18 July 2018

I write in order to discover what it is I have to say. This can be infuriating – not just for me, but for my editor too! I have a strong sense of all my characters (they live and breathe in my imagination, have detailed life stories and are fully rounded individuals); I always know how the story will start, how it will end, and what the key turning point of the plot will be - but apart from that the story is a mystery to me. As I write, it unfolds. If I get to the end of a chapter or episode and think: “How did that happen? Where is the story going now?” then I know I’m getting it right. If I knew everything and planned it out, writing would just feel like a technical exercise. If it doesn’t interest and grip me, why would it grip the reader? If Max is stuck in an unexpected, tricky situation with no way out – if I have written myself into an unforeseen corner – that’s all to the good. If I can’t see how Max will survive, then neither can the audience. Without that tension, that jeopardy, the thriller falls flat, or feels formulaic. I grew up in a strong tradition of oral storytelling. Each time the story is told, it changes. If I wrote The Break Line again, it would be different – by degree if not by kind. I think this is why I find it so hard to read and correct proofs of my books . . . when I make changes I am not just correcting, but retelling, as any oral storyteller would. My managing editor has the patience of a saint.

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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