Q&A with Andrew O’Hagan
DM: The Illuminations is receiving praise for its ability to shift between the worlds of a woman living with dementia and her grandson fighting on the battlefields of Afghanistan. What compelled you to write this story?
AOH: I wanted to write a book about the experience that my generation had had fighting in Afghanistan and I felt that there was a novel there that really wasn’t on the shelf. From the beginning I knew that the grandmother’s relationship with her grandson would be central to the book. War just doesn’t happen on the warfront. It happens on the home front, too.
DM: Over the last 20 years you’ve visited many dangerous countries in your role as a UNICEF ambassador. Do you feel nervous before each adventure?
AOH: I was quite nervous, especially in Afghanistan. But once you’re there and you’re sort of getting on with it you put your head down and get on with your work. My daughter was very unhappy with me going to Afghanistan. She’s 11. So she made me promise not to do that again. These are really hostile, desperate places but we’re very lucky. We always have plenty of water and transport.
The people there are really suffering.
DM: Years ago you were commissioned to ghostwrite an autobiography of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange. What kind of reaction did you receive from him after an article you wrote about the process was published in the London Review of Books?
AOH: It’s interesting. I got a reaction before it came out, which was typical of Julian. He wrote to me asking me not to publish it. He, I think, hoped that the piece wouldn’t appear. But I insisted that it would appear and I also understood that it would be the end of our friendship when it did.
DM: Of all your literary characters, which would you say you relate to the most?
AOH: The thing that you find when you look back over your shoulder at the books you’ve written and the characters you’ve created is that they all have a little bit of you. And sometimes the most unexpected ones have more of you. Probably the character that is most like me is the narrator of my comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe. Maf, the dog himself, has got most of me. That was always the great laugh for me when I was writing that book — there’s something about his sense of humour and sense of culture that’s quite close to mine.
Photo by Tricia Malley and Ross Gillespie
Photo Courtesy of McClelland & Stewart