Monday, 4 October 2010

Interview with Peter Millar, author of The Black Madonna

I'm really pleased that Peter Millar, author of The Black Madonna, has taken time out to answer a few questions about his recently published book, which I have just read and enjoyed.

Peter is a British journalist, critic and author, primarily known for his reporting of the latter days of the Cold War and fall of the Berlin Wall for The Sunday Times in London. He has published non-fiction, Tomorrow Belongs To Me, and fiction, Stealing Thunder and Bleak Midwinter.

The Black Madonna is a religious thriller set in London, Spain and Germany.

1. Firstly, where did the idea first come from to write this book?

My first encounter with a Black Madonna was seeing the lapel pin worn
by Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity free trades union in communist
Poland. That depicted the painted icon of the Madonna at Czestochowa.

In my time as a foreign correspondent I visited Czestochowa during the
pilgrimages of Pope John Paul II and for the first time became aware that the
idea of a 'black' depiction of the virgin - despite her more common snow-white
appearance - was a phenomenon throughout the Roman Catholic world. That
started me wondering why?

2. I've never read a book where a young Muslim woman is the lead and
wondered why you decided to have Nazreem as the main
character instead of a man? Was this deliberate, if so, why?

Yes, it was deliberate for several reasons: firstly because it seemed to me
correct that a book about the most famous female to have come from the
Middle East region during a time of trouble (the Virgin Mary at the time Israel
was being run as a Roman satrapy) should have as lead character a young
woman from the same region in a time of trouble today.

It also made sense that she should come from more oppressed section of
the population, which obviously pointed to the Palestinians of Gaza. I thought
it was also worth pointing out that despite its modern image as a hive of
concrete refugee camps, Gaza is actually one of the oldest cities on Earth,
dating back to the time of the Pharaohs.

One other important reason was that as there is a major role played by
fundamentalists Islamic terrorists in the book (as well as fundamentalist
Christians who are little better), it seemed worth highlighting that there are
Muslim women who are intelligent, educated, capable of independent thought
and who do not feel oppressed. I see Nazreem as representing a role model
that many women brought up in Islamic culture (I think particularly of the
brave female politicians standing for parliament in Afghanistan) genuinely
aspire to.

3. Did you travel to the places mentioned and see the idols in Altotting,
Germany and Spain?

Of course. Having been a foreign correspondent on the front line of the Cold
War (see my semi-autobiographical history book: '1989: The Berlin Wall, My
part in its Downfall') - I know only too well the importance of research carried
out not just through books or over the internet, but first hand. My family spend
several weeks each year in Munich and on several occasions we made trips
out to Altötting to see the strange and quite remarkable shrine, and the grove
of Linden trees around it. I was struck how similar the religious souvenir shops
around it were to those (owned my Muslims) on a visit to Bethlehem many
years ago.

I also spent several days in Guadalupe in Spain, staying at the same hotel
used by Marcus and Nazreem, the former lepers' hospital, now a magnificent
Parador. In addition I visited a shrine they do not quite get to, although it is
mentioned, that of the Black Madonna of Montserrat in the hills of Catalunya,
not far from Barcelona.

4. What is your next book about?

My next book, provisionally entitled The Shameful Suicide of Winston
Churchill, draws on my experience living behind the Iron Curtain in East
Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow. It postulates that, as was actually considered
at the time, the Western Allies joined with defeated Germany to press back
Stalin's growing communist empire in Europe. In this case they have failed.
Britain has been part-conquered by the Red Army and London is a divided
city. Forty years on a murder reopens some awkward old questions.
It is currently scheduled for publication by Arcadia next April.
I am also working on a sequel to the Black Madonna, again involving
Nazreem and Marcus, but the details of that are a secret for now.

A big thank you to Peter.

The Black Madonna is out now and is published by Arcadia Books.

My review can be found here

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