An Interview with Damian Barr
Words By Dani Hedlund
Damian Barr is the author of Maggie & Me, which the Sunday Times named Memoir of the Year. He is Literary Ambassador for the Savoy in London where he hosts his Literary Salon, which been going for ten years with hundreds of prominent guests including Bret Easton Ellis, John Waters, Colm Tóibín, Jojo Moyes, David Mitchell, and Mary Beard. The Salon has partnered with the BBC Short Story Prize and the Man Booker, Hay, and the Windham-Campbell Prizes. Barr is also Literary Editor of the Soho House group and appears regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and was 2013’s Stonewall Writer of the Year. He lives in Brighton, England.
Dani Hedlund (DH)
I understand there’s quite an interesting origin for this story. Tell our readers a bit about that.
Damian Barr (DB)
I didn’t set out to write a novel. Just like I didn’t set out to write a memoir—I just sort of sat down and thought, “Well, I’ll write about some things that happened” and it became a memoir. The novel happened because of a photograph I saw of a boy in The Telegraph. In the photo was a boy who looked just like a long-lost friend, a boy who had come to my school in Scotland for a year and who had gone back to South Africa. That boy would, of course, be a man now. The boy in the picture had been murdered. The emotional connection was there and I became obsessed with the story of this boy, whose name is Raymond Buys. I went to South Africa to find his mother and the detectives involved in convicting his killers. I went to where he was killed and realized this camp was just one of a network that still exists in South Africa. I began to ask myself, “Why do these places exist in South Africa and why are they there now?” Suddenly I had more questions than answers. The journalist in me couldn’t find answers to everything and I realized I was going to have to make some stuff up. So I was writing a novel because the whole time I was doing my research and following the story from the present into the Boer War, I felt stupid because I thought, “Well everybody must know this.” I sort of blamed myself for not knowing. It’s really clear to me that we have a terrible, willful cultural amnesia in the UK about the Boer War and we’ve decided we’re going to forget it. With the current situation, with those boys in those camps, there’s almost so much violence there in South Africa that these boys got lost. I wanted to give a voice to these boys and their families and to the victims of the camps during the Boer War.
Talk to me about what the line between research and fiction was like. Where did those start coming together?
This book has taken just over five years. I think going to South Africa made a big difference. Seeing how beautiful it is and understanding why it’s the cradle of humanity, the fact that our earliest bones are found in caves there. But there’s no doubt it’s one of the most troubled and conflicted countries in the world and continues to be.I found a million stories I wanted to tell so I had to keep bringing the focus back to real people, ordinary people, and tell their stories. History is usually the story of the victor and I wanted to bring to life the vanquished.
I think the line between research and fiction is: If I can take it away, take it away. If I can’t take it away, it stays. Does my reader need to know about the ration card in order for me to be able to tell this part of the story? Yes. Does my reader need to know anything else about the ration card? No. I think that’s the rule.
This novel spans about 120 years and includes many different characters. How did you decide which would be your main characters?
It started with a boy, so I knew there would need to be a boy. And a boy needs a mother. When I went to South Africa, I found in the white working class communities that I was focusing on, a lot of disintegrated families and it felt to me like fathers were a part of the story but not necessarily central characters. They were often felt by their absence.I knew there needed to be a character like the General because we needed a man to run the place.
It was interesting, when I went to the Anglo-Boer War Museum there was a memorial wall and I found the names of two of my characters on there after I’d made them up. That really freaked me out because I just thought, “Oh my god, they’re real.” For me, the character who is most powerful in the book is the judge. I wanted people to see a woman—a black woman—in the ultimate position of power and justice.
Your narrator moves into the minds of the characters and every time we get a spotlight on them, their thoughts, feelings, and idioms float to the surface. That means, in some scenes, you’re juggling up to five completely different perspectives and histories. What was it like to keep track of all that?
Yes, it was in danger of being a cacophony. What helped me is my history of interviewing people. I felt I I had to ask my characters questions and if I asked them the right questions or put them in the right situation, they would tell me the right thing. In early drafts, I re-read and some things just didn’t feel true to me, they didn’t feel right. I realized I was making my characters say or do things they wouldn’t do. To begin with, what I found terrifying about writing a novel is that you can make them do anything. But once characters become real people, you can’t make them do anything because it would quite literally be out of character. That was a job for editing, to go back and achieve a balance between all those different perspectives and voices. What words would each character use? How would each of them speak? I tried to make them seem more themselves.
One of the biggest things this book touches on is all of these ideas about discrimination and society forcing people into being different. What was it like to tie all of those different strings together and make them reflect on one another?
There’s a quote at the beginning of the book which I use by Nelson Mandela from his inauguration, “Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” To me, that’s a promise he could never keep. As long as there are people, there will be prejudice, we can never be without fear, we can never fully know other people or even know ourselves. But we can have less fear, we can know people better, we can know ourselves more.
What struck me was that fear united all these characters. The General is not thinking, “I want to take boys and kill them.” The General is thinking, “The world is going to kill these boys. I have to toughen these boys up. I have to save these boys from this hellish world that we have created.” And yes, he’s cruel, and yes, he does it in the wrong way, and yes, he’s monstrous. But he is a person and I think that we have to understand monsters as people who are monstrous so that we can try and change them. I think it’s letting people off the hook to dismiss them as just evil.
Fear of the other links all of those characters. People have always felt afraid—they always will—and I wanted to show how it changes over time. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, it seemed unbelievable to me that Apartheid was happening in the world. As a gay man, I bring to the writing of this my personal understanding of oppression and fear while also understanding that I am a white man and enjoy privileges I may not even be aware of. There is a clear route to me—from my memoir, about growing up in an abusive violent household as part of a more widely fractured and violent culture, to this novel. Not just in the darkness but in the light—in the friendships and love which help us survive even the scariest things.
As a memoir writer, you train yourself to pull from your own life. How much of you ended up in this book?
So much of me that there’s very little of me left. I thought that when I wrote a novel, it would come from somewhere else somehow. With a memoir, everything was from me and my experience and my point of view, and my responsibility was to the people immediately around me and to my own sense of the truth. With the novel, it was more exterior; it could have gone anywhere. I could just have told a story about the Boer War, I could just have told a contemporary story. Any one of these characters could have been a novel on their own. But to me, they were all connected. I think there is a bit of me in all of the characters and it’s sometimes easier to see than others. Like William, I was a bookish boy who did not blend in, who spent a lot of time being afraid, and who was raised by women. William’s mother is not like my mother; she is probably more like my stepmother. Rayna is quite like my Granny Mac—she’s fearsome and heroic. There is probably even some of me in the General, with the dark fears I’ve allowed myself to share about how queer people are treated and what might happen to us in the world we live in now. I think above all, the character who I feel most is like me, in a way, is the judge. Because she has the strongest sense of right and wrong. They all come from me and they all come from my experience. You write with what you have to write and I couldn’t have written anything else at this time in my life. I really want people to understand what we (the British) did and what’s happening now and to feel like they can do something about it in their own lives, countries, and context. It’s heavy and it’s tough and it’s big, but I hope it’s empowering. I hope it shows that love and change can save your life.
One of the things I think that is really overlooked in the publishing industry is how every time you break into a new genre it’s like a debut again. Being so involved in the industry, both as a writer and everything you’ve contributed, what was it like to make a move like this?
It was scary because I had written a memoir which had unexpectedly done well and which is now being developed for television. I wrote that book to settle my sense of myself and to situate myself in the past, and so the rest of it was a glorious unexpected bonus. I did a one book deal so Bloomsbury got to look at what I was going to write next and they had no idea what they were going to get. When you’re touring with a memoir and talking about yourself all the time you A) get tired of yourself, and B) start to lose your boundaries and people expect you to tell them everything. I didn’t want to write another book about me. I wanted to have some distance from myself, to stop thinking about myself and head into another world. I think I will write another memoir, but I didn’t want to write one straight away.
I wrote this novel because I couldn’t write this story any other way. It had to be a novel. When you’ve got more questions than answers and you have to make stuff up, you’re writing a novel. I do feel like I’ve worked as hard as I can and that I’ve listened as closely as I can to the voices around me and inside me which are saying that be careful,be brave, be respectful. I felt compelled to tell a story that isn’t being told. That is what I felt most strongly and I feel I’ve kept my side of the bargain with those voices. If nothing else happens, I’ve done that for them. Particularly as there are still boys in camps like that all around the world, but especially in South Africa. I’m very lucky that people are reading it early, which is really nice. It feels weird though. It starts to feel very real and it’s about to go out of my hands completely. Very soon it’s going to be in the world and I have no idea what people will say. No clue.
In one sentence, what do you think you meant to say with this book?
Everyone has a voice. Even if you can’t hear it—even if they are shouting and you don’t want to hear it—everyone has a voice.