Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Ian Sansom – Stranger than Fiction

Ian Sansom is a true gent, and if you’ve never picked up one of his hilarious novels you should. This feature on Sansom and his latest novel, The Bad Book Affair, appeared in The Sunday Herald on Sunday 24 January.

A prominent Northern Irish politician involved in a sensational sex scandal. Accusations of dodgy dealings in the corridors of power. Restive natives in Ulster’s bible-belt. The closing chapters of the Robinson saga have not yet been written but already a book has been published about it. Or at least so it would seem to anyone picking up a copy of The Bad Book Affair, the new novel from Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom.

The fourth instalment in Sansom’s popular detective series The Mobile Library, The Bad Book Affair features a duplicitous unionist politician, marital infidelity, accusations of financial impropriety – and all set against the backdrop of growing instability in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government and a looming election. Throw in a duffel-coat wearing, crime-solving Jewish librarian called Israel Armstrong and a four-wheeled library trundling along the north coast of Ireland and the result could almost pass as a tongue-in-cheek précis of the last few weeks in Northern Irish politics. In a literary career spanning more than a decade, Sansom has seen life imitate art often enough not to be surprised by The Bad Book Affair’s remarkable verisimilitude. ‘Am I surprised by the similarities? No, the amazing thing, for me, is that other people are surprised by it,’ the hirsute writer remarks, peering over his reading glasses.

‘Novels hold up a mirror to the real world. In any good work of fiction you will always get soundings and reflections from real life. What surprises me is that more people don’t pick up on these similarities more often.

‘If literary history teaches us one thing, it is that people are bad,’ he says, his glance momentarily resting on a banks of shelves overflowing with well-thumbed classics from literary heavyweights such as Roth, Faulkner and Bellow that occupies the back wall of his second floor office in the Seamus Heaney centre in Queen’s university, Belfast.

‘Obviously when it is people in public life it gives it an extra piquancy but we are all capable of lying, cheating, stealing. The ramifications of a politician’s actions are potentially more serious but the actual actions in themselves just reflect the truth of our sad, pathetic little lives.’

Such a pessimistic view of life seems entirely at odds with the witty, garrulous and light-hearted character in whose company two hours appears to pass in a mater of minutes. But Sansom, in an uncharacteristically serious moment, explains why he sees no such contradiction. ‘We are all flawed – that is the story of humanity. If you read the bible, on page one you’ve got this wonderful idyll, turn to page two and its over. Really it’s all downhill from there. Adam, Eve, Saul, Kane and Abel. They are all just giving us a way to understand ourselves, both the good and the bad,’ he says.

Citing scripture to support your opinions is all too common in Northern Ireland, quoting Flaubert, Gogol, Polonius and Goethe (as Sansom does freely) markedly less now. Having grown up in Southend-On-Sea, Sansom spent his undergraduate days at Cambridge and Oxford, where he wrote a PhD thesis on the poetry of WH Auden. Today, his accent, an unusual hybrid of muted estuary English and received pronunciation, retains telling traces of both home and alma mater.

Like Israel, The Mobile Library series’ ill-fated protagonist, Ian Sansom moved from London to Northern Ireland; although while his anti-hero crossed the Irish Sea alone, the author made the journey with his wife, a BBC journalist born in Belfast, and their young family. Sansom is understandably reluctant to identify himself too strongly with his bumbling character’s search for purpose along the Antrim coast, but he does admit sharing one significant trait with Israel – a deep-seated fondness for libraries.

‘I didn’t grow up in a bookish household so libraries were always where I gravitated towards,’ Sansom says, his speech quickening noticeably as he recalls the mobile library that routinely visited his primary school: ‘I thought it was a genuinely magical experience. It was almost like the circus was coming to town, there was so much to enjoy. I probably wanted to run away with the mobile library, too.’

In his younger days, Sansom even conducted romances among the aisles. ‘I first kissed my wife in Cambridge university library.’ Can he remember where exactly? I ask. Of course he can: ‘It was in the lift in the west wing. I was an old smoothie back then,’ he laughs before outlining his belief in the sexual allure of libraries. ‘They have a certain unmistakeable erotic charge to them. Libraries hum with possibility and change. You are coming into a place where possibilities become endless. Have you ever noticed in Hollywood blockbusters how many riddles get solved in libraries? It’s no coincidence.’

Sansom gives the impression of a writer born into his craft but he maintains that the transition from pursuing the bookshelves to appearing on them was not as seamless as his impressive cv suggests. ‘After I finished university I was writing and also doing lots of different jobs during the day. I would write a chapter in a couple of days and then forget about it and move on to something else. I was effectively binge writing.’

Like many prone to binging, it was only an encounter with a fellow sufferer that straightened him out. ‘I was working as a painter and decorator when I bumped into a novelist, a proper novelist. I asked him “how do you do it?” He just said to sit down and write 500 words a day everyday. Since then I’ve applied the rule of regularity.’ And, as the multiple copies of his various books and side projects gathered around his writing desk attests, Sansom has been a writer ever since.

The subtly bookish atmosphere at the Heaney centre, where Sansom lectures on Queen’s highly regarded creative writing program, seems to suit the author well. His office looks more like a traditional writer’s study; framed ordnance survey maps of Northern Ireland on the walls, an antique tea set in the corner. Life seems agreeably slow: we meet during term time, but there are precious few students about. Indeed, our conversation is only disturbed once, by a gentle knock on the door. It is Ciaran Carson, the esteemed Belfast poet and Sansom’s colleague at Queen’s, with a question about marking schemes.

Creative writing as an academic discipline has its critics, and Sansom admits to misgivings over his own suitability for such a course of study. ‘I’m not sure I would have enjoyed being a creative writing student.’ Nevertheless, he does ‘believe in teaching creative writing.’

‘You can teach people craft and technique, which is essential for a writer. But what you can’t do is to teach them to have ideas.’ Ideas are one thing Ian Sansom has never been short of, though precisely which ideas he decides to work on next has probably never interested so many. Neither Iris nor Peter Robinson are renowned for their interest in literature but both could be forgiven for taking an interest in the follow-up to The Bad Book Affair.

‘Everyone is asking ‘what are you writing about next?’, as if I have some remarkable insight into the future. If that was the case I’d probably write about the winning numbers for the national lottery. Or about salvation and redemption. Now that does seem rather topical.’

The Bad Book Affair is out on January 25 published by Fourth Estate.

Ian Sansom – Stranger than Fiction
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