The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Adrian Harvey

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Adrian Harvey


Summary: Sue loved Being Someone by Adrian Harvey - the story of a relationship and how early the seeds of destruction were sown. She thought it was an intriguing tale, exquisitely written. There was quite a lot to chat about when the author popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 13 May 2014
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Sue loved Being Someone by Adrian Harvey - the story of a relationship and how early the seeds of destruction were sown. She thought it was an intriguing tale, exquisitely written. There was quite a lot to chat about when the author popped into Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Adrian Harvey: Most often, it's a woman on the Tube or the bus, on her way to work somewhere in Zone 1 (I'm a little bit obsessed with my city, a little bit in love with it). Naturally, she is smart and curious, and seldom without her Kindle or – better – a paperback somewhere in her bag. That's now, of course. When I was writing the first draft, I wrote simply for myself, with no real sense of my audience. And it was such a liberation to write that way – in my day-job I have always had to start with a very narrow and deliberate sense of audience for every piece of writing.

  • BB: The story behind Being Someone is deceptively simple but intriguingly complex to read. What was the inspiration for the story?

AH: The inspiration came from the story of the King of Mysore, which opens the novel. That story was told to me on the streets of Mysore in pretty much the same way as it is related in the book and it struck me as a beautifully multi-layered story, within which truth slips between the lines and still now remains elusive, even to me. I have no idea what I think the truth behind the accident is, but I love the fact that there are so many ways to read those simple events and what they say about the relationship between Iravatha and Annayya. It took no time at all to get from there to the story of James and Lainey, of a marriage, of trust and mistrust.

  • BB: Your narrator, James is a deeply-flawed person - possibly to the extent of there being a mental problem. Is he based on anyone you know?

AH: That's a tricky question, especially given your assessment of James! In part, of course, he's based on me, but then again so are all the other characters in the book. But he isn't me (I hope!), nor is he anyone else I know. I wanted to write a character who isn't bad but is capable of doing bad things, knowingly and unknowingly. A major theme of the book is the idea that it's hard to really know anyone, especially ourselves. I wanted an unreliable narrator, someone irredeemable but not a bastard; just someone self-obsessed, insecure and a bit lost. If there is anyone that inspired him, it was the vague recollection of Joseph Garcin, one of the characters in Sartre's Huis Clos.

  • BB: Where did you learn to write like that - and any tips for aspiring authors?

AH: My day-job involves a lot of writing – policy reports, briefings, bits of op-ed for the trade press – and I have a lot of practice in capturing and tailoring messages for very defined and diverse audiences, in making the exceedingly dull engaging. That's the mechanical part of writing, but the joyous part of writing I learned from reading. I love books and I love words, the shape of them, their flavour; the way they fit together, or don't. I love how their sound and meaning can surprise you with each new configuration; I enjoy their slipperiness. And I don't think you can write unless you love language, can hear it chime in your head. Plot and character trump prose every time for readers, but the laying of pipe that novel-writing entails can be pretty gruelling unless you can pause occasionally and admire the paint work.

  • BB: I sense that your heart is in London. Could you live anywhere else?

AH: Did I mention that I'm a bit in love with London? It has a fluidity, a perpetual motion, that I've never really found anywhere else. Alongside the grinding frustrations of simply trying to travel 5 miles, there is a limitlessness here. The patina is amazing: I work by St Pauls Cathedral and if I wander down Cheapside of a lunchtime I am acutely aware that there have been shops here since the Romans built the city, that many of the streets were laid out then; the others, more recent, are medieval; and the glass and steel of the future rises from the ancient. Could I live anywhere else? I don't think so, not in the UK: I don't drive, so the countryside is closed to me and any other town or city will always pale in comparison with London. But I could live somewhere warm like Seville or somewhere cool like Reykjavik quite happily, I think. At least for a while.

  • BB: You brought India to life most sympathetically for me. Have you been there often? What would be your perfect trip away?

AH: I've been to India a few times, both north and south, and I have a great deal of affection for Karnataka, which features in the book. I am aware that I've written a very gentle version of the country (although do remember the perspective is for the most part a deliberately unreliable one) and the last time I was there it took me four days to stop hating it (by the end of the second week I was in love with the place once more). Recent events, particularly the high profile rape cases, have complicated my relationship further. My next big adventure is to Bhutan (I have a thing for mountains) which has been an ambition for a while – I'll let you know if that turns out to my perfect trip when I get back.

  • BB: I see that you describe yourself as 'a public policy bod'. Care to tell us a little bit more about that? How would you feel about giving up the day job to write?

AH: I've worked around politics and public policy throughout my career, in think tanks, in government, in public agencies. I have politics and a passion for social justice – I quite deliberately made James dismissive of such things – and now work for a marvellous charity called Citizens Advice. But writing fiction is such a joy and I have so many ideas I'd love to pursue that, were the opportunity to arise to write full time, I would give up the day job with little hesitation.

  • BB: What are you reading at the moment - and which book would you want with you on a desert island?

AH: I'm re-reading Indelible Acts by AL Kennedy. I love her writing: its density, its rawness, the visceral emotion and the ever-present smudge of menace. She's one of those writers that simply make me wonder why I bother. Orhan Pamuk is another. Shortly after completing the first draft of Being Someone, I read My Name is Red, an astounding book that left me looking at my manuscript like it was so much scrap paper. But my desert island book would be Phillip Roth's Nemesis. I've loved his writing for years, but recent books had left me rather cold. I had to be persuaded to read this, his last, as I didn't want to ruin his writing in my mind with another weak novel. I am so, so glad I was persuaded, because it is a sublime piece of literature: compelling plot, incredible characterisation and sentences so powerful that you're weeping before you reach the full stop. I could read it a hundred times over.

  • BB: You've got one wish. What's it to be?

AH: That's an impossible question. To make it a little more feasible, I'm going to limit myself to things pertinent to this interview. So, putting aside world peace and the health and happiness of my family and friends, my wish would be to write something one day that makes someone feel as moved as I was by Nemesis, as astounded as I was by My Name is Red.

  • BB: What's next for Adrian Harvey?

AH: In the immediate future, I am getting married (not in a rush, and not in Gretna Green), so writing is on hold for the time being. But I'm half way through the first draft of a second novel, which I hope to finish before the end of the year; then we'll see.

  • BB: Congratulations on the marriage, Adrian - and thanks for chatting to us.

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