The pen may be mightier than the sword but the sheep are mightier than the pen
Friday 03 October 1997
a tale of weird goings-on involving nuns and sheep, has made her
a star. If you don't believe Ann Treneman, ask Winona Ryder.
Marele Day is a writer who is on the brink of the big time. Her new novel Lambs of God has already made her a rich and happy woman. Sales are excellent, reviews great and she has just signed a deal with Hollywood. Can fame be far behind?
But all that seems very far away as I watch Marele - chic in a little black dress and clunky heels - pick her way through the small sheep pasture at Kentish Town city farm. We are here to take a photograph. Her novel is chockful of sheep and it only seemed natural to find a flock for her. Except now that we were here it was clear that Marele is frightened of sheep.
"Is his name John?" she asks with a nervous look at the ram. "The name of the ram in my book is Father John."
"No, his name is Joe and you better watch out for him," says the farmer as he manhandles the ram away. Marele's eyes get wider and I am sure that she would rather be anywhere else than in an enclosed space with Joe and his harem.
The pasture is getting rather crowded. In addition to the sheep, there is the farmer, Marele, the photographer, me and a radio documentary maker named Barnaby. He is doing a programme for Radio 4 on Marele called "From Down Under to On Top of the World" and thinks it will be great to record what he calls the "actualite" of the sheep. To this end he is standing in the middle of the field, microphone outstretched for baa-baas. He says that when he is done with the actualite, he would like to interview me about my interview with Marele.
This is all getting so strange that I half expect to see Robert Altman burst out of the shrubbery to tell us we are all in one of his movies (presumably about the literary scene). In reality, the only filmmaker being mentioned to do with Lambs of God is much younger, much prettier and much bigger box office. Winona Ryder has bought the film rights and will co-produce and star. Marele says sometimes she cannot believe this is happening to her: a 50-year-old former English teacher from Sydney who created the fictional private eye named Claudia Valentine, and wrote four books starring her but then one day got a crazy idea to write a book about nuns and sheep.
Lambs of God tells the tale of Iphigenia, Carla and Margarita who live in a crumbling monastery on a remote island. The nuns have been alone for so long that they have gone feral and their lives revolve around a bastardised sort of Catholicism and their sheep (many of which are named after deceased nuns). At night they tell fairy tales and knit (their own hair as well as wool). The scene is lusciously set with the language of smell, blood, guts, sensation.
Then one day something unusual happens. "Smell with no name," sniffs Iphigenia who soon identifies the yeasty, custardy scent as that of a man. A young priest duly arrives, carting a mobile phone and a plan to turn the area into a resort. The nuns respond by shearing him, plastering his legs together, giving him a tail and placing him in the sheep-pen.
It is a wild, wacky and literary tale that follows and it is almost impossible to match anything but the literary bit to the woman sitting before me. Marele Day is quiet, sophisticated and tells her own story in a soft Australian accent. "I was making quite a nice little living on my detective stories; people knew me and I'd be going round doing this and that," she says "But this idea just wouldn't go away. I thought it was wacky too but I was also quite intrigued."
She decided the only thing to do was write it and so started work. This involved a lot of research as she knew very little about sheep - "Sydney has a population of four million people and not a sheep in sight - and is not Catholic. It's always said that you should write what you know but I prefer to choose something I don't know anything about."
Then she had a little lie-down. "A lot of the work is done lying on the couch, day-dreaming. The first shocking idea I had was about them knitting their hair. I thought, that is so gross. Then I thought: why is that so gross? We are quite happy to wear animal hair on our backs. Why do we feel revolted by human hair? Then I thought about blood. Catholicism is a cannibalistic religion - in the Eucharist you symbolically drink blood and eat flesh and Christians all over the world do this every Sunday. So why not real blood? What's so extreme about that if you don't have wine?
"Of course once you've had one shocking idea, well ... The next one was putting the priest in plaster. It horrified me and I wondered if they might kill him. I started out not knowing where I was going to end up.
"I had some kind of experience writing this book that I've not had with the other four. I can't even articulate it. I think that other writers call it being in The Zone. It's like when you are a marathon runner and you get to the point where you are not aware of yourself as a single entity and you're in the race and you are part of the running. It was like that. It sounds a bit weird but it all comes alive and suddenly you are actually in that world."
When she emerged, the book was finished and another drama began. This one was financial. In one week last October the book was "auctioned" to publishers in Australia and three other countries. All were healthy five- figure and six-figure deals and she speaks of it all with a kind of awe.
"The week began on Sunday night with news from Germany. There was this fax and I was just counting the noughts! And the results of the UK auction came on a Wednesday night, and then US came on the Friday morning and then 20 minutes later the phone rang and it was a Hollywood film agent. I was reeling, reeling. All I could do was go into the garden and pick weeds. I was stupefied."
Her first reaction to the Hollywood phone call was that it must be a friend playing a trick. But it wasn't. Jerry Kalajian is very much the real thing and he was calling because the word was out about this hot book. "Lots of agents were after Marele," he says when I ring him in LA. But what, exactly, is the attraction to this strange story?
"I'll tell you what I love about this," says Jerry. "I love the oestrogen. I love it. That's what made this book work for me."
Marele takes up the story again, carefully picking her way through the jargon. "So then he tells me we are giving it to Winona Ryder. He says that Winona is wrapping Alien 4 and that it might take a while. But he rang me back within a week and said "Winona's in". She's co-producing with Fox 2000. When Variety ran the story the headline was `Fox grabs Lambs'!"
Marele is now in a travelling phase - she has had bouts of these throughout her life - and she has just an inkling of what may become her next book. "My life has just burst open. There are so many choices as to what I could do now. I had a nice minimalist life before - a life that I enjoyed - but now it has simply burst open and I'm in a stage of deciding what to do next. If anybody has any ideas, I'd be happy to hear them." Somehow I don't think that is going to be a problem.
`Lambs of God' by Marele Day is published by Anchor at pounds 9.99.
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