Donna: Way back in the early 1990's when my Glastonbury was about to be published, my editor sent me a copy of his new release The Wounds of God the middle title in a trilogy by Penelope Wilcock. I fell in love with the trilogy and even bought copies to give as gifts. I had never forgotten the books, but had never imagined my path would ever cross that of this author I admired so much.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that she is the wife of a colleague of mine and, oh, joy, her newest book The Hardest Thing To Do is a continuation of the story I loved so much about the monks at the monastery of St. Alcuin in Yorkshire. And so our paths intertwine yet again as Penelope and I are both writing series about monks in monasteries in Yorkshire: my Monastery Murders, which are contemporary clerical mysteries and Pen's The Hawk and the Dove series which are fourteenth century historical novels.
Pen, tell us how this series came to be.
Penelope: I wrote The Hawk and the Dove, which was my first novel, when my children
were small. Their father, a musician, had a very full diary at the time, with several concerts and all the associated rehearsals coming together at once, so that he was out of the house every day and evening for weeks at a stretch. At home caring for our little ones, though I loved their company, I was lonely.
In my childhood, as the daughter of a very reclusive mother struggling with chronic depression, with one sister five years older than me and a father who worked overseas, I spent great tracts of time alone amusing myself. I peopled my solitude with characters discovered in library books; they became my friends.
So in my adult loneliness, I took up the habit again. 'I'll imagine my own community,' I decided; The Hawk and the Dove was born.
Its story is set in fourteenth century England, and that's what determined its structure. Because my The Hawk and the Dove weaves its fabric from the threads of monastic life in the middle ages, in homage to Chaucer I wrote the first two novels as frame tales. Because I love St. Francis and his way of littleness and The Hawk and the Dove develops themes dear to his heart.
The third book of the trilogy, The Long Fall, is a slow-motion close-up of intense personal experience and it seemed right to change the structure, from the multi-focus of the first two, to a single simple melody with no counterpoint or complex harmonics, just the solo song of someone whose life is ending.
Donna: And now tell us about your new project.
Penelope: That trilogy has stayed in print for twenty years continuously, selling quietly but steadily as new readers have discovered it over the years. I became intrigued with the idea of revisiting the series and writing a new novel to celebrate the twentieth anniversary.
The 'new novel' swiftly developed into a 'new trilogy'.
The Hardest Thing To Do is about exactly what it says on the tin. This time the format of the book follows through the days of Lent in the monastery from the Hawk and the Dove series, one year in the fourteenth century, beginning on Ash Wednesday and finishing on Easter Day. It is an exploration of the requirement upon us as disciples of Jesus' way of love, to learn to see things from another's point of view – even when we dislike and distrust that other person.
Donna: You shared that The Hawk and the Dove trilogy was born out of personal experience. How much of yourself is in The Hardest Thing To Do?
Penelope: As with the stories of The Hawk and the Dove trilogy, I have taken the struggles that have almost torn me apart at times myself, and the story of the beautiful Gospel of Christ, and written the reflection that arises from considering them into a story that I hope will make you laugh and make you cry, make you want to know what happens next, and take you deeper into the way of faith that Jesus calls us to.
As with the first trilogy, I read the unfolding narrative aloud to my family at home as I wrote it. Early on in the story, someone arrives at St. Alcuin's Abbey who has featured in the second book of the first trilogy – The Wounds of God. As I read to my family who grew up with the Hawk and the Dove trilogy and know it so well, as if the monks were their own community, I was interrupted by gasps of: 'But that's… isn't that… oh my God, it's him!!! Oh, no! What's going to happen now!?!'
That's right. It's him. If you, too, are curious to know what happens, look out for the book. It's available for pre-order now: http://ning.it/jkF0ko
Donna: I certainly second that suggestion. I was privileged to be an early reviewer of The Hardest Thing To Do and I'm delighted to share my review to whet our readers' appetite: As a longtime fan of The Hawk and The Dove trilogy, I am thrilled to commend The Hardest Thing To Do. Beautiful, profound, moving and spiritual it is written out of the deep well that is Penelope Wilcock. As the reader is drawn to live in the ancient monastery of St. Alcuin and share the daily challenges of the community struggling to bring the grace of God into their lives and their world, each one of us comes to ask: What is the hardest thing to do? and, Can I do this, with God's help?
Donna Fletcher Crow (US) is the author of 35 books, mostly novels dealing with the history of British Christianity. A VERY PRIVATE GRAVE, book one in The Monastery Murders was released fall 2010, A DARKLY HIDDEN TRUTH, book 2 in the series will be out in September.