Phil Rickman, creator of Merrily Watkins, sexy lady vicar and diocesan Deliverance Consultant, was due at Wenlock Books on 3 November and was the reason for our drive up the Welsh Marches and across the mist-smoked Edge to Much Wenlock.
My daughter, Louisa and I, hooked by the stories of unquiet personalities who needed the skills of an exorcist (and these administered by a woman) in the mysterious settings of Welsh/English border folklore, saw Rickman locations all round. Autumn trees dressed in vestments of gold and bronze, timeless, shadowed hills looming on the horizon, black armed hop yards signifying. The man who dreamed up Merrily, Gomer Parry, her Knight with the shining JCB, Lol, sensitive song-writer with the damaged background and the always fascinating Jane, daughter, rebel and thorn in the flesh of authority, was in Anna’s bookshop waiting to sign.
Phil had an air of Lol-like anxiety about him when he discovered that we wanted to ask questions first.
Q. What inspired him to write about a female exorcist in the first place?
Q. Was the landscape of the Welsh-English border with its other worldly echoes instrumental in devising plots?
He confessed that Merrily was not originally conceived as the main character. This was Gomer Parry in ‘The Wine of Angels’ but as he wrote more, Merrily’s attraction beguiled him. He never totally works out plots but lets them evolve. The idea of a woman priest in the Church of England who was also the diocesan exorcist opened a treasure trove of material. A female exorcist is an inviting target and people under threat make interesting subjects to write about. Paganism is apparently the fastest growing religion and this gives Merrily in her ancient mystical landscapes of the Hereford-Radnor borders plenty to occupy her.
Merrily’s parish of Ledwardine is a combination of Weobley and Pembridge. The sense of place resonates in Phil Rickman’s books. In talking about this Phil recommended the American writer James Lee Burke as a master of using place, in this case Louisiana, in his books about an ex-alcoholic Roman Catholic cop.
The talk turned to genre since it was hard to categorise the ‘Merrily’ books. Were they horror, mystery or crime? While ‘horror’ writers in the USA are viewed with some esteem, for example, Stephen King, in Britain to be a ‘crime’ writer has more kudos. For Phil Rickman the idea of a crime investigated from a different angle, from the perspective of a woman who is employed because of her belief in the ‘may be’ of the paranormal holds continuous fascination. This is not ‘horror’.
Obviously in stories where the writer allows himself to be led by the unfolding plot, so much so that sometimes the original theme can vanish, the craft of editing the finished product is crucial. In this Phil Rickman gave all credit to his wife. There was quite a discussion about the lack of good editing in today’s publishing companies so that even the work of authors like Lynda La Plante suffered.
For me the dialogue between the characters in the ‘Merrily’ books is what makes them really live. Jane’s abbreviated conversations with her boyfriend, Eirion, are brilliant and her laid-back concern laced with scorn for her mother’s activities is so evocative of adolescent chagrin when dealing with peculiar parents. I love the rhythms of Gomer’s speech, I have a nostalgia for them after living among Cardiganshire countrymen for many years. He is utterly believable. As for the ‘incomers’, they make me laugh even if the story-line indicates otherwise. Phil touched on the importance of dialogue and modestly recommended the later books of Joanna Trollope for their stripped down style.
I think he is a past-master himself.
Over organic coffee and great cake, the talk ranged over secret societies, anti-Christ and Richard Dawkins, the absolute necessity of a deadline and the demise of the gentleman-publisher.
Phil did sign books in the end and admitted that he had enjoyed the meeting and even that it was a good idea for bookshops to run this kind of thing. Of course! And it is all down to Anna.
When Louisa and I left we felt that Phil’s characters, so familiar to those of us who are fans of the ‘Merrily’ books, might also walk into the bookshop themselves to ask Anna’s advice on some arcane literary matter. It is the sort of place they would like. And I think Phil Rickman thought so too.
Phil fronts a Sunday afternoon book programme on BBC Radio Wales called
‘Phil the Shelf’