Author Q&A: Richard T Kelly

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In Richard T Kelly’s The Knives (Faber, £14.99) David Blaylock is a home secretary beset by security threats in his work life and the consequences of his temper at home. Not that the two remain separate. Kelly’s depiction of the characters in this confident state-of-the-nation political drama is unsparing but they have rich, complex and plausible inner lives rather than conforming to the demands of two-dimensional satire.

How did the character of David Blaylock form in your mind?
In a novel you have to make things tough on your protagonist, for the purpose of conflict. And there’s also a useful dramatic rule, which applies to Fawlty Towers as well as Shakespeare – that you can get a lot of value out of depicting a character who’s quite basically unsuited to the job that he does. I decided my fictional home secretary had to be a Tory in a North East constituency – sort of a Fort Apache scenario – and that he had to be an ex-soldier, whose idea of task management was shaped in the British Army and who has issues relating to his temper that have jeopardised both his working life and his family life. A man such as that, tasked with running one of the great offices of state – overseeing Britain’s borders and police and counter-terror systems – is liable to offer you a lot of conflict on the page.

A non-Etonian home secretary has just become prime minister, but could a working class one from the North East?
Absolutely. If you just take New Labour’s run of home secretaries – David Blunkett, John Reid and Alan Johnson all came from working class backgrounds, and each might have been prime minister at one time. The Tories tend to more middle or upper-middle class origins, sure – but not David Davis or Patrick McLoughlin or Sajid Javid or Michael Gove, to speak only of the cabinet in recent years. Greg Clark, the new business secretary, is from Middlesbrough and I believe his dad worked as a milkman.

Could you tell us something about how you did your research and did any serving politicians help?
I always research my fiction projects by journalistic investigation before I start, and as I go along. It gets you out of the house, it has value for its own sake and you never know what will prove useful, now or later. For The Knives I spent a lot of time in Westminster and Whitehall, but out around the country, too – I went to wherever my home secretary goes in the story, just to nose around. And I interviewed many MPs, ex-cabinet ministers, special advisors and civil servants, but all under the Chatham House rule, where the insight gleaned is free to use but strictly non-attributable.

When politics moves so quickly can novelists add something by being able to step back?
They can add a great deal, whether by stepping back or pitching right into the fray. Norman Mailer was a great political writer who got right up at the pointed end of his stories. My late friend Gordon Burn had a great gift for writing “the news as a novel”, adding a fiction writer’s vision. Conversely, Robert Harris’s novels about Ancient Rome are a fairly clear-eyed reflection of our own times. But the best writing about public affairs is timeless. Tolstoy and George Eliot still tell you pretty much everything you need to know about politics. Of course there’s a living to be had in journalism from arguing that whatever’s happening today is the definitive episode in human history. But it isn’t. The Book of Ecclesiastes got that dead right.

Novelists seem to have shied away from depicting the inner lives of powerful politicians. Why do you think this is?
I think writers sometimes fight the idea of seeking to empathise much with powerful people, just for fear that they will maroon themselves on the wrong side of where they feel an artist ought to be – which is on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden. They feel they ought to be in perpetual opposition, not government. And that might be a noble enough impulse, but it’s not the fullest one, creatively speaking – it leaves out a great swathe of the human pageant and who we are as humans. A politician is only a human man or woman like you or me, they all put their trousers on one leg at a time.

Do you think we should have greater respect for politicians and their motives?
You’ll always get a few show-boaters and hoodwinkers in parliament, and some MPs get too much lulled by their majorities. But I’ve never met an MP who doesn’t graft seriously hard for the people they represent. And the idea that ministers are only interested in Machiavellian power-plays is risible. Yes, you have to obtain power first to get anything done – you have to be canny. But having got there, you can’t just pull a lever and execute your wishes. Politics is a damnably complex art, and all political careers end in failure, but I think it’s very rare that the politician wasn’t seriously pursuing their idea of what could make the country better.

How has the country changed since you wrote Crusaders?
Crusaders was published in 2008 while New Labour was running out of road, as governments do. You could see the Tories had made themselves presentable again, so we were looking at another turn of the wheel, another Conservative era. The coalition and Cameron’s abortive second term were unstable, to say the least, but regrettably Labour in that time has contrived to abandon the business of real politics. So the many troubles we have afoot and headed our way will be for the Tories to contend with, I’d say.

What plans do you have for your next books?
My next book will be a non-fiction work, the story of two great footballers whose lives and careers mirror each other. It has a northern theme. Then I hope to write my next novel in 2017, possibly one requiring a little less legwork.

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