Debut author Grace McCleen drew on her background to tell the captivating but ultimately harrowing tale of Judith MacPherson, a 10-year-old growing up in a strict religious household with her father. Judith, who is being bullied at school, one day believes that she has performed a small miracle, and soon after hears the voice of God. Despite the seeming divine intervention, Judith’s life doesn’t get any easier, and this quirky, funny but troubled girl finds herself becoming more and more isolated and unable to cope. We talked to McCleen about her inspiration, her perceptions of her own work and her favourite books and authors.
Q: How did you decide to approach writing this novel and its depiction of religion and faith?
A: The novel’s real subject is about creation, identity and autonomy. I took the opening passage from the long novel I had written when I was 26 and the rest of the book suggested it from that; i.e., the opening drew heavily on the tropes and phrases of the first chapter of Genesis and so I deduced that the character was probably religious. The character was also probably a child, and probably eccentric. Probably also isolated. But that first chapter, or section of the novel, came to me word for word one day out of the blue.
Q: What has been the reaction from your family?
A: Extremely supportive.
Q: And from the religious community?
A: They don’t know about it.
Q: On your website you showcase little people you created that look very much like the descriptions of Judith’s creations for her land of decoration. When did you make them? Would you say that this book and the ideas in it are something that came about from these little people and are something you’ve been working on (consciously or unconsciously) for a long time?
A: The two are completely separate. I have always loved tiny things; this tendency is evident in all my work — my drawings are very tiny and very detailed, in my writing I tend to look down and look in rather than up and out; I like to focus on a dragonfly or a blade of grass or a crack in the pavement rather than an epic tale or a historical one. I made the little people when I was ill and up at night a lot a few years before I wrote The Land of Decoration.
Q: At such a young age, Judith already has keen perspective on the world, saying, “If you look at the earth from the ground, it seems very big… But if you look down from the sky, the boys and girls… seem smaller than flies.” Yet in other ways, she’s very much an innocent. Is that combination her undoing?
A: Perhaps. Writers don’t know the answers to all their fictions and characters. They’re not meant to, and their work would be emptier if they did. They just write down something that is hopefully living.
Q: Do the adults around Judith fail her? After all, even Mrs. Pierce isn’t very proactive about getting in touch with Judith’s father herself.
A: Every reader will see it differently.
Q: Judith has both strong faith and great imagination, but her faith is challenged throughout the course of the novel. First, by outsiders, second by herself in the form of the voice of God. Would you say it’s because she has such an imagination and that, in some ways, the two are mutually exclusive?
A: These questions are for readers not the author. An author would close down and deaden their work by answering them. But it is good that you are asking this question as I wanted to show the close interplay between imagination and belief that is always at work in all human beings.
Q: Neil is a very dislikable character for much of the book. Then we meet his father, Doug, in the scene at the school. Was it your intention that that scene alter our perception of Neil? If so, why?
A: I did not want to make any character purely a villain.
Q: Which, if any, writers, inspired this novel or your writing in it?
A: No writers directly inspired this novel, except perhaps the Old Testament authors.
Q: You’ve completed your second novel and are currently working on your third. What are they about?
A: My second is about time, stillness and music, and the third about offerings, redemption and sin.
Q: What are some of your favourite books and authors and why?
A: Moby Dick, The Magic Mountain, The Trial, The Castle, Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Life and Times of Michael K, Villette, Wuthering Heights, Voss, The Old Man and the Sea, Housekeeping, An Imaginary Life, Blood Meridian… I can’t say why for each one as that requires an essay, but each book has something infallible about it, as if each word was written not by a human but the hand of god. And there is — always — something burning, a light about the writing, which you can sense if you just pick up the book and open it pretty much anywhere, because all these writers, as Cormac McCarthy says, are carrying the sacred fire, have gone on into the wilderness and shown the way.
Also, none of the books value action and plot above all else, which we seem to have fallen prey to again in the second half of the last century and the first decade of this. The work of the Modernists was for nothing. But these writers rose above the conventional tropes of the novel and exist somewhere else, somewhere pretty timeless, somewhere where the very forms they created were distorted by the force of the expression itself. They let words breathe, become things of beauty in their own right, not serving a time-scheme or plan of action, allow them to float freely, to oscillate, rather like scientists have discovered cells in the body do, in infinite space.