6 Apr 2019

Sarah Perry on leaving the church to become a writer

From Saturday Morning, 9:25 am on 6 April 2019

British author Sarah Perry has followed up her number-one bestseller The Essex Serpent with a novel called Melmoth. She talks to Kim Hill about faith, illness, moral courage and her taste for the gothic.

Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry Photo: supplied / AWF

Melmoth tells the tale of a legendary woman forced to wander the world bearing witness to the worst of human behaviour because she failed to give true witness herself.

The book is a reimagining of Charles Robert Maturin's 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer.

In Melmoth, Perry saw her task as acknowledging the antisemitism at the heart of Maturin's book while turning bigotry on its head and exploring its ultimate conclusions.

The novel makes "a plea for individual acts of moral courage even if it feels hopeless, which it often does" while exploring the concept of bearing witness and whether that is enough in itself.

We each have a moral responsibility to educate ourselves about the contemporary world and history, she says.

"The world is swinging towards populism and nationalism, as we've all seen. It's desperately dangerous and if we don't look it's never going to get better.

"We live in a collective group and we all have an obligation not to be ignorant about what's happening or has happened or is about to happen, but equip ourselves so we are able to work for the collective good."

Perry was brought up in a Strict Baptist family in which television, movies and pop music were banned, but she did read literary classics, attended The Proms and saw Shakespeare plays.

Growing up in a "deeply religious" environment exposed her to "huge ideas about the sublime, damnation, transgression, hope and grace", she says, but her childhood didn't have much in common with fellow English author) Jeanette Winterson's, as people often presume.

"It's very, very easy for people to assume that if your childhood was deeply religious that it was deeply unpleasant – and actually I had a wonderful time and I love my parents very much and we're very close.

"I don't think any childhood is without difficulty and every childhood is unusual in its own terms."

Yet in 2007, Perry made a break with the church – partly because of its opposition to same-sex marriage and partly because she knew that couldn't be a novelist if she stayed.

"I would have felt my imagination to be completely fettered by the demand that everything I did and said was a work of Christian witness. And I would have been doing that to somebody else's definition of what being a witness was and not my own.

"Everything that I would have done would have been to please people in the church, whereas now I only have to satisfy my conscience.

"I do recall having a curious sensation that I had sold my soul in order to write books – which is very melodramatic but I was only 27."

Despite describing herself as "post religious", Perry believes that faith and reason can "cheerfully coexist" and we forget too easily now that they did so for millennia.

"The great Islamic scholars had such a vast impact on science and medicine that went on to affect Western development centries later… in the Western world, The Enlightenment was powered by a rational faith ... it's relatively recent that the two things have come to seem intractably opposed."

Although original sin – "the belief that everyone's a sinner and we are all capable of terrible things" – was a horrible and scary doctrine to be brought up with, Perry says, the corollary – "we are all equally able to access justice and forgiveness and redemption and grace at all times and nobody is any worse than anybody else" – can be comforting.

She suspects this benevolent view of human failing is what people found consoling about The Essex Serpent.

Three years after it hit bestseller lists and won awards, Perry is still surprised by its success.

"You do not write a neo-Victorian novel that has an entire chapter on the nature of sin and expect to sell half a million copies."

In 2016, the same year The Essex Serpent was published, Perry was diagnosed with Graves' disease – an autoimmune disorder which causes muscle weakness and bone loss.

After a ruptured disc in her spine ended up crushing her sciatic nerve, she had to have neurosurgery on her spine and developed a third-degree burn.

The first draft of Melmoth was written under the influence of excruciating pain and very very strong pain relief, she says.

"For a long time, I couldn't really look at Melmoth without imagining what it was like screaming into a mattress."

Afterward, she suffered from PTSD.

"When you suffer extreme pain for months your body becomes so used to it that it can no longer tell if you're in pain or not so you're in a constant state of flight, it's very strange."

Now Perry is climbing mountains and working on a new novel partly based on own childhood.

"Maybe I'll write a memoir when I'm very old and the last one remaining of my family but till then it will all be fiction."

Sarah Perry will be appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival next month. You can find details here.