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Exclusive: Q&A with Paul Hoffman

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The book that set off a worldwide bidding frenzy in 2008 is finally hitting the shelves in the United States on June 15. Paul Hoffman’s The Left Hand of God follows the story of Thomas Cale, a teenager imprisoned in The Sanctuary, a brutal institution that trains boys to become warriors in an imminent holy war. This isn’t entirely a fantasy world — much of it is based on Hoffman’s own experiences growing up in an extremist Catholic boarding school. He recently spoke with Shelf Life about his childhood, how he turned his own story into a work of fiction, and what it was like reliving such difficult memories.

How did you get the idea for The Left Hand of God? Had you been thinking about writing this for a long time?

I’ve written two other novels and had been a screenwriter for some time. I tend to do everything the wrong way around in my life, and I did the same again. When I started out writing my first novel it wasn’t autobiographical, but now in my 50s I thought I would go back to my childhood, which was very odd and not like a normal one at all. From the age of 20 I led a perfectly normal life, but the first 20 years of my life were very strange.

I was born in a house without running water, my father was one of the pioneers of free-fall parachuting, and I saw several people die before I was seven years old doing that. I saw him come very close to it quite often. I was around soldiers all my life. My parents were Irish immigrants, Catholics, and they were sweet people but I was brought up by a particularly strict order and they were very violent. When my father was sent abroad to Africa, my brother and I both went to a boarding school that was very tough indeed, and that was the basis for the Sanctuary in the book. It was run really like a prison, and we were there all except about six weeks a year. It was tough; really thinking about it years later, I came back to regard it as an extraordinarily strange period. That was the inspiration for the first half of the book, the hero is trying to live inside an institution that is incredibly unpleasant, and just trying to survive around people who were often extremely cruel and who have an extraordinarily fanatical and extremist view of life, and given I think the nature of extremism both Islamic and Catholic, it seemed like a very timely thing to draw on.

Where are you from originally, and where was this boarding school located?

I was born in England. Both my parents were born in Ireland, but they came over when they got married. They were working class, but obviously many Americans will know when you move to a new country, you more or less always drop down a class or two, and we really had nothing. We lived in a house without running water or electricity; we had a well in the garden. I was born in the house by the light of a paraffin lamp. We had that strong Irish background but we were also completely removed from it, so that was the kind of strange start.

The boarding school was — oddly enough considering how it leads on to the rest of the story — in a suburb of Oxford. The difference between Oxford and, say, Cambridge is Cambridge is a university town, but Oxford is also a big industrial town. It’s kind of a cross between Cambridge and Detroit. We lived on the outskirts at the school, which had a huge car manufacturer. Most of the boys in the school went on to work at the car factory. It also had a huge estate which was kind of like the projects, very, very tough, so it drew its people partly from there, partly from the other schools who were the people they couldn’t control and partly from people like me who were the sons of sergeants and corporals — these parents had been sent abroad. It was something very unusual here, and I’m certain in America as well; it was a religious working-class boarding school full of real hard cases. It was an odd place, but next to one of the most beautiful towns in the world. It was another world, literally.

Did you ever get to explore Oxford?

We never went anywhere near the university. It might as well have been on the other side of the world as far as we were concerned. I ended up going there as it happened through a bizarre set of events. That’s partly connected to the story, because when Thomas Cale goes to escape, he goes to this extraordinary city of Memphis, that’s what really happened to me. By the time this school closed down; because it was very misogynistic, the local authority insisted that it take in some girls and they refused, so they just shut the school down. We were left high and dry, and I had no qualifications of any by the time I was 17. I met — this sounds like a corny Hollywood film, and that often happens to me, I live out these fairy tales — a teacher, despite my incredibly hostility towards her, who really impressed me, and after awhile I started paying attention to her. She said I should try for Oxford. Unlike the other universities at that time, you could take an entrance exam, which meant they didn’t care what you’d done before. It was you walking thorough the door, taking the exam and if you passed you got it in. She taught me in her extra time, and I got in.

I know people might think The Left Hand of God is a fantasy novel, but it’s not. It’s about someone who came from a joke, deprived background, gone through these extraordinary experiences in this extremist religion, had absolutely nothing then found himself. He was only two miles away from the school, but it was 1,000 miles. I wandered in with my knuckles dragging on the floor; it was a bit of a clash of cultures, to put it mildly.

How difficult was it to look back?

I think I’d avoided it in many ways simply because it was pretty unpleasant, but I was aware it was dramatic and I think as I began writing it all down and trying to recreate the school, it actually started to make me laugh the more horrible it got. The more I thought, ‘Did this really happen? Did people really tell me I was going to go to hell and beat us with these extraordinary things and keep us in this confined prison?’ We did make a lot of jokes about them, though they were very black. In a sense, writing it was almost a gallows humor thing. They couldn’t kill us, but in every other respect there was just this huge wall between us and them as they tried to make us obedient, to believe the things they believed in. We just wouldn’t do it. It was a huge struggle. People did all sorts of peculiar and strange things to escape. We spent seven years in a space that was a few hundred yards by a few hundred yards. It was so brutal and boring. You have to find an escape. Some people use to mix their own drugs in the chemistry lab, and you’d find them occasionally flaked out. Others did really dreadful stuff, I didn’t find out about it until later. They used to strangle themselves with their friends. It apparently gives you a big high when you come back, but obviously it’s incredibly dangerous. But it was a way of getting out. For me, I just sat there making up stories in my head. In which I was of course I was a hero, much adored by gorgeous young women. It was a huge practice for making things up.

Because of the religious aspect of the book, are you afraid it could cause some problems, maybe with Catholics saying people shouldn’t read this book?

I think if there is a reaction, it’s one I’m very prepared to take. It’s not against Catholicism as such; it’s really against Catholic hierarchy. It’s come out in Italy and I’ve just come back from Portugal. I left Portugal just a day before Pope Benedict. I thought there was going to be, particularly with the recent scandals, I thought there would be more offense, but so far, sadly, there’s not. [laughs] It is something I would like to discuss and bring to people’s attention, because a lot of this stuff is straightforwardly biographical. It’s not an exaggeration.

There was an auction frenzy for publishers wanting to buy the book. Were you surprised?

I was absolutely staggered. Initially for about six months, no publishers in this country [England] wanted it. They were very nice about it, I’d never had so many compliments before they said no. They said it was brilliantly written, highly original, absolutely nothing like this, but we don’t think it’s going to be commercial. Then one day Penguin UK came in and offered to buy it and also said, which is quite unusual, they wanted to take on the world rights. That’s usually not something that’s done here. That was on a Thursday, the same day rather bizarrely in which the world economy collapsed, in 2008. That was a bit odd. It was sold to America, Germany, Italy, and within three weeks it had sold in about 20 countries. To say it was astonishing is to put it mildly. I didn’t expect it and I had no reason to expect it after the initial reception. None of it made any kind of sense. The whole experience was all over the place.

The Left Hand of God is part of a trilogy. How far are you into the second book?

I should be finished by the end of the week. The book came out in the UK in January, so I had finished it and already gone onto the second volume by the time it was published here. The next volume next year.

What’s the response been like so far in countries where The Left Hand of God is already released?

What’s pleased me enormously I think has been the variety of people who are buying it. It ranges from people in their 50s and 60s who enjoy the book, and it may seem odd given that it actually has a teenager at the center of it, it wasn’t written for children. I think it’s quite a violent book and I wasn’t thinking of it in those terms. Lots of people have said to me it’s a boy’s book, which I never thought, but I’ve just come back from Portugal, and there’s a sort of huge following of the book amongst teenage girls which is brilliant and not really what I was expecting. The book is about someone who is completely separated from the female world, as we were as kids. There’s a description in the book, the only women in the Sanctuary are kept in a convent which is separated, and you can only talk to the nuns through a drum, and that’s what we had at my school. I think the hero, when he comes across girls, he’s utterly obsessed with them. He’s violently romantic. The enormous variety of the audience has been really pleasing, I’ve been delighted by that.

Are there any plans for you to go on a U.S. book tour?

We’ll see what happens, what kind of level of interest that people have in it. One thing that I especially know is it’s very hard to predict how people react to the book, and I think it can be every hard to predict how people take the book. What everyone wants to do is pick up a story which in some sense is familiar to them, because it replicates if you like the human journey that everyone goes on. Everyone feels like an outsider, everyone must start with nothing and create something. But at the same time, this is just not like anything you’ve read before. The pleasure of reading it I hope will be considerable.

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