Adrian Plass, the best Christian writer you've never heard of
Door Interview by Emily Winslow Stark
Issue #191, January/February 2004
Adrian Plass has sold more than a million books in the United Kingdom. He specializes in "gentle satire" of the evangelical Christian subculture. Wildly popular in England, he at last entered the U.S. market with his most recent, and more serious, novel Ghosts. Amazingly, he's actually heard of The Door. More amazingly, he still agreed to do the interview. We sent our Left Coast stringer Emily W. Stark to Plass's home in Merrye Olde where he resides with wife Bridget. There was cricket on the telly, tea on the stove, and everything was simply marvellous. This is what Emily sent back – along with some of those tasty shortbreads from Scotland. You can read more about the unflappable Mr. Plass at www.adrianplass.com.
THEDOORMAGAZINE: You started out as an actor...
ADRIAN PLASS: I wanted to be an actor more than anything in the world. So I went to theatre training school in Bristol, where I met my wife. We then decided that marriage and theatre probably wouldn't mix, so we decided to work with children, which we did. In order to be promoted in those days in childcare, you had to be a teacher. So I then trained to be a teacher, an English teacher, which I did. After that we worked with children in care in all sorts of environments, until I had a breakdown about 18 years ago, in '84. And I started writing as a sort of therapy, really, to put back together the pieces that had fallen apart. That's how the writing and speaking and stuff started. I think God was involved.
DOOR: You've said that you started writing because you were "angry and upset and fed up with the church," and you just said now that you were having a kind of breakdown. That's an interesting start for somebody who writes "gentle" satire.
PLASS: I could have written anything. When I first started writing, I was so angry; I was very immature as well, and very shallow in many of my attitudes. I came very close to writing a very angry, very bitter book. And probably if it hadn't been for my wife, I would have written a book that nobody would have read, because nobody's interested in other people's miserable outpourings. In the end, I wrote a book that was funny, because in a sense it was easier to do that and stay buoyant. I loved the feeling of the humor. It amused me enormously to write what I wrote. But it never actually occurred to me that it could have any particular impact or benefit for other people. I think because of the slightly screwed-up nature of the Church at that stage in this country. Nobody quite knew what you were allowed to laugh at and what you weren't, what was sacred and what wasn't. There was a lot of confusion about whether, for instance, putting your arms in the air is infused with spirituality, or whether it's just something you do when you get a bit carried away. There was a feeling of sacredness about all that that just got up my nose. So, it made me feel good to write about that. But I thought I'd probably be pursued by Charismatics with large knives who wanted to kill me in love.
DOOR: Is this The Sacred Diary?
PLASS: Yes, although that wasn't the first book I wrote. The first book was then called Join the Company, which then became The Growing Up Pains of Adrian Plass. It's a strange, lumpy book. Very badly put together. But full of the vulnerability and the anger and worry that was in me at the time. So when I read it now, I tend to think that's probably the most honest I'll ever get. [laughing] Which is sad, looking back 18 years.
And then The Sacred Diary came after that, as a result of a column which I wrote in a magazine in this country.
DOOR: Never Mind the Reversing Ducks received a lot of early rejections from Christian publishers. But The Sacred Diary is your most popular book.
PLASS: The Sacred Diary certainly was rejected early on, by I think just about all [publishers]. There's a set of stories I've written called The Visit which have been published separately, and the very first thing I wrote was the first story in that set of stories called The Visit. It's about Jesus coming back into the world, to an ordinary church, and what happens when He arrives on a Sunday evening. That one, people really didn't want to know about, because Jesus isn't going to come back like that. He's going to come back in glory. And also fiction is dangerous and worrying. I got a little collection of notes from publishers saying, 'I don't think the Lord Jesus Christ would like to be portrayed in this fashion.'
DOOR: Did The Sacred Diary take off right away?
PLASS: It was instant, and it was instant mainly because it came out at Spring Harvest, which is this great big festival – well, by American standards it was two or three people in a telephone box. But it's thousands of Christians gathering together in various parts of the country. I was actually at Spring Harvest that year, and it was the most extraordinary thing to walk among the chalets, where everybody was staying, and I could hear people laughing, in their chalets, as they read this book.
But before that happened, somebody said to me, "Come and sign some books," because they'd started selling me in the book area. I was really worried about this. I thought this was going to be so embarrassing. So I went over there, and it was filled with people. I thought, "What are all these people doing here, just standing?" I didn't even look up because I didn't want to exist. I sat at this little table with a pile of my books, and I had a pen, and I was looking at the table. Then I dared to look to look up, and everybody in sight was holding a copy of this silly little book.
I thought, 'I'm a writer; I've written a book.' I don't think anything has ever or will ever give me as much satisfaction as signing those books on that day. Because having come from total defeat, emotionally and financially and in all sorts of ways, suddenly something not only happened, but sort of exploded.
DOOR: When people tell you why they love that book, what do they say?
PLASS: I think mainly it's that people know they're useless, really. Most of us know we're a load of old rubbish. And we come up against the challenges of scripture and teaching and preaching and all those things, and a lot of people are really, really troubled that they don't match up to what's expected of them. And I think the revelation that that is a common experience is a very relaxing one. When you read that someone says, for instance, "I tried to move a paper clip by faith," maybe you haven't done exactly that, but you've probably done something like that. And you felt a complete idiot. And to read that someone else does it, something about it being in print, gives it a validity that it wouldn't otherwise have. I know some people who have said they just breathed a sigh of relief and thought, "It's all right, I'm all right, I can be me! I don't have to worry about being a wonderful, wonderful Christian." So perhaps it's that. And I think that God rejoices in that, too. I think Gods says "That's good, let's just relax a bit, take it easy."
DOOR: The Sacred Diary is fiction, but you use your own name for the main character. Has anybody in your personal life claimed to recognize themselves in the book, and said "You meant me, that was me!"
PLASS: As you can imagine, most negative portrayals aren't going to be claimed by anybody, are they? The Flushpools, for instance, a gruesome couple, who refer to the way things were in "the natural," were kind of loosely based on a few people I knew. I do occasionally still have people come up to me in the supermarket saying, [in a sing-song voice] "I know who the Flushpools are!" But they're amalgams, really. The main source was myself. If you want to write satirical Christian literature, you need look no further than the inside of your own head, because that's where it all happens. The little games, the little self-deceits and all those things, they happen there. But wherever I go, there's material everywhere. As a writer, as I'm sure you know, there isn't anything that isn't grist to the mill. The world is full of material.
DOOR: Your portrayal of the wife in The Sacred Diary is very flattering, so I'm sure Bridget likes to think that you based it on her.
PLASS: She doesn't, really. She says I can't write about women. She says I have some kind of problem about portraying women in a negative sense. I think there is some truth in that. I'm not quite sure why that is. She says that people expect her to be a saint when they meet her now, because of the portrayal of Anne. Bridget is a very good person in many, many ways, but yes – there is something in me that feels safe portraying women as good. I think I'm going to have to go away and think about that.
DOOR: Can that wait until after the interview? In the Sacred Diary books, the kind of church that they attend is non-denominational and very informal. Then in other books, like A Year at St. Yorick's, you write about a very institutional church.
PLASS: I was brought up as a Roman Catholic. As a child, that was a very arthritic experience, really. It was in Latin, and you never understood a single word of what was going on. The only bit that I enjoyed was when the priest placed the wafers on the tongues of the communicants, and I used to compare the fleshiness of the tongues. That was quite fun, as a six year old. That was the high point of the mass.
Then there was a big gap where there was nothing, really. Though as any Catholic will tell you, you can't take the Catholic out of anybody, really. You can try.
Then I was converted in, in the evangelical sense, a fairly conventional way at an Anglican church, after I went hunting for girls. Disappointing. I didn't find any girls, I found God. Still, I put up with what I got.
DOOR: One out of two ain't bad ...
PLASS: That was the beginning of my being a Christian. But I really do want to make the distinction nowadays between the beginning of a walk and "conversion." I don't know what "conversion" is. I know technically what it's supposed to be, but I also know that some people could do with being "converted" again, because they've had a bad experience, or half an experience, and there's been a lot of disappointment and confusion since then. So I don't know if that was conversion, of just the beginning of the road. I think I probably see it more like that.
DOOR: Your recent novel Ghosts is your first to be published in America. Why do you think that is, since you're so ragingly popular in England?
PLASS: I don't quite know. There are pockets in America that really enjoy what I write. I get quite a lot of mail from America about my books. But they are small pockets.
On one day I had two letters from America about Ghosts. One described it as "lust-provoking trash." Which I suggested to the publishers they should put on a little flyer and stick to the front of each book.
And the other was from a man saying how much it had helped his faith and restored his faith. That probably sums it up. The first one, the "lust-provoking trash" letter, represents one whole body of people in America, who really do not want the lid taken off anything. The other whole body of people are those who really want to get real with it. They want to challenge their own thinking and their own feeling about what they believe, and what it really does and who Jesus is, and how real is prayer, does prayer get answered, and all those questions which in narrow churches you're kind of pushed into such a tiny corner that you don't have the freedom to ask or answer them. I think that's part of it.
People always say of course that Americans don't understand irony. I don't think that's really true, when you look at the comedy coming out of America. But I do think American Christians, or one whole bunch of them, are troubled by humor, by humor in Christian literature, and troubled by reality. I don't know if this person who described Ghosts as "lust-provoking trash" was referring to this, but there is a scene where this man is severely tempted by somebody who comes to his room at night. Well, he doesn't give in, for goodness sake! I mean, I feel very sorry for these weaker brethren who are inspired to lust by it.
A friend of mine was telling me that in America recently he was at a seminar for 300 Christian men. They were asked how many of them watch porn on the Internet.
All of them did. Every single one. Every single one.
PLASS: Now, I don't know what they've been taught and what kind of churchmanship they've had in the past, but whatever it is, it doesn't work, does it?
I do truly believe that Jesus has to get back among the people, where they are. And so for me, writing a book like Ghosts, I hope I'm going in to where people are and saying "Let's really be honest about this."
There's a woman in there who talks about occasionally wanting to screw everybody she sees. And it's a bit vulgar, but when you're single and you have been for a long time and you want to be faithful and obedient, that's how you feel sometimes. And you don't want to dwell on it or make a virtue of it, but you want to say, "Come on, let's be where we are, good and bad."
I think the lust-provoking trash lady will probably never see it from my point of view. That may be why I've had problems in America.
But when I speak in America, it works, it's exactly the same as it is in England. I think that has something to do with personal communication, earning your way into people's trust, and you can do that when you speak to a group of people, in a way you can't when they're only going to open a book, or they'll only read a little bit, because they've heard that it's bad, or whatever.
DOOR: Ghosts is much more serious in tone than many of your other books. Do you consider it to be the start of a new kind of venture for you?
PLASS: I never really think about books like that. I just get an idea and I really get interested and go for it.
I stayed in the most haunted house in England a couple of years ago. I went down to do a Christian talk show there, and I found that the lady who'd asked me owned this house, which in the Guinness Book of Records is described as the "most haunted house in England." We were all very confident in the kitchen, drinking wine and laughing and talking. But then she showed me to my room, with a very small light. It was a dark, oak-panelled room, with a priest's hole in the corner, where they used to hide priests in the Civil War. And a four-poster bed. It was straight out of Hammer Horror. For a little while I did feel quite nervous, I have to say. So I had that memory in my mind.
Then we had a church reunion, which was an emotional bloodbath. We hadn't seen each other for 20 – no, 30 years. And the emotional baggage that was there was quite phenomenal. There were people in tears, people who'd lost their faith, people who are now wildly charismatic. So putting those two experiences together was what suggested Ghosts. To have a group of people meeting after, in this case, 20 years, in a so-called haunted house, seemed to me to be a kind of stewpot from which you might get some interesting things emerging.
So I never thought, "Now I'll write a different kind of book." Although I'm a bit lazy, and Ghosts was hard work. I think perhaps I'm into writing books with more real effort now. Writing good fiction is really hard work. Or writing fiction, not only writing good fiction, but writing fiction is really hard work. And it's very disciplined for me. Books like Never Mind the Reversing Ducks [a commentary on the Gospel of Mark] are not exactly easy, but I can relax into them. I read a bit of the scripture, and then I just dream my way into a response. In that sense that's easier.
DOOR: I know this is beside the point, but that little ghost story in the middle of Ghosts, that was absolutely terrifying.
PLASS: Oh, good!
DOOR: Did you make that up completely, or was it inspired by some incident you'd heard about?
PLASS: No! It was a story I told my daughter when she was younger. And you know sometimes you make up a story, and you're in the middle of it and you suddenly think, "No – too frightening." I had to change, ludicrously change the story in order to make it acceptable for my daughter.
When I came to write this I thought, "Now I need, as it's called Ghosts and it's set in a haunted house, I've got to have a ghost story." So I remembered this story and thought, "Well, I'm going to do it as frighteningly as I can."
DOOR: Your website says that you're at work on a "secular" novel. What do you mean by that?
PLASS: I'm not sure what I mean, except that, for starters, the book will never sell in Christian bookshops. It couldn't, because of what's in it.
DOOR: What do you mean?
PLASS: The language used by some of the characters. And the theme is violence, and how we deal with violence.
We've had a plague of how-to books in the Christian world: how do you do this, how do you do that, how do you cope with this, how do you cope with that. You show a bit of scripture and a little bit of advice, and then eight points in a box. All that sort of thing. For a bit it sustains you, but looking right into the heart of how we deal with something like violence is a much more complicated thing. I've always been interested in the theme of violence. So I wanted to just look at what happens when someone who has become violent finds himself in a situation where, in order to conform, he's forced to become something else. The book is called The Battle for Darky Green, about this character called Darky Green who grows up in care, and becomes very violent. He inherits a lot of money, so he has a lot of power. He has a gang. And he comes after this very nice group of young people, who can't think what to do. Then they decide to kidnap him, and be as nice as they can, to see what happens.
They have, for instance, a seminar on D. H. Lawrence. Because [Darky's] a little person, he can't physically react, so he has to be there, he has to be in this seminar on D. H. Lawrence. And they continually ask his view, even though he responds with appalling swearing and horrible words. So, for instance, they'll say, "What have you seen in this so far?" and he'll say "Anal pus." And they say, "Yes, interesting." But, gradually, because we all need each other so much, he is broken down, and you'll have to read the book to see the end of it.
DOOR: For a book about violence, it sounds awfully funny.
PLASS: Much of it isn't. Some of it is, but there's a lot of violence and pain in it as well. And quite a lot of angst-ing because I can't write a non-angsty book. Everyone's angsting all over the place as usual.
DOOR: You and your wife have recently worked with World Vision. You've published one book already, called Colours of Survival, about what you saw in Bangladesh.
PLASS: I don't suppose our reaction is any different from anybody's who's been to the Third World for the first time. It wasn't the first time, but I've never seen such abject, grimy, random poverty as we saw there. So there was that.
But, also, seeing our sponsor-child in the middle of a very healthy family in the slums was quite remarkable. A family that really love each other, have no money at all, the father works fifteen hours a day at his rickshaw, that's his life, the mother works. Because of the sponsorship – not my sponsorship, everybody's sponsorship – children in that area are able to go to school. Our sponsor child, Shahnaj, is able to go to school. And they were such a loving family, so warm and so good with each other. If you'd have transported them out of there and straight into Hailsham, where I live, they'd have been fine. They'd get a house, they'd settle in, they'd learn the language – they'd be fine. They're a family; they love each other. I think it's very salutary to understand that poverty doesn't equal, necessarily, emotional or social degradation; just poverty.
At the same time, the street children were the most touching or dramatic thing [I saw there], little girls driven into prostitution at the ages of six, seven, eight. Because you've got to eat. You do things you don't even understand, so that at the end of the day you can eat.
We said in the book we'd come to these conclusions:
One is, if we don't do it, Jesus isn't doing it. People can argue about that as much as they like. If they want to believe that miracles are happening in the slums without us being there ... well, it's a very comfortable way to think, but it isn't true.
The two people who we were most impressed with, one a Christian and one a Muslim, work all the time with these street girls. They'll never speak at a Spring Harvest festival, they'll never write a paperback book, they'll never be on The God Channel – thank goodness. But they're wonderful, and I think when that little Muslim lady sees Jesus she'll say, "It's you! Oh, it's You!" And He'll say, "That's right; you really helped Me." And she'll say, just like in Matthew 25, "But how did I... I never helped You." He'll say, "Every time you...
Who knows? The theology is difficult. But I do know that the older I get, the more I know Jesus is the only way, and the more I know that I don't know what the way is, I don't know what that means.
DOOR: I liked how in that book you and Bridget were both so candid about concerns you had about going, and about potential reservations you might have about how the charity work was being carried out, whether it was having a good effect or an overall bad effect.
PLASS: A lot of people have a fixed and negative view of child sponsorship, for instance. A lot of people believe that a chunk of the money must go to the wrong people. Now, that may be true of other organizations; I've no idea. But we did go there on the basis, and it was rather alarming, that if we thought it was a load of rubbish, we'd come back and write a book saying it's a load of rubbish. Which I would have done.
But we were deeply impressed by the commitment of World Vision. And in a funny sort of way, the fact that they don't evangelize, they're not a proselytizing organization, has a sort of purity about it, because they never ask for anything back. They don't say, "Here's some food; make a commitment" or "Here's some education; now you become Christians." That's very Jesus-like, I think. The warmth. Seeing the masses, and feeling compassion for them, and thinking, "I've got to give them something to eat." It's lovely. I like that. I hope [the recipients] find Jesus, of course I do. But I like that aspect of World Vision very much.
If people trust you, they'll listen to what you say. It's a responsibility. We went, we came back, and we said "It's good." So we have been able to draw some people in, which has been wonderful.
DOOR: In that book, it tells how you got sick, and Bridget had to stand in for you at a writers' workshop. At that workshop, she got asked a lot of questions that she had to field. I'd like to ask those questions of you now.
One attendee asked, "Why are we sitting in a beautiful room reading poetry while our people starve?" A more generic equivalent of this question might be, "How can it be moral to spend one's time and talents on art, when there are so many pressing, immediate, physical needs in the world?"
PLASS: It's a valid question. But an equally valid answer is that art, literature, philosophy, friendship are not necessary for survival, but they make survival worthwhile. You've got to have something to survive for. So I think that those twin concerns are very valid – art and nurture, or whatever you want to call it. Because it's something to do with the spirit. I think in this country, which is effectively a secular country now, it is art which maintains a spiritual level in this country.
I don't think I would have been able to put as much in or get as much out from our trip to Bangladesh, for instance, if I didn't have an artistic instinct. I don't know if that's an answer, but that would be my answer.
DOOR: Another attendee asked, "What is the difference between the Christian writer and the non-Christian writer?"
PLASS: I don't think there should be a difference, really. A writer is a writer. In the Christian writing world, we've got away with murder for years, because books are "worthy." I went to a writers' conference a while ago and there were a lot of Christian writers there. It turned out that those who sold very few books were absolutely certain that God was almost dictating to them; those who sold lots of books were not at all sure about this. On the contrary, they preferred to be craftsmen.
So there's no difference between a Christian writer and a green grocer – you get the best product you can, you make it as attractive as you can, and you sell it for the right price. That's what a writer is. The fact that he happens to be a Christian or a non-Christian ... that's a little bit of a red herring.
And I think that's why a lot of Christian writers tend to go wrong. Because they're nagged constantly by the feeling that there's got to be some particular kind of Christian input. We've all got this imp that lives on our shoulder, an evangelical imp that messes our lives up constantly.
DOOR: This third one is a loaded question: "In Bangladesh, we Christian writers suffer for what we write. We use our poetry to pierce the armor of unjust government and Muslim domination. Why does Adrian not use his wit to attack your government's liberal attitudes to the growing power of the Muslim community in Britain?" He seems to be asking why your writing isn't more direct, instructive, polarizing, or even more angry. I liked Bridget's answer, but I'd like to hear yours.
PLASS: My only answer is that I'm not interested enough to write that. In the same sense, it's as if I were a carpenter, and someone said, "Why the hell don't you do plumbing?" I see the need for that, and I applaud it being done, but that's not what I do. I don't write those kinds of books and I don't write those kinds of articles. People in the past have tried to get me to write something that isn't me. And I've tried it; it isn't worth the effort. It's not what I do. I've only ever written according to what moves me or lifts me up. And I think I'll go on doing that.
What was Bridget's answer?
DOOR: I have it right here:
"In our country, we find that if you attack too directly, it can have the opposite effect to that which you want. People simply say, 'I don't have to read this rubbish,' and they don't. What Adrian tries to do is to make people laugh and relax, then, while the critical side of their brain is not looking, slip in under the eye of their guard and attack the heart. Adrian has been given the job of digging the ground ready for God to plant his seeds."
PLASS: I wrote a book called Clearing Away the Rubbish some years ago, which is probably my job, a kind of janitor's job. You stand at the end of this tunnel and you sweep a load of old crap out of the way, and people walk past you and say, "Oh, thank you very much," and you say, "Oh, go on, you go on, up to the top there." It's quite a worthy occupation I think.
DOOR: Is there anything you want to add?
PLASS: Only that I really do hope American readers will excavate their own thinking and feeling about their faith. I'd love them to join me in exploring some of those things; that's what I've been doing for years. And if any do, I'd love to hear from them. That would be wonderful.