Last week, author Paul Hoffman spoke to acrimereadersblog about his controversial and compelling new novel, Scorn, about a depressed physicist, Aaron Gall, who was raised at a violent Catholic boarding school. After an experiment at the Large Hadron Collider goes wrong, Gall goes through a transformation and sets out to take revenge on the priests who traumatised him… and eat them. Scorn is out now and available to buy from Amazon, Waterstones or Blackwell’s.
What was the inspiration behind Scorn?
A few years ago I was watching a news item on the BBC where its Vatican correspondent concluded by saying that the Catholic Church must deal with the issue of child sexual abuse in order to regain its moral authority. The response to this, it seems to me, is to ask: what moral authority? Answering this question is where the book begins, with two rather unusual policemen (when they were soldiers together in Iraq they were known as The Butchers of Basra) investigating the hideous murder of several priests. I wanted to write about my Catholic upbringing in boarding school but do so in an entirely different way – not as a litany of horrors visited on children (though some of that is inevitable) but to celebrate our resistance to the faith that tried any means possible to control our every thought, word, and deed. We mocked them (not in their hearing, of course), made up sermons in which appalling eternal tortures were visited on small boys for ridiculous dietary infractions (eating bats was one I particularly loved) and so on. I’ve always loved a good police procedural and I wanted to use the pleasures they give to go into territory not usually associated with crime novels.
Have you always been a writer?
My writing draws heavily on my past and the more than twenty-five jobs I’ve had as an adult – ranging from boardman in a betting shop, lift attendant, frozen food packer at 10 below zero to teacher in one of the worst and one of the best state schools in England, businessman and screenwriter. The most interesting of these was the ten years I spent as a film censor at the BBFC. It was there that I started writing fiction, but not until I was already in my mid-thirties. Simultaneously, I was writing a screenplay based on part of the novel I was writing. This was made into a cop-thriller starring Jude Law, as the very peculiar but charming murderer, and Timothy Spall as the sly cop caught between his liking for the man he’s investigating and his determination to get to the bottom of the deaths for which he could be responsible. Sadly a great cast was squandered by terrible direction. It was the second worst experience of my life.
Can you tell us what a typical working day looks like for you?
Amazingly dull. I write for a couple of hours a day usually. I always stop as soon as I feel I’m having to make an effort to go on. Writing is rooted fundamentally in playing. No child, or golfer, or reader for that matter goes on playing or reading when they’ve had enough of playing or reading. They just stop. And that’s what I do. I write with the intention at all times of giving pleasure by taking pleasure in what I do. Despite this, I find writing very tiring, as if I’ve been using up huge amounts of energy. I’m ashamed to say that I spend the rest of the time sleeping or generally lazing about and thinking.
How would you spend a perfect afternoon away from work?
Generally lazing about and thinking. I find enormous pleasure in just wandering about in my head. This was a habit I picked up in boarding school because as well as being violent, it was also very boring. I constructed enormously long novels in my head in which I was, of course, the central character and therefore brave, noble and heroic, and kept them going for months at a time.
Are you an avid reader yourself? If so, which authors do you find yourself returning to time and again?
I used to be a voracious reader but not so much now because I find – it’s not true for a great many authors – that writing fiction drains the energy for reading it. It’s a pity, but there it is. The priests used to describe me as wicked and lazy and they may have had a point. Now I tend to dip into my reading habits of the past when I want to look at how someone I admire pulled off some tricky piece of storytelling. In the past month I’ve gone to Ecclesiastes, Catch 22, The Secret Agent, a scene in Julius Caesar where Brutus and Cassius row and then make up, and a scene in one of George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman books where he has a conversation with Abe Lincoln. But I’ll steal from anywhere: one of my books has a line I took from a shampoo advert.
Finally, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on next?
I’m just about to finish the fourth part of The Left Hand of God trilogy, called The White Devil. The first three books deal with the violent life of precociously cunning but psychologically damaged fifteen-year-old Thomas Cale as he slips back and forth over the line between good and evil and the thousand shades of grey in between. The fourth book sees him twenty years later, having been blackmailed into assassinating John of Boston, a character who is part JFK and part Abe Lincoln.
*This Q&A was originally posted on acrimereadersblog, 7th September 2017.*