Friday 13 September 2013

Peggy Riley - Author Interview

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Today we're delighted to welcome  Peggy Riley to the blog.
For any of you unaware, Peggy is the author of Amity & Sorrow, a novel of God, sex and farming according to its Twitter hashtag! It's a novel which explores the appeal of 'alternative' religious cults, the ideals they start out with and the dangerous places they can lead, told from the standpoint of Amaranth who has decided enough is enough, and she is leaving. When I first read it, I was filled with lots of questions and after hearing Peggy speak at Edinburgh Book Festival I had even more!

So, a huge welcome to Peggy Riley! 
Hi, Mary and thanks for letting me visit Our Book Reviews!

Amity & Sorrow is your first novel. How easy was your route to publishing; Was it quick and
painless or did you spend years in the slush pile?

  I don’t think anything to do with writing or publishing is quick or painless and my years in the slush pile were spent trying to get an agent.  That step was definitely the hardest and most painful.  I had my manuscript assessed by Hilary Johnson and she made all the difference for me, recommending I try to find an agent in the States, where I’m from, and helping me to get my book into safe hands.  The first time I met Joy Harris, my agent now, we just clicked – which is how it should be.  I had only met her once before she sent my book to Little, Brown, and then everything went really quickly – and painlessly!  Finding an agent made the difference for me and Amity & Sorrow.  An agent is an advocate and champion, offering support, perspective, and ruthless honesty.  I trust her completely.       

On your website you list various previous jobs, a bookseller, festival producer and writer-in-residence at a young offender prison, did any of these help you at all in knowing what might appeal to publishers and the public?

What they really did was help me pay the bills.  I’ve been a writer most of my life and I’ve always had day jobs, part-time arts-based jobs that let me buy time off to write.  Being a bookseller, I understood the industry going in, from a sales perspective.  I tried to write the kind of book that I’d wanted to sell.  My years spent as writer-in-residence at the young offender prison probably had the greatest impact on me, as a writer.  I went into the prison as a playwright, but the men there weren’t interested in writing drama.  It wasn’t relevant for them.  We created a magazine together to publish their lyrics and poetry, and we worked together on flash fiction, monologues, and short stories.  I had to write in new ways to work well with them, and the job itself afforded me more time at home to write than I’d ever had.  I don’t think that that work taught me what would appeal to publishers or the public, because those things are changeable, but it helped me to know myself better.  It opened my heart up in surprising ways. 

What were your inspirations behind Amity and Sorrow?

When I was a playwright, I saw a picture in a newspaper of a wooden church on fire.  My imagination quickly added women to it, running from it, their long skirts sweeping the dry grass.  All the questions that arose from it – who were the women, why was the church on fire – got me thinking about a story, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it onstage.  The image and the story captured me and made me change.   
If it's not too personal a question, do you have first hand experience of living in a cult or commune?

Ha!  If I did, it would be a different book entirely!  I have no experience whatsoever of this kind of life, but I tried to imagine the good and bad parts of the lifestyle, to approach it with compassion.  I’d spent time in rural communities in the States with friends who live off the grid, so I had a bit of experience with self-sufficiency and communal living, even if I hadn’t lived through them myself as any more than a tourist.   I have a real curiosity about ecstatic practices and alternative faiths.  I did a lot of reading, but no personal research, I can assure you!   

Did the ideas behind it simmer away for years, the plot spring ready formed one day or the characters shape and change it as you wrote?

I begin a piece with a place – a landscape and its history.  Over time, characters emerge from it.  Amity and Sorrow, the two daughters of their faith’s leader, arrived fully formed and tied together, as we first meet them in the book, but everything else had to be puzzled out through the writing, from the history of their faith to the story that they would live through.  It was a slow and organic process and the characters changed through the writing, but they remained, at the beginning, as they arrived.  I think if characters arrive fully formed, you have to trust them. 

To me, the whole idea of religious cults springing up as off-shoots of more main-stream beliefs seems a very American one. Is this fair to say?

It is fair.  America is a nation founded by religious radicals with a rich history of “spiritual awakenings”:  the first with the arrival of the pilgrims/Puritans/Shakers and Quakers in the mid-17th century, the second in the early 1800s with the creation of new utopian and evangelical protestant faiths, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) and the Seventh Day Adventists, and the third which began with the New Age movement, communal societies that, unfortunately, often turned into death cults.  There is something about American idealism that provides the right environment for the building of new Edens which always fall. 

The surroundings of the commune are very idyllic, sharply contrasting with the harsh environment Amaranth ends up in outside. Is it just me who sees a comparison to the Garden of Eden and Man's Fall? 

Because we know utopian faiths fail and fall, I knew I would begin at its end.  I wrote the history chapters of the faith backwards, so that the faith slowly wove itself together, rather than unraveling.  I wanted the story to move backwards towards the faith’s beginning and to the place of hope that they all began from, even though there were always cracks in the foundation that they didn’t want to see.  I try to move the story of the faith back towards Eden to explore all the ways that the fall came.  When Amaranth and her daughters come to the No Man’s Land of the Oklahoma Panhandle, I wanted the land to be different from the one they knew, drier, harder, meaner, a place where no women lived or tended to the domestic things that had occupied the lives of all the wives.  I suppose Amaranth can see the place for what it is.  She has lost the ability to see the world through the hope of extreme faith.  

I read an interesting article by you last week on the Waterstones blog about the position of women in cults, particularly polygamous ones.  As you wrote, did you think Amaranth and the other wives were victims or did they benefit from their unusual living arrangements?

It’s been said that no one joins a cult.  From within, it is a faith, a family.  The faith at the centre of Amity & Sorrow is a fundamentalist, polygamous one of Zachariah and his fifty wives.  It is a communal society that promises to care for the women who join, that they need never live alone again, that they can belong to a family and be cared for until their death, which was part of the philosophy in the Peoples Temple of Reverend Jim Jones.  For a long time, the faith works for a lot of women.  They find ways to have relationships with one another that are nourishing and sustaining.  But the model is unsustainable.  It’s a pyramid with too wide a base, too many women all looking up at one husband.  It is not democratic enough.  I didn’t want any of them to be victims and I wanted to explore the benefits of communal living for women who had run out of options and wanted to belong to something.   

Do you feel all cults are 'bad'? Is it possible there are many, even polygamous ones, where people live happy, fulfilled lives - and that it's just when things go wrong that they gain publicity?

I don’t feel all cults are bad at all.  There's risk attached in even the term “cult”, which I found out quite recently, having been threatened with libel for having name-checked a faith in an article about the history of cults in America.  I was not calling them a cult but they took offence.  Quite rightly, too, I suppose.  It’s a dangerous term.  There are any number of groups which outsiders would brand a cult living happily together.  We probably won’t hear about them until they fall apart, because they so often do.  Faiths with strong, charismatic and overpowering leaders will always come apart, due to our human natures, our jealousies and fears.  When faiths aren’t democratic with a shared powerbase, they always seem to implode.  When the issue of polygamy is added, it has more to do with scale, I believe.  The founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, believed that God told him that each man must have three wives to attain the highest level of heaven.  There are a number of polygamous families in the States with three and four wives living quite happily, from the Darger Family, who wrote a book about it, Love Times Three, to the Browns, featured in the TLC series, Sister Wives.  These groups are families living in the way that suits them best, and I was inspired by their stories as to what “works” for the wives and the challenges in their relationships with each other.  On the Yearning For Zion ranch, the largest fundamentalist Mormon community, their leader Warren Jeffs, currently in prison, is a good example of the human sins of greed, lust, and gluttony, gathering more wives than Smith imagined.  Jeffs had 78 wives at the time of his arrest, with about a third of them under the age of consent.  This skewing of the ratio of girls to older men leads to the banishing of young men and the coercion of girls, to keep the gender imbalance so necessary in polygamy.  This in turn leads to resentment among the women, both mothers and older wives, as well as the banished and damaged children, neither of whom are able to consent to the practice, known as “the principle”.  But it is so embedded in their culture that it is very hard for them to leave it, very hard for them to escape even when they have been freed.  I wanted to explore that story as well.

Did Zachariah, the cult leader in Amity&Sorrow, really believe he was specially chosen or was he just using God and religion for his own ends?

I think Zachariah, like most charismatic leaders, begins from a place of genuine faith, but, ultimately becomes a victim of believing his own press.  I had in mind the faith leaders I remembered from my childhood, from Jim Jones, whose People Temple began as a nurturing, communal society and ended up as a massacre site in the jungles of Guyana, to David Koresh whose Seventh Day Adventist splinter group, the Branch Davidians, turned increasingly violent through fear, leading to a stand-off with the government and ending in fire.  I believe – I have to believe – that these leaders begin with a longing for God, to do His good work on earth.  But, being a leader leads to valuable perks:  money, power, glory, attention, the pick of the women.  In time, they come to believe that beyond speaking for God that they are God.  Then, the end for them is nigh.  It’s the narrative of the Bible, after all.  Any son of God will have to be sacrificed for his followers, so that the world can end.  This sense of self-importance leads them to lose their sense of perspective and, often, their sobriety and their sanity.  Too much praise and adoration isn’t healthy for any of us. 

Now, your next book is finished, can you give a brief outline of it? and when can we expect publication?

My agent has just read my new book and I’m back to work on it, cutting like a fiend.  It’s set in the women’s internment camp on the Isle of Man during WW2, when “enemy aliens”, German foreign nationals were arrested and interned.  4000 women were taken to a small village over one weekend and it took camp officials a long time to understand who they had arrested and why they were there.  The book, which still has no title, is about race and how afraid we are of each other whenever wars begin.  I hope to get it to my editors very soon!  

Thanks for dropping by Peggy and some thought-provoking answers. I'm definitely looking forward to the new book - Best Wishes for it.

Many thanks for your lovely questions and for letting me think a bit more about Amity & Sorrow 


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