The characters in Tim Finch’s The House of Journalists use a safe house when seeking refuge from the dangers of their careers. Finch, on the other hand, has a very different approach to wartime journalism.
Zola: The House of Journalists is a refuge for writers in exile. Each newcomer is greeted with two questions: Who are you? What is your story? So Tim Finch, as a new author of fiction, who are you and what is your story?
Tim Finch: In an interview I did with my editor, the peerless Ileene Smith, to coincide with publication of The House of Journalists in the States she asked what ‘tipped’ me into fiction, as she put it. It was a reasonable question, as I’ve reached the age of 50 and this is my debut novel. But any writer, young, old or, like me, in middle youth, will understand that I don’t feel as if I’ve fallen into literature [and out of] whatever else I was apparently engaged in over the years. Rather I feel I’ve been immersed in it all my life. It is just that this is my first public surfacing, as it were.
So if I can be rather self-dramatising, I have always felt it was my destiny to write; I just needed something to write about. And eventually I worked out that the way to get round the question of ‘what is there to write about’ was to write about the question of what is there to write about – if you get my drift. This conundrum is really the central theme of The House of Journalists – it only incidentally is about exiled writers, the surveillance state, how protection is perilously close to oppression, and all the other things.
As for anything more straightforwardly biographical, well I (along with the readers) have spotted that there’s another question coming that invites me to go into some of that.
Zola: You’ve devoted much of your career to migration and asylum aid through both the Institute for Public Policy and the Refuge Council. At what point did you begin to dream up a refuge for journalists?
TF: I’m very partial to the notion of ‘dreaming up’ and much prefer novels that rely on it rather than drawing on extensive research. What a dread phrase that is! And despite my career history The House of Journalists is essentially a work of imagination. At no point did I check a fact or think ‘does this ring true’ because at all points I was only concerned with creating my own world, which only had to be true in its own terms.
But having said all that, almost the only thing I didn’t dream up was a refuge for journalists. Such places exist. Certainly in Paris and I believe in Moscow too. It was hearing about the Maison des Journalistes in Paris that set me on the path to writing the book because I immediately thought it was a good title for novel. But consistent with my distaste for research in fiction, I made no attempt to find out what the place in Paris is like. I’ve not been there, nor spoken to anyone else who has. I’ve not even looked at its website – assuming it has one.
As I suggested above, I didn’t turn to writing fiction about refugees because in some sense all other paths to advancing their cause had led nowhere. Let me be perhaps ruinously frank: I wanted to write a novel more I than wanted to write a book about refugees. If it had seemed to me that I could produce good fiction about cheesemongers or lacrosse players or whoever I’d have been as happy to do that. That said, having worked for many years on migration and asylum as political and public policy issues, and campaigned for refugee and migrant rights, I’m more and more inclined to think that the best way to explore this huge, complex, intractable subject is through fiction – if only because fiction doesn’t set itself the impossible goal of trying to tidy up the mess, solve the problems, make things much better.
Zola: In a previous interview, you discussed influences from Orwell (an imagined dystopia) to Graham Greene (the political subject matter) to Calvino (meta-fictional). Is there anything you hope an aspiring novelist (or journalist!) could take away from your work?
TF: Now I can see – though usually only when prompted by someone else – that The House of Journalists in some regards resembles books by whoever, or has an atmosphere or style that recalls him or her. But it seems to me that these influences can only be seen by anyone – including the author – after the book is finished, when it can in some sense stand beside other works. And it would certainly be disastrous to set out to write an Orwellian novel. Indeed such an attempt would almost guarantee that the finished product was anything but, as it is hard to imagine something less Orwellian than an Orwellian pastiche – which is what would result. So my answer to the question would be that only thing anyone else should take from my work is that their work should be entirely their own.
Zola: Many of your characters put their lives at risk when reporting: Agnes was implicated in a civil war; Mustapha resisted a coup. Did these stories come from personal experience? Did fear ever put a stop to your passion for writing? Where do you (or your characters) find the courage to continue writing and working in such dangerous and dire situations?
TF: I have never been in a situation of any danger whatsoever. My biography says I was a journalist, but I was one of those journalists who worked back at the newsroom doing all the safe stuff. I am the antithesis of those foreign correspondents who when they hear gunfire run towards it. I’m a runner away. Or rather, I’m a ‘make sure you’re not there in the first place’ person. Whenever it was mooted that I might go on the ‘hostile environments’ training course at the BBC, I always made sure I couldn’t attend so that there was no chance whatsoever of me being sent to Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever. Given all this, I must say I’m delighted by your question which suggests you think I might have been a front line journalist, covering conflict and upheaval. Not a bit of it. Again, I just ‘dreamt up’ what that must be like in order to create the interior monologues of my characters. And even then, I’d suggest that I as often depict them as shit scared (which I find easy to imagine) rather than heroically brave (which is almost beyond my imagination.)
Zola: How have you found the experience of writing and publishing a novel as compared to your contributions to The Times, The Guardian, and The Independent?
TF: There is no comparison. The two disciplines are not even different in the sense that a pop song is different from an opera. The differences in length and complexity are the least of the differences between a novel and a journalistic article.
It’s hard to explain really, but if you take the phrase ‘Obamacare is an abomination’ – which could be the opening line of an article – and then add to it the line – said Jeffrey, throwing his newspaper to the floor and taking another swig of beer – you somehow, quite magically, move into an completely different dimension, not withstanding the banality of the fictional situation described.
Zola: Are you interested in continuing to write fiction or perhaps a lengthy non-fiction work?
TF: Well, I love that liberation so yes I will–indeed am–continuing to write fiction and can’t envisage any time soon writing long length non-fiction–that is if you exclude (which you must) think tank policy reports!
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.