The Godless Boys is based around an island where religion is illegal, where a gang of boys search for those who believe in a higher entity and persecute them for it. The key to the tale is when a member of the gang falls in love with a girl and switches sides, going on a violent rampage. The result is a tale about love, power and faith.
Where did you find inspiration for the tale?
The inspiration came from two very different books: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The former inspired me because I started to wonder how one might endure a Dawkins’ paradise of rationalist thinkers and non-believers; Gilead was influential because it readily showed the beauty of a spiritual life. I found them both inspiring, and I began to think about the distance between religious and secular thinkers. Out of this distance came the idea of a segregated country with the godless on one side and the religious on the other.
Are you religious?
No, I’m not, and I wasn’t brought up with faith. However, I’ve always been envious of those on the other side – the rituals I missed out on as a child and the sense of community. As a group, atheists are not very good at providing an alternative to this narrative.
Are the central themes of the book linked to your life?
The Godless Boys is a very extreme story of the broken dialogue between believers and non-believers. It tells a story of a bloody conflict between these two groups, with churches bombed and secular schools picketed. The story reflects my interest in the type of quarrel we saw recently in Britain, when Richard Dawkins called for the Pope’s arrest and where the Pope, in turn, warned Britain of the dangers of ‘aggressive secularism’. I’m interested in this religious/secular tension globally, too. As many pockets of Europe and the West become more secular, religious participation is growing elsewhere: China, for example, may be the biggest Muslim and Christian nation by 2050. Neither are facts to bemoan – just that the dialogue between the two camps is often unhelpfully aggressive. I wanted to show a world where this conflict is at its most extreme.
Why did you bring a new character on to the island?
The new character, Sarah, comes to the island just at the point that Nathaniel is on the edge of listlessness. He is tiring of his gang’s brutal games. When Sarah arrives she introduces intimacy and gentleness into his life.
Which of your characters do you most relate to?
I have a soft spot for Eliza, because she has a sense of ambition and vision that cannot be contained on the island. She is also deliciously deluded: she imagines England is going to be much more fun than the island, without engaging in the realities of life there.
What is the key message of your book?
I hope the novel might offer a reflection of the modern quarrel between religious and secular thinkers. There is a real distance between these two groups, in the UK, in America, in the Middle East – globally. In my novel, this amounts to a stretch of water between the faithless island and the faithful mainland. We’re not there yet, but who knows if we might be inching toward it?