"The newspaper novel has a genre all of its own." A Conversation with Annalena McAfee

Dear Reader,

 I stayed up until 1:30 AM to finish reading Annalena McAfee’s first novel The Spoiler, a marvelously biting satire of journalists run amok in 1997 London.  I couldn’t stop laughing, and I. Had. To. Know. What. Happened. Next.   

Staying up all night to finish a book is high praise of its own in my circle, but simply chanting “it’s insanely great” will not cut it in our meetings. (And though I was working off of typo-tormented, sleep-deprived notes, other readers had the same response to  — and coherent comments on — McAfee’s sharp dialogue and snappy plotting.)

 Annalena answered some questions about her novel for Discover Great New Writers — and recommends a lost novel, recently republished in the U. S. — and we’re sharing it here.

You were a newspaper journalist for many years. Was it difficult to make the transition from fact to fiction?

Like most journalists, I always wanted to write a novel. I started working in newspapers simply as a way of making a living until I could find the resources and time to write a book. As Mark Twain – consummate reporter turned writer – said: “A thunderstorm made Beranger a poet, a mother’s kiss made Benjamin West a painter and a salary of $15 a week makes us a journalist.” But I fell in love with newspapers and, though I wrote a number of children’s books in that time, I was happily sidetracked by journalism for the next three decades.  Five years ago, I was on holiday in the remote Scottish highlands with my husband – no television, no internet – and we entertained ourselves in the evenings by reading to each other. After I had plundered Chekhov’s short stories, I decided it was time to offer some original material so I wrote a few pages about an elderly war correspondent preparing to be interviewed by a brash young reporter. That fragment became the opening pages of The Spoiler.

Why did you set your story in 1997?

January 1997 was a time of transition, a cusp moment, in newspapers, and also, incidentally, in UK politics. After 18 years in power, the Conservative government was about to face its first serious electoral challenge. In the print media it was the last breath of the old order, when it was still possible for sceptical print journalists to dismiss the internet as a passing fad. Months later, we had the apparent new dawn of Tony Blair’s victory, and it soon became clear that the world of newspapers was about to change forever. It was also just before the near-universal use of mobile phones when, as we now know, some UK tabloids, desperate to uncover sensational stories to boost dwindling circulation, began hacking voicemail messages. My story prefigures that era and, I hope, shows the culture that made such systematic illegal intrusion possible. Incidentally, 1997 was also pre-Viagra, providing a small but key element in my plot.

By pitting the two women – the young tabloid writer and the veteran war correspondent – against each other were you making the case for one form of journalism over the other? And what is your perspective on the role of the internet in the future of journalism?

I wanted to avoid over-simplification – the argument that old equals good, new equals bad. So my distinguished old war correspondent is something of a snob, and may have shameful secrets she wishes to shield from public gaze. While my scurrilous young gossip journalist is unscrupulous in pursuit of a story, it could be argued that she demonstrates more integrity, or moral commitment, in at least some aspects of her personal life. Of course there was something magnificent about the old rigorous approach to journalism and the view that pictures, let alone picture bylines, distracted from the primacy of words. But there was misinformation, too, even in the hey-day of serious print reporting, and journalists, like everyone else, have always been personally flawed, whether they write for the tabloids, the broadsheets or the web.

I’m a technology enthusiast and think the internet is fantastic, with the potential to bring all the accumulated wisdom of the world into every home. But it also gives access to sometimes overwhelming quantities of stupidity and cruelty. As newspapers struggle for survival in the age of the internet, trivialisation has become endemic. The illegal and corrupt practices of some UK tabloid journalists have recently been exposed and I find the appeal of “celebrity” coverage baffling.  There are, however, plenty of heroic journalists still out there – Marie Colvin and Anna Politkovskaya, both killed in the course of duty, were recent outstanding exemplars of the tradition – working painstakingly to expose injustice and corruption and risking their lives to cover conflict. All that has changed is presentation and the means of delivery.

Does your novel explore other, non-journalistic, themes?

 Journalism is one of the most narcissistic of professions, chronicled in fiction by so many former ‘hacks’, as we like to style ourselves, that the newspaper novel has a genre all of its own. We want to read about the job, and when we leave it, we want to write about it. Fortunately for the ex-journalist who turns his or her hand to fiction, their former workplace is a milieu which seems to have an appeal for the general reader, not just for the happy few who have ever filed copy for a living. At its best, the  world described in the newspaper novel – that particular setting which Evelyn Waugh characterised as “neurotic men in shirt-sleeves and eye-shades [rushing] from telephone to tape-machines, insulting and betraying one another in circumstances of unredeemed squalor”   – stands in for the wider world, and to suggest that it  is only of interest to reporters is like arguing that Moby-Dick uniquely appeals to sailors, or Anna Karenina can only be appreciated by students of 19th century farming practices.

In The Spoiler, I also attempted to look at the subject of love, of personal integrity, and the question of sexuality and ageing. It is still a fact, as the older character in my novel ruefully observes, that while it is seen as acceptable for an old man to dally with a much younger woman, the reverse arrangement is usually viewed with abhorrence. Nature is not an equal opportunities employer.

Who have you discovered lately?

It took me a long time to come across this book, but then it took many other people a long time too. Though Tony and Susan (surely one of the most unprepossessing titles ever)  was published in the US in 1993, it was only recently published in the UK, seven years after the death of its author, Austin Wright. On the surface it is not a book I would normally be drawn to, featuring a chilling story describing the terror and brutality visited on an innocent family by a group of psychopaths. It is much more than a mere thriller, however. It is a novel within a novel, a clever meditation on the act of reading itself, in which a writer sends the manuscript of his shockingly violent novel to his former wife. We read the story with her, sharing her mounting alarm and her sleepless nights, and we also share her relief as she closes the pages temporarily to deal with her young children and engage in her unthreatening daily routine. But the dark sub-book subtly infects her life, as it does ours, and she begins to reflect with growing disquiet on the nature of her current, apparently happy, marriage. It’s one of the most compelling novels I’ve read for a while.

Cheers, Miwa

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.