As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Jonathan Walker on the research process behind his novel The Angels of L19 (Weatherglass Books, 2021).
I grew up in a comparable religious environment to Robert and Tracey, so it was fascinating for me to be reminded of this very emotive and often strange culture. Before we get into the deeper themes of The Angels of L19, I wonder if you’d be happy to share how your own background fed into your designs for the novel. How did you approach recollecting and interpreting your memories around your teenage faith, if you had one, and did your perspective on that time change as you wrote?
I grew up in a church very similar to the one depicted in the novel, and I have a photo-essay coming up on Ten Million Hardbacks based on my snapshots of the time, depicting my friends from the late 80s and early 90s. Many of these were taken at Merseyside Christian Youth Camps, which was my summer holiday and the highlight of my year during that period.
I say ‘grew up in a church’: I joined at fourteen, as a convert, and to some extent against the wishes of my family.
I am no longer a practising Christian. I stopped attending church in my late twenties, when I was a postgraduate, but looking at the arc of my personal history from my current vantage point, it’s no surprise to me that I began to drink problematically at precisely this point. I’m currently a recovering alcoholic and addict with nearly seven years’ sobriety, and I now see alcoholism and addiction as a kind of pathological individualism and spiritual deprivation. So when I cut myself off from community, and started to think of life in terms of me against the world, I also started to need alcohol to help me to negotiate that hostile world. My ongoing sobriety therefore depends on my willingness to acknowledge: that I am not alone; that I am part of something greater than myself, and must try to acknowledge that belonging and connection in my behaviour. But I can’t subscribe any longer to the very detailed and forbidding checklist of doctrines that I did as a teenager.
So it’s important that The Angels of L19 is a work of fiction: it explores some very specific answers to these general questions, but because it’s fiction, it doesn’t propose them as universally true. It’s a book about evangelicals, but it’s not an evangelical book: it has no interest in converting or convincing anyone of the truth of its revelations.
But in light of my experience of addiction and recovery, I certainly approached the novel in a different spirit to how I might have written it in my twenties, when one is supposed to write one’s semi-autobiographical novel. If I’d written it then, it might have been more like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: more satirical, or at least with greater scepticism and critical distance.
So I began by trying to remember in a spirit of charity, with a willingness to believe the best of my characters – to believe that their faith inspired them to be better people, not worse. I wanted the people I grew up with to read this and feel good about themselves: to feel that they hadn’t wasted the love they showed towards me; that I had kept it safe, and was trying to put it to good use by writing this book.
I think the link there with Winterson is an interesting one, especially in the context of your novel as being apart from that current of semi-autobiographical novels that writers often produce early in their careers. Continuing on literary connections for the moment, I’m aware that The Angels of L19 was written as part of your doctorate at the University of Kent, which means you must have undertaken several years’ worth of reading around the novel – again, something that’s not necessarily typical of semi-autobiographical novels. Your Acknowledgements refer to the work of English novelist and theologian Charles Williams, and I’m curious to know what other fictional and non-fictional resources you drew upon. If knowing you wanted to work with your lived experience from the start, how did you identify what would be useful in bringing your reflections to life?
Any creative project begins with establishing a sort of customised canon for the work you want to write: a tradition of which it will form a part. Obviously there are many examples of Christian fantasy that I used, and which are also part of the larger canon of English or European literature: The Divine Comedy, Doctor Faustus, Paradise Lost, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I singled out Charles Williams in part because he felt ‘in reach’ as a comparison in a way that the more imposing works in this tradition do not, but I’d have to say that Mephistopheles from Faustus (along with his ancestors in medieval morality plays) is the main inspiration for the demonic character in my book.
Besides the Bible, I also used the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, the source of the legend of the Harrowing of Hell, which purports to describe what Christ did in the time between His death and resurrection. According to the Gospel of Nicodemus, and to many medieval fictional re-workings of its narrative, Christ went to hell and released all the Jewish patriarchs who awaited His coming there. My novel offers a fairly idiosyncratic re-telling of that legend, in which the promise of release is available to everyone – obviously this has very speculative theological underpinnings.
Stylistically, Jeanette Winterson is an important influence for me: not just for Oranges, but several of her other novels too, because they combine complex ideas and vivid imagery with very simple syntax and vocabulary. I found having two teenagers as POV characters useful in this regard: it put a constraint on my tendency to use abstract thinking and language.
For the visions of my character Robert, and for examples of how these might be situated within the secular mode of the historical novel, I drew particularly on the work of AS Byatt, especially her Frederica Quartet. Byatt’s novella ‘The Conjugial Angel’, about Victorian Spiritualists, also features visions of very unorthodox angels, and these are one of the main influences on the peculiar ‘presence’ in my novel.
I also draw on cinema and television: I’ve described my novel as ‘Donnie Darko but all the characters are evangelical Christians’, but I think Twin Peaks is actually the stronger influence (Donnie Darko itself is obviously inspired by Lynch). What I draw from Twin Peaks is the juxtaposition of an achingly sincere, even naïve, depiction of goodness – which Lynch associates with images of 50s America – with disturbing intrusions of adult complexity and supernatural evil. Lynch’s work has no real overarching mythology – the attempts to provide a systematic underpinning to Bob and the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks have always struck me as wishful thinking – but instead relies on free-floating, powerful images, which he trusts to speak for themselves, however darkly and obliquely. Their free-floating quality is precisely what makes them so disturbing.
I also tried to begin my story with images, to be quiet and let them arise out of my own history. My retroactive attempts to provide some theological rationale for these images in terms that make sense to my characters are perhaps as unnecessary as the Twin Peaks mythology, and a lot of this intellectual superstructure got cut in the editing process. But I do have a long essay on the novel’s theology, which may end up being published somewhere.
In terms of a theoretical framework, all my creative work is an exercise in hermeneutics, which means the theory of interpretation, how we infer or create meaning. I’m far from an expert on the philosophical literature on this, though I used the work of Paul Ricoeur when I was a historian. But everything I’ve written is engaged with the practice of hermeneutics: my first book is based on reports written by a seventeenth-century Venetian spy, who was trying to interpret whether the behaviour he observed and described was significant. Was that a blink, or a wink? A chance encounter, or a conspiracy? My first novel, Five Wounds, has an angel character, who is more traditional than the one in The Angels of L19 insofar as she originally had a pair of wings, which the novel conceives of as functioning like antennae to receive messages from God. So the fact that her wings are missing, amputated, means that Gabriella only receives garbled and corrupt transmissions, full of static and interference, which she is therefore obliged to interpret speculatively.
And the characters in The Angels of L19 are constantly engaged in acts of interpretation, not only of the Bible, but of contemporary cultural texts like music and films. The exorcism in the book even proceeds as an argument about the correct translation of a term in the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. (I should stress that I am relying entirely on commentary by others for this and similar discussions: I have no Hebrew or Greek.)
You mention the Bible there – that must have been a core text for the novel, especially as it’s quoted at such length. I recently spoke with the author Carys Bray on her use of the Bible as an intertextual text in fiction, and am keen to ask you what I asked Carys. That is, did your relationship to the Bible change as worked with it alongside The Angels of L19? Is it a textual source you still feel an emotional attachment to, and did you encounter any moral or practical challenges in quoting from and interpreting a ‘sacred text’?
The Bible used to be a common resource for storytelling and argument: its stories and rhetoric were not only freely available to preachers, but for political argument. It’s well known that the origins of the Labour Party lie as much in Welsh Methodism as in Marxist theory – because the Bible is full of useful denunciations of the rich, and of injustice and oppression. And as a culture we’ve lost this shared resource, this resonance that attends upon allusion to a deep history, even though Biblical hermeneutics still underlies most of what we now call literary criticism. In other words, the techniques developed by medieval theologians are the same ones now applied to literary texts.
I hadn’t read the Bible in many years when I started my novel, but I’d pored over it from cover to cover many times as a teenager, and I found that phrases, images and stories came back to me easily. My characters turn to the Bible for advice, for inspiration, for consolation, for explanation, and to support arguments they want to make. It is something sacred, and therefore authoritative, but it’s not distant or intimidating – it’s close and familiar, a constant friendly companion.
Obviously approaching the Bible as a cultural resource, as a repertoire of stories, is rather different to approaching it as the revealed and infallible Word of God.
Reading it as a ‘cultural resource’, one of my own favourite scenes remains Jesus’ and Pilate’s conversation before the Crucifixion, where Pilate challenges Jesus with the line: ‘What is truth?’ This brings to mind one of the main concerns of The Angels of L19, as I read it, which is the truth (or untruth) of religious experience. During one of Robert’s visions we find the line: ‘This is a vision; and it’s really happening,’ a complex, perhaps paradoxical statement which reminded me of the concerns of religious philosophers like William James. I’m curious to know how this line relates to your own views on religious experience (speaking in tongues, communing with angels/demons, etc.) and to what extent our concept of ‘truth’ interacts with that?
Few people now share the evangelical belief in literal demons. Conversely, metaphorical demons are ubiquitous, although they are perhaps especially prone to appear in discussions of mental health problems and addiction, i.e. in the same spheres where literal demons are thought to have a particular interest. But unlike literal demons, metaphorical ones are not external agents: rather, they are part of us. ‘The devil,’ Freud wrote, ‘is certainly nothing else than the personification of the repressed unconscious instinctual life’.
Only in fiction can a demon be both literal and metaphorical. I wanted to give my demonic character agency apart from Robert’s unconscious desires. Only then could she push him to places he would not dare to go on his own.
In short, demons (probably) exist in the world of my novel. In that fictional world, they are real. But the relation of that fictional world to our world is metaphorical, and I see the demonic character in my novel primarily as part of a literary tradition (Faustus, etc.), not a theological one.
As for religious experience more generally, I see this as a universal part of human culture, which must therefore be adaptive in some sense. I don’t see religion as bad technology – as primarily an attempt to influence and control our environment, but an attempt based on faulty premises. Rather, I see it as a cultural phenomenon: a way to conceive of the relation between self and other; or the relation between self and the transcendent (whatever that means); a way to cultivate wonder and gratitude, and direct them out from the self. That is the spirit in which I hope people will read my novel.
Lastly, I’d like to ask about sin, guilt and deliverance. The impact of guilt, particularly sexual guilt (as I discussed previously with authors James Scudamore and Susan Furber), is a recurrent theme in your novel and has a clear association with the workings of teenage faith. I wonder if you feel that Christianity and/or our wider post-Christian society has a responsibility for the often very dangerous impact of guilt on young people? Perhaps this is too strong, but do you believe that there are aspects of modern religious belief that young people may benefit from being ‘delivered’ from?
Guilt is actually the appropriate response to the revelation of the harms I have caused. I haven’t made ‘mistakes’ (the preferred contemporary euphemism). I have been careless and selfish; I have hid from myself the knowledge of the hurt I might be causing, because I want what I want and I’m determined to have it; I have indulged my worst impulses, knowing they are harmful to myself and others; I have maliciously caused harm for its own sake because I wanted to hurt someone. I have, in other words, sinned.
Often – particularly in my experience of addiction, where this effect is particularly dramatic – I have acted destructively almost against my own will: I’ve felt myself mastered by something more powerful than myself, which I lack the capacity to resist unaided. But I don’t see any need to attribute this to demons. As St Paul puts it, it is the law of death at work in my members. And I need grace to overcome that law, and to offer the possibility of forgiveness beyond guilt.
So guilt is not an invitation to withdraw into myself: properly understood, it is an invitation to acknowledge the truth about the consequences of my actions, and to undertake reparative work. Guilt is only poisonous when there is no understood and agreed-upon mechanism for self-forgiveness. So my understanding of all this is still fundamentally Christian.
The problem is that guilt is not necessarily a very reliable Geiger counter for actual harm: it is itself a corrupted instinct. I felt no guilt for years over actions I now understand to be very wrong; conversely, I felt deep guilt over things I bore little responsibility for, or which didn’t really hurt anyone. And in my novel, it’s the demonic character who is the mouthpiece for Robert’s guilt: in fact, Satan means ‘the accuser’ in Hebrew. And Robert really has very little to feel guilty about. He’s a very innocent character (even if he is rather self-absorbed). So it’s a weapon that’s used to separate him from those who love him, so that he denies himself the possibility of forgiveness. As Alan Jacobs puts it, that’s what hell is: the refusal to be forgiven.
Guilt can also be used as a weapon by other people – usually by those claiming to speak for God, and who seek to appropriate His authority over others. And I should acknowledge here that, while my portrait of evangelical culture is on the whole positive, many others have far less happy memories of growing up in this world, which is undeniably very patriarchal and socially conservative. If I was queer, or the victim of abuse, this would no doubt be a very different story – perhaps also if I was a woman. I’m not trying to deny the truth of any of those negative experiences. But my experience was that I – a very strange and damaged teenager, whose behaviour was often quite provocative – was accepted and loved and nurtured. And so I wanted to be true to that.
I agree that in practice guilt is often a mal-adaptive and destructive emotion, and one of the correct roles of therapy may be to help people to be free of inappropriate guilt. But then therapy is our secular form of confession.
Jonathan Walker is the author of The Angels of L19 (Weatherglass Books, 2021), and two other books. He used to be a historian of Venice, and he has doctorates in history and creative writing. You can find him at jonathanwalkersblog.co.uk, or on Twitter as @NewishPuritan
Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.