Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Monastic Community Comes to Life

A Day and a Life, book 9 and the last in Penelope Wilcox’s The Hawk and the Dove series was recently released on Amazon US. I have reviewed several books in the series and had the opportunity to interview Penelope.

In The Hawk and the Dove series, you have created an entire monastic community. Did you base the characters on people you actually know?

I’ve been intrigued and surprised by the extent to which some readers try to correlate fictional characters with real life people.  

In reality, none of the characters is based on any person in real life. None of them is channeling me, and my mother is nothing like the one in the book! But – and I imagine this is true of all novelists – wherever I go, I am watching and listening, observing and thinking. I notice how people speak to each other, their mannerisms, favorite phrases, tricks of speech, how they relate; and the fabric of a tale is woven from the broken threads of many moments, myriad encounters.

In each novel of the series, different characters come to the fore. When you write, do you start with the character or the story?

When I write, I start with the Bible. Each volume expounds an aspect of Christian faith, each centres around a biblical text. Theological ideas can be challenging on a cerebral level.  The Hawk and the Dove series presents them holistically, as stories about lived  faith, encouraging the reader to imagine how life could be if we all took this seriously and gave it our very best. I think of fiction as a vessel for truth – its purpose is to help the reader find a more illumined approach to reality rather than to escape it. I hope that when people read these stories, the insights individual monks reach in their journey of faith may help shed light for readers who are walking the same path.

The The Hawk and the Dove series has nine volumes, but there was a long gap between the first three and the remaining six. Did you plan the whole series at the outset, or how did it develop?

I wrote the original trilogy in the early 1990s, and it sold quietly and steadily. To celebrate its twentieth year continuously in print, I suggested adding a fourth volume.  What I’d envisaged as one novel grew into a second trilogy.

At the end of Book 6, one of the characters gets married. After I’d written it, I began to reflect on how what is standardly presented as an ending – the wedding, the happy couple – is in reality merely the beginning of another phase of life. I asked myself what, in truth, happy-ever-after might really look like for this couple in these particular circumstances. And so I came to write Book 7 – which led to Book 8 … then Book 9.

Battle Abbey, near Penelope's home and from the same period as the one in the books
The series spans a number of years, with changes in administration of the monastery. Did you have a system for keeping track of changes or did you keep it all in your head?

I did have rough plans and lists to prevent glaring inconsistencies – but I did sometimes make mistakes that had to be corrected later. For example, I did once (in the narrative voice) call Abbot John ‘Brother John’ after he was priested and became ‘Father John’; and I did keep forgetting Father Dominic is the guestmaster and saying it was Brother Giles – who of course is the assistant to Brother Walafrid the herbalist. The errors have to be corrected on the master file for future printings. But apart from these minor details, the changes are easy to remember because they belong to the story. I really feel as though I know these men – I’ve lived with them for a very long time! When I walk through the gatehouse and put my head round the checker door, it’s Brother Cormac I see sitting there at the table writing up a bill of sale for some fleeces. But how could I possibly forget the awful cooking the entire community endured so patiently through the whole sixteen years he was the kitchener?

How did you know when to finish the series?

I actually intended ten books. I’d planned to finish the series with Book Ten, The Plague Angel, about a fateful visitor to St Alcuins, first seen entering the gatehouse with slanting rays of the afternoon sun shining all around him, making him look as though he were alight. Unknowingly, he brings with him infection. I’d thought the various manifestations of plague, laying waste so many communities at that time, presented such huge and serious issues that I should include them in the series. I laid the ground for this in Book 6, where Brother Michael (the infirmarian) is haunted by his persistent nightmare of being surrounded by helpless suffering people reaching out to him for healing and assistance, their need beyond anything he can possibly answer or satisfy.

But my readers go to this series for peace and encouragement, to help them live more cheerfully and faithfully. Some of them – I know this because they write to me – struggle daily with very difficult circumstances.

I’d been planning to wipe out the entire community in one spectacularly dreadful epidemic,  and then I thought – oh, wait – how depressing is that? So I stopped at Volume 9.

Having brought this series to an end, what is next for you?

My life has recently taken a different turn. My aged mother has come to live with us after a period of illness, and has needed a lot of care. My husband has semi-retired after years of working away in Oxford during the week, so I have my own permanent personal indoor whirlwind. And I have returned to preaching in Methodism after a number of years out. I still write for a magazine, still have a novel or two planned or started, still have a prepared but unsigned contract with a publisher for a set of Bible Studies, still have commitments to edit the work of other writers, and am still offering quiet days and retreats. But just now, even pressed down and shaken together, my package of daily domestic duty and intensive human encounter is flowing over.

You can find Penelope Wilcock at her blog Kindred of the Quiet Way, or at home with her family on England's south coast. She writes to bring faith to life, and has worked within the Methodist Church as preacher, pastor, and in school, hospice, and prison chaplaincies.  Donna Crow interviewed her previously for ICFW.


LeAnne Hardy was especially pleased to find Penelope Wilcox's books since her own Glastonbury Tor is set in an English monastery two centuries later. LeAnne has lived in six countries on four continents. Her fiction reflects the places she has lived and her passion for sharing stories that reflect truth. Learn more at .


  1. What a fascinating series! AND what a busy lady. Her mind must be whirling all the time. I had to smile when she kindly refrained from wiping out the whole community, yes a real 'downer' for sure.

  2. I don't think I would have enjoyed that ending either, but it would have been realistic for the period. Has anyone read Year of Wonder by Geraldine Brooks? It's about a town nearly wiped out by plague. It's not a Christian book and faith doesn't stand up as I expect Pen's characters would.