid to hurt your feelings! A writers’ group, a online peer review group, or a reputable literary consultancy are all possible.
- Have the courage of your convictions! Send it out to agents and publishers or self-publish. Remember that every great writer was once a beginner.
Read more about Ann Swinfen here
Ann has also published a book of literary criticism: In Defence of Fantasy
Thank you Ann, it’s been a pleasure.