I’m a BBC journalist and have specialised in Asia for more than twenty years, being based there for much of my career. Like most foreign correspondents, I’ve witnessed extraordinary events overseas and heard countless stories in the field; some tragic and some bizarre. Sounds like great raw material for a novelist? Well, yes and no. Although I’ve written fiction for many years, I always kept these real-life experiences separate. Until now.
The Last Kestrel is set in Helmand in Southern Afghanistan. I started to write it after being embedded with British troops there. The soldiers launched a major offensive, bombing an area that was under the control of the Taliban and advancing to set up camp in a strategically placed village. The villagers had just fled and their deserted compounds were eerie. The silky ashes from a recent fire still seemed warm. Abandoned chickens pecked and squawked round us as we took possession of other people’s homes and set up camp.
The sense of absence was haunting. I managed to meet the displaced villagers just twice; both times fleetingly. Once, a small group of women and children were allowed a brief visit to gather some meagre possessions. They were stranded out in the desert, they told me, without shelter, food or water. Later, army officers organised a meeting with some elders from the village to promise them security. The elders were angry, protesting that they were caught in the middle – between the Taliban and the newly arrived international troops.
It was just one location in an eventful two-week trip. I came back to London and, for the first few days, friends and family listened patiently while I talked about Afghanistan, life with the soldiers and everything I’d seen. Then eyes started to glaze over: a sign that I should stop talking and move on.
Only this time, I didn’t move on. As well as working, I was in the second year of Birkbeck’s part-time MA in Creative Writing. I started to write about the assault on the village for a workshop. I imagined the Afghan characters who’d lived in the compound where I’d slept rough with the soldiers. I started to imagine their dilemmas, caught between foreigners and militants. It was an attempt to use fiction to answer questions that, in reality, had been unanswerable. The novel slowly grew.
However, although my experiences in Afghanistan gave me vivid material, I started running into problems I hadn’t before encountered in writing fiction. The journalist in me battled with the writer. As a journalist for two decades, I’ve been trained to confine myself to the real, to the precisely known. A good journalist may need a sympathetic imagination in order to ask the right questions – but never taps into it to provide answers.