Unlikely Influences: What Peter Darbyshire learned about writing from a church
Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how science fiction and fantasy writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.
This week’s installment is by Peter Darbyshire (who also writes under the pen name Peter Roman).
How a church became my unlikely influence
by Peter Darbyshire
A church changed my life.
It wasn’t a religious conversion kind of experience, where I felt the hand of God reach into my mind and stir things around to see what would happen.
I was on a sort of pilgrimage, though. I had travelled to Barcelona specifically to see the Gaudi church, otherwise known as La Sagrada Familia. I had seen a slide of the church in a university presentation many years earlier, and it had caught my imagination like a hook. I kept thinking about it over the years, wondering how such a marvel of the human imagination had come to be.
You may know what I mean if you’ve ever seen the church in real life, or even a picture of it. La Sagrada Familia resembles a cross between a fairy tale castle and an apocalypse. It’s like a moment of beautiful madness frozen in time.
I wanted to experience the church in real life, to see what my recurring visions of it meant. My trip to La Sagrada Familia was a rapturous moment, even though the church wasn’t finished and still isn’t. Construction has been happening on it for hundreds of years, loosely following Gaudi’s plans. Or maybe just trying to interpret Gaudi’s wishes. La Sagrada Familia is kind of an eternal work in progress, where different architects and planners keep adding their own takes to it. I know it’ll be completed one day, but I kind of fantasize it’ll never be done, that we’ll keep adding to it and changing it until the end of time. I wandered through the church under construction and felt like I had stepped into another world. I suspected this was what regular religious people probably felt in traditional churches.
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with writing and influence. Let me explain.
A few years after visiting the Gaudi church, I came up with the character of Cross, who would star in my Cross series of books, The Mona Lisa Sacrifice and The Dead Hamlets. Cross is the lost soul who wakes up in the body of Christ after Christ leaves this world for parts unknown. Cross has all of Christ’s power and none of his morals. He’s a bit of an antihero who hangs out with the wrong crowd, such as faerie, gorgons, undead demon hunters and the like. He also hunts angels for their heavenly grace, which he needs to survive. The character was inspired by the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood, perhaps another unlikely influence. That poem told the tale of the Crucifixion from the cross’s perspective, and I got to thinking, what if Christ’s body itself was the rood, simply the thing that bore Christ’s spirit, which was the actual Christ? What was to stop it from carrying another spirit? And so Cross was born.
I fell in love with the character immediately and knew I had to write a book about him, but I didn’t have a clue how to handle it. I mean, the character of Cross is a pretty radical take on Christian mythology (and I use mythology here in the sense of the overall narratives of Christianity). I had no interest in being irreverent or disrespectful — I just thought Cross was an interesting reimagination of things.
It was then that the vision of the Gaudi came into my mind again. La Sagrada Familia is also a radical take on traditional Christianity, one dreamed up by a believer. It showed me that it was possible to take Christian mythology and reinvent and transform it in fantastic ways — and I mean every sense of the fantastic here. Forget gothic — Gaudi’s church is like the dream of mad angels that happened to fall into our reality.
Of course, Gaudi’s church did piss off people. Lots of people. It’s not a place for those who love the traditional elements of religion. But it’s also a church that inspired others, and it’s become one of the most famous churches in the world because of its unique vision and its willingness to defy the boundaries of tradition.
As soon as I thought about La Sagrada Familia, I suddenly had the first scene of the book. Cross would chase an angel through the streets of Barcelona, the same streets I had once walked, to the Gaudi church. The angel would have a secret hiding place in the church, where Cross would hunt it down and kill it.
It was like a moment of divine inspiration.
As soon as I had that starting scene, the rest of the book came to me. The death of the angel in the Gaudi church would lead Cross into the middle of a war between the angels left on Earth, where he would once again encounter Judas, his ancient enemy who also happened to be a trickster god that was determined to destroy humanity. Along the way he would hang out with mythological creatures such as the faerie and even a gorgon or two. The gorgon Victory in the book was inspired by the Winged Victory of Samothrace statue in the Louvre — another unlikely influence. And so The Mona Lisa Sacrifice was born.
The spirit of wild imagination and utter audacity of La Sagrada Familia, as well as its mashup of architectural traditions, gave me the imaginative framework for my book. The history of the church helped me to flesh out the character of Cross. The church has existed through several eras of history, just as he has. It’s been in a constant state of reinvention and evolution, just like he has. It combines different architectural styles, just as I do with literary styles in the book: noir, urban fantasy, historical fantasy, literary fiction, and probably some others I’ve forgotten.
I’ve just published The Dead Hamlets, the sequel to The Mona Lisa Sacrifice. It’s a ghost story involving the play Hamlet and a very supernatural Shakespeare. It has nothing to do with the Barcelona church — except for the sense of passionate reinvention I still had in me when I began writing the book. Shakespeare is another big figure, and one treated almost as reverently as Christ. I couldn’t have written a novel featuring a magical, deadly Shakespeare without having had that conversion of my imagination that started the day I visited the Gaudi church.
I’m currently finishing the third book in the series and thinking about the fourth. I don’t know how well the series will do. In some ways, sales don’t matter to me. What matters is how many moments of mad inspiration the books prompt. The best review of the Cross series would be for it to prompt someone to go out into the world and create their own moment of beautiful madness.
Peter Darbyshire is the author of the supernatural thrillers The Mona Lisa Sacrifice and The Dead Hamlets, written under the pen name Peter Roman. He is also the author of the novels The Warhol Gang and Please, which won Canada’s ReLit Award for best novel. He lives near Vancouver, where there are no angels. Follow him at peterdarbyshire.com or at Twitter.com/peterdarbyshire.