The third book in Glynn Young’s Dancing Priest series — Dancing King — released in December. Last month I read all three books (the first two were a blessed opportunity to reread).
The stories haunt you, and not in a scary way. They serve as almost an alternate history: What if the Athens Olympics unfolded like that? What if England had a king on the throne instead of a queen? Like any good alternate history, it has enough true details to make it seem real. So real that I find myself thinking The Violence from book 2, A Light Shining, was as real as The Troubles.
Last month I also finished the The Aeneid, and these words tell you everything you need to know about the main character of the series, Michael Kent-Hughes:
I am here before you, myself in my own body,
I am here as I am and here as what I have done.
Who is Michael? Look at what he does. Michael is always fully himself, whether he’s on a bicycle, preaching a sermon in an Anglican church, or preparing to take the throne.
In Dancing King, a significant scene happens at the Victoria Memorial. Wikipedia says that the central bronze is titled Winged Victory, above representations of Courage and Constancy. Those three sum up Michael Kent: victory, on the “wings” of a bicycle; constancy, his compass pointing to the true north of the gospel of Jesus Christ; and courage, but his club is a royal scepter.
I met Glynn several years ago when he was an editor for The High Calling. We learned then that we both enjoy cycling, so our conversation started there. He talked about the scenes that snuck up on him, like the one at the Victoria Memorial. He also discussed tentative plans for upcoming books in the series, but I won’t go into any details. Who knows what Michael and Sarah and their children and England and America and the world might do next.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity and to make it a bit less spoiler-y.)
Megan: How often do you get a chance to get on your bike?
Glynn: If I can, I get out a couple times a week. I’m about a mile and a half north of a biking trail, and it takes me on about a 10-mile trail. I can go back and forth — there’s a side shoot off of it, mostly in one direction, which is up. It’s a hill. You’ve gotta go up about a 1/4-mile, then up a steep grade, then make a left.
In London, I like to watch people bike to work. They don’t think twice about the traffic. One afternoon it was about 5:15 [p.m.] We stopped by Wellington [Arch], near Hyde Park Corner, and watched the bicyclers come — they come in wave after wave after wave. They cut through the parks, particularly on the way to north London. Hundreds and hundreds of bikers. The traffic in central London is just ferocious. They’re braver than I am or more foolhardy or both.
Megan: I have to tell you a funny story. I’m so into these characters that while buying a Valentine’s card for my husband, I set one aside thinking, ‘Sarah should give this one to Michael.’
Glynn: [Laughs.] I sometimes forget that it’s a fictional character myself. You go through three books with essentially the same cast of characters. I did know from the very beginning where this story was headed. As I was inventing this narrative, at some point I knew [Michael] would land where he landed. It kind of had this sense of this is what it’s rolling toward.
This third one, some funny things happened with this one. I had a lot of trouble writing it. It’s been five years since the last one — the reason being I did that nonfiction, Poetry at Work, in 2013, a year after the second novel, while going through intense period at work that I thought was never going to end. My mother, her physical condition was deteriorating. She died in February ’14. I was wiped, totally exhausted, thought, ‘I just can’t write anymore.’
Then came retirement, 2015. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten the story, but I couldn’t figure out how to get my head around what had to happen. It was getting frustrating.
Then one day I just turned the computer off and went for a walk. I was about a mile into a 4 1/2 -mile walk, when I heard that voice. It was the funniest thing, and it’s the quote that opens the book: ‘I wrote this down because that first year, those first six months, explained everything that came after. — Josh Gittings.’ And I thought, ‘I know how to write this.’
I came back, and I sat down and started writing. Nothing significantly new came — I had pretty much mapped out the key elements — but there were a couple things that developed. Scenes in particular that didn’t exist. A lot of this story has existed for over a decade in one form or another.
One new one was when they’re on the plane, Michael tells Josh that he’s thinking of giving sermons. That was new. That scene at Southwark Cathedral, the first place he speaks — that was brand new. The scene, it just rolled right out of my fingers as I’m typing.
The scene around the Victoria Memorial, that scene was brand new. That one still gets me. The Victoria Memorial scene came from — it just started happening and there it was on the page. It’s part of what happens and who he is and is particularly important for what happens later.
A scene that I wrote that was also new, right after Southwark, the scene of Michael and Ian in the barn, mucking out the hay, from Ian’s perspective.
[Dancing King] is sort of episodic. It’s not Michael telling the story anymore — he’s become something else. It’s about him. It’s the elevation of him [being king]. You get these different perspectives. It sort of pushed Michael up, that people are talking about him — they’re telling his story now.
Megan: Since I read the series over two weeks, I kind of have the whole story in my mind at once. This book is different than the other two.
Glynn: My wife was saying the other night, ‘I could see it.’ It had gotten a lot more precise. The first two [books] were essentially written before we went to London the first time. We’ve been five times since 2012. The biggest change was things got much more precise and I could speak with more authority about scenes and locations and directions. I think it helped. Of the three of them, I like the third one the best. I think there’s more knowledge and understanding and research. It’s a better book in a way.
Megan: Back in book 2, A Light Shining, one of the plot points was that The Violence didn’t reach Northern Ireland. I went there in 2012 to cover the 100th anniversary of the Titanic, and our guide, a native of Belfast, said that when the city rebuilt, they used glass because now they had nothing to hide.
Glynn: You said in a Tweet that The Violence was prescient. My wife said, ‘You need to stop writing about some of these topics.’ That whole original was written in 2005-2006, before the big terrorist attack in London in 2007, before a lot of terrorist activity on the Continent. I don’t think I was predicting the future, but there was some sense of something. These kinds of things happen when society and culture becomes very stressed. It’s how people act out their own anxieties and fears and ideologies. You think back to the Bible, the New Testament, a lot of upheaval in the Roman Empire. I think I’m trying to make sense of it in these books.
Megan: On your Dancing Priest blog, you mentioned that it’s in the crowd scenes where a lot of the emotion happens. The thing I noticed is that there are different types of crowds in your books. If it’s a small crowd, like the size of a gang or even in the hundreds, then be afraid. But when you get into the large crowds, thousands and millions, it brings out the best in people. There’s goodness. That was unexpected.
Glynn: That’s interesting.
The motorcade in Dancing Priest, and all the crowds, millions of people lining the way. The crowds [in Dancing King] around the Victoria Memorial. They’re in the second book too.
Michael will be known as the People’s King. His background is the strangest of any king England has ever had. He’s a priest — the first priest, I think. He’s been brought up in a middle- to upper-middle-class home. He connects with people better than he might otherwise. We first see it in Dancing King, the relationship between him and the people that supersedes everything. [They say,] ‘He’s not in this for himself, he’s in this for us, he can be trusted.’
Megan: I’ve been bingeing on lectures by Dr. Peter Kreeft, who is a philosophy professor and a C.S. Lewis scholar, and one of the things he says is remarkable about the Chronicles of Narnia is that Lewis makes goodness attractive. I see you doing something similar in your series, and it’s hard to do, as a writer.
Glynn: A woman who read the first book, she loaned the book to a friend and came back and said, ‘If I wasn’t already a Christian, I think I would want to be.’ It’s a very different picture that’s being painted here. There is something attractive about goodness. It’s so easy to stereotype it and make it clichéd, and I will tell you there were things I cut out because it was getting too clichéd.
After the first book there was a man who worked for Microsoft in Seattle and sent me an email that said, ‘This needs to be required reading in every high school in this country because it’s about a young man who’s got nobility of purpose. You don’t see that anymore — in fiction or anywhere else. What a role model!’
A pastor from Lexington, Kentucky, a 25,000-member megachurch, he had ordered the book for his staff and elder board. He said he’d never seen a better description of lifestyle evangelism. I thought, ‘I need to go back and read my own book!’ But I know what he was talking about. It’s how Sarah accepts faith. It’s got different details, but it’s based on my own experience. Unlike her, I wasn’t romantically involved. Other than that, I almost lifted off my own experience.
These things always surprise me. There’s so much of your own self that a lot of times it’s so close you don’t even realize what you’re writing, You’re just telling this story. I didn’t write the story with the thought in mind. That’s how the story developed.
[Michael] has flaws. He makes mistakes, but there’s something that speaks to the idea that this is what we’re supposed to be like, the direction. It’s about goodness. You can see elements of Christ in Michael, that desire to do what’s right even if it’s the hard thing. That’s who he is, and that’s going to continue to shape him going forward.
Megan: Unlike a lot of Christian fiction, faith is certainly part of the story, but it’s not the point of the story. The story is the point of the story. But these main characters are people of faith, and so they live that out as their lives unfold. It’s not a happily ever after fairy tale.
Glynn: These books don’t fit neatly into what most people think of as Christian fiction. My own experience has been that the audience is more non-Christian than it is Christian. Christians get impatient with these books because they’re not what they expect them to be.
The Josh Gittings character, he’s got a lot of baggage. He’s done things he’s not proud of. He’s accepted faith and is now having to understand what that means. He’s having to realize and make decisions that he never really thought about. Behavior has to change, and yet this is not easy.
It’s not a fairy tale. It’s life — in some ways it gets harder. He’s a political operative. He doesn’t fully understand it yet but he knows the way he has to go. I didn’t plan that.
One of my personal favorites is the PR guy for the king, Jay. He’s a cultural Christian — this is what he was raised in. But something attracts him to Michael. Getting to know Michael and Sarah attracted Josh [to faith] too.
Megan: You mentioned going to England five times since 2012. What other research have you done?
Glynn: I took an online course on how Parliament works, just to understand. It’s very, very different from our system. I learned where the pressure points are, where the system could break. You get some glimpse of it in Dancing King with the actions of the prime minister.
I’ve taken several courses. It’s a service, FutureLearn.com, all free, based out of the UK. It’s different universities that coordinate it. They have every subject imaginable. I’ve taken one on [William] Wordsworth, Richard III. None of is a terribly onerous way of doing research.
Megan: On the Dancing Priest blog, you said you have ideas for a total of 14 books.
Glynn: The publisher and I sat down before I wrote the third one. He wanted to get an understanding of where my head was because there was a gap. I walked him through the main things that happen in books 4 and 5. This story arc is in my head. We’ll see how far the arc actually gets.
One of my favorite scenes is in the first one [Dancing Priest], at the Olympics, when Michael and the British team are called into the stadium. A friend sat in my office after he read the book. ‘That scene,’ he just kept repeating, ‘I totally lost it. I had to explain why I was crying over a book.’ It’s so emotion packed, but the scene flowed naturally.
Also, in book 2 [A Light Shining] Sarah’s press conference. Scenes packed with emotion, those are critical scenes. They’re in all three of the books. Some kind of transformation happens with those scenes — the characters are becoming bigger than themselves or something is happening that is bigger.
When I read the proof copy of Dancing King, I couldn’t put it down. It was like forgetting you wrote it. I didn’t change anything. You gotta step back and make sure it’s holding together and feels accurate. I’d get wrapped back up in the story.
Megan: That’s about all I have. Anything else?
Glynn: When I wrote the first two books, I had a spaniel sitting on my feet. Writing, it’s such a solitary occupation. When you start thinking about what you’ve done, you think, ‘That’s kinda cool.’ I never thought I could do something like this.
I could talk about this all day.