My Edinburgh International Book Festival event this afternoon was Jenn Ashworth and Peggy Riley talking about "faith and family". Jenn is the author of The Friday Gospels, "a tragic and hilarious" portrait of life in a Lancastrian Mormon family, while Peggy's Amity & Sorrow features a woman and her daughters fleeing from a fundamentalist cult. While I've yet to read Jenn's book, Peggy's has been one of the highlights of the year so far - as you'll see from this post - and it is a nominee in the Festival's First Book Award (for which you can vote via that link).
Jenn's book uses a variety of narrators from the family of whom it is a portrait on a single day, and asked about the technical difficulty of rendering such a range of voices distinguishable and plausible she admitted it had been "nightmarish", but was keen to see how far a first person narrative can be stretched. She approached the task by deciding initially what her characters wouldn't say, and then she "chipped away" at their vocabulary and verbal style to create each voice. She drew on her own background growing up within the Mormon faith (which she has since left) to inform the book, and in writing it she was keen to give space to those for whom the religion is sustaining as well as those who don't sit easily within it.
Peggy's book stems not from personal experience but from an interest in cults and the charismatic men who found them. Her research led her to examine what it means to be part of a cult-family, as "sister-wives", the base of a pyramid with a single man at the top, but she pointed out that however they ended up all these movements were, or were intended to be, "utopian societies created in tremendous hope" which provided a supportive community of sorts to people to whom that meant everything.
Both writers were asked about the challenge of writing flawed and vulnerable characters, and Jenn said that while all hers fell into that category, she didn't think that that per se meant she'd have to work harder to get readers to care about them. Peggy's character Sorrow, the elder of the two sisters and the first-born in the cult-family, is difficult to like, but Peggy herself is interested in ambitious women in societies such as that of her book, and Sorrow - whose story forms a particularly dark thread in the book - is a powerful and dramatic figure and a very good foil for her mother Amaranth and sister Amity.
On the subject of writing in the wider sense, Peggy's background as a playwright meant that she had to learn the craft of fiction for this novel - I'd call her a master of it now - but she said that the hardest part of the process is "sitting down"! Jenn agreed with that and told us that when she wrote her first novel, aged 21 or 22, the sheer scale of the work involved came as a huge shock. For her, and after the sitting down, the structuring was the biggest challenge as she was good at polishing sentences, but found it much harder to see the book's architecture; for The Friday Gospels she used a sheet of wallpaper and mapped out the story's timeline in advance.
Asked about how they hoped their books would be perceived in terms of faith and the literary landscape, Jenn said she would be happy if readers saw faith as "more complicated, dangerous and beautiful" as a result of reading her novel, while for Peggy it was the aspect of faith reflected in ecstatic worship and a longing for the connection with the divine which she hoped to bring into focus in Amity & Sorrow.
Both novelists were charming, funny, entertaining and thought-provoking, and the audience seemed delighted to have spent an illuminating hour in their company.