22 Nov 2018 Interview with Chosen author Michele Guinness

Michele Guinness is a bestselling Monarch author of Chosen and The Heavenly Party. Michele was brought up in a practicing Jewish family and rocked the boat when she became a Christian, and then, married Peter Guinness, of the brewing family — who would became a minister in the Church of England, now retired.

Michele worked in the media for seven years, two of them presenting her own daily programme on BBC local radio, and then moved into the NHS, where she eventually became Head of Communications for Cumbria and Lancashire. Michele has contributed to several magazines, including Families First, and Woman Alive, (where her “celebration” recipes first appeared). She has written thirteen books, many of them exploring the Jewishness of Jesus and the Church.

Lion Hudson is delighted to publish completely revised editions of her two remarkable books, Chosen and The Heavenly Party — out now!

Here Michele chats with us about her novels that "have a new lease of life," her writing style, and her most rewarding experiences as an author.

It has been thirty years since you wrote Chosen, what inspired you to rewrite your autobiography?

I was very young when I first wrote it — virtually in nappies! (If you believe that, you’ll believe anything!) It makes me squirm that I was presumptuous enough to attempt an autobiography when I had barely lived, and when there were thousands of individuals out there who had made a far greater contribution to humanity than I would ever do, and were far more deserving of having their deeds recorded for posterity.

Stories don’t date, though they certainly need updating. When you have lived a bit, life helps you see things from a different perspective. The passing of the years doesn’t change the story, but it changes you. As a Jewish girl walking into church as a complete outsider, I saw things that the congregation didn’t — that made me groan and made me laugh. I still do, ever the objective outsider looking in, and I still think they’re worth sharing. I hope that I’m now a little bit wiser, and that after 12 other books, maybe I write a bit better.

Can you tell us a little about Chosen for readers who haven’t read your book yet?

It’s the story of a Jewish girl, brought up to love all the rich family traditions, but whose mother has OCD and spends her life straightening ornaments on the mantelpiece. So she wants more out of life than to find a nice Jewish boy and settle down, and she sets out to find it. But she ends up where she never expected — not just in a church, but married to a vicar! I hope people find that funny, because I certainly did. Even if my family didn’t. Well not at first, but that’s part of the story.

The culture shock was immense. Sitting in church I used to think, if Jesus walked in now, this is so unlike the warm, informal, family, food and community based worship he would have recognised, (and that I knew), would he even know what it was? I struggled to work out how to be Jewish and Christian at the same time, how to survive in the comparatively dreary environment where I found myself, how to raise children, and what I could contribute from my background to help people find colour and joy, understanding and wonder, richness and celebration, in a faith that had lost sense of its Jewish roots. Chosen is the ongoing story of that adventure.

What inspired you to write The Heavenly Party?

When I first became a Christian it seemed to me that around 50% of the New Testament was lost on my non-Jewish friends, not to mention most of the Old Testament, and I don’t think much has changed. And what a wonderful rich heritage is missed. God is the great party giver — commanding us to have all those fun festivals and holidays every year. Jesus was a great party goer, always out eating with his friends, even foes. And his followers are invited to a great, eternal heavenly banquet, so we might as well get into practice now. The Heavenly Party is a guide to how to do just that — how to invite in families, friends of all ages and even the neighbours to share in celebrations at home together around the table, with story-telling, symbol, festival and food. I thought it was time Christians showed the world that we have the best parties.

It has a do-it-yourself Passover service guide, a Harvest Festival Tabernacles celebration, ideas for Pentecost, Easter, and Christmas (we really should do Christian festivals better). And you’ll find my Great Grandmother’s recipe for cheesecake. That alone could revive the church.

How did you develop your writing style?

Practice. That’s why I’ve written 12 books. I’m still practising. I took my very first scribbles to a friend who had been a school Head of English. He said, “Dialogue fine, characterisation good, narrative rubbish,” or words to that effect. So I started to read my writing aloud until I felt I’d eradicated most of the cringe effect. I always think would my family and friends who have no faith find this embarrassing? Would I if they read it? I don’t even have an English A level to my name, so it amazes me that I have managed to earned my living as a writer — not primarily in writing books, but as a communications manager in the NHS. That’s where you learn how key good communication is, when people’s well-being depends upon it.

I deliberately read lots of beautifully-written books, usually novels as well as some spirituality — to remind me that I’ll never be as good as that, but it’s worth a try.

What has been one of your most rewarding experiences as an author and a public speaker?

There have been so many rewarding moments that have made my heart leap, but it tends to be when people tell you your books have inspired them to do something different, or changed their lives in some way, especially if they are people you admire. I was thrilled and honoured when Lucy Moore, founder of Messy Church, told me how useful she had found The Heavenly Party and how much she loved it. And when a friend who is a great straight talker, said she kept her copy by her bed so that she could use it for her daily reflections. It’s wonderful to see a copy in someone’s kitchen all dog-eared and splattered because they have been following the recipes. Or to go to a speaking engagement and find a selection of your tray bakes at coffee time, and discover that they taste better than yours ever do. Or when people write and say they have used The Heavenly Party to help them set up a street party, or create a gentle Christian family event with children who’d rather be out, or siblings who are professed atheists - and it went down well.

And I must admit that going back to my home town of Newcastle on Tyne some years ago to speak about Chosen, and finding a number of my former schoolteachers had turned up to hear me was both daunting and amusing. Not to mention discovering that a Jewish bookseller kept a stock of Chosen under the counter. And at a family Bar Mitzvah, he had to hide in the toilets because so many of the guests were characters in search of an author.

And then there’s that heart-lifting moment when you see a copy of your book lying on the passenger seat of a parked car you just happen to pass on a busy street.

Enjoy reading Chosen and The Heavenly Party. Buy your copy of Chosen here, and your copy of The Heavenly Party here.

Interested in learning more about Michele? Check out her wonderful website here.