Research and Background
Catherine Chanter talks about the ideas and the research behind The Well.
Why did you choose the idea of a drought as the central premise?
I am lucky enough to have the use of a small cottage in the middle of nowhere where I can write, think and plant vegetables. It is heated by a wood burning stove and the water is electrically pumped up from its own well. In the winter, when the rain sweeps in from the hills and lashes the windows, it seems ridiculous to ever think of a water shortage. But there have been summers when it has not really rained for weeks, or months. The fields surrounding the cottage are cracked like dry skin and each time I turn the tap, I hear the shuddering of the well as it goes deeper and deeper into the water table to fill my glass. Neighbours have bore holes which have, at times, run dry.
Travelling reminds us that this sort of experience is nothing more than a knock on the door when other people, the world over, are already exposed to the terrible consequences of drought. Whether it is as a result of climate change or because as humans we insist on building vast cities in the middle of deserts, with each house dependent on its dishwasher, washing machine, a shower per person, water shortage is a very real issue. If God was to demonstrate to us what it meant to be a chosen one nowadays, maybe, I thought, it could be through the unlimited provision of water.
I researched government and agency 'hypothetical' scenarios about water shortages in the UK. I read about the experiences of people across the world, living in a world increasingly short of 'the water of life'. You can find some of the links below.
What research informed your picture of The Sisters?
On line research about women who have made this choice was fascinating. Books, such as Unveiled: Nuns Talking by Mary Loudon gave accounts of interviews with contemporary nuns carried out over two years in the 1990s. I also read nuns' own accounts of their choices and lives and their feelings about what they had left behind. By the time I had finished writing the novel, I knew intimately why each of the Sisters had chosen a route of religious devotion, even if a lot of this back story is not explicit in the text.
A great deal of the thinking, however, related to women in earlier periods who devoted their lives to God, particularly the so-called Mediaeval Mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Brabant, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. The Female Mystic: Great Women Thinkers of the Middle Ages by Andrea Janelle Dickens, 2009, was one amongst a number of very interesting sources. I went on to explore the invisible lines between religious devotion, sexual ecstasy, hallucinations and what our society would call mental illness. I believe sanity is a continuum whose end points are re-defined in different societies at different periods in history; as individuals we probably move up and down that scale according to where we are at any point in our lives.
Did you own a Rose of Jericho?
Yes, as happens in The Well, you can purchase The Rose of Jericho online. I would recommend anyone to get one, they are not expensive. They are the most miraculous plants which really do look like a rootless handful of dust and yet, left out in the rain, blossom with tiny white flowers. However, I was also writing with the knowledge that some of the world's most powerful metaphors are ripe for exploitation for both good and evil ends.
To many of us, religion and the internet do not naturally fit together.
Both are subjects of great interest to me. I did go on many sites to see how believers are now using the internet as part of their worship. Why not? It is a great way of bringing people together, of providing contact for the lonely and sharing information, thinking and ideas; I could see how it could be so helpful. But I could also see how being able to click on a candle to offer up a prayer, to watch it glow on your screen and then be minimised as you return to social media, I could see how that could be dangerous both on an individual level and systemically. I saw examples of both online, wonderful live daily offerings of shared worship with music and readings by committed and loving people of all faiths, but also sites demanding money, personal information, playing on our insecurities. Like most aspects of the internet, it all depends on how it is used.
How much research did you have to do on the life of a smallholder?
I have spent a lot of my life in rural areas, both as a child and an adult and it is where I feel most at home. I am passionately in love with the English countryside and realised that a lot of fiction now is based on our cities and towns. The beauty, the claustrophobia of village life and the vast scope of the natural world that we find in Thomas Hardy's novels seemed to be a thing of the past. However, I realised that the internet is changing our rural lives; we can be isolated and connected at the same time and this gave great opportunities in terms of storytelling.
In terms of running a smallholding, it was a combination of putting together bits of personal knowledge with information gained from magazines like Smallholder, from blogs and books. The names of the flowers, the myths behind the birds, the types of trees - all that I knew already but had to be careful to check that what I thought was knowledge was not just family myth or misunderstanding, so I checked everything.
List of links