Early in Andrew O’Hagan’s 2015 novel, The Illuminations, we are told: “That night … he began to tell a story about himself, a story that never ended.
Even after he died the story continued, and became something she added to herself.” Throughout the novel there are scores of vivid and often tragic lines, and O’Hagan’s insight into both the familiar and exotic lives of his characters is remarkable. Yet within those passages above, you might find an entire philosophy of life and writing. The Scottish author sits down with the BRAG to discuss exactly that.
“It’s an interesting question, because I feel that life is compelled by a communal love of stories,” O’Hagan says. “I don’t think there’s really a distinction to be drawn between reality and the imagination. I think reality is nothing without imagination. Equally, I feel that imagination is nothing without reality. I’ve never been personally interested in writing which boasts of being the product of pure, disconnected fantasy … the best of them are writers who are, symbolically or otherwise, still trying to show the world we know. To me, there is no choice between the two.
“James Joyce was a fantastically realistic writer, but of course there are also great interior monologues – he’s this great imagineer where the invisible is just as powerful as the visible. So I think you need an interest in both to be a writer. Even a writer like Borges, who wrote such great magical fictions – there’s a strange and descriptive concrete reality,” says O’Hagan.
“That was one of the things I was interested in writing about in relation to that war. It felt like fantasy for the boys who were fighting it, but the heat was real. The weapon on their shoulder was real. The fear was real. But the fantasy of conflict was a form of gaming. That to me is the novelist’s territory.”
The war in question takes place in Afghanistan, though at the risk of drawing a long bow, there is a corollary of conflict with much more domestic battles; with family, secrecy, memory. There are two primary narratives in The Illuminations, and although O’Hagan’s depiction of creativity and senility in the life of elderly photographer Anne Quirk is particularly moving, the sections of the novel dealing with her grandson Luke and his regiment of young soldiers are stunning in their veracity. You can feel the scuff of sweat drying on your collar, you can see the shimmer of desert heat. Cormac McCarthy once remarked that a writer must first walk the landscape in order to write it, and this is a maxim O’Hagan shares.
“It’s definitely true. Martha Gellhorn once said, ‘If you’re going to write about war, you have to taste it.’ And she didn’t just mean the food or the weather. She meant the fear. And I have to say this to my horror, but they’re young men. These boys are 17, 18, and they’re facing the most horrific prospects every day. So when I went there and felt that dreadful 50-degree heat inside one of those armoured vehicles, and saw the sheer petrification on the face of these near children, the sense of boredom and ambition and hunger for glory – if I hadn’t felt that, the sentences would never have got there. Christ knows it takes everything you’ve got to make them half good in the first place, but still, they wouldn’t have been even half without tasting it. So McCarthy is right, you need to walk around in the world a bit before you start rolling out the red carpet for your sentences.
“It’s something I’d hear from students when I was teaching,” he says. “‘What is my imagination telling me, what can I fantasise now?’ And I’d say, ‘Put your shoes on. Go outside,’” he chuckles. “And none of them do.”
O’Hagan is appearing in conversation next month for the mini Sydney Writers’ Festival, and audiences will be able to hear this gregarious author in the flesh. As our interview winds up, we circle back to that opening quote and how much truth there might be to the sentiment – that the story of a life keeps unwinding long after a person has gone – and if the same cannot also be said of fictional characters.
“Oh God, yeah,” O’Hagan says. “All the people in my family who are most discussed, are most added to, most augmented, most enlarged, magnified, amplified, are the dead! In a family like mine, it’s a great career move, dying. Before you know it, your reputation has gone through the ceiling. I’m only half joking here. As the years go by, Auntie Bertha gets that much closer to heaven. I’ve always loved that stuff, you know.
“I wrote a book once called Be Near Me, where the priest is this well-educated English guy who goes to a small Scottish working class town and all hell breaks loose when he befriends a couple of young ne’er-do-wells from the housing estate. When I published that, there was controversy, there were arguments around the whole paedophile scandal, of the breakdown of the Catholic Church. It was controversy everywhere you’d look, but now he’s like Aunt Bertha, that character. People speak of him with affection. And that’s the best you can set out to do – to make an honest, small contribution to this wonderful art form, and then to depart the stage. That’s the way it is. All writers are just trying to whisper into one ear at a time, to leave something there, and if you can do that well and then just clear off, I think you’ve probably had a nice career.”
[AndrewO'Hagan photo © Broad Daylight]