03 April 2015

The Intel: Ian Caldwell

Ian CaldwellWe don’t just throw stuff at this site and hope for the best, you know. A bit of thought goes into it, a bit of planning and foresight. Not much—a bit. Which is why, this Easter week, we’ve been featuring Ian Caldwell’s The Fifth Gospel, with its Turin Shroud-themed mystery. Caldwell co-wrote the conspiracy The Rule of Four and has spent years researching his latest subject—a theological murder-mystery set in Vatican City.

We’re delighted that Ian has agreed to give us the intel on his latest book. He’s a generous and engaging interviewee, and has some absolutely fascinating stuff to say about the veracity of the carbon-testing on the Shroud, the gospels, the murky history of crime within the walls of the Vatican—and, of course, about writing and researching The Fifth Gospel.

What was the inspiration for The Fifth Gospel?

An enigma of history that I first came upon twelve years ago: if you close your eyes and conjure a mental image of Jesus Christ, the man you see staring back at you has dark, long hair and a beard. This is how Jesus has seemingly been painted in Christian art for two thousand years—and yet the truth is that the Bible never tells us how Jesus looked, and there are major discrepancies in early Christian art: we find Jesus sometimes portrayed with short hair, sometimes beardless, as if no one was quite sure how he looked. So why is it that, about sixteen centuries ago, the bearded, long-haired Jesus we know today became almost universal? It’s as though the whole world suddenly became aware of a single image of Jesus so authoritative that all other images were discarded. So what was that single authoritative image? The Fifth Gospel found its beginning in that question.

Vatican City is very much a character in the book itself. It’s a closed and secretive place – did you get much access to its many palaces and offices?

I got much more access than I expected—yet not in the way I expected it. I’m not Catholic myself, and I began writing The Fifth Gospel at a time when the Church had little interest in talking to a novelist. American newspapers were full of headlines about the priest abuse crisis, and it certainly didn’t help that my previous novel, The Rule of Four, had frequently been compared to The Da Vinci Code, a book that didn’t win many friends inside the Vatican. Little by little, though, I convinced a handful of priests that I had done my homework and that I was serious about making The Fifth Gospel meticulously authentic. They opened up to me, and when they couldn’t answer some of my questions, they referred me to other priests.

What I discovered was that once you have referrals from other clergy, you’ve finally got a foot in the door. That process repeated itself until I found myself interviewing prelates who were higher and higher on the clerical ladder, some of them who worked (or still work) at the Vatican. I have been asked by some of them not to divulge their names publicly, but suffice it to say that by the end of my research odyssey, I found very few doors that were closed to me.

Did you discover much about crimes that have taken place in the city?

Oh, yes. Some very strange things have happened on Vatican soil. When the Vatican jail was first opened in the 1930s, it was because a woman had tried to murder an archbishop in Saint Peter’s Basilica. In the 1980s, police had to shoot and kill an ax-wielding would-be murderer at the pope’s summer residence. There have bombings, homicides, and several gruesome symbolic suicides. Meanwhile, the pope’s employees have perpetrated some very clever, Ocean’s Eleven-style thefts, including one that had police scratching their heads because they couldn’t figure out how a very valuable collection of jewels had been removed from a sealed and locked treasury overnight. Some of it is wildly outlandish. If I put it in a novel, you would accuse me of abdicating my responsibility to realism!

The Fifth GospelThe Fifth Gospel took a decade to write – why did it take so long?

I made a promise to myself that this was going to be the opposite of a stock Vatican thriller. It was going to be so minutely researched that if I handed it to a Vatican insider, he would say, “How on earth did you find out so much about this place?” And that’s exactly what has happened. Many members of the Catholic clergy have come to me with almost that very reaction.

The Fifth Gospel is a thriller, also very much a book about faith – did you find the conspiracy narrative was the best way to explain theological ideas?

The most powerful ideas I came across in my research weren’t about Vatican crimes or even the inner workings of Vatican politics; they were about how modern Catholic priests are trained to read the Bible. I mentioned earlier that The Fifth Gospel emerged from my curiosity about where our modern image of Jesus came from, but I was so surprised by what I found about the Catholic view of the gospels that the story evolved to include a penetrating look at how those two subjects—Christian art and modern Bible scholarship—are intertwined in a completely unexpected way. The protagonist of the story is a young priest who is deeply faithful and also a rigorously scientific gospel scholar, a fascinating combination.

Why is the Shroud of Turin - even though it has been exposed as a fake - still such a powerful icon within the church?

First, it’s important to note that many people dispute the radiocarbon-dating results that found the Shroud to be medieval. No one seriously doubts that the scientists did their jobs properly, but there are many questions about how the cloth sample from the Shroud was taken, what it consisted of, and what extraneous materials were mixed in with it. In other words, by the time the radiocarbon labs received their samples of the cloth, mistakes may already have been made.

Further complicating the matter, there is documentary evidence from the Middle Ages indicating that a burial-shroud relic was in existence decades before the earliest proposed date from the radiocarbon results on the Shroud of Turin. Whether or not this was the same relic we have today is hard to say, but these documents are enough to give anyone pause. I happen to believe the Shroud is a fake, as do many Catholics (even within the clergy), but I also found that the issue is not as clear-cut as we were led to believe when the carbon-dating was performed in 1988. So there are many reasons the Shroud continues to draw immense crowds whenever it’s displayed. Aside from what I’ve just mentioned, no one has satisfactorily explained how the image on it was made, at least not in a way that has gained widespread acceptance. And there are millions of faithful for whom the verdict of science is always subject to reevaluation, while the verdict of faith has proved itself to be more immune to time.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

I never intended to spend more than a decade writing a single novel. I deeply love this book, and I’m glad to see that it’s being acknowledged, even within the Catholic hierarchy, for accomplishing something that would’ve been impossible on the timescale of an ordinary novel. But it also came with hardships for my family because it took so much longer than anticipated. So by far the most difficult lesson of writing The Fifth Gospel, considering that I began as a twenty-seven-year-old bachelor and finished as a thirty-eight-year-old father of three, was that the artistic risks that are reasonable in those two stations of life are very different. I learned the hard way that the sacrifices I had no problem embracing as a younger man now apply not just to myself but to the people I love most dearly in the world.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Writing this novel has forced me to wrestle with the question of morality in fiction. The first time I read Tolstoy’s essay on Shakespeare, which accuses Shakespeare of being (among other forms of literary criminality) immoral, I found the accusation stodgy and easy to dismiss. In the same way, the first time I read Dante I convinced myself that the persistent focus on judgment and moral classification was beside the point, more of an organizational scheme than an important dimension of the poetry. On both counts, I now realize I was in error. I’m not a practicing Christian, but the more time I spend studying literature, the more I realize that our modern secular viewpoint doesn’t have much explanatory power to reveal what some of the towering writers of the past were trying to accomplish. So I most admire those authors whose work forces me to do better, to know more, to step beyond my modern prejudices, in order to understand them

Give me some advice about writing…

Write about something you love, and do it in the best way you know how, so that when the hard times come and the reasonable doubts set in, the work itself is your shelter against the storm.

What’s next for you?

I have a vast stockpile of fascinating Vatican material that didn’t make it into this novel, so I’m certainly not done with this place. And my Rule of Four co-author and I have been hatching plans to find time for a reunion, so I wouldn’t rule out another novel from us on a non-Vatican subject!