Earlier this week I reviewed Paul Harris' debut novel, THE SECRET KEEPER as part of blog book tour with TLC Book Tours. Paul is presently the U.S. correspondent for the British newspaper, THE OBSERVER, living in New York City. I enjoyed THE SECRET KEEPER so much I asked Paul to come back today and answer some questions for us. He graciously agreed, so let me refrain from chit chat and introduce you to Mr. Paul Harris:
Q. Paul, you’ve been a writer for quite some time, but THE SECRET KEEPER is your first novel. And you used your experiences covering the conflict in Sierra Leone as the basis for THE SECRET KEEPER, but why make the decision to write fiction?
Paul: I always wanted to try my hand at a novel. Fiction was something I have written since I was a child, simply for the pleasure of it. After I left Africa in 2000 and came back to the UK, I just decided that I would really try and make a proper go of it. It was fun but also a way, I think, of processing some of my own experiences.Q. Along those same lines, you’ve covered quite a lot in your career as a journalist, why choose Sierra Leone as the subject for your first novel?
Paul: Firstly, I just think Sierra Leone makes a great setting for a dramatic story. It has excitement and horror and sets people against an extraordinary backdrop, both during the war and afterwards. Secondly, on a personal level, covering the end of the war there was a very intense personal experience. More so than any other story I have covered in many ways. I was young, on my own to a large degree and in the middle of this frightening chaos. It was far more intense than, for example, being embedded during the invasion of Iraq which felt a lot safer and where journalists where kept a step removed from what was going on (a controversial topic in itself).
Q. Since you covered the conflict in Sierra Leone, were you able to sit down and just start pounding out the book or did you have additional, special research you still had to collect to be able to write? If you did, how did you go about that research? Obviously, your journalism coverage of the conflict was more hands-on; was that the case with any additional research you were doing or was it more “book work” so to speak?
Paul: It was pretty much the first option. I just pounded it out, in fits and starts. It took a long time, as writing a first book I think always does. There is always the nagging thought that what you are producing is unlikely to ever see the light of day. So I worked on it around my job as a reporter in London for The Observer and now US Correspondent. That generally involved taking holidays and locking myself away in an isolated spot with my laptop and nothing to distract me and then you just journey back through your own experiences and imagination to craft the story.
Q. Like you, Danny Kellerman is a journalist. Do the likenesses stop at that point or do you and Danny share any other characteristics?
Paul: I think both Danny and I shared a certain amount of confusion in the face of landing for the first time in such an extreme environment. In that way our emotional reaction was the same. I think Danny also has a hard time adjusting to life back in London after covering the war. He tends to see his previous experiences there as more ‘real’ despite they were traumatic. That certainly was inspired by my own emotional reactions to leaving Africa after four years there. I guess in some degree in writing Danny I was writing “what I know” and so similarities are inevitable.Q: The characters and their relationships to each other are a vital component of THE SECRET KEEPER. Did you find them taking on a life of their own as you wrote or did they pretty much follow the plan you had mapped out?
Paul: It’s weird but to some extent they do take on some sort of life of their own. I plan ahead my writing and plotting. I don’t just plunge in and see what happens. But even with that, I would look back and find characters relating in ways or doing things that I had never consciously thought of. I sort of think of it in terms of that trick will pull a handkerchief out of his nose, attached to another one, and another one.. they just keep coming. My writing feels like that sometimes. I pull a thread and then keep pulling and it all seems to come out. I hope that comparison is not too gross!Q: One of the elements of THE SECRET KEEPER that I really appreciated was your dialogue. Often I’ve found authors’ first books to be rather rough around the edges on dialogue, so what would you attribute your strength in this area to? Were you just born with the talent or is there a significant element of journalism that has helped you develop that ability or did you hone that skill somewhere else altogether?
Paul: That’s very kind of you to say so and you raise an interesting point about the potential role of journalism in helping one get the hang of dialogue. Certainly journalism makes sure that you are used to reporting and writing with quotes. That you are always on the look out for a good quote or pithy comment that really makes a point. I think that must help a lot when crafting dialogue. After all, most of my professional life is spent interviewing people.Q: What would you say was the hardest change you had to make to shift from writing journalism to writing fiction?
Paul: I would not say I found anything too hard. They are, in the end, such different mediums. I would say the biggest change was simply that writing fiction felt very liberating. I felt that it allowed me to explore what I really thought about a situation in ways that are limited by the rules that govern how journalism is reported and written. In that way, strangely, I think the truth might sometimes be easier to get at with fiction than it is with journalism.Q: There’s definitely an element of entertainment in THE SECRET KEEPER and you take the reader on a bit of a thrill ride, but at the same time, there’s a very serious look at a corruption that is almost a catch-22? What would you really like your readers to take away from that?
Paul: I think the key point I would like people to take away from the book is that very few things in life are black and white. There is a moral complexity to everything. Sometimes a bad thing has to be done to have a good effect. Sometimes good actions will lead to bad events. How does one measure justice when, say, letting one bad man get rich might prevent a return to war that would kill thousands. What is the “right” thing to do in that situation? I hope that readers of the book will realize that the world is full of shades of grey.Q: Where will you go from here? Are there other fiction books in the works? New characters or will Danny find himself in a new adventure?
Paul: I am just starting out on a second book. It’s set against the backdrop of a US presidential campaign. I covered the 2004 and 2008 US elections and will use some of that experience to inform the writing. It’s very early days but I am excited by it. I think this time around the main character won’t be a journalist, but a so-called ‘opposition researcher”: someone employed by a campaign to dig around in the pasts of opponents but also his own candidate.Q: O.k., so what about Paul Harris as a person? What kinds of things do you like to do for fun? As hobbies? Etc.
Paul: My main passion in life is travel. I guess I was just born under a wandering star. I have been lucky that my job has allowed me to travel widely all over the world (and many parts of the US) and live in different countries. Even now I still get a strange thrill from checking into a hotel as if it is some sort of treat. There’s nothing that beats the feeling of arriving in a new town, city or country for the first time. Whether it is in Kansas or China. When not on the road, though, I just love living in New York. It is a fantastic city, full of theatre and great restaurants and all of it crammed into such a small space that is easy to walk around. I also love playing poker. I have a Friday night home game that I always try and make. It’s a fantastic sport, full of psychology and depth and rarely actually about the cards. Sadly, I am not exactly a poker genius though.
Q: Are there any writers that you feel have influenced your writing style or helped to shape your approach?
Paul: I actually tried to avoid a lot of fiction while writing. I have a terrible fear of unwittingly absorbing a style or an incident or a turn of phrase. So I just closed my mind and tried to make sure as much of the book came from me as possible. I don’t know if that was the best way to do it, as I might have been missing valuable pointers and guides. But I just wanted to ensure that the voice in the book was mine. For better or for worse (and readers will be the judge of that!).Q: How about what you like to read for fun. When you have NO obligation at all, you can read whatever you want, what or who do you choose to read?
Paul: I actually like reading popular science books. Wonderful examples of beautifully written books by science writers would include The Ancestors Tale, by Richard Dawkins, and Life by Richard Fortey. I can read and reread those books endlessly. On the fiction side of things I have started reading Annie Proulx. She is amazing.Q: And my final question is one I ask of all my interviewees. There is a book out called NOT QUITE WHAT I WAS PLANNING; SIX-WORD MEMOIRS BY WRITERS FAMOUS AND OBSCURE. What would be YOUR six-word memoir?
Paul: Fears flying; got on planes anyway.
Many thanks to Paul for taking the time to chat with us today. You can learn more about Paul Harris and his debut novel, THE SECRET KEEPER at his website. For an additional review of THE SECRET KEEPER from his blog tour, check out Savvy Verse and Wit today. You can also wish Serena a happy two-year blogiversary while you are there!