The View From Here Interview:
Jon Haylett won The Bridport Prize in 2003 and The Royal Society of Literature's VS Pritchett Memorial Prize in 2004. Jon's first published novel, Cry of The Justice Bird came out last year with the publisher, Paperbooks. A year later I catch up with him to talk about his journey to publication and his writing.
For part 1 of the interview click here.
The Cry of the Justice Bird is graphically violent - was that difficult to write?
Mike, I’d be desperately disappointed if you didn’t feel that all the descriptions were graphic: the African scenery, the vivacious Boromundi people, the wall-to-wall action. None of it was difficult to write.
In my experience Africa is a dangerous place. In our safe civilization we’ve forgotten the realities of death and violence; we’ve sanitized them. How many people have gone out recently and killed and prepared the flesh which appeared on their dinner plates? When some nutter goes on a brief rampage it’s headline stuff, yet the sort of gang I describe in Justice Bird has been active in the recent history of Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, the Congo/Zaire, Algeria, and many more.
One of the questions the book poses to us, sitting in our comfortable safety, is, “What would you do if some one near and dear to you was the subject of extreme violence but there was no hope of redress through justice?” In the US or the UK, justice, mostly, works; but in vast areas of the world, Africa in particular, it doesn’t.
Violence is such an integral part of the human condition that any good writer must be able to cope with it, albeit in different ways. My only surprise was that Lorna, my editor at PaperBooks, felt that some of the most violent sections needed to be even more prolonged: the dismemberment of Mophas Mandabanga on Lake Kenge was considerably extended to keep her happy.
Some parts of the book read like Western fantasies played out in an African setting (I'm thinking of the end bit with the "page 3" girl pose etc).Was this a conscious decision to write in this way to give the book a heightened sense of reality?
‘Western’ fantasies? Jesus, Mike, do Western men have a monopoly on fantasies of a lovely, near-naked blonde girl chained up and laid out on a leopard-skin rug waiting to be rescued from two raging lions? No, I think the appeal of such scenes is universal, and as comic as they may be titillating. I’m sure that’s why so many women have enjoyed the book because it takes a poke at men’s base fantasies. At the same time, it’s the sort of book in which extreme violence and humour merge. I’ve watched a frightened hunter stab a wounded oryx with a spear and, as he did it, he .… laughed. Why?
But I do agree with you that the book conveys a sharp sense of reality.
In your book Temba is a character that serves to entice Armstrong away from his normal life into a life of adventure. Do you see your role as an author to show us that we can have more exciting lives ourselves or to transport us into a fictional world of action and adventure or both?
Temba is already dead set on the road to the cold-blooded torture and butchery of the ‘Five’, and doesn’t need Armstrong along. Armstrong, although he ‘writes’ the book as if he is the hero, makes the brave decision to tag along. For me, Temba is Africa, vivid, larger than life, determined, the sort of man I’d respect and friend I’d die for. He’s the hero. By comparison, Armstrong is bored and aimless: but - wow! - in the face of adversity does he come together!
I think any storyteller sets out to divert but I do hope that Justice Bird goes further by, as you suggest, pointing its readers along the road to adventure, because what is life without the excitement of adventure? My adventures, like hitch-hiking across thousands of miles of Africa, live with me. Even today, when I launch my kayak onto the wild waters of the Sound of Mull, I’m living another small adventure. I want to go on having adventures until I drop.
You bring together two cultures together in your book with Christianity and African superstition. The path of revenge that Armstrong takes to avenge Rebecca's death would not be one that Rebecca would have liked being a Christian. Armstrong doesn't seem to think this through and although you touch on this with Chloris later in the book you don't really explore the effect of extracting revenge on Rebecca’s killers has on Armstrong. Was that because you wanted to keep the book a simple action/adventure book and how much was the Justice Bird, that Temba introduces to Armstrong to, a device to overcome problems such as motive to get to the action?
Mike, I can’t agree with you when you say that the book doesn’t explore the effects of exacting revenge. Obviously, it isn’t an academic book but, for an action/adventure novel, it does raise all sorts of questions.
Both the nun Chloris and Armstrong’s girl friend, Rebecca, who was murdered, are devout Christians. I agree with you: they probably wouldn’t have liked what Armstrong and Temba set out to do. Chloris makes her view quite clear. But I wonder what people with those girls’ convictions would do instead.
Christianity preaches that one should turn the other cheek. Yet ‘turning the other cheek’ seems a quite pointless action in the circumstances. It doesn’t even pretend to work on a national scale. So Christian nations go to war and threaten to drop atom bombs on thousands of people when they see their interests threatened; and there is precious little forgiveness in the criminal punishment system ‘Christian’ Britain runs. So, would a good Christian really turn the other cheek to unrepentant rapists and murderers who glory in the horrible murder of an innocent woman? I wouldn’t: I’d exact a vicious revenge.
Armstrong does a fair bit of soul-searching before he decides to join Temba and, by the end, he’s sick at what has happened. After he’s killed the last of the ‘Five’, he says, “Perhaps I could stay (in Boromundi) and do a bit of planting and cherishing instead of killing.” It’s like going away on a great adventure, when you come home, kick your shoes off and sit in front of the fire: you’re knackered but glad it happened, you’re relieved it’s over but you’d go and do it again.
There are other ways in which the book is a ‘thinking’ book. Take the Justice Bird. Isn’t he that strange little voice that every human has, whatever their belief: a conscience?
For part 2 of this interview click here.