As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Iain Hood on the research process behind his novel This Good Book (Renard Press, 2021).
I feel as though there are two main philosophical themes running together through This Good Book – theology and aesthetics. Theological readings of art and aesthetic readings of theology are intertwined throughout, with ideas of ‘meaning’ providing the adhesive. To begin our interview, I’m curious as to which of these motifs – theology or aesthetics – first brought you into the idea for This Good Book. Is this a theological novel about art, or an artistic novel about theology? Or both, or neither?
As your interest, Joe, is writers and research, I felt I needed to do a wee bit of digging into my own recent ‘archive’ to see how it all started. I was writing another novel when scrawls which simply said ‘The Jesus Book’ first appeared on the scattered pieces of paper I laughably call my notes, sometime around the early to mid-2010s. A cursory search through old emails shows a note-to-self email entitled ‘Jesus’ with the semi-incoherent text content, ‘Each Jesus the image of the culture he is painted from’ appearing in August 2016. Another note-to-self email, with an attachment of a very early draft of This Good Book, comes in May 2017. So, I’d say the two were bound together from the start. I’ll also give the cute sidestep answer that before themes, first there were two characters, Susan Alison, nicknamed Lily in early drafts, and another artist then called Douglas Calder. It was them both being artists and Susan Alison wanting to paint a Crucifixion that came before the thematic wish to write about art and religion. Before they had names and genders and characteristics, I only remember there being a premise, which is the central premise of the end of the book, so I won’t go into that right now as it would be a spoiler. By the way, the title This Good Book came late in the process, after a first draft had been sent to Will Dady, who would eventually form Renard Press and publish the novel. I see from notes that in 2016 titles being considered by me were The Mythopoeia of Jesus (which eventually became the title of the painting Susan Alison paints within the book), A Resurrection (which I’m glad I got past) and My Crucifixion, which works quite well, I think, but I’m happier with This Good Book.
Yes, I definitely feel that (allusion to the ‘Good Book’ aside), This Good Book points us to some of the deeper aesthetic considerations of the novel, those that reach beyond theology, I mean. Homing in on aesthetics for a moment, I’m curious as to that interplay between moral/immoral art and good/bad art. A number of artists are discussed in moral terms (particularly Eric Gill) as well as in terms of their artistic vision (Dali), and it’s interesting to me that Susan Alison only manages to produce ‘good art’ (or well-received art) once she crosses the boundary into ‘immoral art’. Partly that’s due to the art media’s fixation with scandal, but is there a more fundamental link there? How would you describe that tricky relationship between aesthetics and morality?
I went looking for the Oscar Wilde quote about moral and immoral books and the varied versions of it came up on the search (Wilde was known to use a good line a fair few times, sometimes with slight variations), and ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written’ is a ‘good’ (concise? well-phrased? pithiest?) example of Wilde’s variations. This last sentence shows how easily ‘good’ can find itself encumbered with scare quotes, because what do we mean by ‘good’? My intention was to interrogate as many possible combinations of this question as possible (most easily done using binaries). Are ‘good’ (well-painted) paintings of horrific, ‘immoral’ actions somehow ‘bad’ paintings? Are ‘bad’ (mass-produced in a cheap medium, say) images of God somehow ‘good’ because God is commonly perceived to be morally ‘good’? Does ‘moral’, ‘good’ art often become anodyne or bland? Is ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’ art — because it is, say, transgressive — necessary at times? ‘Necessary’? Sorry for the scare quote explosion, here. To go back to Wilde, is there no such thing as moral and immoral art, only well-made or badly-made art? If you are coming to the conclusion that I have no answers, only questions, you’re right. In the end, Susan Alison is willing to do terrible things to produce her good art. I don’t say this is necessary, it’s just the case in her experience.
I think there’s something pertinent in Susan Alison’s experience, even if it doesn’t ‘answer’ our considerations of good art vs. bad. Her experience certainly gives us food for thought on the art world, which is portrayed in religious terms as a place of orthodoxy and heresy, defined by ‘golden moments’ in which artists’ visions coalesce into ‘movements’ that gel with the zeitgeist, and so become popular and historicised. I wonder to what extent you feel that success in the visuals arts, as well as literature, is a case of being in the right place at the right time? Did anything in your reading of art history suggest this, or perhaps the contrary?
Perhaps it’s an unshakeable thing. We always are in the right place at the right time because there are no options to be elsewhere. I don’t know how in the history of human art artists moved from flat representation to representation of depth using perspective and a vanishing point, but other developments I can follow. Artists are also inventors, and if you’re Titian you’re famous for inventing the tint of red that now bears your name. The only question then is, say some other artist invented the red tint but couldn’t paint for toffee, what then? Who would care about International Klein blue if Klein hadn’t done all the other stuff he did? I seem to be thinking in terms of colours, here. Purposefully, I have Douglas work in a medium that invites laughter (his own urine in plastic bags), but I have him working hard as a conceptual artist and hope to show that Susan Alison’s oft-times dismissal of his art is not the whole story.
As the Borges quote that starts the book may suggest, I perversely like to voice the heretical when presented with orthodoxy, but also the orthodox when presented with heresy. Just to see what happens, mostly. So, I have been heard to say in the past, if you’re going to be a Catholic, you may as well be one like Marcel Lefebvre, the ultra-conservative who opposed the changes of the Second Vatican Council and was in essence ex-communicated from the Catholic Church for being too Catholic. In terms of This Good Book, it’s a book that has a crime and a trial in it, but it’s not a crime novel, more a novel like Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam. It has horror in it, but it’s not a horror story: more in the tradition of ‘The Horror’ in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is a romance and a love story, but not a romance about the love relationship between the two protagonists. There is something haunted about the characters, but it’s not a ghost story. The question is, who is being haunted by what or whom? Certainly, Susan Alison is haunted by her memories of and thoughts about the Crucifixion and Douglas, and equally certain is my hope that the reader will be haunted by, at least, Susan Alison’s voice long after the book is read, and on down through the years.
I’d like to return to those lingering thoughts around the Crucifixion, but before I do I’d like to ask about Glasgow – a special place for me because it’s where my mum was born. One of the real pleasures of This Good Book is your representation of Glasgow as a cultural space. We find art history, localised knowledge and linguistic detail all used to evoke a sense of place as something to be shared, and shared widely. I wonder, as a Scot now living in the south of England (much like my mum), whether you felt any innate impulse to write about Scotland, any desire towards addressing that part of yourself. Did your idea of Glasgow change as you designed and wrote the novel?
I wrote a novel when I was young and had only just moved out of Glasgow that I did in the ‘in a nameless city, in a nameless European country’ style, except, when it suited me, it was very obviously Glasgow and Glasgow-based characters. Perhaps at that time I wanted to write in a European as opposed to Scottish way. With as many favourite writers who are French, Chilean, Catalonian, Irish or from the States as I have favourite Scottish writers, perhaps I still do. Hmm. I just noticed that ‘Catalonian’ (Enrique Vilas-Mata). That has the mark of a nation-within-a-union writer, doesn’t it? But you don’t really get to not be the thing you are, whether you want to escape that or not. Even though I’ve lived in Cambridge for close on 25 years, among my friends there I’m that Scottish guy who lives in Cambridge, except when I’m with my friends who are also Scottish, and then we’re those Scottish people who live in Cambridge. So, to chuck a couple of biggies around to place myself in the lofty company of, I write like an exile, Joyce or Spark. Joyce always wrote about the Dublin he had known or found out about with detailed questions to relatives and friends who still lived in Dublin. Spark wrote on a world canvas, but she said herself she dragged a Scottish sensibility around and poked it into all the nooks and crannies of London or Italy or the Holy Land. I don’t know whether my idea of Glasgow changed with the writing. My father attended the Glasgow School of Art, and I always think of it as an art city, the way others think of it as a football city or a sectarian city (these may be linked), or as a grimy and rainy or renascent and shiny city. What I do know is that the city has changed a great deal in ways I don’t know in the many years since I lived there. All I can say about that is it helped in the writing of the late 80s, early 90s parts of This Good Book, because these are still very real to me.
To close then, let me circle back to that interplay of theology and art with a more formal research question. I found myself putting down This Good Book regularly to search for images of the Crucifixion referenced in the narration. I was struck by the spectrum of meaning that the subject has evoked – not simply just the suffering of Christ but a whole range of moral, aesthetic, political suggestions. I hoped you could tell us how you felt when you first toured these images, as you must have done, and again whether you feel differently about them now the novel is out in the world. In broadest terms, what might depictions of the Crucifixion mean to the contemporary reader?
When I was looking for the Wilde quote above I also came across a few other of Wilde’s quotes that I could see I may have been thinking about as I wrote This Good Book. First, ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.’ (Does Wilde mean it is a fiction because in real life good and happily and bad and unhappily rarely have such an easy correlation? Certainly in This Good Book I was intent on making as many mix and matches of these ideas as possible.) Second, ‘An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.’ (Susan Alison asks in the book what the point of an uncontroversial Crucifixion painting, sculpture or other artwork is. She also says at another point that religion should be a dangerous set of ideas or else it is nothing.)
With your last question, here, you’ve hit the iron nail that runs in on the head. What do depictions of the Crucifixion mean now? This is definitely one of the central questions of the book. Douglas compares what the Crucifixion and resurrection might have meant to early Christians and to world followers of the religion now, and he and Susan Alison debate the reasons she has chosen a Crucifixion over other religious symbols and stories. They seem to come to different conclusions each time, though most often the conclusion that the meaning remains elusive, perhaps by necessity. What never seems up for debate is the power and the longevity of the image, and maybe this is meaning enough in itself.
Iain Hood was born in Glasgow and grew up in the seaside town of Ayr. He attended the University of Glasgow and Jordanhill College, and later worked in education in Glasgow and the West Country. During this time he attended the University of Manchester. He now lives in Cambridge with his wife and daughter. This Good Book is his first novel.
Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.