I have tea with Andrew O’Hagan one morning at his house in Primrose Hill. We start talking about Seamus Heaney, a great friend of O’Hagan’s who died two years ago. I ask if he misses Heaney.
“Oh, every day. He had this brilliant tendency to take you under his wing, to be concerned about you in a very local way. He didn’t make friends with writers in order to pay attention to their reputations, or read reviews of their books, or to figure them in some higher or lesser constellation. He was interested in you humanly: he was a good person to have around if you had a cold. He would be interested in how you were coping, how you were feeling. He maximised your potential in the way good friends should. The very best friends you’ve got, they don’t just flatter you… neither do they quietly undermine you, but they hold the key to your potential or they find a way to move you forward or to turn you slightly towards the light – that is the best friend. And he had that, he could make you better than you were, just by virtue of his attention, his concentration on you. And I loved him for that… that might sound quite heady but he was the most human, everyday friend. He could just call you and make you feel better by making you laugh. You miss that, that goes out of your life and then it’s literally someone turning off a light, that room is dark now. I’ll always miss Seamus.”
Are friendships central to O’Hagan’s life?
“Friendship is more important than almost anything because I think part of your habit of constructing your life is to find, and keep, and nurture good friends. I think it’s a creative act. How to be good to people, how to look after them and how to seek affection among them – that is something that comes very naturally to some people, the way it came to Seamus. There are tons of people who don’t have it all.
“I always thought it was a sort of deliverance, having a good friend, that they would bring a generosity and an unprejudiced eye to your ambition, your hopes and your thoughts in way that family can’t always do. I mean what is family but a lovable collection of prejudices, some in your favour and some not?”
I’ve always understood young male camaraderie, its excesses and its appalling aspects and its verbal brilliance and its levels of aggression and its levels of love and community.”
We talk about his latest novel The Illuminations, and the relationships between the soldiers in it. I wonder if he has an understanding of that male dynamic because he is one of four sons. He says, “I come from a big family of boys but also, even more importantly, I grew up in a gang of boys. I’ve always understood young male camaraderie, its excesses and its appalling aspects and its verbal brilliance and its levels of aggression and its levels of love and community. Those kinds of complexities among a group of men were known to me before I ever met any soldiers because it’s a very common feature of working-class life.”
I mention how flawed all the characters in The Illuminations are. “That’s because I think everybody is. I mean look at you!” he says and we both start laughing. “I don’t mean that to be curt, I simply think it’s one of the things that makes human beings interesting and human, that we are endlessly available for improvement.”
“I just think it’s important, Alex. One of the things that makes literary novels worth reading if they’re good is that they offer a kind of moral ambivalence. It’s almost a support system for ambiguity and ambivalence, a good novel. It allows you to think one thing and its opposite at the same time. We only ever meet pure good characters or purely bad characters in fiction. Actually what we happen to do in life more often, and it’s crucial, is that we meet people who are not as good as we think they are or we meet people who might have something redeeming about them, that is the more interesting set of possibilities for a reader or writer. And for my characters, they live in a kind of miasma of the good and the bad. In the end I think they’re human rather than being reducible to likeable or not likeable.”
I suggest that not all writers are capable of bringing this kind of moral seriousness to their work. He counters, “They should write the novels they can write then, that’s all one can say.”
Our conversation turns to Julian Assange, who hired O’Hagan to ghostwrite his autobiography. The book never materialised but O’Hagan subsequently wrote a 28,000-word essay for the London Review of Books about the experience.
He says of it now, “What I did in that case was not write about it for three years, I didn’t write a line about my relationship with him for three years after being hired by him, as it were.”
So how did the project arise?
“The story seemed so interesting to me and the opportunity to help the organisation, WikiLeaks, seemed important to me at the time. I felt that the work that they were doing was not only crucial, but path-breaking. The idea that governments and their agents would be able to lie to their tax-paying populations about civilian casualties, for example, seemed to be coming to an end. It was almost like crowd-funding the truth and it looked, and still looks, really interesting to me as a way of challenging state power… so that’s what drew me to it. He asked me to come and help him and I agreed.
“I worked quite dedicatedly with him over a number of months, usually through the night. And a relationship built up between us. We had, I understood, a shared task. It was all paid for in advance [by Assange’s publisher, Canongate] because I wouldn’t agree to do it until it was paid for in advance.”
All of this sounds so reasonable but I want to know how O’Hagan feels about the failure of the project. He’s a relentlessly fluent talker so I feel pretty bovine about asking him something so simple as, “Are you sad about what happened?” but I do it anyway.
“I don’t think Julian to this day realises how much effort people have invested not only on behalf of the organisation but in him personally, and I invested a great deal of volunteered time to try to help him get his message out. And in the end, that proved impossible… When somebody sacks their lawyers and their publisher and falls into dispute with former colleagues and supporters to the extent he does, you have to begin to question your position and I waited and tried to support him through his time in the Ecuadorian embassy initially and then I found actually I was engaged in a relationship with somebody who was self-harming, that’s how I saw it. I had to return to my first principle which was to behave as a writer, and it was at that point that I wrote my essay. I gave no interviews, I did no promotion, I didn’t allow it to be reproduced anywhere else or cut or serialised. I wanted it to be a piece of writing that spoke for itself.”
And did the essay come easily?
“It was one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever worked on because I didn’t want it to be an attack, I wanted it to be a piece of truth-telling which also allowed for the ambivalence we talked about earlier. I both liked him and deplored some of his obfuscation. I supported him whilst also feeling he was insupportable on some fronts. It was a difficult piece to write because the balance had to be non-accusatory.”
There’s an incident O’Hagan reports when he and Assange are sitting outside a café and some 14-year-old girls pass. Assange says of one of the girls, who was wearing a brace. “It was fine until I saw the teeth.” Did that make O’Hagan uncomfortable? “For me it is not the job of the writer and reporter to sit there exercising their editorial judgement on everything,” he replies. “My job is to report. On the page, it seemed important to me to set that down because it was a piece of witnessing that seemed to contribute something to my understanding of his daily manner of going on… but is it my job to stop him doing that?”
No it isn’t, but emotionally isn’t it quite challenging to stand by when people behave badly?
As a writer, your job is to hand the moral arithmetic to the reader. It’s your job to make the arithmetic but not to do the maths, as they say, but to set out the moral possibilities – hopefully in a beautiful way.”
We’ve both become quite heated now, but O’Hagan replies squarely: “I’ve been around people behaving badly for decades… What you’re raising is a really important question. I’m not batting it back at you, I’m just refuting it from my point of view. It’s one of the most important questions in writing: in non-fiction, where does the voice of the piece require to be the conscience of right and wrong? The classic case is In Cold Blood, there’s never a moment where Truman Capote actually stops the bus and says, ‘These guys are freaks, they shot a whole family in their beds for $25. They are human aberrations and they probably deserve to die.’ It was against his aesthetic principle to do that and I agree on that one score. As a writer, your job is to hand the moral arithmetic to the reader. It’s your job to make the arithmetic but not to do the maths, as they say, but to set out the moral possibilities – hopefully in a beautiful way – and then hand it to the reader.”
We agree on this but I still want to know how Assange’s behaviour made O’Hagan feel.
“You’re not making a distinction between what I am as a man and what I am as a writer. In my life, if I was in the street with you and somebody made a misogynistic statement, I would lamp him. I would upbraid him. I would object in the strongest terms immediately and without demur. But in writing, my job I think is not to be the moral police, that’s the only distinction I’m making. In life, I have an 11-year-old daughter, if I heard one sexist remark within a mile of her, I would rope off the area and deal with it. But I think as a writer, one has got to be conscious of other people’s moral processes in the mix and that’s all I’m trying to say. It’s sometimes very hard.”
Andrew O’Hagan has twice been nominated for the Man Booker Prize and has won the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is editor at large of the London Review of Books and a Creative Writing Fellow at King’s College London. The Illuminations is published by Faber & Faber.
Author portrait © Tricia Malley and Ross Gillespie/Broad Daylight
Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and the Daily Telegraph.