A novelist and a Catholic, I practice my faith and my novel writing in separate spheres. I make no attempt in my books to explain or defend Catholic teaching. For its part, the church has enough problems without bearing responsibility for my ineptitude as a writer. Yet distinct as they are, the two are not sealed off from each other: The convictions that infuse and inform my writing are grounded in my Catholicism.
For me, the essence of novel writing is the exploration of character. I never start with an outline. I begin with characters. They give me my plots, not vice versa. My relationship with my Catholic faith is grounded in that same dynamic. Beginning with Peter (the name I was given at baptism), it is all about characters, the amazing troupe found in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures and the procession of saints and sinners I continue to encounter in my life.
As a child in the days of the Latin Mass, my ears perked up when I heard Peter mentioned in the Gospel. My fondness for him has deepened as I’ve grown older. Bullheaded, mercurial, a husband who worked hard at his day job (fisherman) while pursuing another vocation (apostle), Peter has been my patron in the struggle to believe and to hold a job, raise a family and write novels.
Whether Catholic or not, every novelist, it seems to me, can see him or herself in the scene from the Gospel of Matthew in which Peter summons the courage to get out of his fishing boat—to abandon his comfort zone—and walk on water. I remember having a similar experience when, after years of talking about writing a novel, I actually set out to write one. The sinking feeling that I was in way over my head soon followed the exhilaration of the first few steps.
In the Gospel, Jesus reaches his hand out to Peter and says to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” As a believer and a writer, I have shared Peter’s doubt. Each time I start a novel, I have the same sensation of going over the side of the boat. With all three novels I have published, I have despaired of finishing more times than I care to remember. In the practice of my faith, there are times I am confident and at peace; at other moments, I waver and feel bereft.
Peter did not drown. He gripped Jesus’ hand, pulled himself up and went back to the boat. He continued to live with his imperfections and kept wrestling with his doubts. He was rebuked by Jesus for his dimwittedness (“Get behind me, Satan”). Put to the test, he not only denied Jesus but ran away, absenting himself from the bloody scandal of Calvary. Even when he returned and took a leadership role, he was challenged by Paul for his narrow vision of the Christian community and made to change his stand.
At the very end, according to legend, Peter was fleeing martyrdom in Rome when Jesus appeared hurrying in the opposite direction. “Where are you going?” Peter asked. Jesus answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Peter went back. Familiar as he was with failure, he did not give up. He persisted.
I have a statue of Peter in the room in which I write. He holds his iconic keys to the kingdom that Jesus said is in each one of us. My attachment to Peter is personal and professional. He is a constant reminder of our common human struggle with individual fallibility and the terrifying fragility of all existence—a struggle faced perhaps by novelists and artists in special ways.
Peter is also an example of a person undefeated by his flaws, able to acknowledge his inadequacies yet keep the faith, clinging always “to the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I would find it impossible to be a novelist or a Catholic without taking to heart Peter’s worldly and holy persistence.
Listen to an interview with Peter A. Quinn.