Andrew O’Hagan was born in Glasgow in 1968, and grew up in Ayrshire. His writing, both fictional and non-fictional, has always been concerned with what he has described as ‘selfhood and its precariousness’. The Missing (1995), his first book, is a memoir and investigation of missing persons and their effect on the consciousness of the country. Our Fathers (1999) is a poetic account of a man’s attempt to come to terms with the political and emotional values of his grandfather, a social housing pioneer in Glasgow. In 2003 he published Personality, in which the consequences of fame unfold for a young woman in the entertainment industry. His 2010 novel The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe returned to fame but saw him depart from the west of Scotland and travel across the Atlantic. Maf the Dog It is a sad, witty and comic tale of the last years of Marilyn Monroe’s life written from the perspective of a Maltese Terrier gifted to her by Frank Sinatra and dubbed Mafia Honey. In between appeared Be Near Me (2006), about a priest attempting to balance his emotional and intellectual loyalties whilst living in an unforgiving community.
A notable essayist, he is editor at large at the London Review of Books, in which he recently wrote an essay entitled ‘The Two Lives of Ronald Pinn’, a moral examination of how the light and dark pockets of the world wide web can shape a person’s life. His latest novel, The Illuminations, captures the story of an elderly lady and former professional photographer, Anne Quirk, and follows her grandson Captain Luke Campbell of the Royal Western Fusiliers. When Luke returns disillusioned from Afghanistan he sets about reconciling his heart and mind as Anne’s dementia starts to release fragments of her real and imagined past.
Nick Major met O’Hagan in London on a refreshingly cold and crisp day. In the sitting room of O’Hagan’s home clear light shone through the windows between the white shutters. Among the numerous books on the shelves was a faded collection of the complete works of Robert Louis Stevenson. On the wall above the fireplace a drawing of a brilliant Macaw, red and yellow, stared down at them with imperious eyes. O’Hagan was dressed in blue jeans and a thin blue jumper. One legged tucked under the other, he leaned forward and stared in hard concentration. He spoke slowly and thoughtfully, pausing to inhale deeply from a cigarette or tap ash into a golden flower ornament balanced on a glass coffee table. The smoke curled up from his fingers and around his body so that he seemed to be perpetually emerging out of a strange mist.
Scottish Review of Books: You live in London but most of your books, including The Illuminations, take the West of Scotland as their territory. Why do you keep returning to that particular place?
Andrew O’Hagan: Every writer’s memory and imagination has a landscape, and instinct draws you back there, sometimes to the same house, like a swallow in summer. When I was a young reader I remember wondering why Robert Louis Stevenson sat in the mangrove swamps of Samoa writing about a rainy day in Edinburgh. But now I understand.
Were there any writers who gave you a deeper understanding of
I grew up doused in Robert Burns and the novelist John Galt. He’s not forgotten, Galt, in fact he’s on his way back. He was Coleridge’s favourite novelist, above Scott, above many of his English contemporaries. He was born in Greenock but grew up in Irvine, which was next to the town where I spent my childhood. His best novels – Annals of the Parish, The Ayrshire Legatees, The Provost – are set in a town which is an obvious double of Irvine. The local colour, the political intrigue, the small town habits, the portraiture, had such an influence on me when I was young. I couldn’t believe a writer could burnish up a scene so the faces actually glowed and the talk just sang. That was John Galt to me. He understood small town Scottish life at the beginning of the nineteenth century in a way that is unsurpassed. He’d a collective title for all his books set there. He called them ‘Tales of the West’, and, in however modest a way, I wanted to create my own little Tales of the West. And that’s what I think my novels set in and around Ayrshire are.
How did you discover Galt?
There was a statue in Irvine and I used to walk passed it as a kid. I would often look at this iron-clad individual and think: how do you get to be him? And my mother would just tug me by the hand and walk on. If you grew up in a place where there wasn’t a big focus on literature or the imagination as a professional occupation, then you would naturally turn to those local authors, and he was the best of the novelists. Burns was a great presence too, though. Just the talent Burns had for capturing local speech and gaiety. I can still hear those rhythms when I talk to people in Ayrshire today. They travelled through to the inner ear and remained there.
Is it difficult to capture those rhythms of speech in your books, or is it just a case of turning to Burns?
There’s a combination of influences. One of them becomes your own writing eventually. You are trained by your attempts to get it right. For me, I was more interested in trying to get the rhythms and the inflection of a certain kind of Scottish speech into an English sentence, ‘a strong Scots accent of the mind’, as James Boswell once described it.
Did you leave Ayrshire to work at the London Review of Books?
No, I came to London the day after I graduated. I think I had sixty quid — and my brother gave me another £200 — and I caught the bus from Buchanan Street in Glasgow. I got a job working for an organisation based in Marylebone called St. Dunstan’s, which was the charity organisation for the war blinded, and I worked with these old, still-surviving veterans of the First and Second World wars.
The job that appears in Personality?
Yes, that’s from life. Michael’s job in Personality is a direct steal from myself. It was an amazing job because, in some obvious ways, it was absurd. I was writing captions and copy for a little magazine that only I could see. But the more important part was that I’d go with these blind ex-servicemen on day outings. I used to take them to the South Downs and be their ‘eyes’— quite good training for a writer, actually. In a sense I became an adult doing that job. Some of the men were in their nineties. Their last vision was the trenches at Loos, and for me, aged twenty-one, it was mind-blowing. I sat with them on the grass at Beachy Head with the sound of the waves not far distant, and with that sense of Europe over there. I was moved and transported by them, their sense of history, and their embodiment of a notion of courage and dedication.
They taught you about life lived in brutal reality?
Yeah, because it was flesh and blood, and the loss thereof. It reverberates to this day —the shrinking distance between youth and old age. I must say: to have that lesson in your youth is priceless. Their sense of witness transformed my sense of what you might do as a writer.
You started writing journalism for the London Review of Books in the early 1990s. Why do you think journals like that are important for our culture?
I’m sure the people don’t mean it, but modern political discourse and advertising, public relations and the new tabloid media, have a strange effect on the culture — they degrade the language, coarsen the mind, and insult the public’s intelligence. So you have to rely on other things, including good, intelligent journals, to fight back — to fight back with style, thoughtfulness, plurality, tolerance, and grace. A robust culture can’t do without those important journals. That’s something Scotland taught the world, and I’ve been a fan of them all my adult life.
You once interviewed Norman Mailer for the Paris Review. What did you learn from Mailer as a person and a writer?
I just loved Norman. He got behind my work and made me tougher on myself. I mean, he would write these letters in which he’d give you a line for the cover of your book, but, in the rest of the letter, the bigger part, he’d be advising you to cut deeper and strike harder and go further as a writer. He thought like a boxer and he had a boxer’s sense of risk and technique. A real Spartan sense of endurance. He knew the industry could make writers soft and silly — you know, just hungry for recognition, or sensitive about reviews, or too easily tempted into competition with other writers, when the real task was to enter your times and write your heart out and not to settle for having the correct opinions but to imagine what is evil. And Norman had arrived at many of these truths late, via experience, via bad times, via too much vanity, and he had a sense of honour about what he’d learned in battle.
Mailer once wrote: ‘society, which is necessary to enable man to grow, is also the prison whose walls he must perpetually enlarge… it is the artist, embodying the most noble faculty
of man – his urge to rebel – who
is forever enlarging the walls’.
Do you think, like Mailer, that the artist should have a social purpose, or should they simply stay true to their imagination?
That’s Mailer in his Dostoevskian mode — I’m not sure I agree. I don’t feel that society is a prison and I don’t share Norman’s romance of the rebel. I think his existential hero-worship, to be honest, was an aspect of his own artistic frustration, something that emerged for Norman after a too-early success. But it emerged for a lot of novelists in American after World War II, having to live with the truth of the Holocaust and the threat of the Bomb. But your question’s an important one: writers should participate in their society if they can, of course, but that is never in the end where a good writer is at his best. We should do our bit, but where politicians deal in policy, writers deal in dreams. That’s why artists shouldn’t team up with politicians. It’s a category error: you’re not dealing in the same language. You may seem to, for a season, a heady evening, or a campaign. But you are on your own. ‘Novelists tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie,’ said Italo Calvino. And, you know, politicians don’t.
You ghost wrote Julian Assange’s autobiography. What was it like to work so closely with hackers and experience their culture?
What I tried to do was help him write his book. I tried because he asked me to, and because his organisation, to my mind, was doing crucial work. Jamie Byng [of Canongate] and I wanted to give more power to Assange’s elbow, but power meant something different to him, and it was like dealing with someone having a nervous breakdown. After he’d fallen out with everybody, I sat with him a few times in the Equadorian Embassy in London, and it was clear he could only understand the world in terms of its loyalty to him. Many of the hackers I’ve met are funny, joyous, late-night idealists, people who want to point up corruption and fight the good fight, but I have to admit that many of them are not what my mother would call people-people.
Do you find the transition from
non-fiction to fiction an easy line
It has always seemed natural to me to treat the borders between fiction and non-fiction as being cross-able. Those borders are unstable; they are porous. Modern life teaches you that before you are 15 years old. People’s ‘life stories’ seem invented on Facebook — the company estimates that there are over 65 million fake accounts — and news values, the whole of reality indeed, appears subject to fiction-energy nowadays. Any writer interested in the texture of reality is constantly taking account of that, if not taking the exact measure of it. I’d add that, for me, there is no hierarchy of forms: if you seek to write well you’ll seek to write everything well, and I’ve found the essays I’ve produced, for what it’s worth, took every single thing I’ve got. For me, in whatever category of prose writing, it will always be about the sentences.
So what do you think makes
a good sentence?
God, if I knew that I would trademark it and sell it to creative writing students all over the world. I think you have to trust some sense of exactitude and some sense of rightness that is deeply personal. It’s like you saying to me: what is a strong morality? It’s too big a question. But I’ll tell you one thing I do know, and you know it too, which is that when you walk down the street you don’t say: what do I do now to be a moral being? You trust to some instinctual sense of what is the right thing to do. Believe me, for some of us, that’s just what writing is. It’s an issue of technique, but I believe there’s a lot of technique in being a moral person as well. The years of writing a novel is about going back again and again to judge the weight and measure of the sentences, and see how they convey with exactitude what is perfect for the scene or the book.
Why do you feel it is important as a writer to go outside and ‘test the weatherproof nature of one’s style’?
Hemingway was a man with vast resources when it came to understanding the human predicament, but he sure as hell couldn’t have written well just by mulling things over at a farmhouse-table in Michigan. He had to go to Paris. He had to go to Spain. He needed wives and bullfights and the snows of Kilimanjaro. He needed near-death experiences on a regular basis. He had reportorial energy and it went into everything. Some writers have no choice but to marry their private concerns to something seemingly objective, something they went out and found that wasn’t obvious to anyone else. If you find that thing by walking through the chambers of your own heart, good enough. But many of us discovered that we became better writers by sailing down a perpetual Congo.
In a recent article for the LRB,
‘The Lives of Ronald Pinn’, you took a leaf out of the Metropolitan Police’s book and constructed
an entire identity from a name
on a gravestone. Ronald Pinn eventually had an address, passport, NI number, and was starting to delve down into the
dark web. Was it difficult to stop creating this person’s life?
Yes. Very difficult. He’s a man of his times. I could have gone on and on giving Ronnie Pinn more legitimacy and exposing him to more real-life drama. But it was an ethical minefield. There was an element of the gothic horror story in that essay, but I didn’t want the invented man to become criminally gratuitous, just performing illegal acts for the sake of it. I started with a moral imperative, to show what the police had done, and what technology allows, and after that I just wanted to return it to the first principle, that a human being, the real Ronald Pinn, had lived and been loved by his family. That’s why I went to see his mother at the end of the piece. I wanted to leave the reader to ponder a principal of human value.
What do you think the effect of the internet will be on the novel as an art form?
I might be wrong about this, but the internet could be the best thing to happen to the novel since the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly, people live in instant proximity to deep resources of words and images, in a way that was hitherto unimaginable. One of the reasons the novel as a form first succeeded was that it put people in touch with other lives, and the Internet may turn out to be just that — a vast novel, written by all the people on the planet who have access to a machine. But that could be wishful thinking. There are lots of unhappy people out there who would seek permanently to darken our minds. The great struggle will be to keep the Internet free of both surveillance and malice, and to make it the great, imaginative tool that it should be.
When the fictional starts to colonize reality it does create extreme difficulties for individuals and society though doesn’t it? In your new novel, The Illuminations, many of the soldiers in the British Army see combat as another, higher level in a video game.
Yes indeed. We could talk about delusion. I remember feeling shocked when I discovered that military manufacturers had changed the controls in their tanks to make them more like the typical video console. Think about that, because it has grave implications for the treatment of life and death. In preparing The Illuminations, I spoke to young soldiers who wanted a high strike rate, and, when it came down to it, they weren’t that fussed whether they achieved it playing Call of Duty 4 or by serving in Helmand Province. They would deplore me saying that: they insist they know the difference. But I want to argue that there has been a change,not only in the moral consciousness of soldiers, but of ordinary people, who are encouraged by technology to feel divorced from responsibility. I think there should be Reality classes in schools — a bit Don De’Lillo: ‘What are you doing this morning, son?’ ‘Oh, I’ve got double Reality, then Maths’ — but yes, a famous person on the telly is not a cartoon, but a breathing, thinking human. A classroom filled with Pakistani children is not a digital figment, but a set of promising lives, animated with laughter, memory, hope and love. And high in the sky, the drones aren’t thinking, because somebody divorced from the ecology of reality is working it with a gear-stick in Washington. Our tendency is to forget the deep reality beyond our flashing screens. Technology is great, and life is easier for many of us, but we can’t lose the human heart.
At the end of The Illuminations Captain Luke Campbell gives away his video games, and in the bottom of the bag is a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Novels and video games are shored up against one another in the novel. Books, one feels, come out on top. Why is this?
Because the book is the best of our inventions. It carries one mind into another. All art does that and I love each form in itself, but the book wins because it is ultimately humanising and democratic. The novel, for instance, that ignites the deeper parts of your imagination so that you can better see the world. I continue to believe in technology and to burnish very high hopes for it, but the sacred tool is the pencil. The scene you mention stands at the end of a long journey for Captain Campbell, but the truth of it is embedded in all the great reading of my youth, in Muriel Spark and Graham Greene, in Saul Bellow and Wallace Stevens, the idea that we must keep faith with the human case, whilst allowing our sense of the miraculous to be wide open.
Some of your characters in previous novels – Maf the Dog, Maria Tambini in Personality and Hugh Bawn in Our Fathers – are lifted from real life. Are any of the characters in
The Illuminations modeled on
Anne Quirk, the elderly lady at the book’s centre, was inspired by a wonderful Scottish-Canadian photographer called Margaret Watkins, who died in 1969. She was a genius who worked in New York during the early, golden period of photography. I gave Anne her background, her return to Glasgow for family reasons, and the stalling of her career — the rest was the small brushwork of invention. Let me see. There’s a scattering of myself among the boys fighting in Afghanistan, but the surprise for me was that I needed no real model for most of the people in the book. They just arrived in my head as people with loves and griefs and fears intact. Sometimes, like that, characters just come from your imagination to stake their claim on the page. You can see them, you can hear them, and my God you can almost touch them.
How did you discover
There’s a lovely man called Joe Mulholland who runs the Hidden Lane gallery on Argyle Street, Glasgow. He wrote an article for a photography magazine where he described a friendship he had with a neighbour at the end of the sixties, an elderly lady who turned out to be Margaret Watkins. I went from there to Hamilton University in Canada to look at her papers. I was thinking about this platoon of young soldiers in Helmand, and then I realized that the story of this photographer had attached itself to another story in my mind about an elderly lady I knew who had dementia and had seen a rabbit in the snow. I woke up one night and I could see my main character, Anne, at the window, and on the other side I could see the boy in the platoon, Luke, and in that vision they were part of the same family and The Illuminations was formed.
Do you normally have that moment of realization when writing a novel?
The material for a novel lives inside you, but it is tinder and it needs a spark. There have always been elderly women in my life, and I’ve watched people with dementia. I’ve spent a lot of time with soldiers who have served in Iraq, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan. And all of those things started to coalesce. But a spark is always thrown and it is that moment when you sit bolt upright. With Be Near Me, I had been interested in those priests in small towns and the accusations that had been made against them. One morning at the shaving mirror I just heard Father David’s slightly self-confident, public school-educated voice in my head; he was saying slightly unspeakable things of an entertaining sort, and I walked away from the mirror and went into my study and typed out the first four sentences of the book in his voice. It had arrived.
Anne was a photographer in the 1960s. Do you think photography has lost an ethical consideration of its subjects since that heyday?
I don’t think so. There are still many brilliant, humane photographers who help you see things in a new way. I think we need them more than ever.
I didn’t meant professional photography, but rather photography in general. Anne is an artist, but most photographs taken in the modern world seem like strange morally acceptable invasions of privacy.
Well, we’re in the soulless age of the selfie, where things are scarcely worth allowing to happen unless they are instantly photographed. People used to live their lives and experience their joys and sadnesses, their miracles and banalities, and sometimes they would be in a rare position to see them photographed. Now it’s the other way round.
Everything is understood as a photo opportunity. You see it at the school gates. The first day at school is a press conference. You do wonder what it means for privacy. What if the kids just think: why would I be interested in doing anything unless I was being photographed doing it? What is privacy like for those kids? What about going off to a quiet corner where nobody will know what you’re doing or see you or record you? I’m talking about that quiet corner that was once a preserve of literature, of reading, of the imagination.
In Maf the Dog Marilyn Monroe tells Jack Kennedy that ‘the thing concealed by fame is self-knowledge’. Now that everyone is famous in their own eyes, do you think it is possible to really know who we are?
I like your way of putting it. Everyone’s now famous in their own eyes, and for longer than the 15 minutes allotted by Andy Warhol. I think I agree with Jack Kennedy’s assessment of what fame does to a person — I mean, I gave him the line because I thought it was something he would say, but I also happen to agree. Fame is curious, because it seems to the beholder that it will mean a higher reality, when, in fact, what you notice — if you spend time around the famous — is how denuded of reality they are. It’s a modern conundrum and it deserves as many novels as the Victorians devoted to city life. But your question was essentially philosophical. Can we know ourselves? You’re probably asking the wrong person. I mean, to tell you the truth, my ego disappears so completely into the writing that I can barely identify the man who wrote it. ‘That’s why there could never be a great biography of a writer,’ wrote Scott Fitzgerald, ‘because a writer, if he’s any good, is too many people.’
That reminds me of a good question you asked Mailer about writing ‘as a sort of self-annihilation’. It always seems strange to me that during the act of writing one feels almost selfless, yet the end product is stamped with some essence of oneself.
That’s right. Some writers simply discover themselves in the act of disappearing. Keats understood it very well and put a name to it: ‘negative capability’. I know a number of writers, some of whom are very lively out in the world, very charismatic, who become a perfect void when they sit down at the desk. They become a ghost. Yet the resulting writing is as personal as their eye-colour and as genial as their voice.
Do you think art can show us who we think we’re not?
That’s definitely more like it. The aforementioned Robert Louis Stevenson never lost sight of the possible Mr Hyde standing within the consciousness of every well-meaning doctor. I’ve never really trusted people who believe too much in what they believe. I grew up knowing that artists would refuse to comfort themselves with daily certainties, but to face the unimaginable, in themselves, in the world. Think of Robert Burns and how questioning he was of power and false witness, but always with a personal voice, tender to art and nature and hope, too. It’s often the poets, by the way, going further with the language, changing places with themselves.
In The Illuminations Anne lives her life largely in a dream, and lives within ‘an ideal version of herself’. Do you think it’s a general truth that people need to sustain that illusion of who they could be?
It always seemed to me an aspect of working-class life in Scotland — investing in an ideal version of yourself, or ‘putting on a show’ as my granny would have said. People tell stories in order to live, and ‘constructing’ yourself was part of the daily round where I grew up. Anybody who thinks working-class life is all about gritty realism never danced at the Glasgow Barrowland, never enjoyed an evening of whiskies on the Royal Mile, and they don’t remember Pat Phoenix as Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street, who, in our house, not only represented the 1960s, but embodied the idea of how to deal with reality — by having your hair done, and by overcoming, by dint of mouth, people’s attempts at telling you who you ‘really’ are.
The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog aside, your novels seem to map changes in the aspirations of the working class over the last thirty to forty years. Would you agree?
Aspiration has always been such an interesting word to me, partly because it sounds like expiration, as if to aspire is akin to breathing. I think every character I’ve ever written has had a relationship with that notion, and, though they haven’t all been working class, they’ve all been in touch with a working-class community. Hugh Bawn in Our Fathers aspires to rid Glasgow of its slums and encourage people into new, high-rise living. Maria Tambini in Personality aspires to become a famous singing star, somehow rescuing her island family from all its past disappointments. Father David, in Be Near Me, aspires to know himself in the very act of endangering his faith. The dog shouldn’t be excluded: he aspires to know human beings better than they know themselves. The Illuminations comes from a new direction. The people in this novel have put their aspirations aside in order to respect other duties of the heart. The working-class might have changed out of all recognition since I was young — I make no complaint, but their aspirations are material in a way that ours just couldn’t have been. And yet, it’s not gloomy: there’s an entire generation of young people in Scotland that aspires to get rid of unfair politicians and their knackered parties.
Anne says that form in art tells its own story. The Illuminations is told in a series of short scenes, almost like vignettes. What is the story of form in this novel?
That’s an especially good question. I wanted the scenes to work like photographs in a family album — ‘here’s Anne in her college days’, ‘here’s Luke in Afghanistan’, ‘oh, here they are together in the laundry room in Saltcoats’ — and that method was informed by Anne’s having once been was a brilliant documentary photographer. So I wanted the form and the content to be united. Also — I wanted sliding perspectives in the scenes themselves. Tradition tells you, when writing in the third person, to have a centre of consciousness in each scene, but life often isn’t like that, especially in certain social situations — old people’s homes, or battle platoons — where a group mind can seem to emerge, and where the point of view will now and then slide between the persons present. It does something new to the dialogue if you can animate how people are thinking both together and apart. I wanted sheer clarity in the framing but an elision in the perspective, and I use those photographic terms advisedly. I knew it from the start. The book wouldn’t settle for just describing Anne’s early vision as an artist: it wanted the form of the novel itself to bring new light to her vision, and the reader to complete it.
In Be Near Me The Iraq War informs much of the conversation between the characters, and in The Illuminations the war in Afghanistan plays a central role. The character Mark also returns. Did you conceive of The Illuminations as a continuation of this earlier work?
No, there’s no continuation, except that it’s set in Ayrshire again, and the young boy Mark makes an appearance. When he joined the Army at the end of Be Near Me, I knew that Mark would return in the future, because I always knew that I wanted to write a novel that would try to get inside the experience of modern Scottish soldiers fighting in these supposed ‘humanitarian’ wars.
Many of the young people in Be Near Me and the soldiers in The Illuminations seem entirely devoid of seriousness, almost to the point of nihilism. Is that something you’ve observed or experienced about being young?
The young soldiers in The Illuminations are obsessed with cars, rock music, tattoos, video games, party drugs, girls, fancy watches, and the army. If you take out the words ‘the army’, that stands for most of the boys I grew up with. It’s true we were also into films and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but I’d be lying if I said that my experience of youth was of curious, bright young things avid for learning. But charisma takes many forms and I loved the friends I grew up with, just as I love the boys in this novel, and sometimes their honesty is the only kind to be found.
You’ve been to Afghanistan. For many people the war has been an operational and ethical disaster. Do you see it that way?
Truly — a complete disaster — on every level. We’ve killed thousands of civilians and pushed the minds of an entire generation of Muslims towards intolerance. We’ve handed an agenda of grief to millions of people and reduced our stature around the world. We have lied, cheated, tortured, and killed our way across a stretch of the world we still don’t understand, and have brought an army home that feels defiled. At the last count, we lost 453 British soldiers and saw 2600 wounded. In operational terms, it achieved nothing. And in ethical terms, it was shameful: young, bored British squaddies firing £70,000 Javelin rockets at houses made of mud.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but have there been many serious novels that have followed soldiers in the British army through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
I’m 46 years old, and there have been small, desperate, expensive, and sometimes illegal British wars going on since 1982, when I was 14. A whole generation has grown up that doesn’t know what it’s like not to see UK servicemen being sent home dead or wounded. And you could count the number of novels on one hand. Amazing, no? Especially given the entire literature that came out of the First and Second World Wars. Of course, there’s a reason for that: novelists no longer go to war.