Karen Maitland lives in the splendid medieval city of Lincoln. She has travelled extensively, from the Arctic Circle to Albania, and has worked in Nigeria, Northern Ireland and Israel. Her first novel, The White Room, was shortlisted for The Authors' Club Best First Novel Award. A three-month tour in the middle of winter with a multicultural show playing in 21 isolated and rural locations from Cumbria to Devon first sparked the idea for her medieval thriller, Company of Liars, as she began to appreciate what life must have been like for those people who had to earn their living on the road. Below, Karen discusses Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory.
Karen Maitland on The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
When I was fourteen I fell madly in love with a man old enough to be my grandfather. He was not charming or good-looking. In fact, he was a lecherous stinking drunk, with stomach ulcers, foul breath and badly decaying teeth. And if that were not enough to make any mother lock up her teenage daughter, he was also an ordained priest and I was not even a Catholic.
For weeks I secretly climbed into bed with him, knowing my mother would put a stop to the relationship at once if she ever discovered it. I hugged him in the dark, unable to sleep, breathless with the excitement of being hopelessly in love. I couldn't believe that anyone so wonderful could ever have been created. I even tore down all my treasured photos of pop idols that I'd carefully cut from Jackie comics. They all seemed so childish now. I had become a woman and all I wanted was that priest.
It was my English teacher who introduced us. I was behaving badly in school, disrupting lessons by arguing with staff, refusing to work in class or do any homework. Punishment had absolutely no effect, so a wise teacher decided to try the carrot instead of the stick. She told me that if I handed in my homework on time for the next week, I could have the keys to the sixth-form reading cupboard where, as every pupil knew, the 'adult' books were kept. The bribe worked and on my very first visit to the locked cupboard, I stumbled upon one of the greatest works of English literature - Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, the tale of the whisky priest.
The novel was a revelation. Up to that time, having devoured fairy tales and Enid Blyton, then being force-fed the classics at school such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Moonfleet, and the complete works of Jane Austen, I had come to believe not only that it was compulsory for all fictional heroes to be handsome, clever and brave, but also that they could never on any account get killed. Heroines were no better. Jane Austen's female leads may not have been great beauties, but they certainly didn't suffer from acne. They were suitably accomplished at everything from playing the pianoforte to dancing. And, worse still, from the first chapter, you knew that somehow they were going to become betrothed to the smouldering eligible bachelor by the final page.
Even at the self-absorbed age of fourteen, I knew that real life was rarely composed of happy endings. People died frightened and in pain, and the cavalry did not come charging over the hill to rescue them in the nick of time. Besides, how was I supposed to relate to these impossibly good, talented and handsome characters? I wasn't clever or pretty and I certainly wasn't brave. I longed to be all those things. But I knew deep down that faced with a choice between shouting defiance at an armed enemy or running for my life, I would run. There in the pages of Greene's novel I encountered, for the first time, a character who thought and behaved like a real person, not a superhero.
Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory was inspired by a trip to Mexico in 1938, where he had been sent to report on religious persecution, having himself converted to Catholicism in 1926. In the novel, the main character, an unnamed priest, finds himself the last priest left in the southern states of Mexico during an anti-clerical purge. Terrified of being tortured and shot, he goes on the run disguised as a peasant, trying to escape across the border to safety. In a land where most people are starving and there are mass arrests, the priest knows that anyone he meets could betray him to the authorities to save their own loved ones or because they desperately need money. God seems to have abandoned him and he has little faith left. But terrified though he is, the priest finds himself having to make the life-or-death choice between saving himself and administering the sacraments to those who desperately want them.
In the unlikely person of the whisky priest, I finally found a character in fiction I could identify with, someone who, like me, was truly human. He vomited and pissed. He felt pain and abject fear. He made mistakes, he repeatedly broke his vows, and like any normal person faced with certain death, his natural instinct was to want to run away. And who could blame him?
There was something else I found in Greene's novel too, an overwhelming sense of place. I'd never been to Mexico, but the heat and dust, the filth and flies, crawled over me from the very first page and I was right there sweating in that urine-drenched, flea-ridden hut with him. Through this novel I discovered that it was possible to make a reader see, smell, taste and feel a time and a place totally outside of their own experience, and that amazing possibility was more enchanting to me than if I'd found myself magically transported to Narnia.
Of course, now that I really am a woman, I delight in the gentle satires of Jane Austen's romances. I enjoy the adventure of Moonfleet. And, along with the rest of the world, I did find myself hoping that the good, clever and brave Harry Potter would live to defeat Voldemort. But you wouldn't have to torture me to get me to confess that through all seven books I was secretly rooting, not for Harry Potter, but for Professor Snape with his greasy hair and greying underpants.
They say you never forget your first love, so I'm afraid in any novel I read my fictional hero will always be the unloved character lurking in the corner, the shabby, ugly man covered in dandruff who never, ever gets the girl of his dreams.