Peggy Riley is a writer and playwright. She won a Highly Commended prize in the 2011 Bridport Prize and was published in their latest anthology. Her short fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio and published in Mslexia Magazine and as an app on Ether Books. Her plays have been commissioned and produced off-West End, regionally, and on tour. She has been a festival producer, a bookseller, and writer-in-residence at a young offender prison. Amity & Sorrow is her first novel. Originally from LA, Peggy now lives in Kent.
What sparked your interest in fundamentalist cults, a major theme in your novel?
I am interested in extreme faiths, in how and why we believe. I grew up in California, cult capital of the USA, in the 1970s, a decade spanning the death cults of Charles Manson and Jonestown. America was founded by religious radicals and has a long tradition of handmade faiths, communal and utopian societies that want to build new Edens, and violent, cloistered groups, led by charismatic leaders who come to believe they are messiahs and long for the end of the world. In Amity & Sorrow I was interested in the effect of a fundamentalist, polygamous faith on its women, on the leader’s fifty wives and two of his daughters. Their lives have been shielded and edited by their faith. The world outside, which they are taken to on the night their church catches fire, is strange and frightening. They have been taught to fear outsiders and non-believers, as is true in David Koresh’s Waco and modern day fundamentalist Mormon communities. Amity blossoms in a world with fewer rules, but Sorrow is desperate to return home to her father and faith, to a world where she has power and autonomy. I wanted to look at the lure of their faith, what worked in it and how hard it was to escape it, physically and emotionally. It’s been said that no one joins a cult, and that is true. People join groups because they address a need, to belong and to feel a part of something sacred and profound. From within it, it isn’t a cult. It’s a family.
Where, in literature, did you draw inspiration from?
While writing Amity & Sorrow, much of what I read was set in the American west, the fiction of Wallace Stegner, Annie Proulx, Thomas Sanchez, and histories of the west by Dee Brown, Timothy Egan, Terry Tempest Williams. I was trying to recapture my own sense of the west, my heritage from my far away desk in Britain where I now live. I love the “great American novels” of William Faulkner, Willa Cather, and John Steinbeck, and when I realised I was going to write about Oklahoma, I turned to “The Grapes of Wrath”, Steinbeck’s classic Dust Bowl novel of the Joad family, migrating to California in search of a better life. The language of the book is simply stunning, from his lyrical passages on the scorched landscape to the alternating propaganda chapters which bring the “Dirty Thirties” to life.
Why God, Sex and Farming?
It began as a tag for my book that stuck. I never seem to find a title until the very last minute. It was a way to remind myself of the book’s three strands, to keep them working together and in opposition while writing. Amity & Sorrow is a book about God and how faiths interpret God; in this faith, He is the Old Testament God of rules and vengeance, ending the world with fire. It is a book about sex. Sex is a ritual in their faith, a way to bind them to each other, and a means of control by the patriarch. It is about the damage done to the children made in this faithful sex, how they come to perceive sex, its purpose, and themselves. And it is a book about farming, our impulse to grow and nurture plants and one another, even when the land is hard and unyielding.
You are a playwright. Did this hinder or enhance your writing?
Both, I suppose. I’ve been writing for a long time, so I knew how to sit down and finish something and I already had a feel for stories and how characters change and grow through them. But in getting to grips with the mechanics of fiction, I felt like I was starting over. How did you get characters in and out of chapters? What was point of view? How much detail was enough or too much? My playwriting still informs my fiction writing; I deliver a lot of my story through dialogue, because I prefer what a character says to what a narrator says about them, and I still like short, taut scenes and sequences. I like to leave the kind of room for a reader that I’m used to for an actor or designer. I’m enjoying the freedom of fiction, having the room and space to create a new world. And there are no budget limitations. In a novel, if you want fifty wives and a burning church, no problem. If you want them on stage, producers are going to worry.
Three words of advice you would give to aspiring writers?
Trust your heart.
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