The View From Here Interview:
Interview by Mike
James Meek's last book, The People's Act of Love won the 2006 Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, the 2006 Ondaatje Prize and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. James has worked as a journalist since 1985 and his reporting from Iraq and about Guantánamo Bay won a number of British and international awards. In 2001 he reported for the Guardian Newspaper on the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the liberation of Kabul. James new book is We Are Now Beginning Our Descent.
What's your ideal night out/in?
I'm not sure, but it's a good title for a short story. Like Charles Bukowski's 'Would You Recommend Writing As A Career?’
What is your favorite book?
How did you first make a break into getting your novels published?
I typed out the manuscript of my first full-length novel when I was eighteen, and sent it off to publishers, but they turned it down. I am glad about this now. I had a few short stories published in magazines and in one book when I was at university and, in 1988, when I was 25, I sent off another novel, McFarlane Boils The Sea,to a small Edinburgh publisher called Polygon. They liked it and, in 1989, published it. For this, my first published novel, I was paid four hundred pounds.
In your new book, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, you describe paperback thrillers as the type of book that has its "authors names on the front in embossed gold lettering". Your new book has embossed writing on the cover - was this a private joke on your behalf or just an amusing coincidence?
I would have preferred my name to be smaller, but the publishers have the last word on jacket design. It's not gold, though!
In the book your character, Bastian, says " (Novels) showed what human beings are." What are your thoughts on what literature can bring to a society?
Novels, specifically, are the only form of art which can create the effect of a second life, a second pulse and a second sense of experienced time alongside our own. For the span of the novel the reader's progress on his or her journey through time becomes both richer and less lonely.
What was your main drive for writing the book?
My intention was to tell a story which would incite the reader to see parallels between the difficulty people have in communicating with each other and the difficulty cultures have in communicating with each other. When words fail, other things take their place: sometimes violence, sometimes incompetent imagining of the Other.
Why did you choose to use the surname of your main character throughout the book instead of his first name, Adam?
He does have a problem with intimacy and distance. It seemed appropriate. First name seemed too cosy and friendly in not cosy, not friendly circumstances. Why does Tolstoy refer to one of his characters, Levin, by his surname throughout Anna Karenina, but to his other characters by first name and patronymic? Why does Thomas Mann call Hans Castorp by his first and second name throughout the Magic Mountain? Because Levin is Levin, and Hans Castorp is Hans Castorp, and Kellas is Kellas.
How did your experiences in Afghanistan effect you as a writer?
It is a place where each made thing is precious, and a book more precious than most; where words can still kill, shock and change.
What is your opinion on the current state of Afghanistan?
I believe there are parts of the country where life has improved, but on the whole the picture is bleak. US and British forces in the south and east of the country are doing what they can, but their mission is impossible, since whether they are doing well or badly in their goal of fending off their armed opponents and making the country safe for reconstruction, they are effectively acting as free mercenaries for a corrupt government. If they rid a neighbourhood of the Taliban, they only make it safe for bribe-taking cops, embezzling bureaucrats and governors up to their elbows in the heroin trade. If the western troops pulled out, they would only clear the way for the other forces tearing the country apart to return in greater strength than ever - the cultural conflict between the Pashtun in the south of the country and the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras in the north; the war between ignorance and enlightenment, between the countryside and the cities; the proxy war for influence between Afghan's neighbours, Iran, Pakistan, China and the former Soviet countries; the feuds between local warlords. There are three alternatives: partition of the country into north and south, the emergence of a popular, ruthless, relatively secular dictator whom the outside world and the majority of Afghans can tolerate, or - the best option, I think - the temporary suspension of the Afghan government and its replacement by a UN-mandated administration on Bosnian lines, but with a Muslim face and a Muslim chief administrator.
Part 2 of this interview on Friday, where James talks about Endings and gives advice to new authors. ( For part 2 click here. )
For this interview in the printed magazine of TVFH click here.
For James Meek's web site click here.
For an extract from We Are Now Beginning Our Descent click here.