About The Author
Naomi Wood studied at Cambridge and took an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Originally from York, she has gone on to live in Hong Kong, Paris and Washington DC and now lives in London. She has also undertaken jobs as diverse as rolling the autocue for CNN morning news, nannying in Paris for a famous French actress and darning the largest knitted poem in the world for The Poetry Society. In 2012 she is one of two Writers in Residence at the British Library's Eccles Centre for American Studies.
Her debut novel is The Godless Boys, now available in paperback. Set in the 1980s, it imagines a Britain where the Church was voted into government in the 1950s. They are opposed by the Secular Movement, a minority whose activism sometimes descends into terrorism. Malcontents are banished to an unnamed island off the coast, reliant on weekly deliveries by boat from the mainland.
But one day a young girl from the mainland, Sarah, sneaks into the Island, in the trail of her mother. She had been told by her father that she had walked out on the family, but Sarah has reason to believe that her mother might have been involved in Secularist terrorism and may be living onto the Island. Once there she encounters the Malades, a gang of teenaged boys led by the shaven-haired Nathaniel, intent on rooting out any hint of "churchliness" amongst the population.
Literary Review said of The Godless Boys, "'Wood's use of language is deft and ambitious" and Giles Foden wrote, "She writes quite beautifully, carrying one irresistibly through to a world in which Richard Dawkins has become a bovver boy and the Church is in charge of the country".
The book was also included on Foyles' Top 10 Fiction of 2011, in which our Web Editor said, "With complex characters, an intriguing story and more thoughtfulness on the polarising issue of religion than a hundred op-ed pieces, this is a stylish, strikingly original novel in which Wood demonstrates a fully developed voice of her own."
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Naomi talks about the dangers of fashionable atheism and losing touch with religion altogether, how boredom breeds violence and feeling sorry for Ernest Hemingway.
Questions & Answers
Where did the idea of a theocratic Britain come from?
I was reading a lot of the books in the 'God slot' - like Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great, and Sam Harris' The End of Faith. As a person without a faith, I agreed with the sentiment of these books but disagreed with some of the more tub-thumping rhetoric. From here I started to imagine a world in which atheism was just as unwavering, and as fervent, as the most evangelical of religious movements. And so the idea for The Godless Boys came along: a world recovering from a bloody conflict between those with belief (who belong to the 'Church') and those without (the 'Secular Movement'). The religious live in Britain and the non-religious live on an invented island.
Were you brought up in any faith yourself and do you still share your family's views?
My parents brought up my sister and me as atheists. Part of the book came from my experience that Non-belief can be inculcated as much as Belief. I now feel more ambivalent... I'm more open to changing my views on things. I feel quite glad that being religious has become cool again; it's been too fashionable in counterculture to be an atheist.
One thing the books avoids is debating the validity or otherwise of religious belief. Were you trying to avoid getting bogged down in a topic that the subject of such polarised public debate?
Yes, I'm no philosopher and I didn't want to get into the ontological argument for the existence of god, etcetera! I wanted to look primarily at characters who find themselves on this godless island and look at whether this enforced secular experiment is endurable. I wanted to look at what we lose and gain in lives without a religious focus, and what society stands to lose and gain without religious institutions. I tried to come at it without too much of an agenda.
Why did you decide to situate the narrative entirely - except for the occasional flashback - on the Island?
The Islanders haven't any means of leaving the Island and I wanted that to be true for the reader, too. By situating the narrative entirely on the Island I hoped to reflect that unflinching sense of claustrophobia. When a girl from the mainland appears, she brings news of what is happening in theocratic Britain - so we do get glimpses of the mainland - but it doesn't look much rosier there either!
Nathaniel, the mischief-making leader of the Malades teenage gang, is shown to be quite thoughtful and caring by how protective he is of his mother. What drives his broader animosity?
Boredom, mostly. He's stuck on this Island in the middle of the North Sea with no hope of getting off it. Being under-occupied gives him that restive energy which makes him engage in quite serious bouts of harassment and violence. He dresses up his violence in political doctrine, but really I think he is just bored. With the London riots last year, what struck me was that it was the summer holidays and it was hot and with nothing better to do why not throw a brick through a shop window and get the telly of your dreams? Boredom makes doing crazy things attractive.
The romance between the fishmonger, Arthur, and Eliza, who is subsequently forced into prostitution founders largely on a misunderstanding. Is their relationship symbolic of the breakdown in communication between religious and secular interests in society?
In my opinion, no, it's not about religious/secular interests. If both had spoken more clearly, and listened more carefully, their relationship would have stood in better stead. Their mutual incomprehension is more like that endemic, eternal bafflement between the genders... rather than two politicized groups in society.
Sarah, who has smuggled herself onto the Island hoping to find her mother, is very much at the mercy of the Malades, a pawn in the rivalry between Nathaniel and Jake. Are the boys driven by a desire to turn the tables on a representative of their oppressors, or simply by the urges of teenage boys?
Certainly a mixture of the two. They're interested in Sarah in much the same way that they're interested in violence: it's an excuse to torment their oppressors, but it's also because violence is really fun in the context of being bored out of their skulls. With Sarah, the boys are certainly excited by the opportunity to avenge the wrongs of the past, but they're also sexually intrigued by the exoticism of this English girl.
Can you tell us anything about what you're working on at the moment?
It's a very different book! It's historical fiction that looks at Hemingway's very troubled relationship with his four wives. The best thing about this project has been the work in the archives - I've spent a year or so being up to my elbows in scrawled love-letters and heartbreaking telegrams and divorce papers that all reveal how his relationships went from tenderness to treacheries. Though Hemingway was loutish to most of his wives, I've ended up feeling rather sorry for him.
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