The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Justin Huggler

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Justin Huggler

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Summary: Ani was very impressed when she read Burden of the Desert by Justin Huggler and there was a great deal to discuss when he popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 15 March 2013
Interviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson

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Ani was very impressed when she read Burden of the Desert by Justin Huggler and there was a great deal to discuss when he popped into Bookbag Towers.

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

Justin Huggler: That's a difficult question. I think every writer wants to say their book's for everybody, which of course isn't true because everyone has different tastes. But I'd like to think Burden of the Desert could appeal to people from all different backgrounds and walks of life: men and women, young and old -- to anyone who has ever wondered what it's like to live and work in a war zone, not just in terms of carrying a gun or reporting from the frontline, but living out your daily life, and trying to cope with work and family and a love life, and stay alive, all at the same time.

  • BB: Burden of the Desert is your first novel, so, as someone with a journalistic background why did you choose fiction rather than non-fiction to bring us the realities of Iraq?

JH: The book came about because of this overpowering feeling I had when I was in Iraq that there was a story we couldn't tell as journalists. For one thing, we were supposed to be neutral observers, but we became part of the story when the insurgents started trying to kidnap us -- it's hard to remain objective about people who want to behead you. But it was more than that, it was the feeling that all around me people's lives were going on. For people back home, Iraq was a news story on the front page or on television, but for all of us in Iraq there was so much else going on that never got reported, the things that mattered in our lives, falling in love, worrying about families. That went for all of us: the Iraqis, the American soldiers and the journalists. We were all caught up in it, though as journalists of course we could leave. I thought you couldn't tell the story of what happened in Iraq, of how an entire country got caught up in so much violence and inhumanity, in terms of political decisions, or the debate over the war, or the search for WMD. You had to understand what people were feeling. I suppose I could have done a book of interviews, but then I'd have got what people said, which isn't always the same as what they really feel. I decided I had to put myself in their shoes, try and imagine how it felt to be them.

  • BB: You were reporting back from Iraq during 2003 and 2004 like the journalists in your novel; what was your experience compared to that of the fictional Zoe and her colleagues and how much was biographical content rather than fiction?

JH: A lot of what Zoe and her colleagues experience really happened to me. Some of the more dramatic episodes really happened. I was in a high speed car chase, like the one in the book. I was told to get out of a small town immediately, because people were “hunting” for Westerners. I used to go to cafe in Baghdad that was frequented by the insurgents, and I got warned to stop going there. And some of the more fun things really happened too: the al-Hamra hotel, where the journalists stayed, really did have these great evenings of drinking every night, with the reporters telling stories round the pool. It was like being in the film Casablanca, there really was this pianist who had been a famous classical musician before the war.

But I cut things and changed them around where it suited the plot: Burden of the Desert is a novel, not a memoir, and the story came first. I divided my experiences between Zoe and Jack, one of the other journalists. One difference is that unlike Zoe, I'd reported on a war before, in Afghanistan in 2001, and I was already based in the Middle East, in Jerusalem, so I wasn't as surprised as she is by what she finds, and I probably wasn't as idealistic as her. But I wasn't as cynical as Jack, either.

  • BB: What attracted you to Iraq and, more importantly, after what you saw the first time why did you go back?

JH: Well, I was sent there by The Independent, who I worked for at the time, to cover the story. Newspapers always give you a choice when it comes to going somewhere as dangerous as Iraq, but for me it was an easy decision to make. Iraq was far the biggest story in the world, it was the place everyone was watching, so of course if you were working as a journalist you naturally wanted to be there.

As for why I went back, once you start covering a place like that, you want to keep following it, you want to see what happens. You do have this sense that you're witnessing history first-hand, that you're seeing things people will be reading about in history books in a hundred years' time. And I'd made these fantastic friends, my Iraqi translator and driver, and some of the other journalists out there, and they were all still there involved in it, and so I wanted to be there with them. In fact, the hard thing was deciding not to go back when I felt it had become too dangerous. You tend to think, when you cover wars, that you can control the risk, there are precautions you can take. But in Iraq it got past that, to the point where it didn't matter what precautions you took, you were playing roulette with your life. But it was still hard to decide not to go back, when I had friends out there.

  • BB: One of the things that really makes Burden of the Desert' stand out is the way you've chosen to tell it via differing viewpoints and genders - an English reporter, a radicalised Muslim lad, a Muslim Iraqi driver, an Iraqi mother, an Iraqi Christian woman, an American solider etc. It works very well, but why did you not want to take the easy option and just follow one person around?

JH: There was a night in Baghdad when the book first came to me. I was feeling very stressed with the danger of it all, and missing home, and I was looking out the window and listening to the gunfire in the distance, and it suddenly came to me that somewhere across the city there was an American soldier my age, who was probably missing home too. And somewhere else there was an Iraqi insurgent my age who wanted to kill me. And an innocent victim who'd got caught up in the whole Abu Ghraib thing. And an ordinary Iraqi just trying to get on with his life and survive.

And I realised how much I was seeing Iraq, which I thought I was reporting objectively, from one point of view. Of course I was scared of the insurgent, and angry with him too that he wanted to kill me. But he had a point of view too, there were reasons he was the way he was. I was pretty wary of the American soldiers too, the whole occupation was going badly wrong by then and they were the visible American presence -- plus, though they didn't mean me any harm, they were very jumpy, under attack all the time, and it was easy to get caught in the crossfire. But an American officer my age had nothing to do with the decisions made in Washington and was probably as troubled as I was by what was going on. And that's when I decided the way to tell the story of Iraq was to try to see it from every point of view, because while you might not agree with all of them, they were all a part of the story.

  • BB: Without giving anything away, by the end of the novel each of the major characters reach their own moment of redemption. Was this important to you and, if so, why?

JH: Yes, it was. I didn't want to write a bleak book, even though those were pretty desperate times in Iraq. I wanted there to be some hope, some humanity. There was this theme I wanted to get into the novel, that everything we do, every act, good or bad, has consequences, but not always for us -- often it's for some one else. So if we do something wrong, the harm that causes ripples out and affects people we don't even know, haven't even met. And the same is true if we do something kind or benevolent, the good affects others. Often, we don't even see the effects of our actions. And I wanted each of the major characters, in different ways and to different degrees, to gain some awareness of that, which provides a sort of redemption. A sense that causing new suffering to others won't undo their own suffering. I like to think the book's quite hopeful, because although it is set in the midst of all this terrible inhumanity, there are people who find a path through it all that keeps their humanity intact. But they're not heroes. It's just about making decisions.

  • BB: As Burden of the Desert treats every faction fairly and even-handedly would you consider publishing it in Iraq?

JH: I'd certainly love to publish it in Iraq if that were possible. Of course you worry that you might have made mistakes in local details which would get picked up by an Iraqi audience. I've had Iraqi friends read it, and I was very nervous they'd say I got things wrong about the Iraqi characters, but so far they've been very positive, and one even said it reminded her of home.

  • BB: If you had the opportunity to get all the decision makers connected with the Iraqi conflict together in one room, what would you say to them?

JH: That line from EM Forster comes to mind: Only connect. I think I'd urge them to try to put themselves in each other's shoes and see the conflict from the other point of view. And to accept you're never going to get everything your way in life, and it's better to have some sort of peaceful compromise than to go on fighting for an impossible victory.

  • BB: And now for something completely different... if you could only take five books to a desert island, which ones would you take and why?

JH: Firstly, Bleak House by Charles Dickens because it's my favourite book, the best novel I've ever read, it's funny and dramatic and tense and there's a great mystery to be solved and it's full of human warmth. Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, because it's all about the triumph of a simple, flawed man's basic humanity over violence and repression, and it's the most amazing example of a sustained tone over an entire book I've read. Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers for its sheer joy in language and invention, and the way it pulls off its incredibly ambitious plot. ]]To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee]], because of the way it captures a child's voice and because it's a perfect, beautiful story. And the collected poems of W.B.Yeats, because you'd need some poetry to get through life on a desert island

  • BB: What's next for Justin Huggler?

JH: I'm working on another novel, one that's completely different from Burden of the Desert. It's set in Jersey, where I grew up, and told from the point-of-view of a nine-year-old child who's living in this quiet, peaceful place by the sea when his uncle comes back wounded from war and has to stay with them. And I'm also working on a non-fiction book, a sort of memoir of my time as a foreign correspondent and all the wars and crazy places I got sent to.

  • BB: There's plenty for us to look forward to there, Justin - and thank you for chatting to us.

You can read more about Justin Huggler here.

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