Hosted by Claire Musters who interviews Hilary Taylor on her debut novel ’Sea Defences’
This month I’m reading…
Sea Defences Hilary Taylor (Lightning Books, 978-1785633355)
A debut novel, Sea Defences is a gripping read. Set in Holthorpe, Norfolk, it is centred on Rachel, a trainee vicar who is juggling family and work, and already having a wobble as to whether she should become a priest when disaster strikes and her six-year-old daughter goes missing on the beach.
Her life becomes entwined with Mary’s, a loner who is battling against the council and the elements, as her clifftop home is getting ever closer to the crumbling shoreline. Their paths cross and an unlikely friendship (of sorts) sparks. Mary’s adult son Adam is viewed as a bit of a misfit in their community; she is fiercely protective of him – and he is equally protective of the fossils he collects.
In the hours and days that Rachel’s daughter is missing her grief consumes her more and more and she isolates herself from the rest of her family. The portrayal of a mother utterly consumed with wanting to know what has happened to her daughter was totally believable – and utterly heartbreaking.
Adam is also guarding a secret and, when Rachel finds out what it is it threatens to unravel her faith completely.
This is your debut novel, but I believe it began as a short story that was quite different in flavour. Could you describe the process from short story to novel? How did the story evolve in your mind?
The short story of the same title (published in the Bath Short Story Award Anthology 2018) is told from Adam’s point of view, focusing on his perception of events. The parents of the missing child are mentioned only in one line. When I thought about turning it into a novel, my first question was: “Who is the mother and what impact does this event have on her life?” If she was not only Christian, but in training for the priesthood, this would give me the opportunity to explore how the experience could affect her faith, as well as her family relationships. Once I realised that the emotional heart of the novel was to be found in Rachel’s story, this became the driving force of the book.
Rachel undergoes a crisis of faith during an exceedingly difficult moment in her life. I know that this reflects some of your own experience – is that why you wanted to portray a main character facing such questioning?
In between the writing of the short story and the writing of the novel, my older brother was diagnosed with a brain tumour from which he died after two years, at the age of 61. I think I was already questioning some of the certainties I once felt as a Christian, and his loss added to that.
After he died, I found it hard to imagine him living in heaven. All I could think was that he was gone. However, I’ve found it important to be honest with myself, and to learn to move forward accepting these thoughts and feelings, and still ‘let God in’ without worrying that I’m failing.
This is reflected in Rachel’s response to what happens to her. We hear many stories of faith triumphing over troubles, but I think we have to acknowledge the difficult journeys that people of faith can have, including how their faith can change.
There are snippets of the latter part of the story dropped into earlier chapters – I found it totally fascinating (but it also took me a while to work out what was going on). Could you explain how and why you decided to do that?
It’s interesting to hear your view on this. I wanted to plant questions and provide hints about what is later revealed. I believe in giving readers some space for speculating, and in allowing some uncertainty. However, there can be a fine line between providing intriguing hooks for readers, and confusing them. I hope I have struck the right balance.
While not overtly Christian, there are obviously themes around faith in the book. Did you pitch the book to a Christian publisher at all, or were you sure you wanted to go with a mainstream one?
It did not occur to me to pitch to a Christian publisher because my target readership is wider than that. And, as you say, although the main character is Christian, I don’t think anyone would describe this as ‘Christian fiction’. I’m delighted that my publisher views the theme of faith as a worthwhile one.
There is some swearing in the book, which may be off-putting to Christian readers – could you explain why you thought it was necessary?
I did think hard about this because I’m not someone who swears, and I do have a threshold where I, too, find it off-putting in literature and drama. Mary’s ‘mild’ swearing is very much part of her character. She is forthright, rather grumpy and generally cross with most people. The other swearing, and there isn’t much, happens when the characters have been brought to extremes of emotion, and their inhibitions are gone.
What are your hopes for this book and do you have plans for anymore?
My publisher is a small, independent one, and I’m aware that the huge majority of novels do not sell in large numbers. But I will be pleased if readers of Sea Defences enjoy it and recommend it to their friends, and if it provokes some discussion about the issues it raises.
I would love to see it as a reading group title, and would be happy to provide questions, or attend book club meetings. As for future works, I’m currently writing a novel set partly during the 1940s and partly in 1996, which was sparked by an intriguing page in a family photograph album.
Hilary Taylor on: The books that have changed my life
With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix
I read this when I knew that my brother was going to die from a brain tumour. It was enormously helpful to read these stories from the experience of a palliative care expert. The author describes the book as her “attempt to capture the wisdom of dying and death, distilled into stories that take us to those places we believe are too dark to endure, and yet that are illuminated by human resilience, hope and love”.
Celtic Daily Prayer by The Northumbria Community
When I discovered this some years ago, it provided a welcome framework for my prayer life. I have found it comforting and grounding to use these words, based on Celtic traditions and writings, in
a way that reminds me of how, almost 50 years
ago as a teenager, I began to use the Psalms as my own prayers.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
I own a pocket version of this book, which I first read 15 years ago on a solo holiday in Cornwall (mostly sitting outside cafés with extended cream teas). It gives suggestions for writing exercises and is full of inspiration in short, pithy chapters, with titles such as ‘Don’t Marry the Fly’ and ‘Man Eats Car’. Goldberg claims that freedom “means knowing who you are, what you are supposed to be doing on this earth, and then simply doing it”.
As a baker and theologian, Kendall Vanderslice has learned that bread is central to the story of God’s work in the world – it appears throughout scripture, calling us to explore what God wants to teach us through the tangible, embodied experiences of baking and breaking bread.
Kendall has struggled with hunger ever since she can remember – hunger for bread, yes, but also for community and for the ability to ‘taste and see’ the goodness of God. In her upcoming book, By Bread Alone, she weaves her own faith-filled journey together with original recipes and stories about the role of bread in church history, revealing a God who draws near to us and creatively provides for our daily needs.
Ideal for reading during Lent or a season of waiting, By Bread Alone offers a testimony of struggling with God but never letting go. It invites us to name our hungers for God and community built on his love. Kendall reveals that when we break bread together, whether at the Communion table or the kitchen table, we are both fed and taught to hunger for God’s healing work in the world.
By Bread Alone: A baker’s reflections on hunger, longing, and the goodness of God by Kendall Vanderslice will be published by Tyndale House Publishers on 28 February 2023