Danny Morrison: why I put the character before the cause

The writer and political activist on fiction versus polemic and rewriting ‘The Wrong Man’

Last June my third novel, The Wrong Man, was published by Partizanska Knjiga in Serbia thanks to a translation grant from Literature Ireland. I had begun the book in 1995 whilst serving an eight-year sentence in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh (on the word of an informer, whom I never met) and finished it when I was released. It was published by Mercier Press in 1997 and in 2005 I adapted it for the stage.

The novel opens in 1981 when hunger strikers are dying and passions are high. One young man, Thomas Malone, is in awe of a leading IRA fighter and recently-released prisoner, Raymond Massey. Thomas joins an elite IRA unit led by Raymond which is in a deadly war with British undercover soldiers and the RUC Special Branch as each side tries to outwit the other. When IRA operations go wrong, the organisation becomes convinced that there is a traitor in its ranks working for the enemy. But who? And why? And how?

Themes of disloyalty and treachery in fiction are universals but in real life they presented real threats to myself and my freedom and that of many others. Ireland’s long history as a subjugated nation of its near neighbour, England, can be explained in large part by the actions of informers who have subverted attempted national revivals and uprisings. Understandably, Ireland reserved its greatest repugnance not for the enemy but for one of its own. The shock and shame of being betrayed from within is appositely put by John Berger in his novel, Once In Europa:

“‘Do you know what the trees say when the axe comes into the forest?’

‘Look! The handle is one of us!’”

Two of the best novels on the subject are Maxim Gorky’s Life of a Useless Man (1908) and Liam O’Flaherty’s classic, The Informer (1925), dealing with the effects of betrayal on the psyche of the traitor. It is one of the great triumphs of O’Flaherty’s writing that we are moved from outrage to comprehension and finally to sympathy for the brute Gypo Nolan, who betrays his mentor and best friend, Frankie McPhillip. It is also quite an accomplishment that this shift in emotional response is achieved without sacrifice to the integrity of the rebel cause.

And so, as a writer, I was interested in testing myself in terms of empathy and wanted to make the informer – this flawed, torn and vulnerable individual – as sympathetic as possible. I also wanted to depict the repercussions of conflict and death, particularly on partners and wives.

Thus, I had to go against the grain, so to speak, and be more loyal to the characters than to the cause, which I had spent decades defending in print, on radio and television. Some comrades didn’t like the book and the warts and all.

I think the Israeli writer Amos Oz described this predicament well, between art and politics, when he said that he has two pens on his desk, one black, one white. When he picks up this one, it is to tell stories. When he picks up that one, it is to write a polemic, and he never mixes them up!

About The Wrong Man the Belfast Telegraph review said that it “should come to be regarded as one of the most important books of the Troubles”. The Sunday Times described it as “a powerful and complex piece of storytelling”. The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature described it as “a powerful evocation of betrayal, deceit and guilt”.

When I adapted it for theatre I obviously had to make several changes as you couldn’t depict car chases, ambushes and gun battles on a small stage. So there are scenes in the play which aren’t in the novel, though the characters, plot and denouement remain the same.

Although I had had short stories broadcast on RTÉ and BBC I had only previously written/co-written one major piece of work for the stage and that was DubbelJoint’s play Binlids (1997).

The Wrong Man, which opened in the Pleasance Theatre in London, received great reviews: “superbly written, with equal measures of tension and dark humour” (The Observer); “a taut, gritty drama” (Daily Telegraph); “unmissable drama… Best play since The Weir” (What’s On Stage); “a highly authentic and memorable evening” (Quentin Letts, Daily Mail); “a compelling drama… a clear success” (Michael Portillo, New Statesman). Fest magazine nominated The Wrong Man as one of the top three plays of the Edinburgh Fringe in 2005.

The novel has been out of print for several years but when Partizanska Knjiga bought the rights, my publisher, Elsinor Verlag, and I decided to reissue it, but integrating scenes from the play into the original manuscript. So, while it is the same story, I feel it is a much more powerful and dramatic novel with these extended scenes, one of which includes a Kafkaesque RUC interrogation of a suspect in Castlereagh barracks.

It’s not the first time that I’ve made changes or amendments to a book after publication. Before West Belfast (1989) was republished two years ago, I added scenes, removed others, altered the fate of one or two characters, and went to work removing dozens of adjectives and adverbs, the product of a novice author’s attempt to impress and show off.

When my agent, Paul Feldstein, was preparing my prison letters, Then The Walls Came Down (1999), for reissue under the imprint of Dalzell Press earlier this year, I took the opportunity to include some exchanges which I had originally withheld for personal and political reasons.

To change a text or make amendments to it years after its initial reception opens one to the charge of being fickle or pandering to what is fashionable or politically correct. But I would defend my changes because I think they improve the original work and also reflect my maturity as a writer who wants to present his best.

Through re-reading my books, and giving public readings, and reading widely and closely other authors, I have a sense of what works and what doesn’t work.

I believe the new issue of The Wrong Man to be probably the best written of my books (though my novel about a tramp, Rudi, remains my favourite). It is about people trapped by history. It is about infliction and endurance, courage and weakness, the price of sacrifice … the sorrow of war.
In 2009 Danny Morrison's conviction was overturned and declared a miscarriage of justice