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The Novelist and the Great Story | An Interview with Michael D. O'Brien about Theophilos:
A Novel | Ignatius Insight | April 28, 2010
Editor's note: Ignatius Press recently published Michael D. O'Brien's eighth novel, Theophilos (also
available as an e-book), about the man to whom St. Luke addressed his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. In this interview, O'Brien discusses the inspiration for the novel and the various challenges
he faced in writing it. An excerpt from the Afterword to the novel is included, containing further information about the writing of the novel.
Insight: What was the inspiration for a novel about a man whose name is used just
twice in the New Testament, both times by St. Luke?
O'Brien: I've always been intrigued by the mysterious figure to
whom St. Luke addressed his Gospel and the Acts. However, I never considered
writing a novel about him, and felt no need to supply an imaginary, speculative
"life" for him. The inspiration actually came while I was praying before the
exposed Blessed Sacrament three or four years ago. I was feeling unusually
exhausted that night, quite brain dead and poor before the Lord, wondering if I
would even be able to pray. In all honesty I had felt sure my adoration hour
would be extremely dry, without lights or consolations. I'm ashamed to say, all
I wanted to do was sleep.
the moment I entered the chapel, completely to my surprise, a series of vivid
images of the life of Christ poured into my interior "seeing." An extraordinary
peace came with them, and the dissolving of all sense of time. The scenes were
nearly visual and far beyond what I could have produced in my natural
imagination. I have rarely if ever experienced anything like it in prayer.
Perhaps the closest to it was my novel Father Elijah back in the early 1990s, and certain passages in Island
of the World.
Ignatius Insight: Do
you consider this a mystical experience?
O'Brien: I certainly don't think of myself as a mystic. I
believe the scenes from that single adoration hour were lights, graces. Praying
and pondering over them for more than a year before beginning writing, I felt
there were serious questions that needed resolution.
For one, the role of
imagination in addressing sacred topics: How much freedom does the Christian
writer have in his recreation of such events? For another, what is the
mysterious interaction of grace working through natural human faculties? I
wanted to be absolutely faithful to the essence of what occurred during the
first century of the Church, even though imagination has a certain leeway in
putting "flesh" on the unknown or "hidden" aspects of the Gospels.
As I wrote the novel, I
prayed every day for clarity, for faithfulness to the original meaning of
partially known events, begging God for the particular graces for this work.
The inspirations poured out steadily, often surprising me with their vividness
and showing me depths of meaning that I had never seen before.
Insight: Was this a conscious, purposeful departure from your previous novels,
which are all set in modern times?
O'Brien: No, not a conscious literary decision in any way. I think
it was entirely a response to a grace. It's important to keep in mind that such
graces are not necessarily mystical vision. It is walking on very thin ice
whenever we attribute more to them than the Holy Spirit intends. I believe that
whenever we receive interior images or "words" from the Lord, they are filtered
through our nature, and should not be taken as absolutely literal. As the great
saints and spiritual directors caution us, such phenomena should be discerned
with great care, since their sources can be divine, or purely human, or from
Insight: What are some of the challenges faced when writing a historical novel
about someone whose identity and story is largely a mystery? In writing about
Jesus and the Apostles?
O'Brien: There are two primary challenges. First and foremost is
what one might call spiritual accuracy. This demanded constant and fervent
prayer, a deep listening to the Holy Spirit, a sensitivity to the rightness or
not-rightness of certain dramatizations of events as they arose in my creative
imagination. Second, the historical accuracy. The latter dimension demanded a
great deal of research, constantly cross-checked, since the novel takes the
reader through three distinct civilizations, Greek, Roman, and Judaean, as well
as the world of Christianity at its birth.
addition, there were the religious, cultural, intellectual, and linguistic
aspects. I read widely in histories of those times, as well as philosophical
and literary works from the preceding centuries and the centuries that
followed, from Homer to Aeschylus, Cicero's writings, and St Augustine's. Major
sources were the histories of the Jewish historian Josephus and the
ecclesiastical history by Eusebius.
Insight: How do you set about describing and constructing a world that is so
far removed—time-wise, culturally, and so forth—from our own?
O'Brien: My "construction" was never based on a purely intuitive
imagining of what it was like. My methodology, if you will, while never
exclusively historical-scientific, was an integration of solid research with
the inspirations that came with prayer. I was continually surprised by the way
I could "see" and "hear" the unfolding events in the story. Often I would
wonder if such an element could possibly have been real, then I did my homework
and found that the very thing I had at first felt was implausible was, in fact,
an actual component of that world. Gradually, a mosaic of the first-century
world materialized and came into focus. A real world, containing real people,
our forefathers in the faith living through extraordinary events.
I must emphasize that this is what St. Thomas Aquinas calls "grace building on
nature." Later theology has called it "co-creation," man and God working
together to bring into the world a new being (a work of art) that has a unique
identity and mission.
Insight: What did you learn or discover in the course of researching and
writing that surprised you, or perhaps changed how you viewed Scripture and the
world of the New Testament?
O'Brien: My view of Scripture was not changed fundamentally, but it
was very much deepened, in terms of experiencing it more than ever as a true
living word. I also began to reread the entire New Testament in a way that was
more vivid for me than before. Everything came alive in a new way, both the
events and the people. This has not faded since I completed writing the book
two years ago.
blessing has been my increased understanding of how vast, how richly complex
were the civilizations of the ancient world, specifically during the first
century A.D. We generally have only thumbnail mental constructs of what it was
like, with a few cartoonish highlights in our minds—archaeology, art,
artifacts, a few primary documents. Once you begin to plunge into that world,
your eyes are opened. All of this points again and again to the love of God who
entered this milieu in the Incarnation and Redemption, the most astonishing and
important act of all time—the very axis of history.
Insight: Was first century man a different kind of human being?
O'Brien: Human nature changes little from generation to generation,
civilization to civilization. Intellectually and culturally there can be huge
chasms between us, but in our basic humanity we are at all times recognizable,
knowable. No matter how badly defaced it may be, the image of God remains
within our nature. Having said this, we should keep in mind that in our own
times there is a widespread reversion to the psychological-moral-spiritual
condition of pre-Christian man. As apostasy from the Faith continues to spread
in the nations of former Christendom, we see increasingly the degeneration of
human relationships, and societies, into a condition that we once knew only
under the worst forms of paganism.
fictional character Theophilos is a Greek physician, like his adopted son
Loukas, and he is a man formed by the best of the classical pagan age. He is
intelligent, educated, cultured, gifted, humanitarian—and proud. The
novel is the story of a literal voyage as he seeks to rescue Loukas from the
"cult of the Christos", and Theophilos's deeper voyage into the core of his
unbelief, which hides his unacknowledged despair. In this sense he is very much
a modern man.
Insight: Were you influenced in any way by the works of other novelists who
have written about the same era? Others?
O'Brien: I don't think so. I must admit that my very limited
reading of historical fiction has always left me dissatisfied. The perennial
danger of the historical novelist is his personal subjectivism, that is,
projecting backward in time the consciousness or preoccupations of his own era.
I think few novelists escape their own psychological cosmos. I prayed
throughout the writing process that I would indeed escape mine. Perhaps only
heaven knows if I succeeded.
Insight: How do you think you have changed or grown as a novelist since writing
your first novel? How is this evident in Theophilos?
O'Brien: I think there's growth in two main ways. The technical
dimension of writing, which must always be in a state of development, comes
more easily to me now. Of course, I'm too close to my own work—my own
beloved "baby"— to be really objective about it, but I do think I have
learned to trust more in the power of Story, to let it do its work, and to ease
off on the didacticism. In fiction, it is far more effective when a truth is
"incarnated" rather than "talked about." I still do both, but I have greater
faith in the incarnational aspects of writing than I did when writing my
earlier novels. This represents no radical departure in my work, more a
shifting of the delicate equilibrium between the two. Maybe it's visible in the
greater fluidity of narrative, and ease with the other dimensions of a novel,
characterization, dialogue, plot.
If I've succeeded in the task of a
Christian novelist, it will only be by pointing readers back to the Great Story
that changed the world, so that they might see it with renewed eyes.
An Excerpt from Author's Afterword, Theophilos:
I am indebted to a
number of historical sources, notably the writings of Eusebius and Josephus and
Philo of Alexandria (from whose life I have borrowed some details for the
character of Philetos). My thanks also to Dr. Edoardo Rialti for his valuable
help with classical literary references, and Will Pemberton for his extensive
help with Greek and Latin linguistics and for his numerous technical corrections
and creative suggestions.
This novel is an imaginative reflection on an obscure aspect of the Gospel, and
is in no way an attempt to present its characters and scenes as visions of what
actually occurred. The events described in the New Testament are communicated
to us through divinely inspired written accounts of direct experience and
through divinely inspired reflections by others, such as St. Paul and St. Luke,
who did not see the events of Christ's life with their own eyes. Even so, they
personally witnessed astounding things done in the name of Jesus. Indeed they
knew that they stood upon the very axis of salvation history.
Human imagination of a later age can reflect on much that was not written down,
and yet our internal visualizations of dialogues, events, scenes, will remain
by their very nature speculative and incomplete, and even at times off the
mark. It is my hope that this fictional representation of the Great Story that
happened, the story that overturned the world and launched a new world, is not
too far off the mark.
Two pertinent scripture passages come to mind:
are still many other things Jesus did, yet if they were written about in
detail, I doubt there would be room in the entire world to hold the books to
And so the making of this book has come to an end. The
stylus ceases to move, the scroll is rolled up. It is my earnest hope that the
reader will return to the luminous living word of sacred Scripture with
refreshed eyes, and that he will thirst for the One who is the eternal Word. In
Him, may what we have considered old and familiar be revealed to us as ever
— John 21: 25
"Be forewarned, my son: Of the making of many books there is no end."
— Ecclesiastes 12:12
Michael D. O'Brien
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Interviews:
The Opening Pages of Island of the World:
A Novel | Michael O'Brien
Hell on Earth and the Hope of Heaven | An Interview with Michael D. O'Brien
Novelist of the Last Days | An Interview with
Michael O'Brien about Sophia House.
Two-part interview with Michael | August 2004. Michael talks
with IgnatiusInsight.com about his novel, A Cry of Stone, the work
of the novelist, and the role of the arts in the Catholic Church and in
the world. Read part one of the interview here
and part two here.
Crime Becomes a Reality in Canada" | Michael O'Brien
Christians Intolerant?" | An excerpt from A Landscape with
Dragons: The Battle for Your Childs Mind.
"A Cry of Stone" | From National Catholic Register,
Michael D. OBrien is the former editor of the Catholic family magazine,
Nazareth Journal. He is also the author of several books, including
his seven-volume series of novels published by Ignatius Press, notably the
Elijah. For more than thirty years he has been a professional artist.
Michael and his wife Sheila have six children. He writes and paints full-time
at his home near Combermere, Ontario. His paintings and published articles can be seen at his gallery website:
Visit Michael's author page at IgnatiusInsight.com
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