Tim Finch sat down recently with his editor, Ileene Smith, to discuss flammable prose, meta-fiction, and Orwellian influences. The House of Journalists will be published on September 3rd.
Ileene Smith: The House of Journalists is my first debut novel at FSG, which is exciting, having come of age reading fiction published by this house. . . . I remember reading your manuscript as a new arrival on 18th Street, and being swept up into your imagined world of exiled writers re-making their lives in a London townhouse. . . . I was amused when Gary Shteyngart called your prose “flammable.” Were you?
Tim Finch: I was going for a high-octane style. I wanted the prose to fizz and crackle. . . . He may also have been alluding to the unstable elements in the novel that make the reader uneasy.
Ileene Smith: Like surveillance of the fellows of the House of Journalists?
Tim Finch: While I was writing The House of Journalists, I thought I was exaggerating the level of surveillance and monitoring of refugees for a dramatic and darkly comic effect. But after Snowden and Manning and the rest, I do begin to wonder if life hasn’t overtaken art. At this point, anybody who comes from a part of the world where our supposed “enemies” reside, even if they have fled from those countries because they stood up against Islamic fundamentalism or whatever, is now regarded as potentially suspicious by our intelligence and security services.
Ileene Smith: Despite the gravity of the material in The House of Journalists—exile, torture, loss, etc.—there’s quite a bit of humor and wordplay in it. What’s that about? Is it even appropriate? And why the reference to Ovid in the early pages?
Tim Finch: The nod to Ovid’s Black Sea Letters is partly just a name check to perhaps the greatest earliest work in our civilization devoted to the agony of exile. But of course I could only reference Ovid if by so doing I stayed true to the narrative flow. Among my exiled writer characters are people steeped in this type of literature. Also, I wanted to make the point that exile colors a person’s life right down to how they experience the weather. Ovid describes his place of exile as relentlessly bleak and cold, but in truth it couldn’t have been. It’s a city in modern-day Romania, in southern Europe, where the summers are very hot. But that’s not the point. He was using the weather to create the mood—and torn from his homeland, he felt relentlessly bleak and cold.
Turning to the use of humor and wordplay: Part of that is just me—I delight in these things. I don’t think I could write a novel, even one about, I don’t know, the Soviet Gulags, without some comedy in there. It’s the Nabokovian in me—which I know is a dangerous game, but there you are.
Is it appropriate? Well, my defence would be that it is true to the characters. They enjoy and have fun with language, as is made clear most obviously by the fact that the exiled writers particularly relish a language class at the House because the young teacher introduces them to the peculiarities, weird coinages, and puns that are prevalent in English. There’s also a sort of double-level subversiveness in the humor and wordplay, because the presiding tyrant of the House—Julian Snowman—is a writer who absolutely hates this stuff in fiction. He thinks all language in literature should be simple, translucent and “true”—whatever that might mean. So I’m cocking a snook at him partly.
Ileene Smith: “Cocking a snook”—now that is premium language. . . .
Tim Finch: Yes, it’s an expression that you’d only know if you lived in England and were my sort of age. There are ruder ways of saying the same thing.
Ileene Smith: We won’t go there. . . . Your day job has been on the policy side of international refugee issues. What tipped you into the world of fiction?
Tim Finch: All my adult life my heart has been in fiction—mainly reading, but also trying to write. So I’ve only “tipped into” this world in middle age by virtue of finishing a novel, finding an agent, getting a publisher and all the rest of it.
But, in another sense, you are right to suggest that I have overtly turned to fiction to take another crack, from another angle, at the issue of asylum which, one way or another, has dominated the last decade or so of my professional life. And what motivated me to do that was frustration at the inadequacy of politics and policy to explore this issue in its full complexity. In these arenas the aim is to simplify, to clarify, to win arguments and come up with solutions. I understand that and still participate in those processes, which are honorable in their way. But increasingly, I have come to feel that migration is an issue much better approached through what the political philosopher Richard Rorty called contingency and irony. To put it another way, rather than be concerned that this issue is so messy, so multifarious, so intractable, we should embrace all that and immerse ourselves in the endless conversation—even dispute—we can have about it.
Ileene Smith: There are a couple of real safe houses for journalists. Did you ever visit any of them?
Tim Finch: No. I did absolutely no research for this novel—thought it might spoil the flow. That said, two things: Someone years ago told me about the Maison des Journalistes in Paris. Just the name, no more. And I thought at that very moment that it would be a good title for a novel. So the Paris House is the inspiration in my novel in that sense, but only that sense.
Generally, I didn’t do any active research for the novel, largely because I didn’t feel I needed to. That said, I have worked in the refugee field for a number of years, so in a sense I’ve been doing “action research” through my engagement with refugees and the issues that surround them.
Ileene Smith: For me, the book has Orwellian overtones. Was Orwell an influence?
Tim Finch: In truth, Orwell wasn’t consciously in my mind as I was writing The House of Journalists. I haven’t read any of Orwell’s fiction for twenty-odd years, and at most I’d say he was a formative influence in the way that great writers in your culture, the ones you learn at school, constantly hover over you. That said, the book is certainly Orwellian in that it creates an imagined dystopia in order to illustrate contemporary politics.
Another British novelist whom I haven’t read for years but who looms behind the novel in some way is Graham Greene. But with him as with Orwell, the comparison is in the political subject matter, outlook and tone—certainly not form or style. Other lurking, perhaps dangerous, influences would be Calvino, Nabokov, Barthelme, and Auster. I know it’s not very fashionable, but I do like a bit of meta-fiction, the book you’re reading being the book he’s writing, authors breaking frames and all that.
Ileene Smith: The House of Journalists includes quite a spectrum of characters, but the first one we meet is a very strange fellow called Mr. Stan, the longest-standing fellow of the House. You take pains to tell us how gnarled he is. What role does his disfiguration play in the book?
Tim Finch: That really is a fascinating question and until now I genuinely haven’t given it much thought. At a rather superficial level, I had in mind a former colleague, not himself a refugee, who had severe curvature of the spine and walked with crutches, and somehow I drew on his physical appearance, as well as his good nature, in creating Mr. Stan. Another element—and again it sounds odd—is that in Mr. Stan I wanted to create a somewhat Dickensian character, and perhaps I felt that giving him a striking physical appearance that evoked appalled pity would help.
More fundamentally, a key plot point is that for all his other deformities, Mr. Stan has (or had) beautiful hands. Or so his Mother thinks, reflecting what I hope we would consider outmoded attitudes to disability. She, as it were, clings to these hands which are the one part of her son’s appearance which isn’t a disappointment to her. He then uses his hands—not as she would wish—to hammer out the political journalism which makes his name, but ultimately puts him in danger. And then to “silence” him, government torturers smash those hands with hammers. At The House of Journalists he finds. . . . Well, I ought not include any spoilers here.
Ileene Smith: In The House of Journalists you almost parody international refugee efforts. Given your day job, isn’t this a slightly risky proposition?
Tim Finch: Well, of course, I’m so confident that the novel will sell in huge quantities that I’m going to give up the day job. . . . More seriously, I think that if you work in any industry or sector, however worthy its mission and however much good it achieves, you come to appreciate that there are many absurdities in what you do, how you have to act and speak, and how you have to conform to the culture and its norms.
Ileene Smith: Yes, part of the genius of the book is its application to other worlds—universities and corporations and even publishing houses—anyplace where institutional smugness or piety is in play. My late, great author Kingsley Amis,would have loved this about your novel.
Tim Finch: That’s very flattering. And I’m fairly confident that my friends and colleagues in the refugee sector will enjoy it, too. Contrary to outside expectations, they are not a bunch of sanctimonious liberals, crippled by political correctness—they enjoy taking the piss out of themselves. And they will certainly understand my desire to explore the humanity of the refugee without indulging in sentimentality.
Ileene Smith: Can we expect to see more “flammable” fiction from you?
Tim Finch: Yes, certainly. I didn’t take to literature in order to write a book on this subject and then be . . . exiled. There are more stories to tell.
Tim Finch works for a London think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. He was a BBC political journalist and is a former director of communications for the Refugee Council. The House of Journalists is his first novel. Connect with Tim Finch online at @TimAAFinch.
Ileene Smith is a Vice President and Executive Editor at FSG.