‘I am a professional liar’ – James Brabazon on writing novels

Former journalist James Brabazon has spent his career telling truths while documenting the worst elements of mankind. However, in his The Break Line, he writes to entertain. Here, he tells of the shift from journalism to writing novels.

James Brabazon on writing

For years I worked as a journalist, when the absolute, literal, objective truth was, rightly, all that I was allowed to tell. Now I am a professional liar.

I write to entertain. But also to tell the truth. For years I worked as a journalist, when the absolute, literal, objective truth was, rightly, all that I was allowed to tell. Now I am a professional liar. I am paid to make things up. And here’s the rub: when I was being rigorously factual it was hard – impossible even – to convey the emotional truth of the experiences I witnessed, the events I lived through. For twenty years I have worked in war filming and photographing the effects of combat on people’s homes, lives, minds. Did I ever really manage to capture how they truly felt, what it really meant to be at war? I doubt it. All my experience leads me to this conclusion though: that by writing fiction I am at least as truthful as when I was documenting fact, and at most truer to the experience of being on the edge than two decades of reportage ever allowed.

I write like a filmmaker: which is to say that I live and die by dialogue and that I imagine each chapter unfolding as it would in a film. I have made dozens of films and listened to uncounted hours of interviews and testimony - in English and in Krio, Arabic, French, Papuan tribal languages, Hindi, Pashto… the list is almost endless. That’s one of the greatest privileges of being a filmmaker: to be able to listen to other people’s stories, especially those from the margins, and then share them with other people. The rhythm of language, the imperfection of dialogue, the seduction of speech… these are the lifeblood of the writer.

I write because I must. Yes, I procrastinate and dither and do everything else possible first. But eventually the urge to write is unstoppable. If I was not desperate to write, I couldn’t write. At worst it is a habit to feed; a best an all-consuming mania that leaves me exhausted in its wake.

I write to understand. For twenty years I photographed and filmed the absolute worst that mankind can do to itself. That’s not hyperbole. I mean that sincerely: the worst it can do. That we can do. I write because I survived when my friends didn’t. I write because I can; because it brings me pleasure, because it is my profession and my craft and pays my mortgage and feeds my family, and because it makes me part of something that is bigger than being just another survivor. I write because the veneer of civilization is very, very thin: literature, all literature, helps stop the mask from slipping.

And above all, I write for my children. One day I will have a lot of explaining to do. Books – these books - are as good a place to start as any.

Good luck, and thanks for reading.


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