The Sacred Combe
Scribe Publications UK
UK Release date:
May 12, 2016
also available as ebook
I recently posted a very enthusiastic review of The Sacred Combe, so I’m totally thrilled today to post an interview with the author Thomas Maloney.
Thanks Thomas for taking time to answer my questions.
What gave you the idea
or the desire to write this book in the first place?
For several years I had been gathering a collection of ideas, observations and details of place or character that felt precious, and that I wanted to preserve in my writing. Eventually I had the idea of creating a topographical sanctuary, a secluded valley, where all these precious things could be laid out and explored by a thoughtful narrator.
As I started reading your novel, I felt I was back in The Secret Garden. Was it a favorite book of yours as a child? Or did you discover or rediscover it later in life?
The Secret Garden wasn’t a conscious favourite during my childhood, but the memory of it stayed with me and I did re-read it a few years before writing the novel along with some other influential books such as A Month in the Country, Le Grand Meaulnes, In Search of Lost Time, several John Fowles novels, W H Murray’s books on mountaineering, and lives of Chatterton and Coleridge. I tried to acknowledge those of my influences I could identify, by referring to or quoting from them in the text. I suppose the robin fluttered in from The Secret Garden.
How important are books in your personal life? Do you have a very large library?
I do love the physical substance and presence of books as well as their contents, and I also enjoy tracking down books secondhand. I own a couple of thousand books, of which I have read about half and would like to read the other half (‘intend’ sounds too confident). While I recognize the power and convenience of electronic libraries, especially for research, for a cover-to-cover reading experience I haven’t yet strayed from the physical book.
What types of books are mostly on your shelves? And are your shelves as organized as they are at Combe Hall?
Mostly secondhand paperbacks, with a few more handsome volumes scattered about. The primary characteristic of a book – its content – is not impaired by mileage, and there is a special pleasure in finding priceless inspiration in something you bought for a pound. I’ll get my comeuppance when future readers of The Sacred Combe track down secondhand copies rather than buying new. My shelves are quite well-organised, though the doctor would be disappointed to hear that my fiction collection is ordered alphabetically and poor old Zola does find himself banished to the bottom corner.
Reading your words, I have the feeling birding is also essential to you. Would you mind sharing a special experience you may have had one day while birding or enjoying nature? I’m an avid birder myself.
Nature has always been important to me. It provides much-needed perspective on our lives – a feast of metaphor – as well as pure, incomprehensible beauty. My memory tends to fail me when I reach into it for examples (just one motive for writing) but here are two images that do surface. When climbing in the Alps, teetering along a blade of stone, a chough swoops casually out over the precipice and so distracts my instinct to resist gravity that I almost let go. And kayaking on a small river near my home on a May morning, a meandering corridor all greens and golds, and then a sudden dart of blue fire, a kingfisher – a fizz of joy no matter how many times you see it.
Is Bach your favorite composer? What do you like in his music?
Bach just seemed right for the combe, even though he slightly predates the Enlightenment and Romantic forces that I wanted to try to reconcile in the combe’s history. His music – which I love – seemed well-suited to that tension because of the way musicians are able to conjure delicate emotions from what might seem like rather formal, technical scores. And of course he was right there inside the family name of Comberbache.
I discovered several references to French classics in your novel. Is French literature important to you? Do you read it in the original or in translation?
Proust – in the old translation by CK Scott Moncrieff, twelve little powder-blue volumes – was the major literary revelation of my early twenties. I’ve loved many other French novels too (in translation), though I’ve barely scratched the surface of that great canon. I have a small collection of classics in the French as statements of intent, but my half-remembered GSCE French just doesn’t cut the moutarde.
When did you fall under the charm of Le Grand Meaulnes?
I read Le Grand Meaulnes in my late twenties, a few years before I wrote the novel, but I wish I had read it ten years earlier: a magical novel of innocence.
You hit all my favorite themes! Light is another one of them. Why the Temple of Light?
The interaction of light with gloomy buildings – especially religious ones – has often seemed to me to symbolise the way external forces (divine or otherwise) can penetrate and enlighten our minds or souls. A visit to one very ancient little church in western England, with a tiny window spilling light across the altar, may have nudged me towards the design of the Temple of Light. It applies a little geometry and astronomy to develop that old symbol further, with the intention of uniting reason and sensation (Enlightenment versus Romanticism again). I’d love to build it one day – I just need to acquire a combe with a suitable south-facing promontory.
Have you personally experienced books and reading as a way of healing? Is it possible to share a bit with my readers about it?
I’m glad you picked up on that theme in your review. The small ad that leads Sam to the combe could of course represent the unexpected journeys that books can take us on, and the sanctuaries to which they can lead us. My personal experiences have been of healing not so much from trauma or tragedy, but from disillusionment: the world can sometimes feel like a frustrating, tedious or repetitive place and books have often reawakened me to wonders and pleasures that I had forgotten, or had not yet discovered. I’d love The Sacred Combe to do that for some readers too.
Wow, thanks so much Thomas, so many good things to ponder here. And I really do hope many more readers discover your wonderful book.
ABOUT THOMAS MALONEY
was born in Kent in 1979,
grew up in London,
and studied physics at university.
He is a competent but unexceptional mountaineer
and an astigmatic birdwatcher.
He lives in Oxfordshire with his wife, daughter, and kayak.
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