James Meek: The war reporter fumbles toward a romance in the rubble of Afghanistan
Acclaimed war reporter and struggling novelist James Meek became an A-lister overnight with the massive success of 'The People's Act of Love'. For his follow-up he turned for inspiration to the day job
Sunday 03 February 2008
It's not hard to spot the author in the modern, polished bar we've arranged to meet in. At first glance, James Meek is the epitome of the unassuming writer. Carrying a cup of black coffee to the table and sitting down, he says firmly, "I'm not very good in interviews, so I've decided I'm not going to care any more, I'm just going to say what I think."
We're here to discuss his new book, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, the story of a war reporter, Adam Kellas, who is going through a series of personal crises. He has to negotiate a love affair with a destructive woman, rejection of his middle-class, politicised friends and an internal struggle with the ethics of reporting on the War on Terror before ending up at some sort of self-awareness.
An award-winning reporter, filing from political hot spots such as Afghanistan, Meek is more used to being on the other side of the interview table. But all that changed with the incredible critical and commercial success of his 2005 novel, The People's Act of Love. Widely praised, it won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize, and was longlisted for the Man Booker. One anecdote sums up how far he has travelled.
"In 2002 I went to Iceland to research an article for a newspaper. Afterwards, at Reykjavík airport, waiting for the flight home, I saw Ian McEwan in the queue. I thought, that has to be a sign of success, when they translate your novel into Icelandic. At the time I'd published four books, which had gone almost unread. I thought about going over to speak to him. Then I thought, I don't have anything to say. Three years later, I got an invitation from the Icelandic publisher of The People's Act of Love to the Icelandic Literary Festival, where they introduced me to my Icelandic translator. And as it happened, when the book was launched in London, McEwan came along."
He says it made him feel humble, an accurate description of an author who merely wants to be seen as a decent storyteller, rather than a preacher – however politically aware his new book is.
Storytelling is something Meek has worked at his whole life, ever since he was a child in Polmont in Scotland. It was a happy time; he speaks of watching bears feed at a burn behind their house, of seeing an escaped prisoner in Longriggend in Lanarkshire when his father was working in the prison system. All through this time he was learning to write, an imperative that he can't explain through any particular desire, just a need that was always there. "When I was about 12, I decided that the secret to success was to get a typewriter," he adds. "I told my mother that I would clean the windows for three months if she bought me one... and she did. But I only cleaned the windows once."
By the time he was grown up, Meek decided he needed a real career. Journalism beckoned, but not for any glorious reasons. "I needed to eat," he explains matter of factly. "More than that though – I didn't want to be poor." He stills wonders, he says, whether such a demanding career delayed his writing success – but then without its experiences, perhaps his writing would lack its stirring worldliness.
It's hard not to read We Are Now Beginning Our Descent as autobiographical, given Meek's shared background with Adam Kellas. There is a sense of an outpouring of frustration: with the inability of people watching the news to understand the ambiguities of war; with sexual relationships; with the publishing industry (thanks to Kellas's very funny, awful War on Terror thriller, extracts from which form part of the narrative). It sometimes feels as if Meek uses Kellas to live out a parallel existence at key moments in the author's life.
During one scene, for example, Kellas accidentally has a mujahideen tank fire on some Taliban trucks, an event that comes straight out of Meek's own life: "I was with this mujahideen group, opposite the Taliban front line. And I simply asked the guy, 'why don't you fire at the Taliban trucks?'," Meek explains, with a defensive shrug. "He became offended and ordered this tank to fire. They did come quite close to hitting. I often wonder how I would have dealt with it if those shells had hit."
But Meek denies that Kellas is simply a cipher. "As a writer it's all about 'what if?'," he says. "There's this stream of memories and experiences that bump up against your stories. But Kellas isn't like me. I feel more similarity with Lieutenant Mutz in The People's Act of Love. There are also lots of bits of my life that I haven't given him," he continues, picking up steam. "For example, there was a moment in Afghanistan where I completely lost my temper with the drivers. I was at the end of my tether. I grabbed one of their guns and put the Kalashnikov to my forehead and said 'Shoot me, shoot me!' So it's not a memoir."
I ask him whether war affected him badly, whether this drives his writing. Meek takes long pauses between words as he considers his answer. He says that he worries about being pigeonholed as a reporter who writes about his personal observations of war.
"In the balance of my life, war reporting is a small part of it," he says. "And it doesn't have to be blood and bullets to see people being brutal to each other either. To see a soldier manhandling a corpse of an innocent civilian he's just killed by mistake... that might be less horrific than going back to London after being there and having a meal in a nice restaurant."
I ask him if he is talking from personal experience, suddenly very aware of how far this trendy bar is from the countries with which we are in conflict. "It's a repeated thing. It happens all the time," he answers. "It takes a little extra mental effort to be angry about being from a country that is at peace, but has soldiers at war. If you do make that extra effort, it's very easy to get so angry that you can't do anything about it."
Meek's passion, so clear in his writing and often subdued in person, bursts out in little flashes of emotion. He has a repertoire of nervous movements that crop up whenever we get on to a thorny topic, such as stretching his arms or pushing his hands against the table. He is a fascinating contradiction, intensely private in what he offers up, yet open to direct questions.
Women are very clearly at the heart of his stories – Anna, the sexually driven mother in The People's Act of Love, Astrid, the femme fatale reporter in We Are Now Beginning Our Descent – and I ask him if his relationships have been largely happy ones, or like those in his books. "I separated from my wife in 2005," he replies. "That wasn't happy. But there are a lot of kind people out there."
Despite this sad event, Meek's writing remains romantic, if not blindly so. He talks of love as a "guiding force", and about the impossibility of ever really knowing another person. "You don't ever reach that final shore where you actually do know somebody. That's the problem with life. But simply through trying to reach that final shore repeatedly over a period of time, you at least get to know what that shore looks like." Then, with a coy laugh at himself, "I am sometimes accused of being too romantic."
He admits that aspects of past girlfriends have crept into his characters. Astrid, Kellas's subject of affection in the new book for example, has a dark secret that he has to face head-on if he is to be with her. "Have I had a bad period with a woman who drank too much, made me very unhappy?" he asks simply. "Yes."
Perhaps it's the way that this bottled-up emotion leaks out through his consummate storytelling that makes Meek such a powerful writer. There's something very British about the way he touches upon the harder events in his life, and with each subsequent book it feels as though he is moving closer to home. For his next book, which he is already working on, he plans to write about Britain itself. "I have travelled widely. Now I would like to travel deeply," he says. "For me now it's much more exotic to go to a town in the middle of Scotland that I've never been to before than going to, say, Machu Picchu. I'd like to destroy the notion of the exotic versus the domestic."
For a man who's seen more of the extremes of human nature than most people would ever want to, it's fitting that he will finally come home to tell us a tale about ourselves.
We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, By James Meek (Canongate £16.99)
'... "Don't blame you for turning the Afghan gig down, mate," the reporter said. "Fucking scare the shit out of me." He raised and lowered his glass and the lager suds drifted down from the brim. Kellas had nodded slowly, finished his drink and gone to look for the foreign editor. Like many others before him, Kellas found he wasn't brave enough to be thought a coward, and he had flown to the war.'
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