In May of last year a new kid on the block, Claire Dunn, took the world of Christian fiction by storm with her first novel, Mortal Fire, book 1 of The Secret of the Journal series. A gripping narrative billed as a romantic thriller, Mortal Fire has hardly a dull moment as Emma D'Eresby fends off unwanted romantic advances, encounters a creepy villain and falls in love with a man for whom ‘unusual’ is hardly an adequate word!
We had to wait a whole nother year for the sequel to Mortal Fire, but finally Death Be Not Proud is out, available for all those readers left chewing their nails in suspense, wondering what happens next.
In Death Be Not Proud, Emma ‘comes to terms with a shattering revelation, and, just when she thinks she has the answers, faces her worst nightmare...’ Oh my goodness! That sounds so exciting!
Down here in the wilds of Sussex our in-house cabal of writers got together to brainstorm the questions we would like to ask Claire, on the publication of her new book.
Several of our questions – where did the idea for the book come from, which actors would you choose to play your characters if it is ever made into a movie, who or what inspired you to write this book – have already been answered here in The Next Big Thing. But that wasn’t all we wanted to know!
So Claire kindly agreed to be our guest on this blog and tell us the things we still wanted to know. Gentle reader, without further ado – C.F.Dunn on her new book Death Be Not Proud!
Death Be Not Proud is part of the new wave of Christian fiction finally gaining ground in the UK, primarily through the determined efforts of C.F.Dunn’s publishers (Lion Fiction). So can you tell us, Claire – what aspects of the Christian faith are you particularly exploring in Death Be Not Proud, or in the series as a whole?
Thanks for inviting me onto your site, Pen, and for tickling my brain cells with lots of thought-provoking questions, which I’ll do my best to answer. Here goes…
Although the series is intended to reach a general readership, it is inevitable and desirable that Christianity underlies the moral themes of the books given my own outlook and that of the two main characters. For Emma and Matthew, their quite different unresolved issues relate to their past relationships, and it is relationships - personal, intimate, communal - that drives the plot. Certain faith-related themes become clear over the series: the need to find acceptance as an individual, personal responsibility, love, forgiveness, tolerance, compassion, and above all, hope.
Clearly (or so we think down here in our Sussex burrow) influenced by the Twilight series, the supernatural is essential to your unfolding story in Mortal Fire and Death Be Not Proud. As a Christian believer, what are the boundaries for you in exploring the supernatural – in fiction and in real life?
Ah, now, I understand why this might be raised and it’s a good question, so forgive me if the answer is a little long. First of all, I avoid anything to do with the occult, demonology and the like, both in everyday life, and in this series, and exploration of such subject matter is not something I encourage in others or undertake myself. Despite initial appearances, my books are less about the ‘supernatural’ and more about the ‘preternatural’, that is, those aspects of nature which have yet to be fully understood, but which have no connection to the belief or practice of witchcraft, demonology, or occultism. Any reference to monsters and magic, darkness and evil in my books, is more to do with how people perceive difference in others, the actions they take to modify those differences, and the potential for darkness and light which lies within each of us and how we choose to act upon it. You will note, here, that I’m being very cagey because I don’t want to give the game away. Suffice to say that events run contrary to the norm in my books!
Secondly, the historian part of me has always wondered what would happen if time was tweaked. I took such a premise and asked what might be the result of such a change: what moral, social and personal issues might an individual face were they subjected to a set of circumstances beyond the norm.
The genesis for the series came some time ago from a visit to a medieval church in a small rural village in which the remains of a once fine tomb stood. The tomb had been deliberately defaced and the sadness this evoked in me as an impressionable young woman, stayed for many years. The two questions I asked then were: what had the individual done to be so reviled and, what could drive the perpetrator to purposefully vandalise someone’s memory in so sacred a setting? This expression of rejection is something that bothers me greatly, because it is such intolerance throughout history that has led to the persecution of individuals and groups, and which runs contrary to the precepts of my faith. As Emma says to Matthew at one point in Mortal Fire, she is scared of witches, monsters, and demons, but it is the ‘monster in the man’ that frightens her most.
Many thinkers are drawn to focus on moral or theological issues to which they return again and again – so that their lives develop themes, or preoccupations. What would you say are the questions or principles that have shaped your life and thought?
Besides that which I outlined above, I suppose that I had always been quite a spiritually inquisitive child, and developed on a diet of adventure stories and black and white films, the majority of which had clear Christian moral themes. These, and my parents’ careful guidance developed in me a strong sense of honour, duty, responsibility and fierce loyalty. I also had a martial strain, was a terrible tomboy, and would happily play soldiers late into dusk on the RAF station on which I lived. Any bloodthirsty tendencies were tempered, however, by a desire to nurture and protect the vulnerable, which became stronger as I became an adult. This proved an ideal platform from which my new-found faith could grow when, at the age of eighteen, I became a Christian. My preoccupations are centred on a number of related themes, namely: compassion, promotion of tolerance, encouragement, forgiveness, loyalty, and hope. People can be so quick to judge, but sometimes God alone knows what motivates the judges.
There is a dark vein of violence in general and torture in particular running through these stories – what appears to be a horrified fascination with how people hurt one another. Where has that come from, in you as a writer?
You can’t spend a lifetime studying history without being acutely aware of Man’s tendency to inflict pain and suffering on others, nor the exemplary behaviour of individuals who resist taking this route. Like Emma, I have no interest in the mechanics of state or church-regularised torture, the means of which are varied and mind-numbingly sickening. What has always interested me, however, is the cultural, spiritual and psychological aspects of a society that believes that the use of torture is acceptable as a tool for controlling or punishing those individuals or groups which fall outside the ‘norm’ for that period.
The main character in this series, Emma D'Eresby, seems to have a lot in common with Claire Dunn. To what extent do you identify with your heroine; or are you playing safe and observing a wise practice of sticking to what you really know in what you’ve chosen to portray in your fiction?
A bit of both, to be honest. I think that Emma and I would be good friends should our paths cross. We have much in common, such as our love of history, and we both come from Lincolnshire. We enjoy the same music, read similar books and, of course, we are both Christian. We are loyal to those we love, and feel strongly about protecting the vulnerable - especially those singled out as being different in some way. But there the similarities stop. Emma has a checkered past, and some of her experiences have driven her to build a fortress of her emotions from which she surveys the world, rather than risk being part of it. Her spiritual reactions to some of those experiences are unique to her development as a character, but they are not mine. While it is easier, in some respects, to draw on the familiar when constructing a story, there is greater freedom to explore the nuances of a character if you step outside that zone of comfort and, in putting a person in challenging situations, watch how they react. On this note, I am thankful to say that I have never met a black bear at close quarters!
Who – or, if you prefer, what – has influenced you as a writer, as a person, as a pilgrim?
That’s a tricky one. How can I sum up all the influences that have made me the person I am? My parents and their unstinting belief in what I have ever set out to do must be the first determiner. Next, my husband and children, without whose absolute support I could never have written these books. Then the experiences - too many to mention here - that have steered me down one course or another over the years. But the greatest influence, without a doubt, has been coming to Christ, without whom none of this would have been possible and whose presence shapes every day.
What authors do you enjoy reading?
On reading this question I went to have a rumble around the bookshelves that line our home to remind myself of all the books I’ve read over the years. There are those I read for pleasure and others for information or instruction. Sometimes I hit on an author who combines both, such as Giles Milton. Then there’s the Russian classics - Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and the English - Austen and the Bronte sisters, as well as some of the French, although I couldn’t stand Madame Bovary, and won’t be in a hurry to read Zola on a rainy day again. The modern classics, including Tolkien and CS Lewis have a special place on my bookshelves, but Lewis Carol doesn’t - Alice in Wonderland is a nightmare writ large. It is a long time since I read Desmond Bagley and Hammond Innes, Mary Stewart and Anya Seton, but I remember them with great fondness. I love Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, the modern poetry of Vernon Scannell, and the metaphysical poets, Herbert, Marvel, and Donne. When I finish editing book three in The Secret Of The Journal series - Rope of Sand - I’ll settle down with Katherine Swift’s ‘The Morville Hours’ followed by Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘A Time of Gifts’, before continuing with my next writing project.
Do you have a particular writing routine?
I like routine. I do my best work without distraction although, if the sun is out, I allow for the deviation of gardening in my schedule, and our dog takes me for a daily walk. During term time I also have the school to run, leaving me with precious hours in the evening in which to write. During the holidays, however, I can settle down to concentrated writing. If planning or editing a book, I usually manage an eight to ten-hour day; but when writing, time expands until I am forced to put my laptop away around midnight. Walks on the beach keep me from atrophy, coffee keeps me going, and music sets the mood.
[“The school” that Claire mentions is her wonderful Trinity School, for children aged 6 to 18 with a diagnosis of speech, language and communication difficulties, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, high-functioning autism and Asperger's Syndrome, seeing each child as an important and valued individual for whom personal success and a sense of achievement are both possible and attainable. UK readers, they are in Rochester, Kent, and their open day is next week, on Tuesday May 14th]
I wondered, after reading what you said about liking routine - would you describe yourself as an introvert or an extravert? My own observations of you lead me to suspect an introvert with a frill of flamboyance round the edge.
Well, having completed four different personality profiles and come up with four different results, I would say that I'm an extroverted introvert, or introverted extrovert - take your pick. I might have been an extrovert had I not been dyslexic, which neatly put the kibosh on that. The trouble is that I like managing things; do introverts do that? I enjoy meeting people but am equally happy in my own company, so the short answer is - I haven't a clue, but I like your description whatever.
In moving from private fantasy and writing for fun to becoming a professional author, what have you learned? What’s different now?
I’m not entirely sure about the ‘private fantasy’ bit of the question as I have always daydreamed in books and films. In other words whatever I imagine or daydream, I see in terms of creating a whole story that might appeal to someone else. As a result, although I started writing out stories without knowing whether I would - or could - finish them, I did it with a view to publication because how else could people enjoy what I wrote? However, working in sweet ignorance, I didn’t have a clue about the publishing industry, so didn’t know about word count, or synopsis and submission. I have learned a tremendous amount from contact with other authors and with the patient guidance of editors. Now, as much as I love writing, I believe that I have a responsibility to maintain the highest standards of professionalism for my readers and publisher. But, whatever happens in the future, since this is where I’ve been led, I’ll continue to place my work before God and let Him shape it. It makes for an interesting journey.
Claire, thank you so much for taking the time to satisfy our curiosity. We wish you every success with Death Be Not Proud – a rattling good read – and with the rest of the story to follow in The Secrets of the Journal series. I’ll be looking out for them! Well done!!
Pen, thank you so much for your encouragement and for inviting me.
Fans of C.F.Dunn’s work may be interested to know that she is collaborating with me Pen Wilcock and her publisher Tony Collins (known to you normally as the Badger!) in leading a retreat for writers of Christian fiction, in November this year. Details on the retreat house website here.