A Fine Man: Gerald Bonner

I believe it was sometime in 1988 that I sent Gerald Bonner the telegram. I was thinking about writing a novel, and I’d done just enough research to know he was the expert when it came to the time and place in which I wanted to set my story: Northumbria, the 7th century. So I sent him a telegram (“Yes, Virginia, there was a time before e-mail.”) and asked if I might meet with him when I came to England to research my book. Then I sat back and waited for a reply.

None came.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I have great respect for professional historians, and I am well aware of the fact I am not one. So when my first attempt to contact one of the big names in the field met with silence, I felt as if I’d been found out. See, I thought, this is what you get for believing you could write a work of historical fiction. The real pros, like Bonner, won’t have anything to do with you.

Still, the tickets for England had already been purchased. So I made my trip, visited all the sites and archives I’d hoped to visit, and then, despite misgivings, drove up to Durham University where Bonner then served as a professor of history in the Department of Theology and Religion. On my second day there, I screwed up my courage, put on my best bib and tucker, and marched into the great man’s office unannounced.

And he met me with open arms.

It turned out he had received my telegram and had wanted to reply to it but couldn’t. The form I’d filled out at the telegraph office had required me to list both my home address and telephone number, and, foolishly, I had assumed that this information would be transmitted along with my telegram to its recipient. It hadn’t been, which explained Bonner’s silence.

But the good professor wasn’t silent now. Despite the fact I didn’t have an appointment, despite the fact he was a busy man with, I assume, any number of classes to teach and projects to pursue, he dropped everything and spent the better part of that afternoon talking with me and advising me on my book. You cannot imagine how important it was to me to have a man of Bonner’s stature take me and my ideas seriously. It gave me courage, it strengthened my resolve, I found myself beginning to believe in this novel I wanted to write. It could be done, I thought, it could be written. I could write it.
Bonner St Cuthbert
The book that grew out of that conversation in a Durham University office in 1988, The Oblate’s Confession, will be officially launched this Monday, Dec. 1. Unfortunately, Gerald Bonner passed away last year. I hope he would have been liked my book, for his encouragement and inspiration helped create it. And he was such a fine man. At one point in our conversation, I remember, I asked him if he ever read historical fiction himself. “I like to take my history neat,” he replied, but then, doubtless noticing the look of disappointment that must have passed over my face, he added, “though I did rather enjoy that novel by the American writer, Frederick Buechner, what was its name? Godric, that’s it, Godric!” How kind a verbal postscript that was, how kind and how characteristically generous. I owe Gerald Bonner a great deal. May he rest in peace.

Thomas Merton and The Oblate’s Confession

Thomas Merton4Now that the book’s official launch date is nearly upon us, I’m enjoying the unusual experience of being interviewed by a lot of different people in several different media. One question I’m getting asked regularly is which book, if any, most influenced my decision to write The Oblate’s Confession?

Truth be told, of course, any number of books, going back I suppose all the way to Dick and Jane, have influenced my writing, but if I had to point to one single volume that more than any other started me on the journey that ended in The Oblate’s Confession, that book would be Thomas Merton’s The Sign of Jonas. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It amounts to a journal of the years leading up to and then following Merton’s ordination to the priesthood in the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (often referred to as “Trappists”). There is a long passage at the end of the book, the “Fire Watch” section, that many—including this writer—consider among the finest pieces of writing produced in America in the last hundred years.

But in addition to the beautiful writing, Merton’s descriptions of the monastic life in general and the practice of contemplative prayer in particular lit a sort of fire in me to know and experience more of both. I began to go on retreats to a Cistercian monastery in the Shenandoah Valley (Our Lady of the Holy Cross Abbey). I began to read everything I could get my hands on about monasticism and contemplative prayer. I began to try to pray contemplatively myself. I converted (as Merton himself had) to Roman Catholicism. And, slowly but surely, I began to daydream a novel into existence.

Thomas Merton died tragically in Bangkok in 1968. Ironically, the body of this monk who had been criticized for his anti-war activism was flown back to the U.S. on a military transport returning from Vietnam. The world still misses him. I owe him a great deal. He changed my life.

The Venerable Bede






Creating The Oblate’s Confession would have been impossible without the remarkable history of the English church and people written by the Venerable Bede in the late 7th century. Now, some 1,200 years after he lived, the Bede has been recognized for his use of chapters as tools of analysis and memory in the October 29 issue of The New Yorker. See The Chapter by Nicholas Dames, The New Yorker, October 29, 2014.

With Bated Breath

Sending out adShalem Institute Logovance readers’ copies of my novel has got to rank right near the top of the list of the scariest things I have ever done. Many of the people who received copies were heroes of mine, masters in their respective fields of writing, history, the spiritual life, or a combination thereof. So the weeks of waiting for responses were, to say the least, nerve-wracking.

But, finally, I received a handwritten letter from a writer I have long admired who called my novel “terrific” and went on to add, “Every page has felicities.” After that, the positive reviews began to come in with a regularity that has made recent days seem long and happy. Surely one of the most personally satisfying of these was the response I received from the Rev. Tilden Edwards—founder and former director of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation — a man I have never met but long admired. For years, while working a dead-end job in Washington, I took great comfort from the publications of the Shalem Institute and the knowledge that there were people like Rev. Edwards out there with a deeper commitment to a fully lived life. It is a great honor to have the man who helped inspire my novel write the following about it:

“The author’s story drew me into the life of 7th century England through the personal story of its monastic commentator. As the novel proceeds, I found myself more and more connected not only with the unique story of the Oblate, but with the way of life and way of seeing the earth, prayer, relationships, and profound moral dilemmas of the time, along with the time’s scourges of ethnic and religious differences, wars and decimating plagues. The thorough historical research of the author assures that the reader not only can appreciate the unique and vivid fictional story woven by the author, but also a sense of touching the realities of life in that relatively little-known period of English, particularly Northumberland, history.”

Early returns

Though The Oblate’s Confession isn’t officially out yet, independent reviews are beginning to trickle in from people who received Advance Reading Copies.  Many of these have been highly complimentary, but I have to admit that what perhaps pleased me even more was that several of the good reviews have come from readers in the UK … none of whom reported finding any howlers.

I was born and raised in Kentucky.  It’s hard to get much more American, or much less European, than the Bluegrass State.  Still, English is my native tongue.  I am as much a product of the culture that produced the Bede, Chaucer, and Shakespeare as Graham Swift or Hilary Mantel, and I have as much right as they to draw inspiration for my stories from English history.

Still, any American wishing to write about 7th century Anglo-Saxon England faces certain disadvantages, including the simple fact that he’s not actually in England.  He can’t look out his window at the trees and birds and find trees and birds he can use in his novel.  Which means that, writing the book, I sometimes felt like the nineteenth century naïve painter Henri Rousseau, whose canvases featured lush impenetrable jungles packed with images of the potted plants he had growing in his rooms in Paris.

The fact then that British readers are finding the book not only enjoyable but lifelike makes this good ol’ Kentucky boy very happy.  May your tribe increase.

The Author’s Confession

treepiccreditI’m a bit of a fossil when it comes to websites and blogs and the like so please bear with me.

This is all pretty exciting.  When I finished writing The Oblate’s Confession seven years ago and started looking for a publisher, I naively thought the hard part was over.  I was in for a rude awakening.  After years spent sending out query letters and adding untold feet to our local dump in the form of rejection letters from publishers, I was pretty much ready to give up.  People urged me to self-publish but that sounded like surrender.  Then, early this spring, Ron Sauder of Secant Publishing read a poem of mine published in The Delmarva Review and approached me about doing a book.  I sent him my manuscript; he sent me a healthy cash advance and a generous contract; and the rest–one hopes–is history.

It’s an interesting lesson you learn from an experience like this.  On the one hand, it seems that you should never give up.  Somehow, somewhere out there, a hero like Ron may be hiding in the wings waiting to leap out when you least expect it to save the day.  On the other hand, I did perform due diligence when I researched the world of publishing … and the news is not good.  There are thousands upon thousands of writers out there trying desperately to get published.  In a market with a limited number of publishing firms, most of which are looking primarily for the blockbuster that will carry them, limping, through just one more year, the odds of any one writer–regardless of worth–finding someone to publish his or her work–regardless of caliber–may well be astronomical.  I am very lucky, and very thankful, that Ron Sauder appeared when he did.  I hope and pray that The Oblate’s Confession will find a large appreciative audience to justify his faith in it.  My mom thinks it’s great.  My wife thinks it’s great.  Now it’s up to a whole lot of people I will probably never meet to decide if Ron’s conviction and the years I spent researching and then writing The Oblate’s Confession were worthwhile.  Once again, I’m hoping against long odds that not just someone but a whole lot of someones will leap from the wings to save the day by buying my book.  Whoever you are out there, wherever you are, I wish you Godspeed.