4th September 1998
‘Flaming’ rough ride awaits me
I was expecting to get flamed. ‘Flamed’ is an internet nerd-word, meaning to get roasted by your critics, to come under fire and to find yourself generally in a very hot spot.
So this is nothing unusual for me. I was being flamed when the internet was science fiction and computers were a military secret.
What I was not expecting, when I published my novel Ella in the Spring, was to get flamed by Jews – for writing about Christians.
And now it’s appearing in paperback, I’m bracing myself for a rough ride from the rabbis. I’ve lost count of the number of Jews who have demanded: “Why are you writing about gentiles?” One interviewer even accused me of converting to Christianity.
Ella is the story of a teenage girl in an English city who causes paranormal chaos. Windows shatter, fires start, objects fly around or disappear. Anyone who has witnessed a poltergeist haunting would recognise the symptoms. As a child, she could sometimes sense other people’s thoughts but, like all psychic children, she imagined this was normal. Until we reach our teens, we think anything’s normal.
The book begins on her 14th birthday. Adolescence is the commonest time for sensitives to suffer uncontrolled phenomena. As they grow up, the powers fade – or, less often, the psychic learns to harness them. Except in rare cases where injury triggers some node in the brain (Peter Hurkos, the crime-solving psychic, gained his ability when he fell off a ladder) paranormal gifts arrive at puberty.
Ella’s family are working-class, born-again Christians. Her father’s first reaction, when his daughter’s behaviour becomes too odd to ignore, is to beat her. When that fails, he has her exorcised.
Ella is not a clever girl, and I didn’t feel clever when I wrote the story. She doesn’t think things out, she feels them – and that is the way I visualised her world, as a mass of sensations and inexplicable shocks. She doesn’t even search for the explanations: she simply tries to deal with everything that’s happening to her. And she can’t deal with it, because nobody could. I couldn’t, when the same kind of phenomena were engulfing me, and I was much more in control than Ella.
She tries to take charge of her body by eating greedily and then, in secret, vomiting everything up. I did the same thing. It’s called bulimia, and it provides an illusion that your life is your own. In fact, bulimia takes your life away from you. Literally.
What I felt about Ella, from the moment her character took hold in my mind, was that nothing had prepared her for being ‘odd’ and ‘unusual’ and ‘not normal’. She is a loving child, who likes animals and trusts her parents and believes in God and wants to be exactly the same as her friends. She doesn’t become different by choice. When the world rejects her because she is different, she feels betrayed.
Everyone can relate to that, because everyone has been rejected by the world at some time in their lives – because every one of us is different. That is the kernel of the book.
To make Ella as outwardly ‘normal’ as possible, I made her a Protestant Christian, like most English girls. Not a Jew, because being Jewish might have already taught her to cope with the Outsider syndrome. And then I gave her Christianity a twist – her father and uncle are lay preachers at an evangelical church, and her mother has secretly clung to her Catholic faith. Religion is like that – we never divulge our deepest beliefs, and in return our beliefs sometimes demand strange rituals from us.
In any Jewish marriage you might find the same situation. Outward orthodoxy might be tempered in at least one of the two hearts by an outrageous belief – the man kneeling in the synagogue might possess a secret intuition, too powerful to deny, that life really is an unending circle as the Buddhists say, or that Mohammed’s prophecies are as valid as Isaiah’s. His wife might know, no matter how hard she beats the truth down from her mind, that death is a doorway to the spirit world, or God is a word to fill the gaps in science, or aliens are coming again and again in the night to make experiments on her womb.
Belief exists in a region of the soul far beyond intellect. Belief can be irrational, and it won’t be explained away. If we believe something is impossible, no amount of proof will change our minds. Ella learns this, and it is a destructive lesson.
So when a Jew criticises me for writing about Christians, I wonder how much more obvious I have to make it: I’m writing about people. And people are people, whatever label they happen to be wearing.
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