My aim is always to write a thriller that could be real, because it is so grounded in real places and real historical events. There’s an edge of fiction that takes you further, but you should be wondering what that is.
In this video, I explain the research, ideas and inspiration behind Pentecost, an ARKANE thriller (Book 1).
It was originally recorded for a book club, but I think you’ll find it fascinating if you enjoy travel and religious places around the world.
There are no spoilers, just some insight into my thought process and the places that inspired me.
- My trip to India back in 2007 and how Varanasi gave me the idea for the opening scene on the burning ghats, where bodies are burned on the edge of the Ganges. How my travels are a source of inspiration for me.
- The original title of the book was ‘Mandala,’ based on Carl Jung’s Red Book, which at the time had just been released for the first time. It contains Jung’s personal diary and paintings, made during a time of breakdown. Some of the images within the book inspired me to think of an idea around a stone and a pillar of fire.
- During a trip to Venice one flooded New Year, I visited St Mark’s Basilica which has the amazing Pentecost dome. That mosaic forms an important part of the plot.
- I talk about my MA Theology at the University of Oxford, Mansfield College 1994-1997 when I studied the early church, and how I became fascinated with the Apostles. Where did their bodies end up after they were martyred? The Pitt Rivers and the Bodleian both make it into the book.
- Scenes feature the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, which has the bones of St James, and St Peters in Rome, both likely places for adventuring on the hunt for the Apostle’s stones.
- I talk about Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. How Israel is my fascination and my addiction, and how it appears in practically all my books. Morgan Sierra was brought up there, and in Pentecost, she visits again as part of the hunt.
- Jung and Freud were in the USA during the 1920s and I was able to use that as part of the plot, taking the hunt to America and into the electric storms of Arizona and the Biosphere.
- Why sense of place is so important to me
The first in the ARKANE series, PENTECOST is a fast-paced thriller that explores the edges of faith against a backdrop of early Christian history, archaeology and psychology.
Full transcription of the video
Hi, everyone, hi Rhonda and the book club, I’m really excited to be here today. I’m Joanna Penn, writing as J.F. Penn, and I’m really excited that you’ve chosen “Pentecost” as your book club read, so I hope you’ve all got your copy or on your e-book reader.
And today, I’m just going to talk a little bit about the ideas and inspiration behind the book, because I love research, and I hope you’ll find some of this interesting. Now, there’ll be no spoilers, I promise, so if you haven’t started the book yet, don’t worry, I will just give you some insight into some of the places and things that you’ll experience along the way.
So, the very first inkling for the ideas for “Pentecost” came when I had a trip to India, back about five years ago now.
And that’s me, sitting at dawn in Varanasi. Now, Varanasi’s on the Ganges, so it’s a holy city, and also, if you die in Varanasi, basically, you get to heaven, you escape the circle of life, as such. And that’s the Burning Ghat there. Now, visiting that was quite confrontational, I guess, those bodies being burnt openly there, and that scene, being there, really inspired me. And if you’ve read the opening of the book, you’ll know that that is the first scene.
And actually just as an aside, whilst you’re doing your book club, at the moment I’m back in India, I’m cycling in South India, so that’s pretty exciting. I love to travel, and my travels are a real source of inspiration for me.
So, when I got the idea, at this point the book was going to be kind of about Eastern stuff, and it was going to be called “Mandala,” because the other thing that was happening at the time was this book. Now, any of you who know a bit about psychology, Carl Jung is obviously huge in psychology, and this book, the “Red Book,” it’s huge, it’s like a huge, huge, oversize, full color, lovely pages book. It’s actually his personal diary of a kind of breakdown that he had, and he did art therapy whilst he was going through this. And this is one of his mandalas.
The book was going to be called “Mandala,” it was going to be an exploration of the kind of unconscious, and having crimes and thriller stuff as well, but in terms of the theme behind the series. Now, Jung’s “Red Book” had been kept secret by his family for many years, and had only just been released to the public, so these drawings were available to the public for the first time, and this sort of burst into my consciousness.
So, the book was going to be “Mandala,” and then, I saw, this image. The one on the right, both of these are within the book, and the snake there, with its gorgeous, gorgeous artwork that he did, all himself, but the one on the right, if you can see at the bottom left there, there’s a man prostrating himself before a small object–could be a stone–and a pillar of fire coming out. Now, that phrase ‘pillar of fire,’ if you’ve read the Bible, is essentially at Pentecost, the pillar of fire in Exodus, with God in the desert, but the tongues of fire coming down on the Apostles at Pentecost is what kind of came into my head, the tongues of flame. And when I looked at this, I thought, “Well, what if, that would be really interesting, if there was some object that could have this effect.”
So, again, another travel, my travels just seem to inform my ideas, and then they all sort of mush up into some kind of crazy thing, but I was in Venice, and you can see there that that’s me in my puffball jacket, because it was freezing, we were there for New Year, and it was flooded, so flooded Venice being beautiful but quite tragic, in a way. But inside St Mark’s Basilica is this tremendous gold dome, and on it, you can see there some of the figures of the Apostles, with the tongue of flame alighting on their heads from the throne of heaven. So it’s the Pentecost Dome.
And when I kind of put all these ideas together and thought about, “OK, well what if each of those Apostles had a stone that they kept in memory of their time with Jesus, and what if they were buried with the bodies of the Apostles,” because, of course, the history of the Early Church, which I studied–I did Theology at the University of Oxford, Mansfield College, which also comes into the book.
Essentially I thought it would be really interesting to look at where did the bodies of the saints end up? And could there be something mysterious, hidden with the bodies?
So, I just mentioned Oxford, but there’s some of the places there that I talk about in the book. That’s the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is amazing, this mad, Victorian explorer went around the world, kind of taking stuff from tribes–terrible, really–but an amazing museum full of interesting things. And the Bodleian, where I used to study, that’s the Radcliffe Camera, where my actual library was, the Theology Library, and once you get into the series, you’ll see later on, that there’s a sort of virtual library with arcana, and that’s modeled on the Bodleian. So that’s quite exciting.
When I was doing my research around where the bones and the relics of the saints ended up, the really famous one and the most obvious one is St James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. There’s a brilliant cathedral there, and they have this amazing bottafumeiro, it’s called, it’s an 80kg big incense swinger, and it swings over the congregation, and it’s very famous, and I really wanted to get that into the plot, so, when you get to that bit, I hope you’ll enjoy how I wove that in.
But it was fascinating to me to kind of look at what is real, or at least belief, for a lot of people, and then weaving that in to a thriller, how can I make it so true that you think it could possibly be real? That’s kind of my aim. And what’s quite amazing about many of the things as I researched, was the synchronicity, which is also a Jungian kind of thing, that things happened, more than coincidence, let’s say. Slightly more than coincidence. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
So, obviously St Peter in Rome would be another obvious place, the bones of St Peter lie underneath the cathedral, and there’s some amazing stuff in St Peter’s which I obviously needed to bring into the story, and there’s me outside there. And on the left, that’s actually the Feast of Epiphany, when we managed to get into the Basilica and see the Pope, which was pretty exciting, before he abdicated, of course.
I love Rome, I love Italy, and I love Israel.
So, if you do get into the series, you’ll find that Jerusalem and Israel come into the book over and over again, and Morgan Sierra, my main character, was brought up in Israel–her father’s Jewish. I love to weave that in, and Jerusalem is a very important place to me, it’s probably my spiritual home, I would say. I obsess about it, I read about it all the time, I would love to live there for a while. I’m really fascinated by the place, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is just mad. I couldn’t find any pictures of the stuff on the roof, which is in the book, which is the Ethiopian Coptic church, which is just really interesting, and obviously very poor, but, the church is just a mish-mash of all the different denominations of the Christian religion: it’s fascinating.
So, a fascinating place. Then, talking back again about synchronicity, when I brought Jung into the story in various ways, after starting with the “Red Book” and the mandala, and bringing him in to the story later on, I found some amazing synchronicity in the fact that he was in America, that’s a famous picture, that’s Jung and Freud, at Clark University, and essentially, they launched psychology in America in the 1920s, and this famous meeting, I was able to use in the book. And only kind of found that after I went into the research of where he would have been at different dates and how it would have fitted in with my story, so an amazing piece of synchronicity there.
And this is the Biosphere in Arizona, another place that has been in my mind for many years, and really fascinated with the storms, electric storms that you have in America.
So, I hope you can see that I kind of weave in all of this stuff into the book, and that that adds a kind of layer of intrigue and interest and sense of place to the book. I am an obsessive traveler, so all my books feature interesting locations.
OK, so I hope you found that interesting, and what we can do is if you’ve got any questions, Rhonda will email me those, and I’ll do you another little video, answering any other questions that you will have about anything, whether it’s the book, or the writing life, or being English, whatever else you fancy.
The series is available, “Pentecost” is in print, e-book and audiobook, as are the other ARKANE books. “Prophecy” is about the hunt for the Devil’s Bible, which contains curses that will basically do evil things to mankind, and it has, again, a psychological edge to it, the psychology of obedience, when Abraham was going to sacrifice his son, or when people do things in the name of God. So, I’m really interested in those, the Stanley Milgram experiments from America in the 50s, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in “Prophecy,” in terms of psychological research behind the thriller.
And then “Exodus” is about the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant as the Middle East counts down to a religious war, and in that one I did a lot of research, obviously, about where the Ark of the Covenant might actually be, and that was brilliant, I really enjoyed that, and going to Ethiopia and Jordan and fascinating places like that.
And then “One Day in Budapest,” which has just come out as you watch this, is more of a political thriller: if you like Daniel Silver, you might like this book. It’s got a political edge, it’s kind of a day of terrorism by neo-Nationalists, in Budapest, and Morgan Sierra just happens to be there, delivering some ancient objects back to the Synagogue, as it all kicks off. So it’s a very high-paced novella.
But anyway, those are my books. You can also sign up for my list, if you’d like to get specials or giveaways, that type of thing, at jfpenn.com/list
OK, well, I hope you enjoy the book. I look forward to hearing from you all, and thanks for having me, Rhonda, and thanks to all of you in the book group.