Interview: Andrew O'Hagan on his fifth novel, The Illuminations
Scottish author Andrew O'Hagan earned a reputation for blurring the boundaries between memoir, journalism and the literary genre with his debut non-fiction work, The Missing , in 1995 - along with shortlistings for the Booker prize, the Whitbread Award and the IMPAC Award. Since then he has cemented his reputation as one of his generation's most exciting writers with such disparate novels as Our Fathers , Personality , Be Near Me and The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe , as well as his non-fiction works and essays -including his recent essay for the London Review of Books , Ghosting Julian Assange . He talks to Bron Sibree about his latest and fifth novel, The Illuminations , which shines a light not just on the battlefront of the Afghanistan war, a conflict he describes as Britain's Vietnam, but the home front.
Your novel merges the story of 82-year-old Anne Quirk, a pioneer of documentary photography now struggling with memory loss, with that of her grandson, Captain Luke Campbell. How did it come about?
I heard the voice of this elderly lady, Anne Quirk, while imagining her standing at a window seeing a rabbit run through the snow - that was the beginning. My mother had told me about a person she knew who had, as it turned out, dementia, but her past was beginning to emerge just as her memory was diminishing. That seemed to me such an incredible dynamic in life - that your memory should fade and at the same time the truth from the past should emerge. And I thought, "I'm having that," and I went after Anne Quirk. From the very beginning, her experience bore a strong resemblance to that of Margaret Watkins, the Canadian-born photographer who died in obscurity in Glasgow in 1969. Watkins was a fantastic artist, and I'd hoped that one of the things the novel might do was alert people to the neglected genius of this woman.
The novel is lit up with the light not only from the annual Blackpool illuminations which gives it its title, but from your word images of Watkins' real-life photographs and the processes of her art. Can you tell us a little more?
I first saw Watkins' photographs in a photography magazine and was immediately struck by how powerful they were. They seemed miracles of light and grace, and I then went to find as much as I could of Watkins' life and work. She had spent the last four decades of her life in Glasgow, near where I grew up. It seemed so moving to me that she'd lost her professional footing, being drawn - like so many talented women - into a life of domestic duties. I found these words she wrote about missing the artistic crowd, their "strange gleam of vision, something worth striving for, something a bit beyond the end of their small human noses" in a book, and was struck by them. These seemed to energise my whole sense of Anne Quirk. And in a sense they are the rationale for the whole novel, because I think all its characters in different ways struggle as Watkins did to see life and be in life in as true a way as possible. So I wanted to set in train a little moral drama that got to the heart of this problem, a problem of our time, especially, of how to live and what to do. How to be authentic in a time when there's so much manufactured life to contend with. A war situation is a manufactured narrative now as much as a photograph is digitally enhanced.
You not only spent a lot of time with serving British soldiers and veterans but also travelled to Afghanistan. How did you find it?
Completely heartbreaking. I'm afraid that we entered in on a disaster there, but we've left an even worse one and I think history will see that conflict as having been a piece of hubris on the part of America and Britain, especially that we've sown more hatred than we ever got rid of. But it was a very important trip for me. Martha Gelhorn once said, "If you're going to write about war situations, you've got to taste it," and I took that seriously. I went there because as much as you can imagine these things, it is not until you get the taste and the smell of it that you can really convey, at the right level, the story. But on the other side of it, I also went back in among women, back into those communities on the west coast of Scotland, that are known to me. People forget that in war situations, soldiers don't just exist for the battle, they come from women, and they've to go back to women, and that's what community is about. Any novel about war and peace, conflict and the settlement afterwards always has to deal with the family because it's really the first unit of political power. Indeed family, and more particularly, family secrets, play out potently here. Even growing up I noticed that people were energised by silences and by little dark corners of their lives. People would sometimes indicate or suggest there was a lost baby or a love affair that went wrong or a mother who never spoke again. That was how people lived. That's still how people live and yet sometimes I think novels are too certain, they're too explicit about what's present to people and slightly deaf sometimes to what's not entirely explicit. The novels I've always liked are full of secrets. Full of those bits of life that people have that they just haven't yet got to the end of, they haven't yet solved, they haven't yet revealed, even to themselves. People don't just live a life of unalloyed sequential clarity, people tell stories in order to survive. People manage their material so as to be able to bear it.