Q&A with Owen Sheers

by |July 1, 2015

When we meet Michael in the first pages of the novel, there are many hints about his past and his future, but the novel keeps us in suspense about what exactly those events are. How much did you know about Michael and his life before you began the novel?

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Author: Owen Sheers

This book had several beginnings. Four, to be exact, in that I wrote the first 10,000 words three times over, before finally starting again on what would become the finished novel. I mention this as these false starts meant that my knowledge of Michael and his life repeatedly shifted, deepened and shallowed over those different beginnings. What I can say is that I always knew what he had done and what he would do. I knew he’d been an immersion journalist in the US and I knew the broad brushstrokes of his emotional hinterland – his relationship with Caroline and his grief in the wake of her loss. I also knew how he’d react to what happens inside the Nelsons’ house. But none of that is the same as knowing him. In terms of the man himself, I had to come to know Michael in the writing. Which is how it should be, I hope. This seems to me to be the most natural, and perhaps the most true, way for a character to develop – under the shaping influence of event and interaction with the world and others rather than through extensive planning in the abstract. In the small details of their movements, the junctions of their thoughts.

The hints about his past and future that you mention were a narrative intention from the outset, in that I wanted to try to create a two-way tension throughout the first half of the book. I didn’t just want a reader to be thinking about what would happen next, but also about what had happened before the opening page. I recognised this was something of a risk, in that a ‘push – me – pull – you’ approach to suspense in the story would require a complex temporal structure, but at the same time it was important to me that a reader feel absolutely centered on the action of Michael entering the Nelson’s house. His journey through that house forms the narrative spine for much of the novel, and for it to do so it needs to be sustained by a suggestive approach to his past, and a gradual release of information, rather than a reader have full knowledge of his psychological history from the start. In the other direction, looking beyond the events of ‘‘I Saw A Man’’, I wanted the narrative voice of the novel to have a strong sense of being rooted in the future – to be imbued not only with a retrospective knowledge of what happens in the book, but also of what happens long after its final page. Nearly all third person fiction carries this tone by association, but I did want to turn the volume up on this quality a little, with an eye towards the end of the book…

Can you describe how you came to write the novel – did you begin with a character, a scene, an event, something else?

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‘‘I Saw A Man’’ grew for me in a different way to anything else I’ve written before. And yet at the same time it grew from those pervious books too. My journey into fiction before this novel was primarily historical, and often interwoven with, or seeded in, an element of real event or experience. In the wake of those other books I knew I wanted to write something next that would take a deeper step towards a work of ‘purer’ imaginative fiction. Or to put it another way, I didn’t want an external trigger for the book; for it to be based upon, inspired or drawn from a true story. In this respect perhaps ‘I Saw A Man’ didn’t so much as grow from my previous books, as grow in reaction to them.

The truth is, however, that while you can have all the intentions and plans in the world, you often have little control over which story will take hold of you sufficiently for you to spend seven years of your life working with it. This was certainly the case with ‘I Saw A Man’, which entered my life as a single image. That of a man entering his neighbours’ house by the back door, thinking there is no one inside, when there is.

The rest of the story grew from that image and the questions it provoked. Who is this man? What is his relationship with his neighbours? Who are they, and what are their stories?

There were two other elements that were there from very early on. The first of these was the anticipatory draw of a reader knowing that someone was inside the house but not knowing, from a cast of several possible characters, who that person was. The second was more a personal literary challenge than an aspect of plot or story, in that I knew I wanted to try to manipulate a reader into a position where they don’t want Michael to confess to what he’s done. Given the nature of the event that happens, I always knew this would be very difficult to achieve, and I still don’t know to what extent I was successful in this aim or not.

Click here to grab a copy of I Saw a Man

The first line of the novel is immediately captivating – so much so that it was used on the book jacket! Was this always the first sentence of the novel?

No, and yes. The first sentence always carried the same sense, the same information and meaning. But how it carried that sense changed and altered constantly for many months, if not years. This was often a question of listening to cadence, or searching for more economy of phrasing, or playing with the temporal weight of the line.

The novel turns on several acts of violence, and depicts an intense love affair as well. Is it more difficult to write about love or violence?

Both are difficult to write about well, mostly because both have been written about so much to the extent that many of their truths have become clichés. I’m also reminded of what Auden said about sex in literature in his essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets, and how the same applies to violence too. He writes about how the central tension in any writing about sex is between the unconscious nature of the sexual act, and the highly conscious nature of writing about it. Although I suppose one of the things that interested me about the central act of violence in ‘I Saw A Man’ was the extent to which it is very conscious, planned, mediated.

If pushed to answer this question, though, I’d have to say love. Love is, you hope, experienced by more of your readers than extreme violence. As such there is a greater knowledge of its varieties, its shades and tones, and often a greater ownership too. Love (as opposed to sex) is also an emotion experienced over a span of time, in contrast to the sudden, and therefore naturally dramatic, nature of much violence. It’s harder to write authentically about the shifting patterns of a love over time, than it is to write about the ‘puncture point’ of a moment of violence.

I SAW A MAN’ explores the difference between how we tell the truth in fiction versus journalism. How do you feel about this, particularly as a writer who works across different spheres, from fiction to poetry to drama?

I enjoy reading quality non-fiction, reportage and journalism, and often do, but the very reason I choose to write in imaginative forms, even if the material is documentary based, is because I’m interested in the truths you can tell when you have a license to invent, to let go of pure ‘fact’ and imagine from it instead. It’s part of the ongoing alchemy of literature isn’t it? The deception that reveals, the lying that tells the truth. Unfettered by the bounds or chronologies of real events, the writer of fiction, poetry or drama is able to shape, omit, pace and juxtapose at will, answering only to the internal credibility and coherence of the story, poem or play. As such, if done properly, they’re able to evoke truths beyond fact that don’t only live, but also live on, resonating with a reader or an audience.

On one level it’s this question that drives Michael’s writing, and then Michael himself, in the novel. The concept that the facts alone, without their context or motivations, are incapable of telling a true story.

Much of your writing is concerned with war and its impact on soldiers, civilians and those on the homefront. Has this subject always been important to you, and can you talk about how you’ve done your research?

pink-mistI’m often asked about why I write about conflict and its aftermath so much. The first thing to say is that I never set out to do this. Rather, the subject has grown organically across a number of different books, poems and plays. The main reason for this is, I think, that my adult writing life has progressed in parallel with the post-9/11 conflicts. Ever since I’ve been writing seriously, they have been there. I knew boys from my school in Abergavenny who joined the army when they were 16, and watched from a distance as they went on multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. That in itself triggered an initial interest, which was further added to by the ongoing stories from those conflicts and their consequences throughout the first decade of the 21st century. Even if a work was historical, such as my novel ‘Resistance’ or a one man play about the WWII poet Keith Douglas, they were always prisms through which to refract contemporary issues about war and its aftermath too.

Then, in 2011, I was asked to write a play as part of a rehabilitation project. The idea was to create a piece of theatre based upon the experiences of around 30 recently wounded service personnel, many of whom would then perform in the cast. The finished play was called ‘The Two Worlds of Charlie F’ and it ended up being performed 125 times, touring in the UK and Canada. I also drew upon those interviews, and others, to write ‘Pink Mist’, a verse drama about three young friends who join the army and go on tour to Afghanistan in 2008/9. In this piece I was also interested in exploring the effects of either a psychological or physical wounding on the soldiers’ families too, the women in their lives who are often the people who have to pick up the pieces, who remain on the frontline of a wounding long after a conflict has come to an end. I’ve recently begun researching what I hope will be a cousin piece to Pink Mist’, another verse drama but this time based upon interviews with young Afghan boys who were trafficked to the UK when they were 11 or 12, and who have come into manhood as asylum seekers and refugees. The characters will, I suppose, make the reverse journey to the friends in ‘Pink Mist’ who travelled from the UK to Afghanistan. But both groups will be brothered too, in their sharing of the shadows of that war.

Moving away from the specific, however, I’d say the other reason I’ve found myself writing about conflict is that it is an anonymising force – men become ‘soldiers’, people ‘civilians’, families ‘refugees’. The public narratives of war tend to be blunt, broad and not particularly nuanced. Literature can provide vital countering narratives, I think. Stories, novels, poems and plays that pursue the specific, the human, the nuanced. Writing that re-humanizes not just the horror of it all, but also the full spectrum of its experience.

The novel is wonderful on London – how we do and don’t know our neighbours, the contrast between the wildness of Hampstead Heath and the tightly packed streets around it, how history has shaped the city and its buildings. Do you have any favourite novels about London?the-end-of-the-affair

Oddly I was reading mostly US fiction, rather than London novels when I wrote ‘I Saw A Man’. Going back a few years though, I greatly enjoyed and admired, Zoe Heller’s ‘Notes on a Scandal’, which is a book set in similar London territory. And of course even now back alleys at night in the city evoke the London of Dickens. Raymond Williams captures the growth of suburbia very well in his novel ‘Border Country’ and Michael Frayn does the same for the wartime suburbs in ‘Spies’. Probably my favorite London novel though, and again with a wartime setting, is Graham Greene’s ‘The End of the Affair’, the title of which is enough alone to send me back to a mist and rain-blurred, blacked-out Clapham Common.

You write fiction, poetry and plays. When you have an idea for a story, is it clear what form it will take?

Usually, yes, which I’m very relieved about. When I was younger I was often torn between an idea or story becoming a poem or a short story, and for a while toyed with the idea of a book half of which dealt with a set of subjects as poems, and the other half of which dealt with them as stories. I never even started it, which is probably a good thing. Now, though, on the whole an idea and its form seem to arrive at the same time. Martin Amis talks about the early intimations of a novel being like a ‘throb’ somewhere in the mind, and I find that throb rarely just carries suggestions of subject matter, but also of form, structure and voice.

Your first novel, RESISTANCE, was turned into a film. What was it like to see your novel on the screen?resistance

I didn’t. I saw a version of the screenplay, one which had been through the mill of an editing suite, on the screen. Which is just how it should be. I loved the experience of witnessing the translation of a story between media. There were many frustrations and regrets when elements of the original story couldn’t be achieved – either due to limits of the form, or the budget, or both – but there were just as many moments of pleasure at what you gain in a film too. The first day on set was especially strange. You feel as if you’re stepping into a version of your own imagination. Characters you’d gradually fleshed out across the pages of a manuscript were now there, standing before you, literally fleshed out in actors lending their nervous systems to a world you’d invented many years before.

Who are some of your favourite writers and/or books?

They tend to keep changing, which I hope is a good thing. But a few names that come to mind – James Salter, Richard Yates, Barbara Kingsolver, Louis MacNeice, Muriel Spark, Dannie Abse, Seamus Heaney, Graham Greene.

What are you reading at the moment?

Ben MacIntyre’s book about Kim Philby ‘A Spy Among Friends’, E. L. Doctrow’s ‘The Book of Daniel’, an anthology of Mexican short stories, ‘Sun, Stone and Shadows’ and ‘Ask the Moon’, the collected poems of Dannie Abse

What are you working on next?

I’m keen to get started on the next novel, but while that’s slowly coming into shape I’m also working on a few other projects including the verse drama I mentioned above, a poetry film for the BBC, some nature writing about the Gower coast and a three-hander play which I’m developing at the NT studio.


i-saw-a-manI Saw a Man

by Owen Sheers

The event that changed all of their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June, just minutes after Michael Turner – thinking the Nelsons’ house was empty – stepped through their back door…

After the sudden loss of his wife, Michael Turner moves to London and quickly develops a close friendship with the Nelson family next door. Josh, Samantha and their two young daughters seem to represent everything Michael fears he may now never have: intimacy, children, stability and a family home. Despite this, the new friendship at first seems to offer the prospect of healing, but then a catastrophic event changes everything. Michael is left bearing a burden of grief and a secret he must keep, but the truth can only be kept at bay for so long…

Moving from London and New York to the deserts of Nevada, I Saw a Man is a brilliant exploration of violence, guilt and attempted redemption, written with the pace and grip of a thriller. Owen Sheers takes the reader from close observation of the domestic sphere to some of the most important questions and dilemmas of the contemporary world.

Click here to grab a copy of I Saw a Man

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