James Runcie's event at the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday was originally titled "Losing my religion" and billed as "an intimate and frank account of his writing life". It was a first for me at the festival: no chairman, no questions, just the speaker taking the stage, holding his audience and entertaining us superbly as he outlined his travails with his prequel to the Grantchester Mysteries and his preoccupation with "faith, doubt, and literature" embodied in both his Sidney Chambers series and his next project, a novel about Bach. "How do you keep the faith?" is, he suggested, a more apt subject for his talk as he discussed keeping faith in literature, in his own writing, and retaining religious faith in an increasingly secular world.
Having completed his six Sidney Chambers mysteries, themselves a commentary on the ethical history of modern Britain, James wanted to chart Sidney's earlier life and specifically why he became a priest. Basing his character partly on himself, partly on his father*, partly on other clergymen he has known, in his forthcoming book he has explored Sidney's wartime service (inspired by Robert Runcie's military experiences) and the dawning of a faith - rather than a Damascene conversion, but in the writing of it he came unstuck.
He described the disheartening business of receiving crushing critiques on the manuscript from agent and editor; of discarding characters, reaching narrative dead ends, deleting swathes of text as he tried to find and engage the book's emotional truth. In the end, 'kill your darlings' was the order of the day as he took the advice of professionals, family, and close friends. Pip Torrens, for instance, didn't beat about the bush: "The religion's quite annoying," he said after reading a draft; "cut the padre; stop preaching." James listened, acted, and finally achieved the desired shape and balance, proving that "it's not the writing that's the issue, it's the re-writing, and that requires stamina, bloody-mindedness, and keeping the faith."
His struggles with Sidney were going on while he was also writing The Great Passion**, a novel based on a play he had done for Radio 4 about, yes, faith. Here his subject is J.S. Bach, the supreme artist when it comes to sorrow and consolation, his life's work a continuing act of prayer, a man whose most important relationship was with God through Christ. One book, James found, fed into the other as spiritual routine, for both Bach and Sidney Chambers, informed so much of their lives - "the numinous has to be embedded in the everyday".
As to his own belief, a subject on which he is frequently questioned and even challenged, James best describes it by quoting Thomas Carlyle: "a life of doubt enriched by faith".
He summed up by saying that "crime writing is a secular space in which we address our anxieties [see also]. Fiction should have a moral purpose - all good writing has to matter. Writing and reading are both acts of faith, and are as much about resonance as they are about impact."
The Road to Grantchester will be published in March next year.
*See this article.
**Not so coincidentally, perhaps, I spotted James Runcie in the audience at John Eliot Gardiner's Matthew Passion two years ago.