British Council Interview - Hearing Myself Think

Questions by Catriona Ferguson


Hearing Myself Think offers a fascinating snapshot of a contemporary, global world.  Was the story a deliberate attempt to examine where individuals place themselves within this epoch?

Well, the sense of ‘now’ inside the world’s busiest airport seemed like a promising place to start.  But I wouldn’t say I set out with such a grand theme in mind – the size of the idea would have been utterly disheartening.  Recently I seem to have spent a lot of time in airports surrounded by people I don’t know.  I always have the feeling I really should have bumped into someone by now, but I never have.  So I wondered why that might be, and how long I’d be stuck in Heathrow if I decided to hang around until I saw someone.  As in the conception of most of my short fiction, it was this daydreaming that began to take shape as a story when I looked at it more carefully.  There’s that moment when the brain clicks in and says ‘Yes, but what if, I mean really, if you were doing that, then why?  Where would you have travelled from?  How?  Why so desperate?  Why so friendless?’ 

The answers that come back are a mixture of autobiography, logic and observation (no, not the giant clown, what kind of people really come off airplanes?  Look closely.).  Then before I know it the story takes a shape and the characters find their places.  If the story turns out to be a convincing snapshot of a contemporary, global world, that means my observations must have been honest, my logic plausible, and my daydreams not so dissimilar to anyone else’s.  Writers sometimes get lucky like that.

Airports are significant meeting places, fill of poignant emotions as people reunite with loved ones.  Is that what attracted you to locating the story in an airport?

I like airports because they feel exciting and important.  Almost everybody is living a special day, the start of an adventure or the safe return of someone they love.  Or perhaps not, not anymore, not after all that time apart.  Either way, it’s a big moment.  Also, since 9/11, airports have become a point of political focus.  This is a place where the news could happen at any minute, and one of the thrills of a trip to the airport is the unusual sight (in Britain at least) of lethal sub-machine guns.  

At the same time, in direct contrast to all this free-floating significance, most people are sitting about and waiting and not doing very much.  I find this mixture of heightened expectation and enforced lethargy very stimulating.  It seems to provide the ideal conditions for thinking excitement through, and an airport can therefore turn into the perfect environment for chronic daydreamers like me.  We don’t always get the time or opportunity these days, but daydreaming is a great way of finding out who you are and what you want. 

Your central character is ostensibly hoping to meet somebody at Heathrow.  I also felt in reality he is hoping to discover something within himself.  Is this accurate or was he in fact trying to escape from himself?

He’s stuck.  He’s having a breakdown.  He’s done something irrational (driven his car to Heathrow airport for no apparent reason at six in the morning) and now his life is flashing before his eyes.  He condenses this irrational start to the day into a seemingly rational quest – to stay in the airport only as long as it takes to see someone he knows.  He then works through the logic of how best to achieve this.  Personally, I’d say this approach could count as recognisably male behaviour.  He is escaping the real issue (his domestic situation) by immersing himself in a seemingly unrelated task with a much clearer objective.  As it happens, on this occasion, the apparently arbitrary task he chooses does eventually lead to a kind of self-discovery, despite his own best efforts.

The character seems to be confused about his place in the world.  Were you deliberately trying to explore how men can lose their identity through being the day to day carer in a family?

Not entirely.  Heathrow airport conveniently raises the question of anyone’s place in the world, when from here you can fly to just about everywhere.  For this character, the airport is also a refuge, a sanctuary where he can escape (strange but true) the noise of the planes that roar over his house and also, he hopes, the guilty awareness of his domestic noises-off.  In the public space of the airport he is allowed a brief existence outside the family.  As the day wears on, he gradually loses or confuses his sense of himself, and can only rediscover the meaning and importance of home when rescued by his wife.  Probably not for the first time, either.  So I wouldn’t say this is a story advising men to get out of the house, no.

It feels almost as if the father is wrecked by the demands of his children, and yet he is also rescued by them at the airport.  What interests you about the role of children in relationships?

There are many reasons men succumb to stress, and this character suffers from nearly all of them.  He’s sexually tempted, professionally competitive, emotionally stretched, hopelessly nostalgic for other lives that could have been.  He could blame the children for most of this, but by the end of the story I hope it’s clear that this would probably be a mistake, or an excuse.  But to answer the question: one role of children in relationships can be, in some circumstances, to provide an excuse for all kinds of calamity.  Luckily, they have other possible roles as well.

This is a very humane story and we can sympathise with your central character, however, he is also slightly pathetic and self-absorbed.  How did you achieve this balance.

The very fact that he’s away from his family allows him to become absorbed in himself – he’s alone for once.  And people are self-obsessed in airports – thinking about where they’re going or where they’ve come from, sealed up in plans and flashbacks.  At the airport no-one has to interact who doesn’t want to.  Part of what makes this character sympathetic is that despite the license to look inwards, he wants to find someone he knows and make some kind of human contact.  This allows me to balance his enforced introspection against his very human need for other people.

As well as being a novelist, you are also a writer of non-fiction.  Do you have a preference for writing fiction or non-fiction?

Non-fiction is more fun.  But that’s because I write about my enthusiasms, whereas the fiction tends to feed off my anxieties.  The two do overlap of course.  I love the stories people tell me when I’m researching non-fiction books, because people everywhere turn out to be living astonishing stories all the time.  I don’t believe, however, that truth is necessarily stranger than fiction.  If it is, then maybe the fiction should be trying a little harder.