A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR
1. The Last Kestrel is your first novel ‐ what prompted you to write it?
The Last Kestrel was inspired by a real life incident that I witnessed when I was embedded with
British troops in Helmand, Southern Afghanistan, for the BBC. The troops launched an offensive into an area controlled by the Taliban. As I advanced with them, I found out that one of the bombs had fallen on a family home and killed a family of six, including children. I was haunted by the incident. I wanted to know where the villagers’ loyalties lay and why the family hadn’t fled when the fighting started. I never found actual answers – but the questions eventually led to The Last Kestrel.
2. Why did you choose the title The Last Kestrel?
It’s a phrase taken from a moving poem by the first‐world‐war poet Edmund Blunden about the impact of conflict on civilians. The relevant stanza is re‐printed at the front of the novel. Although that war is very different from the current Afghan war, the poem captured the main theme of the novel: the way the lives of civilians become caught up in war and destroyed by it. Also I’ve seen kestrels riding the air currents in Afghanistan as they hunt – and, in the novel, Ellen does too. I think of them as symbolic of the country’s recent history. They’re powerful, beautiful birds but also birds of prey, associated with the violence of the natural world.
3. On page 16, you write: ‘despite all the discomfort and danger, war zones made her feel more fully alive than any other place she knew.’ Is this how you feel? How much of the character Ellen is based on your own attitudes and experiences?
I do think many journalists, including me, find something compelling, even addictive, about war zones and other extreme situations, such as riots, natural disasters and some crime stories. They are deeply distressing environments but they are also intense and the rushing adrenalin, partly induced by fear, heightens all the senses. That is what I meant by “fully alive”. Reporting in such situations is also a reminder of what really matters in life.
I found Ellen the most difficult character in the novel to write. I wanted to draw on my own reporting experience, and especially my experience as a female reporter in a mostly male world, but I also wanted to create a character who was separate from and different from me. That was a difficult balance to strike. Broadly speaking, our values are similar. But she is definitely a woman of action who takes extreme physical risks and a loner and I don’t see myself as those things.
4. By writing a fictional story about real events, do you think the reader will find it easier to relate to the situation in Afghanistan?
Obviously there’s a big difference between the real environment in which the novel takes place, for example the sense of place, the portrayal of elements of Afghan culture and of military life, and the elements of fiction which include the plot and characters. This is not a true story. But I did want to explore underlying issues about the difficulties faced by civilians, especially women, who are caught up in the conflict and the difficulties too for British soldiers who are sent to a very hostile and alien theatre. No‐one in this novel is right or wrong: it’s a morally complicated landscape. But I hope readers will respond on a personal and emotional level to the characters in a way in which they might not respond to a news report about Afghanistan.
5. Ellen is constantly worried about filing her reports on time. Do you find that this pressure and time constraint affects the stories you write about?
Ellen’s need to “get the story” and to file her reports does spur her on and adds to the novel’s pace. In fact, compared to many real journalists, she has tremendously loose deadlines because she is filing for a weekly news magazine (and sometimes its online site as well) which means that she often has days at a time to carry out lengthy investigations.
In my own work as a journalist, limited time and constantly looming deadlines can be constraining and stressful. The pressure can be a barrier to asking extra questions or simply spending more time getting to know and understand people at the centre of events. As a fiction writer, I enjoy the fact that I can spend time writing, reflecting and imagining being in someone else’s skin, which a reporter can never do.
6. Ellen notes that professional distance is the only way she’s going to survive this. How hard is it not to cross the line? Have you ever found yourself getting too involved?
Journalists are human beings and sometimes, especially when working in the developing world, it can be extremely difficult to witness suffering and not try to intervene, even though, strictly speaking, I think that journalists should be professional observers, rather than participants. I faced a challenge in August 2010 when I was covering the floods in Pakistan and came across a five‐day old baby who had been born by the roadside. Her mother didn’t have food, water or shelter and the baby seemed close to death. I alerted a doctor and he managed to find and treat the baby and she survived. I worried afterwards whether I had “crossed the line” by interfering. I will never know, for example, if I diverted the doctor away from another desperately ill patient. I broadcast a piece about my dilemma on the BBC programme “From Our Own Correspondent” and had a strong and reassuring response from the public. But these situations are often very haunting and hard to handle.
7. Oppression and hope are key themes in the novel. Jalil hopes to go to university to give his family a better life. Najib hopes for a family of his own and Hasina hopes that her husband and son will survive. Why are you so eager for the reader to share the characters’ hopes and dashed dreams? Are the personal stories of hope a microcosm for the political stories of hope for the Afghan citizens?
I think we’re all motivated by our desires. Love, which motivates Hasina so strongly, is perhaps the most powerful of all – but other hopes, for example, of a more comfortable life, of having a family, of fame, of reputation are all strong drivers too. That’s true whether we’re in war‐torn Helmand or in the West. I want my readers to understand what drives different characters so that, as a result, they can share their hopes and feel a connection with them. That makes the characters more real, I hope, and more empathetic. In real life too, when we focus on these basic human similarities, rather than superficial cultural differences, it helps us to care what happens elsewhere, including in Afghanistan, and brings politics to life.
8. Afghanistan is still in the news a lot. Do you think the situation will truly improve?
The next period will be key. We are starting to see the steady reduction of NATO‐led troops now and a gradual transition to Afghan control and, possibly, the negotiation of a political settlement with the Taliban which could lead to the sharing of political power. There are many uncertainties, including what role Afghanistan’s neighbours will play as Western military influence declines. I very much hope that Afghanistan will achieve a basic level of security in the coming years which would allow it to develop economically. It also needs to improve its basic standard of governance, particularly by tackling corruption. All this, if it were successful, would make it possible for the daily life of ordinary Afghan families to improve.