Joe Joyce: why journalists should, and should not, write fiction

After years like a lapsing addict returning to the quick hit of journalism I finally stumbled on the perfect form of fiction – historical fiction – with the Echoland WWII spy series

Joe Joyce: there are still some old journalistic habits that have to be avoided, like the instinct to tell readers everything the research has thrown up

Joe Joyce: there are still some old journalistic habits that have to be avoided, like the instinct to tell readers everything the research has thrown up

 

Journalists should not write novels, my first agent declared at our first meeting. As a journalist trying to write a novel I was taken aback and asked why not. Because, she said, they keep stopping the action to explain the significance of what has just happened.

It is an occupational hazard. Along with other journalistic occupational hazards like spelling out “the questions to be answered” and explaining why what has just happened was inevitable, although we had not foreseen it. But, then, if we could foresee everything there would be no news, and no need for journalists to bring you the latest “guess what” surprise.

Wanting to write a novel is almost one of those journalistic occupational hazards too. As you call back yet again to someone who never returns your calls; try to prise information out of someone who drops heavy hints but won’t be specific (“I can’t say any more: you have your own ways of finding out things”: actually, we don’t, we need you to tell us or, better still, show us the evidence), or have five minutes before deadline to interpret a communique from a diplomatic meeting (was the exchange of views cordial - ie coldly hostile; friendly – civilised but no meeting of minds; or full and frank – a stand-up shouting match) after countless hours of waiting in an over-heated cattle-pen press centre, the beguiling thought occurs to you – wouldn’t it be so such easier to make things up?

Not, I hasten to add, that you’re thinking of making up the news story: contrary to popular belief, that happens very rarely. But wouldn’t it be easier to write fiction as fiction? To sit at a warm desk somewhere, make up the answers to all the unanswered questions, know what happens behind closed doors, solve puzzles, play with readers’ expectations, right wrongs, make sure the bad guys get their just desserts. Sounds very attractive. Of course it would be easier, wouldn’t it?

Well, yes and no. Yes, perhaps, if you know what you’re going to write. No, if you have a limitless blank screen and can write about anyone in any situation in any place at any time. Yes, if you can change the habits of a news-oriented career, forget the buzz of immediacy and abandon the bad habit of writing only in manic bursts just ahead of the deadline. No, if you can’t write something without knowing where it’s going. Yes, if you can wean yourself off the instant gratification drug, that what you write is online with the click of a mouse or in tomorrow morning’s paper. No, if you can’t face into months, even years, of writing something with no promise of an end or publication.

I’ve been round this roundabout several times. Firstly from news reporting for The Irish Times and the Guardian to writing non-fiction books (The Boss and Blind Justice with colleague Peter Murtagh). That wasn’t so much of a jump, but a surprise to both of us was how much more willing politicians were to talk off the record for a book than they were for tomorrow’s newspaper. A case of short-termism on both sides. Hacks and pols live day to day: tomorrow’s story is the most important thing in the world; next year’s revelation is of minor interest to both, an eternity away.

Then back to journalism and, mainly, to the interminable to-ing and fro-ing of pre-peace process Irish-British relations where the sound of a single splinter in distant ice was the only excitement in the glacial progress – or lack of it: was that really a crack in the ice or am I becoming delusional? Then, the jump into the blank page of fiction. But not entirely: the first novel, Off the Record, was all about, surprise, surprise, hacks and pols.

Still, it was fiction. I could and did go behind closed doors, made up stuff, and if the baddies didn’t quite get their comeuppance, well that was a hangover from reality. The next novel, The Trigger Man, wasn’t a million miles from the day job which, like some of the subject matter of the book later, hadn’t gone away entirely. The third novel was not based on anything I knew much about and, thus, more fictional but the publisher lost enthusiasm for the project amid a corporate takeover. It remains un-named and unfinished, a case, perhaps, where it would have been better not to have had a publisher at all.

Still, it might have been finished had not a more tempting offer come along, a commission to write another non-fiction book. No more lonely blank pages to be filled by a plot that required, as usual, to be made up as it got written. Instead, a story that had a defined beginning and end and had lots of research to do and, potentially, people to talk to. The book, The Guinnesses, did get completed many years later, thanks to online access to newspaper archives: without the internet it would have taken a lifetime of scrolling through retina-bending spools of microfilm.

After years like a lapsing addict returning to the quick hit of journalism I finally stumbled on the perfect form of fiction – historical fiction – with the Echoland series of spy novels set during the second World War. The time and place, mainly Ireland, provide a fascinating background to the when and where: I can research them as much or as little as I like. The who and what I make up, still trying to painfully figure out the plots as I write them.

There are still some old journalistic habits that have to be avoided, like the instinct to tell readers everything the research has thrown up. And a reluctance to put imagined words in the mouths of the real from the era. Although a very successful novelist looked at me askance when I told him I still had qualms about making up dialogue for real historical people.

Maybe next time I will manage to shake off that old journalistic qualm. While trying to remember not to stop the action to explain its significant or share the really interesting but irrelevant titbits from the research.

Joe Joyce’s latest spy novel, Echowave, is published by Liberties Press

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