'Journalism was an adventure, but now it's time to write'

A Booker-nominated novelist tells Matthew Bell why he cut his teeth as a foreign reporter

Talking to Ed O'Loughlin, you might get the idea that landing a job as a foreign correspondent then giving it all up to become a Booker-nominated novelist was the most normal career progression for a writer.

He seems slightly bewildered to be asked about his work, and is not at all the garrulous raconteur, unlike many who have travelled the world in search of stories. But delve a little deeper and you find that journalism was perhaps never his natural home.

"I went into it because you didn't have to get up in the morning, which was a big thing in those days," he recalls. That was in Dublin in the early 1990s, where O'Loughlin had just graduated in English from Trinity College. Although he grew up in Ireland, near Kildare Town, from the age of six, he was born in Toronto and spent his early years in Edmonton, Alberta. His father was an engineer and his mother a doctor, and Canada suited them, but after a stint in Manchester, the family settled in Ireland, his fathe's homeland, where he was known as "the Yank" at school, giving him a lifelong empathy for misidentified Canadians.

He knew that novels were what he wanted to write, but calculated that journalism would be a useful way to prepare himself. After a post graduate course in journalism at Dublin City University, he freelanced for several Irish papers, including The Irish Times. When the paper's Africa correspondent died in a car crash in South Africa, a vacancy was created, but because the staff were mostly in their mid 40s, nobody was interested in uprooting to Africa. "They were all relatively old, and the idea of going to Africa didn't appeal to anyone. So they had to offer the job to freelancers, and I got it."

Based in Johannesburg, he grew to love Africa, and stayed on after his contract expired, freelancing for a number of Dublin newspapers. Although he had had experience as a reporter, he had no training as a foreign correspondent. "Looking back, I don't know how I did it," he says. "The thought of sitting down now to write 1,000 words in four hours fills me with dread."

It is a strange confession to hear from a journalist with 19 years' experience, but O'Loughlin is not embarrassed to admit he finds writing difficult. He has always been tyrannised by the blank page and a fear of freezing up while a deadline looms. Oddly, he feels no such pressure as a novelist.

"I find writing books more rewarding. I don't want to knock journalism as it's a great way to earn a living, but I don't miss it. The truth is, I was probably a bit burned out by last year, so I stopped." O'Loughlin's last posting was in the Middle East, which he left in May 2008 to concentrate on his book. He had been writing it in bursts since 2001, but, perhaps not surprisingly, found chasing explosions around Israel and Gaza far from the ideal conditions in which to knock it on the head.

Nevertheless, the experiences of his first job armed him with a rich mine of ideas for his second, and his debut novel is a welcome addition to the canon of foreign correspondent novels that include Scoop and The Quiet American.

But if the adventures of his fictional character Owen Simmons are hair-raising, O'Loughlin doesn't pretend that his own were. "I wasn't a war correspondent, and much of the time my real work was doing features."

Perhaps sensibly, O'Loughlin doesn't rule out returning to journalism, but his fledgling career in fiction has gone astonishingly well so far. Two hours after he finished the manuscript of his second novel he learnt his first had been long-listed for arguably the most prestigious literary prize after the Nobel, the Booker. "I guess that was serendipitous," he concedes. If he is unfazed by his achievements, there is also the possibility that O'Loughlin is unaware quite how fortunate he has been. Ask him what the good points of being a journalist were and he says: "Running around on an expense account and getting to have adventures. You have tremendous freedom as a foreign correspondent because your boss doesn't know where you are."

It's not what many editors would want to hear today. But he agrees that journalism was a different world now from when he entered it, perhaps the last generation to be able to enjoy that Scoop-style chaos and liberty. He will miss the excitement, he says, but he won't miss the writing. "Journalism and writing are like methadone and heroine – they fill the same nerve receptors in your brain, but one of them is more powerful." And for him, it's not journalism.

Debut novel

Not Untrue and Not Unkind revolves around Owen Simmons, a world-weary foreign correspondent called back from Africa to his newspaper's Dublin office. After an older colleague's death, he looks back on his time in war-torn Africa in the 1990s. Difficult decisions and a thick skin were demanded of him and the tight-knit group of journalists with whom he chased stories from a succession of smart hotels against a backdrop of genocide and decay.