I am posting some of my favourite Virgin Mary food simulacra, below...
Simulacrum (from the Latin word for 'likeness' or 'similarity') is a catch-all term that encompasses everything from photorealism to trompe l'oeil and pop art, but it is most often used to denote religious representations, and though it's been in use since the 16th century for the last century or so it's gathered a more negative connotation: am image without the substance of the original.
In fact a more precise (not to mention obscure word) to describe these images is probably pareidolia, defined as a false perception of imagery due to what is assumed to be the human mind's over-sensitivity to perceiving patterns in what we see.
Interestingly, Christian pareidolia almost always tends to human imagery (the face or form of Mary or Jesus) while those reported in the Muslim world tend to letter forms from the Arabic alphabet (eg. the Arabic script for the word Allah was purported to be visible in a satellite photograph of the 2004 Asian Tsunami.)
But not for a moment am I suggesting that these images are false. For at the end of the day, who can truly say? Here's hoping that in 2015 there will be plenty more THINGS WE COULDN'T EXPLAIN...
On December 23rd I was interviewed by the fabulous Jane Garvey on Radio 4's Women's Hour about famous cases of Virgin Birth throughout history. Listed below are a few of my favourites. For the next 30 days you can listen to the podcast of the interview here.
The online women's lifestyle magazine Female First caught up to me during publication week. Here is what they wanted to know...
What can you tell us about your new book?
THINGS WE COULDN'T EXPLAIN is a coming-of-age tale about two teenagers whose budding romance is thwarted when their small town is overwhelmed by a series of bizarre miracles. It’s the story of Annemarie: a blind, chaste, seventeen year-old who finds herself inexplicably pregnant at the novel’s outset; and Ethan: the boy next door whose hapless two-year quest to win her love forms the backbone of the narrative. The story takes place in small town Ohio in the late Seventies, and was partly inspired by real events.
Why did you want to write a coming-of-age story?
Because in literature the journey from childhood to adolescence is so often framed in terms of loss. I wanted to try to capture that joyous, transcendent moment when we finally gain ourselves: when we become fully-formed as thinking, feeling, sentient human beings. It’s a moment we’ve all experienced, and one that resonates within us for the rest of our lives.
You were born and raised in the American Midwest, so why did you move to the UK?
I met my British husband in a post office queue in Boston in 1988. He was half-way through a two-year fellowship at Harvard, and when it finished he asked me to come back with him. So it was an all-or-nothing proposition! But as soon as I arrived in London, I knew I’d made the right choice. What struck me then – and what I still believe today – is that Britain is a culture driven by words, while America is driven by pictures. For a budding writer, the opportunities seemed boundless. I’ve never looked back.
Where did your inspiration for the story come from?
I went on holiday to Venice with my family, and one day while surrounded by hundreds of devout worshippers in St Mark’s Basilica, I looked around and decided that faith as a subject was too important to ignore. I was motivated partly by the realization that after more than twenty years living abroad, I no longer recognized the religious landscape of my homeland. So much had changed in America since I’d left, and I wanted to spend time thinking about why. I wanted to explore the difference between faith and belief, and show how the search for truth can sometimes lead us away from it. But religion is such a perilous subject! I wanted to write a story that was generous and good-hearted: that spoke equally to those with and without faith. So in the end, I wrote a comic novel about love. If God is out there, I think he’d approve.
How have you developed such a lyrical style to your writing?
Through graft! Every sentence that makes it into the final draft of my novels is edited literally a hundred times. Sometimes two hundred! I hone and polish each line until it sings. In good writing, there are no short cuts. The other advice I have is to read crazily the work of those you admire. You can’t write well if you don’t read well.
What is next for you?
My next book is about women and war. It’s about war as an act of violence, and the impact that violence has on the psyches of those who engage in it. It’s the story of three women who find themselves at once both perpetrator and victim, and the degree to which we are all complicit in our own undoing. Hopefully it will thrill and unsettle, in equal measure.
In honour of Halloween, I am posting an excerpt from Robert Blair's poem 'The Grave' with the accompanying illustration done by William Blake called 'The Gamble of Ghosts'. Blair's poem is one of the better known examples of the Graveyard Poets, widely regarded as 18th c precursors to the Gothic novel pioneered by Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, and later perfected by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins et al and brilliantly satirised by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey.
Although this is Blair's most famous work, apparently it was rejected twice before it was finally published in London in 1743. Blair was Scottish and the grounds for rejection, as he related to a friend, were that he lived too far away from London to be able to 'write so as to be acceptable to the fashionable and polite'. He sarcastically observed in his letter that 'to what distance from the metropolis these sapient booksellers conceived poetical inspiration to extend, we are not informed'.
I'm a big fan of the gothic. And I was dead pleased when my first novel, Bone House, was described by reviewers as 'a fine gothic novel which burrows under the skin'. Gothic novels do just that: they burrow. They don’t rely on the startle reflex, but craftily build suspense and dread rather than trigger shock or terror. And we take pleasure in apprehension—it is a subtler experience, but chemically it takes us to a similar place, releasing a potent cocktail of adrenaline, endorphins, dopamine. So that's the DNA of fear, and it is precisely what makes, in the words of Robert Blair, your blood run chill...