Anaphora Press: Matushka Donna, you’ve published several stories, poems, and books. Did you want to be a writer from an early age, or is it something you fell into?
Matushka Donna:Yes, I always wrote stories, whether at school or for my own amusement, even when I was quite young.
AP:How much time do you spend working on your writing?
Mat. Donna:Too much, because I’m very slow…..and not enough, because I’m very slow and need more time than I can spend!
AP:Being a mother and priest’s wife, how do you find time to write? What did you do when your children were younger?
Mat. Donna: The kids are grown now, so it should be easier….but there are also the grandkids now! I actually was quite productive at the early stages of seriously trying to write for publication….I would write when my kids were napping or at school, and because the time was limited I let nothing distract me. And, of course, there wasn’t the internet for distraction then!
Mat. Donna: He is a power writer who writes things and finishes them almost immediately. I’m a ruminater who chews on ideas sometimes for months or years before they come together and can be written down. I’m also a perfectionist, and I’m the first line of defense as his proofreader/copyeditor, because he doesn’t correct as he goes along the way I do.
Mat. Donna: I actually found the idea of the picture book while researching for the novel. Among other things I was reading Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert, and while reading the little self-enclosed story of the ravens it struck me that it was a perfect story for a picture book. I’d never really considered writing a picture book before, it just wasn’t a genre that interested me; but on reading the story I could hear the rhythmic first lines in my mind,
“The man of God Cuthbert/came to live/on the Island of Farne alone.”
I’ve cast the narrative in free verse, but I also make use of a fair amount of alliteration, which of course is straight out of the Old English poetic form.
Of course the main thing about the picture book is that it’s short, and the story was completely there, I just had to tell it in an engaging manner that lent itself to illustration.
The novel, on the other hand…I started, again, with a skeleton of historical narrative, this time from Symeon of Durham’s Libellus de Exordio, which tells how the devotees of Saint Cuthbert, two hundred years after his death, took up his remains and fled the Viking invasion. What is so fascinating about the story is that monastics and layfolk, men, women and children, were all involved in this tremendous journey. And it hadn’t been told before in novel form for young people.
To be a young adult novel, it of course needs a young adult protagonist, who is essentially an invented character– and so are his fellows and his personal conflicts mostly invented. A novel, even at the short length common for the young adult market, is much more complex than a picture book or a short story, and I would do chunks of it and then stop dead for a long while till things percolated down and got moving again. The picture book was pretty much written in a day.
AP: And how did you choose him to write about?
Mat. Donna: I’ve been in love with ancient Anglo-Saxon culture since my university days
in the late 1970s. Cuthbert, who lived in the 7th century, was probably the most venerated saint in England until after the Crusades, which is when the fashion for St. George came in. I’ve been researching Cuthbert and actually writing another novel that involves him for a long time, so I’ve amassed a lot of material about the subject.
Mat. Donna:The picture book, that I wrote it at all.
The novel– that even though I have successfully published a couple of dozenshort stories in professional venues, I nevertheless made a beginner mistake in my first draft of the ending. I woke up in the middle of the night knowing I had to re-write it just hours before deadline! I won’t tell you what it was, as I don’t want to give any spoilers!
AP:What are your thoughts about Orthodox fiction?
Mat. Donna:…..that there isn’t much available? Not in English, at least, and not from this century.
I suppose there are two ways we can look at this– Orthodox fiction would be fiction that is about explicitly Orthodox subjects. Dostoevsky fits there….
The other way to look at it is that it is fiction by Orthodox authors. If they are practicing their faith, it will come through in their work, whether or not they are writing about something explicitly Orthodox. I certainly know a number of writers who publishing that kind of work, whether at novel or short fiction length– sometimes in the Orthodox niche market, sometimes in the more general fiction market.
AP: You’ve been a declared fan of sci fi for quite some time. How do you think this genre fits in with Orthodoxy or faith in general?
Mat. Donna:I just read the most amazing sentence in the introduction to Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night:
“Outside theology and fantastic literature, few can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose.”
I think there is no question that speculative fiction offers a better form for consideration of ultimate questions, and the chance to encounter the numinous, than does contemporary ‘realistic’ fiction. The latter is all too often focused on the banal personal identity crises of modern Godless people.
You won’t find a better portrayal of this contrast in genres than in RichardAdams’ Watership Down– not coincidentally, a classic entry in the genre of fantastic literature. The rabbit heroes of this book love the mythic adventure stories of their trickster hero, El-ahrairah. In their quest for a new home, they come to a rabbit warren that denigrates these traditional tales, and we learn that these other rabbits practice a very modern, death-centered sort of poetry. The heroes barely escape with their lives…but thereafter they depend more than ever on the power of their traditional stories to guide and strengthen them.
AP:You are also a poet. Why does poetry matter?
Mat. Donna: I couldn’t tell you. I am a mere dabbler at poetry. I write some, but I don’t read much of it, and am really not sure I know what I’m doing when I do write it. I do love language and like to play with words, but I’m not sure what can be meant by poetry ‘mattering’. With stories I am on firmer ground– I know very well that stories matter and matter deeply to all human beings because they are a reflection of The Great Story. Narrative poetry is out of fashion these days, or I would say poetry matters as a vehicle for Story.
Of course we have liturgical poetry, and that is the vehicle for our worship of God. That’s how the angelic hosts praise God, I suppose, and liturgy helps us to emulate them. But when it comes to the opposite, to listening to what God has to say to us, nothing goes to the heart like a story. That is why we have the Gospels read to us at every liturgy.
AP:What advice do you have for new Orthodox poets and writers?
Mat. Donna:For anyone serious about writing something that they intend to have reach an audience of more than their own immediate circle: Quit talking about writing and just do it. Join a crit group of your peers, in person or online, and improve your work. Learn how publishing works and start sending your work out. Act like a professional, and you will become a professional. This is a pep talk I have to give myself every so often, of course. Oh, and learn to expect, even to embrace rejection. Putting your soul on paper and then sending it out into the world is not an endeavour for the faint of heart.
View Matushka Donna Farley’s new book The Ravens of Farne at Conciliar Press.
And visit her writing blog at: raftersscriptorium.blogspot.com
And her blog on St. Cuthbert at: saintcuthbert.net