Vanessa Russell chats to Kalinda Ashton
Vanessa Russell’s Holy Bible is the story of the Blooms, a large, uproarious family who are part of a dwindling religious sect in Ballarat. Russell herself grew up in a small Christadelphian community, leaving when she was 26. Here, she talks to Kalinda Ashton about dysfunction, dark humour and belief.
I was so obnoxious,’ laughs Vanessa Russell, with a mix of ruefulness and affection in her voice. She’s speaking of her own days as an 18-year-old true believer in a small Christadelphian community, which she remained involved with until her twenties. ‘I was super holy Sister Vanessa.’
We’re talking via Skype and it’s hard to imagine any trace of self-righteousness surrounding Russell. She seems temperamentally self-deprecating and humble, if disarmingly sincere, displaying an unflustered agreeableness through technical hitches and crackling interruptions to our internet connection.
Holy Bible tells the story of a tiny Christadelphian sect in Ballarat, focusing on the Bloom family – the dark secrets they carry and their fractious religious fellowship. Divided into seven parts, each focusing on the perspective of a different character, the novel gradually reveals patterns of dysfunction and loss that go back generations. It opens with the magnificently named Tranquillity Bloom, an ‘artless’ and unworldly teenager so desperate to train as a nurse she ‘treats’ family illnesses with M&Ms and wears hospital whites every day. She is attempting to evade baptism and contend with the apparent signs of Jesus’s return.
Then there’s Violet, a stoic, sad and increasingly enraged obese woman who married into the fellowship at 15 and has produced nine children with Horace (a man who seems comically fanatical at first but is later exposed as relentless and even monstrous). Amy, the uninhibited lively ‘outsider’ who converts to the sect when she falls in love with Reuben, is infuriated by the suffocating narrow-mindedness of the group. In a satirical twist, she finds herself ensnared by an equally obsessive, unconscionable doctor determined to write a popular book on cult deprogramming. Reuben, a morose but kind man, will face ominous consequences for disobeying the fellowship.
Holy Bible was initially inspired by autobiographical events, but ‘quite early on it … kind of flew into something else,’ Russell says. She found her first impulse for the manuscript – which was, she says, a ‘rant … my story disguised as fiction’ – insufficiently interesting. ‘Who wants to read about a 17-year-old girl whining about religion?’ she asks drolly, in a characteristically straightforward and prosaic way.
It was Russell’s reserve that led her into a writing career – while studying journalism off-campus, she was too cripplingly shy to complete a required video interview assignment for her course. When she spoke to staff, they suggested alternative majors, including creative writing. She was thrilled by this option. ‘I didn’t even know what a major was!’ she declares, shaking her head at her own inexperience and good luck.
Holy Bible has been approximately eight years in the making and began as a PhD project at the University of Melbourne. In early drafts, Russell concentrated on ‘just getting it out there and seeing which bits [were] worthwhile and which bits [were] complete dead ends’. Although the novel culminates in a series of volatile and frightening confrontations, she says, ‘I wasn’t sure when I was writing it what was going to happen.’
After she completed her studies, Russell was left with a 45 000-word novella. She worked to expand each section from the economical manuscript she’d submitted. Fearing the novella was ‘crammed down … a little robotic in some ways’, she focused on allowing characters and moments ‘more space to breathe’. Small Melbourne-based publisher Sleepers accepted the manuscript and Russell says she ‘completely rewrote’ it in the editorial process.
Holy Bible is both painfully funny and simply painful. Wry wit gives way to a growing sense of menace. The multiple points of view wrench and divide our sympathies, and unsettle our assumptions. What sometimes seems riotously amusing and initially benign becomes terrifying and terrible in the book’s climax. While the novel deals with trauma and grief and loss, and the ways in which families can hand down their dysfunctional legacies from one generation to the next, it is also underscored by a generosity and complexity. There are savage, courageous moments in this fiction.
In Holy Bible, the Christadelphian community is inhabited just as much by loving, genuine, unremarkable people as it is by oppressive, hypocritical, controlling ones. Sections of the religious order provide solace and support to some characters, even as they eschew, ostracise or crush others. While there is no denying the repression, self-censorship, hubris and manipulation of the group in this novel, nor its unfailing sexism and double standards in the treatment of women and girls, the shifting narrative allows for a richly textured and contradictory world to emerge.
‘I wanted to be fair,’ Russell acknowledges. ‘Otherwise it would be lampooning the religion without understanding why people stay and why people go as well.’
‘There’s a thing that if you do join a religion, it’s because you’re stupid somehow, or you’ve been sucked in,’ she observes. Russell expresses her frustration with the predictable genre of memoir that simplifies the experience of leaving a religious sect as always a process of being ‘stuck … escaping … and now I’m free’. For Russell, the process of leaving the Christadelphians was far more complex and nuanced. ‘The reality is that you get out of it and you still miss it a lot, and you miss what you were getting out of it as well, and you’ve got to form your whole life trying to recreate that, really.’
She wanted to avoid caricature, fearing that ‘my novel would be completely flat’ if she failed to acknowledge the benefits of the organisation. ‘I’ve grown up in it,’ she says, ‘I wanted to talk about that part of myself as well … So I didn’t feel complete shame about being that person.’
Russell’s parents haven’t read the novel yet and she concedes she’s ‘worried’ about how they will respond if they do; she wants to protect them. ‘I guess I still want their approval in some way.’ The publication of Holy Bible gave her a ‘burst of confidence’ and momentum for her current writing projects (a memoir contracted to Hardie Grant and a second novel). She looks at once perplexed and calm when she contemplates the reactions her debut might receive: ‘For now I’m just in this stage where it’s all not quite real yet.’
Kalinda Ashton is a fiction writer and lecturer at Flinders University.