The Independent Archive: `You get in the writer's sea and swim with him'

24 September 1987 Richard Ingrams interviews the novelist Brian Moore, whose thriller of church and state, `The Colour of Blood', has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize
THE WEEK in which the Booker Prize shortlist is announced focuses our attention on novelists. But it is a melancholy fact about the prize that the novels selected are seldom of the type likely to attract the general reader.

Good to report then, in this literary week, that a book is published which is a real novel and not some kind of literary tease. Its author is the Irishman Brian (pronounced Bree-an) Moore, and it is a thriller - a new departure for him. Its hero is a Roman Catholic cardinal presiding over the Church in an imaginary Iron Curtain country - the obvious parallel is Poland. In paragraph three of the book Cardinal Bem is the victim of an assassination attempt and from that moment finds himself caught up, along with the reader, in a conspiracy and thrown towards a thrilling climax.

It is impossible to put the book down, but it is more than just a good yarn in the Buchan or Ambler tradition. The Colour of Blood is an unfashionable argument, in a world increasingly dominated by fanatics of left and right, for the man in the middle, a good man "trying to save souls and keep the schools open".

Though Brian Moore writes here, as he has done before so sympathetically, about a Catholic priest, he is himself an agnostic. But he grew up in a devout Catholic household. "There were a lot of prayers, a lot of Mass, family rosary and all kinds of stuff. People thought always about the next world. The next world was the important one." The family also had a strong involvement in Republican politics. His father was rumoured to have helped Roger Casement run guns.

Moore has never been a best-seller. His first book, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, was rejected by 12 American publishers and all his early books were banned in Ireland, being deemed "anti-clerical and dirty".

Since the beginning, he has had a powerful supporter in the person of Graham Greene, who praised his first book and has since described Moore on every possible occasion as his favourite living author, though he was horrified when he learnt of his intention to live in America, which he regards as worse than Siberia. A word of approval for The Doctor's Wife (1976) resulted in a sale of 37,000 in South America. The same book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize but shot down by one of the judges, Mrs Wilson, who objected to the "dirty bits".

Moore has never sought Greene's company and in fact they have met briefly only twice. "I never wanted to see him," he says. "If someone praises your books, you don't want to put them off by going round and talking to them." But when thinking about his new book he re-read Greene's early thrillers and realised that he must have been influenced by something Greene had written apropos The Thirty Nine Steps - "this idea of a Minister of the Crown being pursued through the streets of London in the middle of the afternoon, with nowhere to turn".

"There is a quality of realism," Graham Greene has written of Moore's novels, "which gives the reader a kind of absolute confidence - there will be no intrusion of the author, no character will ever put a foot wrong." Another critic used the rather hackneyed expression "he writes like a dream" of Moore. It has always seemed to me an inappropriate analogy, as there is nothing in the least bit dreamlike about good writing.

"It's great fun," he says, "to go back to those old narratives. There's a conciseness and a power about them. They impose their own rules which say, for example, this book can't be any longer." For this reason the form of the thriller appeals to him as a framework in which the reader sees things at the same time as the protagonist. His greatest excitement when writing is the sudden realisation of what he is working towards: "I love it. Something happens to me - not always - I'm just sitting down writing and I'm not near the end and I suddenly say, `That's going to be the end!'

"You're going to get into the writer's sea and swim with him and then you're not going to jump out. And that's a great feeling of liberation."

From the Books pages of `The Independent', Thursday 24 September 1987