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.
A fictional narrative starts where journalism stops. Now that the spark for my writing was a real-life experience, I struggled to let go of the real and make the leap into fiction. It really helped me at the start of the first draft when I was repeatedly challenged in workshops; when people suggested changes, sometimes radical ones, I found myself resisting. I was too steeped in the memory of what had actually happened. It took me time to get the balance right; before I could break away from the real-life events, keeping a core emotional truth but writing a genuinely fictional narrative.
One of the moments of breakthrough – which also came from workshop – was finding the right Westerner to serve as a counterpoint to my main Afghan character. Initially I made this a young British soldier. I thought it would be a dramatic contrast: on one side, a young Western man with no previous experience of Afghanistan but with military power; on the other, an Afghan village woman who is steeped in her own culture but has little knowledge of the outside world. I also thought a soldier’s personal reaction to the deaths of the children could create interesting tension with his professional identity and potential conflict with his fellow soldiers.
But in early attempts, the soldier’s voice just didn’t work. It was partly because I simply don’t know enough about the interior landscape of a nineteen year-old infantryman. Partly too because it was so difficult to give him space as an individual – to allow him to act alone and to engage with the villagers – without losing plausibility.
My tutor that term, Julia Bell, persuaded me to try writing from the point of view of an embedded journalist instead. At first, I resisted the idea. It seemed far too close to my own experience. I was also worried that making a correspondent central to the narrative could be seen as glorifying the role.
It did take time for me to ‘find’ Ellen, my fictional journalist, as a character in her own right. I found it difficult to draw the lines between us. How much do she and I have in common? Where do we differ? How could I feel distinct from her, but, at the same time, confident enough in her separate personality to be able to write from inside her head? A process that happened naturally with other characters was far more problematic with Ellen, partly because it was so self-conscious.
I was also determined not to make Ellen a mouthpiece for my own views about Afghanistan. She never makes pronouncements about whether the mission in Afghanistan is justified or misguided or how far it’s succeeding. It’s important to me that none of the main characters has a didactic stance on the war. They aren’t motivated by ideology, religious or otherwise. Their motivations are immediate and rooted in the personal.
The result has been a novel that in some ways has an identity crisis – and that may make marketing complicated. It is in part a ‘female’ novel. It deals with women, their emotional ties, their place in society and the tensions between their inner and outer worlds. But it’s also very much about the traditionally male world of war. It’s a novel about conflict and destruction and survival. It’s gritty and violent. I’ve tried hard not to sensationalise the violence but I felt it would be a betrayal of those who are suffering in Afghanistan to sanitise it.
I am very conscious, as The Last Kestrel is published, that Afghanistan is back in the news. It’s understandable that our national focus should be on the military campaign and the dangers faced by British troops. Far too many young soldiers are losing their lives. The Last Kestrel has a cast of young men, eighteen or nineteen, who find themselves deployed in hostile territory to fight a war that is militarily unwinnable. Some days they risk their lives. Other days, they endure grinding boredom and the small miseries of the field. Every day, they mark off the time until they can go home.
It’s important that people write about the experiences of these soldiers. We are all responsible for sending them into theatre and we should understand what they’re enduring. And we should write about it honestly. The moral landscape there is not black and white.
But the soldiers’ experience is just one aspect of the story. We must fully understand too the impact of the conflict on Afghan civilians. It struck me, when I witnessed the suffering of the real Afghan villagers, that it was only by chance that I had been there to see it. Otherwise, like so many other civilians caught up in this conflict, they would simply have gone unreported, in fact as well as in fiction.