In many of your novels you seem to have been drawn to political intrigue; where does this fascination come from?
I’m not in fact attracted to political intrigue as such. Some of my novels - including the current one - might best be described as historical novels. But with the exception of Out of Ireland, their historical periods are very recent. I do this because I like to have the personal issues confronting my characters taking place against a background of larger events.
The Memory Room reads in some ways like a thriller. Was that intentional?
No. What I chose to write was a psychological study of two people who are obsessed with the secret and esoteric, from childhood to adulthood. Both are drawn to espionage for this reason, and my theme has to do with the consequences of this in their adult lives. Inevitably, if a novel deals with the intelligence profession at all, it runs the risk of being classified as a thriller. But readers of any discernment, on reading Part One, will quickly realise that a thriller is not what they are encountering here.
The contemporary setting of the book is the end of the Cold War. You said recently that novels shouldn’t push a political view but could raise moral questions but sometimes they can also be political - what are the moral questions?
There are moral issues involved because of the Cold War background. Vincent Austin is an idealist, and his decision to become an intelligence operative partly has to do with his hatred of totalitarianism: in this case the police states of the Soviet Union and Communist China. This is a moral position: tyranny is by definition bad. His decision to help Professor Liu to defect from China is triggered by his concern at seeing a fine scholar trapped in a system where thought is controlled.
Two of the three characters, Vincent and Erika, are drawn to a life of secrecy. Both came from unsettled backgrounds. Vincent’s mother died in childbirth and his father when he was twelve. Erika lives alone with her German father, a relationship that appears unnaturally close. Were these backgrounds the source of their secrecy?
Yes, in both cases. When real life is difficult or damaging, some young people retreat into an imaginary world. Theirs is shared, which is unusual: a condition known as folie a deux.
Did you ever know a spy?
I’ve known a number, now retired. Two of them gave me a good deal of help with the background for this book.
Tasmania, especially the suburbs of Hobart, figure strongly. Why did you choose Tasmania as their home?
I am in many ways a regional novelist - except that a number of my novels are set outside my native region. Islanders tend to have a pattern of escaping and then returning, and I’m no exception. My native place means a great deal to me, and is central to my imaginative world. William Faulkner kept writing about Mississippi, and Hardy about Wessex; why shouldn’t I keep writing about Tasmania?
The most dramatic section of the book is set in China in the mid eighties; why did you choose this particular period and place?
It fitted with the plot. Vincent, a Cold War operative, needed a background in which he would make a move that would wreck his career. China was the obvious location. Also, I had visited China in that period, and I only write about backgrounds that I know.
The Memory Room has a very strong narrative - it’s a wonderful story. Do you see yourself as a storyteller or something more?
Since I’ve been writing serious novels - for want of a better term - over a whole lifetime, and have established a reputation for doing so, I find this question surprising. Perhaps I’d better define what I mean by ‘serious’. Without making any claims for the worth or otherwise of my work, I write novels that have artistic purposes beyond simply telling a story - which of course is the sole aim of commercial fiction. What those purposes are, my readers will ultimately decide; but they have to do with exploring the inner lives of my characters, and with the invisible world beyond this one.
A few years ago, this question would not have been put to me. I believe it is done so now because the fashion that comes under the heading of ‘postmodernism’ has brought us to a point where any novelist who continues to deliver strong plot and characterisation runs the danger of being seen as ‘a storyteller’, and nothing more. But in fact this fashion has done great damage to the novel, and may account for its current decline in readership. Great novels, with very few exceptions, have always had these strengths: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Lord Jim, The Portrait of a Lady, and Light in August to name but a few: however complex they are, story and character are the rocks on which they stand. As E.M. Forster once said: ‘Oh dear, yes, the novel tells a story.’ What he meant was that it does a great deal more, but that without a story, it’s nothing.
This is your first book in seven years. Was it long in the making?
There’s an error here. My last book was The Many-Coloured Land, a book about Ireland, published in 2002. So The Memory Room is my first book in a little over four years - and that’s pretty much my usual gap between books. The Many Coloured Land was both a travel book and a history of my great-great-grandmother, an Irish convict girl transported to Tasmania. I put a good deal into it, and value it as much as my novels. The Memory Room is my first novel in seven years. The last was Out of Ireland, which was the length of three average novels, and thus took longer in the making than the current one. When people look at output, they need also to look at length.