Set in London, 1981, The Long Room (Faber & Faber, £14.99) follows Stephen who listens to tape-recorded conversations for a living and becomes captivated by the wife of the man he is spying on. This story of espionage soon becomes more concerned with the mind of a man becoming further and further detached from reality.
Your books have all been quite different in subject – do you imagine you’ll settle into a genre or remain diverse?
They have been different, and that has been part of the pleasure I have had in writing them. It has been very interesting to learn about things I did not know much about beforehand – techniques of painting, for example – but I think I’ll want to explore new ground in the next book. I’d rather like to avoid classification by genre. For me fiction is at its most compelling when it crosses borders and refuses to fit neatly into pigeonholes.
Why did you choose the Cold War as backdrop to The Long Room?
As the Cold War was notably a time of mutual misapprehension and of anxiety, it provides the ideal backdrop for a story about failures to understand another’s point of view. And the dangers of that lack of understanding – the risks of demonising the “other” – remain all too topical today.
Does the book have a renewed relevance as the US and Russia risk beginning a proxy war in Syria?
Tragically, war seems to be a constant in our world. Whatever the imminent risks may or may not be in fact, that sense of hovering on the edge of catastrophe that characterised the Cold War, and pervades the novel, will go on haunting us.
The story is ultimately a human one though. How do you decide on a balance between the details and background necessary for a spy novel and the emotions necessary for a love story?
You are absolutely right that the human element is more important to the story than the paraphernalia of espionage. What details there are in the novel are intended to create a convincing world. My fictional spyland is a shadowy place where no one knows what is true or not and no one trusts anybody else. In such a place, how could Stephen, the protagonist, not lose his bearings and, ultimately, his grip on what is real?
Do you think Stephen’s character is likeable and how did you make sure he never crossed the line into sinister?
Stephen is well intentioned and he’s clever, but he’s a dreamer. His expectations are not necessarily unrealistic but he is not equipped to realise them. The only child of a fond but anxious and unhappy mother, his upbringing, education and employment have all put him under pressure and now he is desperate to love. Could he seem sinister? I hope not. I hope that readers will like him, but perhaps what matters even more is that they can feel real empathy with him.