In this interview, taken on the 2nd day of DLF, he talks about his career both as a journalist and fiction writer, and the idea behind writing the book
James Meek is the author of eight books, including the award-winning novel The People's Act of Love and an account of the privatisation of Britain, which won the Orwell Prize. In this interview, taken on the 2nd day of DLF, he talks about his career both as a journalist and fiction writer, and the idea behind writing the book.
You’re both a fiction writer and a journalist. Does your work as a journalist influence your fiction?
I always get asked that, and I’m never quite sure how to answer. The easiest answer is: “I don’t know.” They’re very different. It’s not really that hard to keep such different styles of writing apart. On one hand, you are using the same tools, you are using the language. There are so many differences. When you are writing a journalistic piece, you are tied to the facts, to what you find out. You have a deadline, you don’t necessarily have the space to express your ideas, whereas when you are writing a novel, you have more time, you have more space, the deadline is perhaps looser and you’re free to make things up. You’re not free to make things up in journalism unless you’re a bad journalist.
But in that case, when you’re writing historical fiction, how do you keep a balance between fiction and history?
A very good question. I hate research for fiction because it seems like a limitation on your freedom. But since my next novel is set in medieval England, I had to do research. I would say that fiction is something you write in spite of the research that you’ve done, not because the research you’ve done. So I think what you try to do is to get so deeply into an idea of what the past was like, based on your research but also based on what you know people are like so deeply that you can’t necessarily tell the difference between what you discovered and what you remember, almost as if you’re trying to give yourself false memories of the Middle Ages. Obviously, I wasn’t alive in the Middle Ages so I can’t remember it but when you’re not quite sure “did I read that or do I remember it?” then that’s quite a good place to be in when you’re writing a novel about the past.
What exactly inspired you to write this novel about the Middle Ages?
Originally, the novel is set during the plague. In the14th century there was a very severe plague, Black Death, that struck Europe and Asia and about half the population of Europe died. I began thinking about it in the context of climate change. I was thinking: Here we are, facing this terrible catastrophe of climate change, and you have this situation where something terrible might happen and many people might die but also there will be people who survive. So, I began to think about what’s the worst thing to ever happen in human history? Probably the plague. I saw a similarity there. That was the starting point. Once I decided to write about the plague in the Middle Ages, I realised, there had to be a story, it had to have characters. So I thought about a journey, about people who were moving from a place where there was no plague to one where there was a plague and then I thought: Who are these people? Why are they going? Once you start thinking about characters and also about the period, then stories begin to arise and that’s what happened.
What books are you reading at the moment ?
I am reading A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam. I met an English lawyer who has been doing a lot of work in Bangladesh and she suggested that I read this book, and that it would be a great help to understand Bangladesh. I’m also reading a book about Russia by Tony Wood, called Russia Without Putin. I’m doing an event with the author in London the week after the next.