We invited the six shorlisted authors for the first Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize to talk to us about their nominated books. Here, Sara Maitland talks to us about her book A Book of Silence:
Why did you write the book?
I got interested in silence both as a practice and as an idea that many people seemed to think was very weird (if not mad). I was curious about how both our cultural fears of and our romantic attachments to silence had developed historically. At the same time I was intrigued by the awareness that silence has quite specific physiological and psychological effects on individuals regardless of why they were there. So I wanted to match and compare my own experience of it to as wide a range of other ‘silences’ from myths to solo-yachtsmen as I could find. I usually write books because I get interested in something – and then want other people to get interested too! Who are the most important mentors/influences on the book? Alive: two friends, John Russell and Janet Batsleer to whom the book is dedicated. Also, Dr. Joe Cassidy, my spiritual director. (And I wish I could honestly say Julia Kristeva because I think she is really interesting on silence and language, but I struggle.) Dead: St. Antony, St Cuthbert, St Teresa of Avila. William Wordsworth. John Cage (negatively, because I think he is interestingly wrong about silence).
Why is silence important to you?
It makes me happy. It pulls ideas and experience together. It draws me away from the quotidian and into a wider more spacious mental arena (including prayer). I also think it makes me (this is personal) more ‘authentic’. I am oversocialised in one sense: like a chameleon I too easily take on [mental and emotional] colour from those around me – silence frees me to find out what I really do think and feel.
How essential is religious belief in leading a life of silence?
A very interesting question. At the theoretical level it is not essential at all – indeed it ought to be irrelevant. However in lived-practice I was not able to find anyone who has sustained a long life of silence without any religious/spiritual motivation at all. (Wittgenstein comes close perhaps.) I have failed so far to work out why this might be. Last year you built a little house on a wild moor in northern Galloway.
How is life there now?
Apart from A Book of Silence which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
Immediately, how to incorporate haploid gametophyte generation in bryophytes (how mosses propagate) into a short story – or more simply how we can make good scientific ideas and fiction snoogle up a bit closer. More generally I am trying to think about some cultural aspectsof psychogeography. How does landscape affect imagination? Why – for example – do you get different sorts of myths, legends and stories in cold places and hot places; or in deserts and forests? My new book is going to try and look at European fairy stories and see if, and in what ways, they emerge from forests, from cultures for whom forests are very present and important for both good and bad.
Which idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
I found Rowan Williams’ reading of Dostoevski through the lens of Bakhtin rich and provocative – both for theology and for writing/representation. I am also finding myself deeply nourished by Will Anderson’s ‘aesthetic of environmental responsibility’ – why it is more fun and more lovely (rather than simply more virtuous) to live eco-responsibly. His vision and challenge have real implications for how I live.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
I don’t think really there is, or can be, an ‘everyone’ in this context. I could say The Bible because of its own merits and because of its extraordinary reach culturally (and because most people think they know what it says but don’t!) but I cannot see how that would be very useful to a Buddhist monk in Tibet. On a slightly different tack, I could say Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity – but the honest truth is that I cannot read it, and nor can most people, even if we do know what it says. Most seminal ideas of the last two hundred years (Darwin, Freud, Hegel, Cantor, Wittgenstein, Watson/Crick/Wilkins etc. etc. even Marx) come to most lay-thinkers mediated through non-technical interpretations, through the arts and through subsequent developments, so there is not a single text that everyone ‘should’ read.