I’d a really engaging half-hour chat with Yorkshire’s finest this morning. He talked plenty about Walter Benjamin, Johnny Giles and old Big Head but for legal reasons left most of it off the record. But here’s a few of the things we did talk about for a feature on CultureNorthernIreland ahead of his appearance at this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s.
Will this be your first time in Belfast?
Yes. Obviously when you grow up in the UK in the 1970s Belfast has a kind of presence in your life as a place that is always there but that you have never been to… or ever dared go. But I will be back here again. The book after next is about (Harold) Wilson and (Margaret) Thatcher in the 1970s, so there is a strong Irish dimension. I’ll need to go to Belfast and Dublin to do more research for that.
When did you start writing?
I started when I was about eight years old. I think it was because my dad was a teacher but he wanted to be a writer. Every night after tea he would go upstairs and write.
Was your father ever published?
No, but from the age of eight I was writing pretty much continuously. When I was 11 or 12 I did more comic book stuff and then when I was a teenager in bands I was writing lyrics. But I’ve always had notebooks on the go, dating back to about 1974.
Your books all deal with historical events. Why?
I’ve always used writing as a way to understand living. If not I don’t really see the point of it. The Red Riding Trilogy and GB84 was a way to understand the place I grew up. The Tokyo books were a way to understand the place I was living in. It really is quite straightforward.
Do you think there has been a turn to historical fiction in recent years?
Story-telling has always been historical. To me the weird thing has been these novels about nothing that we have been inundated with for the past 10-15 years. If you go back to Beowulf or the Icelandic sagas or even Finnegan’s Wake, they are all ways of telling the story of a people. I think history and stories are almost the same thing. Story-telling can be escapist but I think that is really quite a recent development.
Do you find it difficult to write about the past?
The problem is always perspective. I remember after the twin towers were attacked Martin Amis, Zadie Smith and all these people were writing about it and I was just thinking ‘What can you possibly write about this? What do you know about this?’ and the answer is ‘nothing’, it was all ego.
People often say to me ‘why don’t you write about now?’ But what is ‘now’? How can you write about now? People writing about Blair and the Iraq War, that is just journalism. I’m deeply suspicious of fiction about the recent past. You need distance and time to be able to contemplate an event fully.
As a writer, is it difficult to deal with criticism?
I suppose it comes down to some innate arrogance or contrariness, but I don’t mind criticism. I have a very low of opinion of The Guardian and what I call ‘literary London’. With the last book, Occupied City, some people were saying ‘he murdered a good story’. But I set out to make an anti-crime novel – a novel against what the crime novel has become in our society – so while these reviewers were trying to be negative they were actually proving that I succeeded in what I set out to do in the book.
The Damned United was also heavily criticised, but by people within the football world. How did you react to that?
The important thing to remember is that The Damned United is a novel. I did research it as much as I could, there is even a bibliography at the back, but the characters are all my own. That people would read the book as truth means that they are stupid enough to mistake my name for Brian Clough. The irony is that while I dramatised scenes and characters I didn’t stray that far from the public record.
In a way a controversy was started out of the nothing. When I was writing the book it never crossed my mind that it would upset anybody. I didn’t think there was anything in it that didn’t reflect the public record. It was well known that Brian Clough liked a drink and used profane language in the company of others.
If I was to write a novel about the last days of Edgar Allan Poe nobody would bat an eyelid – in fact, I’d probably win a prize for it. But to write a book about a football manager, that is something you shouldn’t do.
You are currently writing about Japan after the Second World War. Why does this interest you?
Everything that modern Japan (where I lived for 15 years) is was kind of formed in the American occupation. Every aspect of legal and political life in Japan in 2009 dates back to the seven years of the American occupation. With Occupied City and the new book I’m writing now I have tried to broaden it out because I think there is a relevance to the West now. In a way we all live in occupied cities. I hope the Tokyo trilogy works both on a historical level and in the western world in 2009.
What are your future plans?
I’m currently working on Resurrected, the last of the Tokyo trilogy. Then it’s a history of the UK from 1967 to 1984, which will be a very long book.
You’re written eight novels in ten years. How are you so prolific?
I often have books going on simultaneously. Also I only want to write 12 novels in total, and I’ve always known what these will be. That definitely helps.