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Foreword This Week
January 21, 2021

Reviewer Kristine Morris Interviews Ben Hopkins, Author of Cathedral

If you’ve had the good fortune to visit any of the great cathedrals of Europe, you know what it’s like to be humbled, awed, and inspired all at once. Standing there, staring up at spires, gargoyles, and flying buttresses, you might also have experienced an indescribable sense of religiosity, of something coming awake in you that you didn’t know was there. Such is the power of imposing beauty—with a touch of God-fearing thrown in whether you wanted it or not.

Cathedral cover
Chances are, you also found it hard to believe that these stone wonders were born out of the crude tools and squalor of the middle ages.

But they were, and just how is the cornerstone of one of our favorite novels of the newly budded year: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins. In her starred review for the January/February issue of Foreword, Kristine Morris calls the book “rich, moving, and unforgettable,” even as it “exposes the vanity … and exalts the power of love, creativity, and truth to leave a meaningful trace on this ephemeral world.”

The following reviewer-author conversation is one we couldn’t resist. Thanks to Europa Editions for help in tracking Ben down in Berlin, whilst he raises a son, sketches out his ideas for a documentary on the American war on terror, and works on a new novel.

Kristine, the pulpit is yours.

Size Zero

I was amazed to learn that Cathedral is your first novel! It’s superbly crafted, visually and emotionally vibrant, filled with strong, relatable characters, and so engaging that, even at over six hundred pages, I was sorry when it came to an end. What drew you to write about a fictional medieval city, and to center the story around the building of its cathedral?

The initial idea came from childhood family holidays, visiting the great cathedrals in Britain and France, and wondering how they were built, who built them, and who paid for the building. Later, at university, I also studied medieval Italian literature (predominantly Dante), which led me to read a fair bit about the period from 1200 through 1400. Then, some time in my early twenties, the idea came to me to write some kind of story about the building of a cathedral.

Over the next twenty years or so, I returned again and again to the idea, read about the period, and did on-and-off research. Then, in my late thirties and early forties, I began to think more concentratedly about the story and the characters. The fact that the story also developed into a portrait of the medieval city around its cathedral probably came as a kind of side effect from my film work. I love ensemble films with intertwined narratives—often these take place in cities, where one character in one strand passes another in another strand on a crowded street and the “narrative baton” is then passed from one character to another. There are many examples, but one of the best would be Richard Linklater’s Slacker.

In the early 2000s I developed my own version of this style when I was commissioned to develop a screenplay adaptation of Norman Lewis’ wonderful book Naples ’44. The film was never made, but the structure I used there—one follows Character A until they cross paths with Character B, then jumps back a few weeks in time to catch up with Character B, and then continues into the future until they cross paths with Character C, and so on—was a structure that I wanted to use again some time, whenever I next wrote about a city. I love the way that this kind of structure works: one can use it to follow a broad cast of individuals, using the city, and in this case, its cathedral, as a unifying principle.

Between 2010 and 2017, as you were working on the book, you also made several international moves, got married, became a father, wrote seven screenplays, and made two films. How did you manage all this, and have you always been so amazingly productive?

I had an inborn wish to be productive, and had a role model in my own mother, who had three children and a challenging professional career to juggle. She was highly organised and productive—a great writer of lists and daily and weekly plans. She was very different from my father, who was chaotic and disorganised, but also somehow managed to achieve quite a lot!

My mum remembers that when I was a child, I used to come home from school and immediately, without any messing around, sit down at my desk and complete all my homework in one go. I would then have time to do all the other things I wanted to do. I would read, play my imaginative games, and also write. There was always something to do. My days have always been full, and I have almost never known boredom. From the age of nine or so, I’ve written pretty much every day. At first, this was just done for fun. Now, as a professional writer, I still enjoy it, but it’s married to discipline, as I have to keep up an average of over 2000 words a day to make a living. I often find myself working on two or three projects on the same day—a mixture of personal writing projects and professional commissions. Until my son was born, I could work twelve to fourteen hours a day and got huge amounts done. I’m very grateful to him for being born and reducing my working day to a more realistic and manageable eight hours! But I have to concentrate even more than before, because I really want to get home in the late afternoon to be with him and to cook dinner for my family. All this requires discipline and careful organisation.

Your early work as a filmmaker received critical acclaim as early as the late 1990s while you were still a student at London’s Royal College of Art, and continues to garner awards up to the present. What led you to take up writing novels? In what ways does your work as a filmmaker influence the way you approach your writing?

I think of my work as a filmmaker and screenwriter as quite distinct from my work as a novelist. Writing a film is an act of compression; one tries to fit a story into ninety minutes, and to do this one needs to simplify and to streamline. The novel is quite different, allowing for a much deeper flow of ideas and a more complicated story that develops gradually over time. I see these disciplines as quite different.

In my mid-thirties I began to feel a bit frustrated with the necessary simplicity of screenplay writing, and felt the need to have more time and depth to explore ideas and to tell longer, more complex stories. This led me back to literature, my first love.

It’s quite possible, however, that by this stage I had learned valuable lessons from my screenwriting work. There, words are precious, and one needs to describe places, people, and atmospheres as concisely as possible, in a few brushstrokes. Also, one learns how to parcel out information and revelations about characters so that the viewing process develops dramatically over the length of the film. Quite possibly these techniques have found their way into my prose writing.

How long had Cathedral been brewing in your mind before you began to write it? How did you prepare yourself for the task, and how did you know that you were ready to begin it?

I started writing Cathedral in my early forties, but the first notes about the story were made in my early twenties. I carry a notebook with me wherever I go and jot down ideas as they come to me. When the notebook is full, I type these ideas into my computer; in doing so, I can see that certain ideas belong together, and these ideas begin to coalesce into projects. So, it’s a bit like the grains of sand which begin to gather in an oyster, sticking together until eventually they form a pearl. And Cathedral was one of those pearl-like projects that kept on coming to mind over those twenty years.

All that time I was reading books about the medieval period and about the construction of cathedrals, taking notes. And in my late thirties, I began to step up the rate of this research and start to zoom in on certain subjects from the period that particularly interested me. When I actually began to plot out and plan the story, I already had a good reservoir of knowledge to draw from. I waited until all this knowledge and all these ideas had formed a kind of inevitable pressure, like a dam that was about to burst.

I remember my first day of real work on the novel very clearly: sitting on an abandoned pier on a cold sunny day in March on the island of Büyükada near Istanbul, and writing, with frozen fingers, my first ideas of the characters and of the stories that would form the first book of the novel. Once I actually opened the dam it all came flooding out. Of course, it took a while to edit, and form, and perfect this very rough rush of ideas. But it was certainly a very exciting moment, finally to begin the real work on a book that had been in my mind for some twenty years.

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Please describe your writing process, and what a typical writing day might look like for you.

I actually have two very distinct processes. The first is to come up with the ideas, to work out what it is I want to write. And the second is the writing-out process. The first process is the most difficult. The second is more a matter of discipline and practice.

And I have two very different places to do these different processes. When I want to work out what to write next, I need to be alone and in silence. And if possible, I need to be able to walk long distances. For this purpose, I bought a cheap dacha in the Harz Mountains in central Germany. I go there, and walk through the forests, thinking and talking to myself. I probably look vaguely insane to anyone passing by and watching me. In the old days, I had a dictaphone that I spoke into. These days, of course, I can use my smartphone. I walk, I talk into my phone, and I work out my thoughts about the next chapters of a book, or the next scenes of a screenplay. And then in the evening, I get back to the dacha and write out the notes. And by the end of two or three days, I have a plan.

Then comes the easy part—which is to write it all out. This I do in my office in Kreuzberg, Berlin, a short bike ride from my house. The office is in a basement room and is dark and quiet, like a dungeon, or like the cell of a medieval monk. And, just like my mother said I used to do when I was a child, I arrive, turn on the computer, and within seconds, without messing around, I start to write. I tend to write in forty- or forty five-minute blocks, with twenty- to thirty-minute breaks in between, in which I catch up on emails, read, and drink coffee. If possible, I also go for a short, fast walk along the Kreuzberg canal in the afternoon. And then, in the late afternoon or early evening, I cycle home to play with my son and cook dinner for my wife. My working day is ended.

The book takes on some very deep questions about religious faith, the nature of belief, and what those beliefs can do to those who hold them and to the world around them. What are your views about these things, and what led you to your views?

I suppose what I am is maybe unusual: I am an atheist who has always been very interested in religion and in mystical thinking. I read the Bible constantly. I find it fascinating. And I find religious ideas very attractive, very paradoxical, and very puzzling. In general, they make no sense to me, yet I’m drawn to them in deep curiosity.

One of the big problems of all religious belief is the problem of a perfect deity creating imperfection, or a good deity creating evil. Historically there have been various solutions for this problem, and in the period of my novel there was a heretical sect, widely known as the “Cathars,” who solved this problem by suggesting that the physical world belongs to the devil, and that behind the physical world, or beyond the physical world, there is a pure world of perfection into which the blessed may enter. It is in fact a very old solution to the problem, and I find it a very interesting one, and somehow quite scary, chilling, and atmospheric. In general, I have often seen that people in the medieval period believed the natural world to conceal terrible dangers. Even birdsong was seen by some priests as being the voice of the devil, tempting monks away from their prayers and meditations. The natural world was some kind of trap and snare that would distract the faithful away from their faith.

So, in a way, both the medieval Catholic Church and the heretical Cathars had a similar kind of belief when it came to the world: that this is a fallen world of sin, hidden evil, and danger, and that the world of the light, the world of perfection, comes only later. I find this denial of the beauty of our natural world to be a rather eerie belief, an atmospheric one that I was very happy to explore in the novel.

While the characters, and the town of Hagenburg, are fictional, the book reflects a deep understanding of what drives human beings to act as they do, as well as of the subterfuges they use to hide their true motivation. To what do you owe your understanding of human nature, and how did you manage to take the stories of each individual character and weave them into such a monumental tapestry of life in their time?

Actually, whilst writing the book, I concentrated as much as possible on following the individual stories of the characters, and so was generally looking at things in microcosm, on the individual level. I avoided the macrocosm as much as possible; I avoided trying to think about things in historical and general terms. And it was only really towards the end of writing the book that I began to realise that it depicted, through its individual stories, a kind of historical development; in essence, the growth of a mercantile middle class. This had not been my intention. It had merely grown out of the individual stories which I had elected to tell.

Looking back on it, I’m pleased that I chose this way of working. Because, rather than forcing my characters to conform to some overall intellectual or theoretical idea, I started with the characters and followed them as organically and genuinely as was possible, and ended up with some kind of historical thesis, rather than the other way around. So, in answer to your question, if there is any profound historical thinking in this book, it has come about more by chance than by design.

And if I do have an understanding of human nature, then I assume that I learned it from my parents. My parents were really quite different people. My father was a gregarious, sociable type, who liked drink and company. To an extent, I have followed in his shoes, especially in my life as a filmmaker. I have travelled the world and spent time in widely diverse company, from Afghan nomadic sheep farmers to famous film actors. But meeting a variety of people would be no use if I had not inherited at least some of my mother’s perspicacious, forensic understanding of human nature. My mother has an incisive scientific mind, and her career as a psychoanalyst has given her interesting insights into human behaviour. I have learned a great deal from her.

What message do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I believe that there is room for escapism in historical fiction! Personally, in cinema and in literature, I often simply want to escape from the present-day world and be immersed in a place and time that is completely different from my own. I hope my readers will enjoy the immersion in the world of the Upper Rhineland in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. I hope that they will find both beautiful and terrible things in the stories here told. And I hope that the book provides them with sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, distraction from the present day.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m working on two things concurrently. One is a documentary about Guantanamo Bay for German television. The second is a new novel, which, I’m happy to say, is a lot shorter than Cathedral! It is also very different. Its working title is “Ghosts,” and it’s set in the afterlife.

Featured Reviews of the Week

Children’s Picture Books

Ten Beautiful Things, by Molly Beth Griffin; Maribel Lechuga, illustrator (Charlesbridge): “In this gorgeous story about claiming home where we are loved, Lily’s grandma proposes a game to ease the pain of moving: they’ll find ten beautiful sights to celebrate along the way.” Starred review by Michelle Anne Schingler.

Historical Fiction

To Calais, In Ordinary Time, by James Meek (Canongate): “This quirky [medieval] tale, with its Shakespearean twists, turns, and bawdy humor, touches on love and its illusions; patriarchy and women’s struggle to rise against it; the power of the church to control through fear; and the worth of a human being beyond wealth, class, or gender identity.” Starred review by Kristine Morris.

Mystery/Historical Fiction

The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell (Tin House Books): “The book defies genre classifications. At first blush, it’s a Victorian-era murder mystery, but as the plot zips along, it picks up elements of a supernatural thriller, a social commentary, and a literary drama. But despite its eerie atmosphere and unsettling development, there’s also a strong undercurrent of humor throughout.” Review by John M. Murray.

Cooking/Culture

Vegan Recipes from Japan, by Malte Härtig; Jule Felice Frommelt, photographer (Grub Street Cookery): “A practical side-by-side layout of photographs and recipes, tips about cooking rice and other methods, and a handy glossary add up to a gift that’s as beautiful to browse as it is easy to follow. Vegan Recipes from Japan is a refreshing, healthy, and inspirational cookbook.” Review by Karen Rigby.

General Fiction

One Simple Thing, by Warren Read (Ig Publishing): “Evoking the feel of life in the prairie hinterlands, the book is often plainspoken, but also sometimes lyrical. Closing with hard-won wisdom, One Simple Thing mixes compassion and hope among its suspenseful twists.” Review by Ho Lin.