'Devotion,' A Conversation With Ros Barber

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Photo: Derek Adams

Ros Barber is the author of the critically acclaimed, award-winning The Marlow Papers, which was written entirely in iambic pentameter. She began her career in the sciences and is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sussex; lecturer in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London; and Director of Research at the Shakespearean Authorship Trust.

Devotion, a novel, examines the distinction between faith and science to explore the story of a man struggling with incomprehensible grief. Finlay Logan, a psychologist, is tasked with examining the mental health of April Smith, a young woman who has blown up a busload of people, an atrocity inspired by her religious beliefs. Logan is dealing with his own tenuous mental health while overcome with grief after the accidental death of his daughter. Seeking solace from his work, he meets Gabrielle Salmon, a cognitive scientist who studies consciousness, induces spiritual experiences in her subjects, and claims to have made contact with the dead. Logan struggles with the interplay between scientific/pharmaceutical relief and religious salvation.

Dr. Finlay Logan is a fascinating and flawed character. Tell us a bit about him.
Some readers have found him to be unlikable because he's a womanizer. That surprised me because I'm aware that when you meet him, you're meeting him through his own self-loathing eyes. He blames himself for his past behavior. I suppose the reader can loathe him as much as he loathes himself. Some readers judge him for his past behavior, but he has his admirable qualities, and it may say more about the reader than about the character. After all, most of us haven't been so morally pure in our past behavior. To me, he's simply a compromised human being.

Of course, he's struggling with a terrible tragedy in his life.
Yes, he's embedded in grief over the death of his daughter, and grief can be a self-loathing state of mind. But to me, he's a sympathetic character; yes, he's made mistakes and done some things he's not proud of, but he retains a certain kind of goodness.

Tell us a little about April Smith, the young woman in Devotion who has killed a busload of students on their way to an atheist rally.
When I began the novel, I didn't know much about her or why she would do such a thing. Only as I wrote did April unfold as a character. She has a disturbing back story and it was the most difficult part of the novel to write. She's an oddball and a misfit. Unlike people who commit violence in the name of religion, her actions have nothing to do with God.

Devotion deals with the interface between faith, science, and grief. Tell us your thoughts about this issue.
I've long been interested in the possibility that science and spirituality connect. I thought about the book for a long time before I wrote it. I really had no way into the subject. It suddenly came to me when I thought about Logan; it crystallized when I thought of his losing his daughter. At that moment, I began writing the novel. Grief was the pathway into the subject. It seems to me when people are challenged -- whether by grief or any emotional turmoil -- they're empowered to grow and view the world differently. So, the death of Logan's daughter allowed him to look at the issue of spirituality.

I understand your own grief played some role in your writing Devotion.
Yes, it did. I wasn't aware of that until I was about three-quarters of the way into the book. It was thirty-five years since my brother had died, so I wasn't consciously touching on that loss. I think these kinds of issues arise when we're creating characters. Of course, Logan's losing a child is very different from my losing a brother.

At that juncture of the novel, I couldn't move Logan on, because I was unable to move on. I was stuck in my grief and couldn't have my character let go of his suffering. It certainly demonstrates the power of the past and how it never truly leaves us. When my brother died, I didn't have the opportunity to properly grieve him. My focus was entirely on my mom because she had experienced the loss of her child.

After having read Devotion, I must ask: do you find religious faith and science to be mutually exclusive?
No, not at all. I would say it's not really about religion with its trappings and dogma. Those things don't really connect for me. To me, religion is one thing while spirituality is another. I don't see science and spirituality as mutually exclusive, although I once did. I'd been an atheist but had some experiences that made me rethink things. For me, the book was an exploration of these issues.

Can you share with us some of those experiences that made you rethink things?
These things are difficult to describe, though I attempted to do that with Logan in the book. Some time ago, I experienced being at one with everything. I had the sense of being a complex arrangement of energy connected to the matrix of other arrangements of energy. It was a peculiar experience lasting about twenty minutes. It changed the way I saw everything. One has to have one's own experience for it to make sense. Even with my scientific background, it eventually dawned on me that consciousness is received rather than generated.

The prose in Devotion is quite lyrical. Who are your literary influences?
Graham Greene is a strong influence. I suppose it's more a factor that I favor poetry over anything else. I like accessible poetry. I can't name any particular influences because when you read widely, everyone influences you. In the end, you just develop your own style of writing.

What's coming next from Ros Barber?
There's a third novel boiling away. I could probably talk about it, but it's still in utero, so I'll leave it at that.

Congratulations on writing Devotion, a beautifully written novel dealing with loss, grief, spirituality and belief, some of the most profound issues besetting all people.

Mark Rubinstein's latest novel is The Lovers' Tango winner of the Benjamin Franklin Gold Award for Popular Fiction