Interview with Gillian Philip - Bad Faith
Bad Faith is a book which isn't afraid to face difficult subjects, whether it be sexual abuse, assault, murder, or religion. Was it your intention to write a book about these subjects, or were you more interested in the characters of Cass and Ming?
I’m not entirely sure! It was one of those books that just... grew. I tend to say my books start with the characters, but in the case of Bad Faith I think the characters grew out of obsessions I had at the time. I did want to write a dystopian novel based around a theocracy; there were any number of horror stories from religious states around the world at the time, and at the same time the Anglican church was tearing itself apart trying to keep itself together. (And over sex, of all the things they could choose to fight about.) I was brought up in the Scottish Episcopal Church – my father was a priest and a very liberal one – so it was quite shocking to me to see the establishment bending over backwards to accommodate some very illiberal demands from evangelicals and from African and Caribbean churches.
I had it in mind, too, though, that I wanted to write a murder mystery, simply because I love reading them – not so much police procedurals, more writers like Ruth Rendell and Sophie Hannah and Nikki French.
Once I had a few ideas in my head, though, and a few scenes, the characters took over and became my priority. The first picture that came into my head was these two teenagers tripping over a corpse in a cassock, in a not-very-nice part of the woods. Cass and Ming and their story developed from there.
Cass's family is riddled with secrets and guilt, but I think it would be wrong to blame that entirely on the oppression of the One Church state. The family seems strained even before the discovery of Bishop Todd's body, and this in turn lives the family a recognisable normality.
Yes, I wanted the family to have the kind of stresses and strains any family has. The political background is an extra pressure, of course, but the kind of squabbles, for instance, that Griff and his father have are exactly the kind I used to have with my own father (except that I was more reactionary than he was). I wanted this family to be normal people with ordinary emotions but living in a very abnormal world. The political and religious atmosphere is thick behind and beneath the everyday, but the everyday is still what the family mostly deals with.
Of course some of the family’s secrets aren’t normal or moderate at all, but I still wanted those to be believable in any context, not just in the world of the One Church.
Amongst all the murder and secrets, there is also a blossoming love story. And though Cassie and Ming are on different sides of the religious fence, you avoided a Romeo and Juliet style cliché. Do you think the intensity of their relationship would have survived the teenage years?
You know, I’ve always thought so, but now that you ask me directly, I’m not sure. Not having written them any further, so to speak, I’m not sure how things would pan out. I think the pressures of their lives helped throw them together and keep them determinedly in love – but, no, I think it was a lot more than that. They were meant to be together... Sorry, my inner hopeless romantic is showing.
Your own father was an Anglican priest, and despite the obvious horrors of the One Church state, there is no criticism of God or Christianity in Bad Faith. How did you go about creating a Christian dystopia without attacking Christianity directly?
I wasn’t interested in lambasting Christianity, or religion generally. I was brought up a Christian and even though I’m lapsed (can you be a lapsed Anglican?!) I still have respect for a lot of what the church does. What I’m wholly against is religion as a means of government.
This was a tricky one for me. My father was very politically minded, and I was brought up to believe that the church should be involved in politics. Of course it has a right and a duty to comment on political matters, to guide its own adherents politically, but I don’t think any religious body has a right to impose its belief system, or any particular dogma, on the state and by extension a whole population. I don’t believe religious leaders have a place in government – not in their capacity as religious representatives.
Bad Faith isn’t about Christianity as such, and certainly not the Christianity I was brought up in. It’s about religious extremism and religious faith as a system of government. The story was influenced by news stories from all over the world, and by no means all from Christian states. Mostly not, in fact. Though when you hear the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting a parallel legal system based on sharia – but only for some people, of course – you wonder if we have any right to be complacent.
I found Bad Faith strangely placeless, even timeless. No cities or countries are named other than "the capital". Why did you avoid setting the book in a named place?
Partly for the reasons above – I got inspiration from a lot of countries, and a lot of religions in their extreme and political form, and I wanted the story to be one that could happen anywhere, and to anyone. Some readers have assumed it’s set in the United States (or my fictional equivalent); mostly they have assumed it’s Scotland, which is in fact what I visualised. A writer friend actually pinpointed one location (Bunty’s tenement) to within twenty or thirty yards.
On a more practical and prosaic level, I like to make my settings entirely fictional because it gives me so much scope to mix and match. If I need a river gorge near a small town I can have one. In another of my novels, Crossing The Line, the setting is half Aberdeen, half Elgin. Personally I don’t visualise towns and streets precisely when I’m reading a book, even if a city, say, is real and named. So I hope it doesn’t disorient anyone when they’re reading mine.
By the end of the novel certain things are resolved, or at least cleared up a little. But the state, the dystopia headed by Ma Baxter, stands firm. Were you not tempted to give Bad Faith a more... optimistic ending?
No, I never was. I was tempted to give it a different ending, but on a personal level, not a national one. I’ve had a few readers tell me they thought Ming’s fate should have been different, and to be honest I swithered for ages: would he live or die? But I’m happy now with the way I wrote it.
I didn’t want Cass and Ming to bring down the government, or even Ma Baxter; not only would that have been too easy a solution, I felt it wasn’t their story. It might be someone else’s story in future, though. I’ve often wondered how that world is getting on, and what’s happening to my survivors.
Finally, your next novel from publishers Strident is called Firebrand, and has a very different setting to Bad Faith. Can you tell us a little of what to expect in this book?
Yes, it’s entirely different! Firebrand is a fantasy, the first in a series of four. It’s set among the Sithe of Scotland (and I know that’s a misspelling, but so many writers have written about the Sidhe, and made them mostly Irish, that I wanted something slightly different. I considered Sith, which is a ‘proper’ Scottish word, but George Lucas rather bagsed that one).
Firebrand is set at the end of the sixteenth century (the only book of the four which is historical – the others bring the story up to the 21st century) in the middle of a bout of witch-hysteria; my main characters are exiled from the world of the Sithe and have to survive in ours. The story has its bloodthirsty moments – battle, assassination and burnings – but I hope that’s balanced by the love stories, and not just the romantic ones. My protagonist Seth is a half-feral bastard, forever in the shadow of his older legitimate brother, but each of them would give his life for the other. Family dynamics, eh? They’re a terrific mine of stories.
- Add to BasketBad Faith
- Paperback - Strident
Life is easy for Cassandra. The privileged daughter of a rector, she is protected from the extremist gangs who enforce the One Church's will. But when Cassandra and her boyfriend Ming stumble across a corpse, Cassandra soon realises that they now face extreme danger.
- Add to BasketCrossing The Line
- Paperback - Bloomsbury
Nick Geddes's life is a mess. His sister's boyfriend was killed in a school stabbing. His grandmother is descending into a world of her own, his mother has a 'god-slot' on local radio, and his father is drinking way too much. But that is nothing, because he is also crazy in love with Orla, the sister of the boy who has been killed.