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Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Freestate (Photo by Hoberman Collection/UIG via Getty Images)

Giving life to the voices that are swept away by history

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Q&A | 10 minute read
Damian Barr discusses his career as a memoirist and salonniere, and his first novel, You Will Be Safe Here, which tells two connected stories about cruelty and survival in South Africa

Your last book, Maggie & Me, was a deeply personal memoir about growing up gay in 1980s Scotland. Can you describe the process of deciding to write that very honest book, actually writing it, and having it published? What were the pros and cons?

I didn’t set out to write a memoir. I set out to write a novel but I kept turning up on the page. I found it impossible to write anything made up – maybe that’s all my years as a journalist. Eventually, rather than writing one of the very thinly veiled memoirs I get sent all the time, I decided to honestly write my story down. Of course, that was just the start. Your life is not as you remember it. To write memoir is not to remember, it is to relive. For me that was often traumatic. It was also joyful at times and cathartic always. After it was published, people started to write to me about their own very personal experiences of abuse and survival, of feeling ‘other’. I felt humbled and connected and freed of shame I didn’t know I was carrying. I am grateful to every reader.

The book is now being made into a TV series. How does that feel? And how involved will you be in the process?

Andrea Gibb, who does Call the Midwife among other brilliant things, is leading the adaptation. She is the dream! And STV get it because they’re Scottish. I’ll be writing some episodes too so that is new and exciting for me as a writer. They are generous and inspiring. It will mean more people get to know my story and maybe feel empowered to share their own. My family is supportive, as always. Sathnam Sanghera worked closely with the team who adapted his brilliant memoir, The Boy With the Topknot, so I am following his example of being honest and caring with his family first, and letting everyone else share in that.

Your very first book was called Get It Together: Surviving Your Quarterlife Crisis. What do you know now that you wish you could have known when you were twenty-five? If you could have ten minutes with your younger self – at any age – what would you tell him? Would he listen?

I always forget I wrote that — I was twenty-four, I think! What do I know? I guessed that some of my best times were still ahead but I didn’t know some of the worst would be too. But I am good at surviving and I knew that then and now. I would tell younger Damian not to be in such a hurry (he wouldn’t listen).

Your new book is a two-stranded novel, set in South Africa during the Second Boer War and more recently in a ‘training camp’ run by white nationalists, where a sixteen-year-old boy is sent by his parents. Apart from the obvious connection that we discover at the end of the novel, and which we won’t reveal because it’s a massive spoiler, what links the two stories?

The landscape: it’s easy to see why it’s the ‘cradle of civilisation’. South Africa is so beautiful I stood and cried — in the Golden Gate National Park I thought I was in Eden. Downtown Johannesburg was a vision of a possibly harmonious yet brilliantly chaotic future. There are echoes and resonances throughout of stories that one generation passes to the next, changing them as we go. Memory isn’t constant, and memoir showed me this, so I wanted to explore it in my first fiction.

These truths are contested and I leave space for the reader to decide what they think about who does what and why. For me it was about the characters and their everyday lives, not geopolitics or political theory — they don’t think about that at school or work, they think about their kids and their colleagues and getting home in time for dinner.

Why South Africa? Why those eras? Why those stories? Why are you the right person to bring them to life, and why now?

Tayari Jones said, ‘Write about people and their stories, not stories and their people,’ so that is what I have tried to do. The present-day boy, Willem, is bookish and prefers animals to people. He’s just the kind of boy who would be sent to the contemporary camps which ‘make men out of boys’. I learned about these camps when I heard the horrific story of Raymond Buys, who was brutally murdered at such a place in 2011. I went to South Africa and spent time with that boy’s brave, benighted mother and interviewed the detective who successfully pursued his killer; I eventually went to the place where he was murdered. For the historical part I visited the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein and spent days there. I also spent a lot of time in Victorian archives, like Gladstone’s library, looking at letters and diaries from both sides to understand their hopes and fears and try to get a hold of some facts.

I heard the voices of my characters very clearly: Sarah and her son Fred, sent to Bloemfontein Camp in 1901. And Willem sent to New Dawn in 2010. These voices — the voices of women and children and queer boys — are almost always swept away by history. I felt obligated to tell ‘their’ stories. To feel confident doing this, I did as much research as possible. I started by making sure the past and present hadn’t been linked in this way before and was surprised to find they hadn’t. I spoke to Gillian Slovo about the idea and wondered aloud about how it would be received — a white Scottish gay man telling this story. She shouted, ‘Good! I’m glad you’re telling this story, an outsider.’

What sort of research did you have to do to get into the mind and the time and the terroir of this story? What did you come across that most surprised or enraged or scared you? And what was the most interesting thing that you left out?

I am enraged that we have not made a national hero of Emily Hobhouse! I wanted to write a whole book about her but thankfully someone else already has – Emily Hobhouse: Feminist, Pacifist, Traitor? by Elsabé Brits.

We only know about the camps because of Miss Emily Hobhouse. She founded the South African Women and Children’s Distress Fund and travelled from England to Bloemfontein in 1901. What she found appalled her. She recorded accounts of farm burnings and camp life: ‘It was a death-rate such as had never been known except in the times of the Great Plagues … the whole talk was of death – who died yesterday, who lay dying today, who would be dead tomorrow.’ Her report divided Victorian Britain. The Daily Mail pilloried her in a story headlined ‘Woman – The Enemy’. Hobhouse did not visit the black camp in Bloemfontein and has been accused of racism, but the local garrison would not allow a lady to go there. In 1913 she wrote a speech for the unveiling of the National Women’s Monument at Bloemfontein. She was unable to travel there so it was read for her, but without this crucial line: ‘Does not justice bid to remember today how many thousands of the dark race perished also in the concentration camps in a quarrel that was not theirs?’ Hobhouse was a thorn in the side of successive British governments. She was accorded a state funeral in South Africa and her ashes are interred at Bloemfontein.

What did I have to leave out? I spent a year cutting it back to its present very lean form. I’ll keep the trimmings.

Gladstone’s Library. Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

What was hardest about writing fiction, having published two successful works of non-fiction and lots of journalism? And what was most fun?

Hard? I can’t believe how lucky I am! I don’t find it hard switching between the forms because I do one at a time — never the novel and an article on the same day. I have lots of supportive friends and family who encourage and ignore me as necessary. My husband, Mike, is my sounding board and quick to spot a dead end. Most fun? For fiction it was when I did the edit and got out of my own way and found all these clues I’d left for myself. The novel really doesn’t resolve itself until the last page and for a long time I didn’t know either.

You’re also the very popular host of Damian Barr’s Literary Salon, which happens several times a year at the Savoy Hotel. We’re always being told that it’s impossible to make good TV about books, but your salons draw in sell-out audiences of hundreds of passionate and enthralled book lovers, and draw out all sorts of stories and confessions from the authors you interview. So, how do you do it, and why don’t we see more of this sort of thing on screen?

I would strongly encourage you to watch this space. The Salon is produced by a great team of people and would be impossible without them and all the publicists and editors and, of course, the writers who return book after book to share new work with the Salonistas. The Salonistas aren’t an audience; they are a diverse community of brilliant people who love stories. The Savoy is the perfect home because it has so many stories of its own and now we are a part of that.

Why are you so angry about Amazon selling copies of so-called ‘gay cure’ books. What about freedom of speech, eh?

There are numerous examples of such books on Amazon that advocate so-called reparative therapy, including A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, Healing Homosexuality, Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality and How a Gay Boy Became a Straight Man. Writers must be free to write this rubbish. Publishers must be free to waste paper and time on it. Readers should absolutely be free to waste money, time and energy exposing themselves to such toxic material. But Amazon, who also made Transparent and are a publisher not just a shop, has a responsibility to its customers to not profit from or promote self-harm and hate crimes. If you read the comments below each book, you can clearly see they have caused harm to parents as well as children. Amazon is profiting from the pain of the people affected by these books. I ask them not to validate these titles by making them readily available, not to profit from child abuse and to make different choices. That is all.

When was the last time you went to a library, and what do libraries mean to you?

I am writing this on the train back from Gladstone’s Library, where I am a trustee. I started their writer in residence scheme, and the first playwright in residence, the brilliant Oli Emanuel, was there and offered me great insight into the scriptwriting process. The trip before I ran into Sarah Perry, who was finishing Melmoth, and we shared sherries into the night. Libraries fill me with joy however big or small, however grand or municipal. The shelves sing with potential. Libraries saved my life and I was part of the team effort to save Newarthill Library, my childhood refuge. That is my greatest achievement as a person.

What are you working on now/next?

Publishing is such a vital part of the writing process — I am very engaged with that and excited about all the events I have coming up. What am I writing? I’ll be working on Maggie & Me for TV, there is my ‘Novel Destinations’ column for High Life, I edit and mentor writers, my PhD is bubbling away at Lancaster University, I’ve got some original scripts on the go. Two ideas are competing to see which will be my next book. We’ll see which one wins. Then there is the Salon and the charities I am lucky enough to work with: Brighton Fringe, Little Green Pig and New Writing South. This week I am hosting the Windham Campbell Prizes Live from London event, where over £1 million will be awarded to eight writers. It’s all go! It’s always all go.

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr is published on 4 April by Bloomsbury