Victoria MacKenzie – Q&A

Victoria’ MacKenzie’s debut novel, For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain, was published by Bloomsbury on 19 January 2023.

Victoria kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain.

It’s a historical novel based on the lives of two medieval mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. It’s set in Norfolk in 1413, and I use intertwined first person monologues to allow Margery and Julian to tell the story of their lives.

Both women claim to have visions of Christ, but their lives could hardly be more different. Margery is a traumatised mother of fourteen, full of shame about sex and childbirth, and hounded by the church for talking about her visions. Julian is an anchoress – haunted by grief, she has lived for twenty-three years in a single room. She tells no one of her visions, but writes about them in secret. Her book, now known as Revelations of Divine Love, is the first known book in English by a woman.

The novel culminates in a meeting between the two women at the window of Julian’s anchoress cell, when they confide their deepest fears. Later, Margery dictates her life story to a scribe and the result, The Book of Margery Kempe, is the first known autobiography in English.

So it’s a novel about grief, motherhood and faith, and it’s also the story of the beginning of women’s writing.

2. What inspired the book?

I’d been nurturing the seed of writing about Julian of Norwich for a year or so before I put pen to paper. I’ve always been interested in religious faith, and I’ve also long been interested in those who live their lives according to strongly held views – whether religious or otherwise. Julian’s experience of being an anchoress particularly intrigued me – I wanted to imagine how it would really feel to be in a single room for so many years. What was it like physically? The cold, the boredom, the inability to stretch your legs and get fresh air. And what was it like mentally? How would it change your ideas about the world, your sense of self?

When I was researching Julian’s life I came across the figure of Margery Kempe. I started reading her autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe, and oh wow, her voice! I was mesmerised. Who was this woman – self-justifying, boastful, brutally honest in some ways but so self-aggrandising and deluded in other ways?

When I read that Margery had visited Julian, my novel took flight. THIS was what I wanted to focus on – these two women, who both claimed to have visions of Christ, and yet who couldn’t be more different from one other. I wondered what they said to each other – whether they talked about their lives and their visions of Christ, and what words of comfort they might have given one another? I couldn’t resist imagining this meeting and writing a scene in which these two tenacious women come together and exchange the stories of their lives.

3. Do you plan before you start writing or do you sit down and see where the words take you?

I’d say I was a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘planner’, but really there’s a bit of both going on. I do lots of research and thinking before I start drafting. Once I’ve settled on an idea for a novel I like gathering material in my notebook, which is a mixture of words, phrases, sentences, ideas, images, character sketches, lists of things to read, lists of things to research, etc. But I don’t sketch out plans of chapters and the drafts are shaped very organically once I start writing. This can mean a few false starts as I find my way through the material, but I prefer to feel my way gradually and keep an open mind about where I might end up.

4. Is there anything about the process of publishing a book that surprised you?

How slow it is – at least from a writer’s point of view. It’s been almost two years between the offer of the book deal and publication, but I understand that’s not unusual.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

I live in a very small village on the east coast of Scotland, so I am ‘away from it all’ most of the time! I like to walk, watch the birds, notice the changes in the seasons. I guess I visit cities on days off – to catch up with friends, go to exhibitions, see films, go to gigs and plays etc.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?

Even though I don’t have any religious faith, I’m tempted to say the Bible – it contains so many different stories and ideas. And it has such a range of literary styles too – rules, romances, parables, even lyric poetry and erotica. I aspire to read it in its entirety one day!

7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?

What a lovely and difficult question! Maybe, ‘Do you think you’d make a good anchoress?’

As to the answer – yes and no. I have a decent capacity for solitude and I don’t find the writer’s life a lonely one. But I’d miss being able to walk outside and see the sea, and I don’t think I’d be very good at offering wise counsel to any visitors I received. In some ways my novel was a way for me to enjoy imagining the anchoress life, without having to actually commit to it!

You can read my review of For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain here.

About the Book

In the year of 1413, two women meet for the first time in the city of Norwich.

Margery has left her fourteen children and husband behind to make her journey. Her visions of Christ – which have long alienated her from her family and neighbours, and incurred her husband’s abuse – have placed her in danger with the men of the Church, who have begun to hound her as a heretic.

Julian, an anchoress, has not left Norwich, nor the cell to which she has been confined, for twenty-­three years. She has told no one of her own visions – and knows that time is running out for her to do so.

The two women have stories to tell one another. Stories about girlhood, motherhood, sickness, loss, doubt and belief; revelations more powerful than the world is ready to hear. Their meeting will change everything.

You can buy a copy of the book here.

(This is an affiliate link so I may earn a small amount if you purchase through it. You can also buy For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain from your local independent bookshop.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    There are times when the life of an anchoress seems tempting… great final self-question! This is a very intriguing book about two quite remarkable women – thanks for a great interview.


  2. This one’s on my wishlist for the Women’s Prize longlist. I suspect it won’t make it but my fingers are firmly crossed.


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