Interview: Day by day
Adrian Plass talks to Charissa King and Stephen Tomkins
In 1983, when The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ was topping the bestseller lists, the Deputy Editor of the Christian magazine Family had an idea. He happened to notice that a writer he knew, who had not yet had any of his books published, had the same Christian name as Adrian Mole. He invited Adrian Plass to write a Christian version of the secret diary for Family, poking affectionate fun at the foibles of church life.
The column was successful enough to become a book, The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 ¾, which, thanks to its honesty and charm, became a bestseller. It has sold over one million copies and been followed up with five sequels. It also launched Mr Plass and his wife Bridget on a career of writing and speaking. From 2009 they spent three years living and working at Scargill House, a community and retreat centre in Kettlewell, North Yorkshire, and they remain involved with the community.
In February 2017, Mr Plass published his 45th book in 30 years, The Shadow Doctor (Hodder & Stoughton). Reform met up with him in London.
Happy 30th to the Sacred Diary. Do you feel that you’re best known for a book you wrote three decades ago?
Sometimes. It can be a little irksome. People ask: ‘Why have you written another book?’ and you say: ‘Well, actually it’s my 39th’. But Bridget and I owe the life of writing and travelling that we’ve loved for 30 years to that book.
Do you know what it is about it that connected with people?
It was like a mini explosion in people, reading something and thinking: ‘Wait a minute, that’s true!’ You can know something for years but not find a way of expressing it. There are corporate ways of expressing things in church that are neurotically positive, but being a Christian can be depressing and difficult. Seeing something in print can somehow give you permission to laugh and agree. It was totally against our expectation. I wrote it as a sort of therapy really, to recover from a stress illness and because I was finding church increasingly difficult and it was a way of liberating myself. In the process, it picked up on things other people were feeling.
When I [Stephen] interviewed you in 1999, you said: ‘I’ll never write such a funny book again, because I’ll never be so unhappy.’
Yes, I could have written a very boring, angry book and ten people might have read it. The decision to write a funny book was a wonderful one – it wasn’t mine, it was Andy Butcher of Family magazine. It was just like dirty water flowing off my chest. I wrote the first line – ‘Our church is getting like an auction room. One blink and you get ministered to’ – and it was like years of frustration rolling out. It was very satisfying.
What was going on in your life then?
I think I had a very fragile personality. I was easily knocked. I worked with kids in care and was running a secure unit, and, although I enjoyed that, the combination of church driving me mad and the difficulty of actually helping children in trouble and
my own fragility all came together at the same time.
It seems a remarkable feat to turn such bad experience into a book as genial as The Sacred Diary.
Humour doesn’t work like that really. A lot of comedians are miserable berks, and a lot of my humour is difficulty reconstituted. It’s a way of coping, and it opens doors in people, allows them to relax enough to really think about what they feel.
The Shadow Doctor in contrast seems to have terrible pain right on the surface.
It’s two kinds of pain. Jack has learned how to help people in a way that makes them a bit happier but doesn’t solve any of his problems and deep inside he knows it’s all falling apart. The Shadow Doctor has clearly been through very difficult times but
has found a way to help people without using traditional Christian ways or language, but he’s not accountable to anyone. …
This is an extract from the March 2017 edition of Reform.