Andrew O’Hagan on animating readers’ imaginations

Andrew O'Hagan. Picture: Gary Doak / Writer Pictures
Andrew O'Hagan. Picture: Gary Doak / Writer Pictures
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Novelist Andrew O’Hagan sees his job to animate his readers’ imaginations, and if writing about war, he had to taste the fear

When you see millions of the mouthless dead

Across your dreams in pale battalions go,

Say not soft things as other men have said,

That you’ll remember. For you need not so.

ASKED why he’d written a novel about Afghanistan, Andrew O’Hagan recited those lines – written by 18-year-old Scottish poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, who died in the battle of Loos exactly 100 year ago. As a novelist, he said, his job was to animate his readers’ imaginations, and if that meant writing about war, he had to taste the fear of war too, to go to the dark places where it became tangible. “When I was in Afghanistan, I lost count of the number of times I thought, ‘Is that next bump in the road an IED [improvised explosive device]? Why didn’t you just use your imagination? I could be losing my life for a novel.’”

But that, he reckoned, was just the way it had to be. People read novels, Hemingway once said, to “get the moral news”, and that’s what he had to deliver too, even if it meant 50C heat, lips cracking with salt, and hearing Scottish squaddies call him “Sir”. It also meant catching the rhythms of the way they talked, listening to them not just on the battlefield, but back home too, and realising that their attitudes to the war could be every bit as varied as everyone else’s.

Not everything he saw in Afghanistan had to be put in a novel. Some people – like the boy he saw in prison in Kandahar, an eight-year-old arrested by American troops for wearing a suicide jacket he was about to detonate – would have dragged the book in a different direction altogether. “He’d got a letter from his mother. I asked him what it said. ‘You’ll get them next time,’ he replied. For that sort of thing, you do it straight, as journalism.”

Instead, he made his novel get behind the eyes of a woman in her eighties, a former photographer now suffering from dementia and living in sheltered accommodation in Saltcoats. Without minimising the suffering the illness involves, he wanted to show how it could also “allow the past to be re-realised in the moment”. His portrait of her drew inspiration from the photography of Margaret Watkins, a Scottish-Canadian documentary photographer whose work is only now, 46 years after her death, being realised. A fascinating interviewee, not just on these three pillars of his novel, but also matters as wide-ranging as asylum seekers, Hurricane Katrina, Karl Lagerfeld and Scottish identity, the only disappointment about the event was that the chair chose to end it five minutes early and without giving O’Hagan the chance to read from his work.

“Americans,” sighed the woman next but one to me at the end of the preceding event in the Spiegeltent with Paula McLean and Priya Parmar, “are just so articulate.” And true enough: these two would have easily eclipsed most of the other 800-plus authors flitting through Charlotte Square.

Not all author pairings work. Some became a competition, not a conversation, for others the chair has to strive mightily to draw parallels between the two writers. Not here, though. And for McLean, whose previous book was the worldwide bestseller The Paris Wife (about Hemingway’s betrayal of his first wife with his second), writing about Beryl Markham – (such a ballsy aviatrix, author and horse-trainer that even Hem was impressed), there was clearly more to her new book than just finding yet another inter-war love triangle.

Reading Markham’s biographies, she discovered that her mother had abandoned her to her father’s care in Kenya when she was just four years old, returning only after a 16-year absence. Change Kenya to California, and the same thing had happened to the young McLean too. She also discovered that Markham had a fling with the hunky Denys Finch Hatton – Karen Blixen’s lover in Out of Africa (remember the film?). “And we’ve all had that dream, haven’t we, where we’re wearing Ralph Lauren and Robert Redford is washing our hair?” Speak for yourself, dear.

In Vanessa and her Sister, Priya Parmar gives Vanessa Bell the same central role among the Bloomsburyites that she enjoyed in the recent TV series, A Life In Squares. Here too there was a personal link: Parmar had studied Virginia Woolf extensively and admired her enormously before the research for her book – in which she found out more about how Woolf stole her sister’s husband – made her change her mind.

“I completely fell for Vanessa,” she confessed. “The first time I visited her house at Charlestown, it looked so much like they’d all just left the room minutes before that I burst into tears.” And no, that hasn’t happened to me either.