At Curious Book Fans we’re always impressed at how far writers will go to research a book but going to war to gather material shows an extreme devotion to both duty and the creative process. Patrick Bishop’s long career as a journalist embedded with the army gives him a unique insight into conflict and has led to his book “Follow Me Home” being hailed as the first great novel of the Afghanistan war. Curious Book Fans, not surprising, wanted to know more.
CBF: Journalism can be a dangerous profession and I can imagine a soldier has lots of useful skills for dealing with the cut and thrust of reporting. What special skills does a journalist bring to life in a war zone?
Patrick Bishop: Nowadays you have to be pretty fit to survive an embed in Afghanistan. There is lots of slogging along weighed down by helmet, body armour, daysack with enough water to keep you hydrated etc etc. I managed to hold up last time I was there but I feel I’m getting too old for it now.
CBF: Do you carry weapons when you are embedded in the field?
Patrick Bishop: Reporters don’t carry weapons and nor should they. Having one is unlikely to protect your life. Its only purpose would be to take away the feeling of powerlessness when you come under fire and you are cowering behind a wall while the soldiers are blazing away.
CBF: Do you think it’s possible for authors to write convincingly about war if they’ve had no direct personal experience?
Patrick Bishop: It is possible to do so – Olivia Manning for example gave what seemed to me to be a very authentic sounding account of the war in the Western Desert in the Levant Trilogy without having experienced it. You have to be very good to be convincing. It is always the unexpected touch that confirms authenticity, like the way that colours seem to glow brighter and smells become sharper when you are in danger.
CBF: What has working so closely with soldiers taught you about life and war?
Patrick Bishop: That wars is are almost always pointless and bad but nonetheless bring out good qualities in those fighting them. I find soldiers rather more compassionate and caring than civilians.
CBF: Are the characters in Follow Me Home inspired by particular men you’ve worked with and if so, how hard is it to kill off characters you feel you ‘know’?
Patrick Bishop: Most of the characters are composites but one is more or less based on someone I know. It is nice to feel a character growing as you write, and – if you are lucky – taking on an independent existence so they start doing things that you had not planned. Killing one off is an emotional business and not to be done lightly.
Patrick Bishop: I am of the view that most Talibs are fighting for the same reasons that young men fight – for the excitement of it and to test themselves. In this respect they are not much different to their British and American opponents. Time passes, children come, testosterone levels drop, and you don’t want to go to war any more. Unfortunately a younger man is about to take your place…
CBF: What’s the most frightening thing that’s happened to you in your war work?
Patrick Bishop: Lying in a wood outside Sarajevo with splintered branches cascading down, chopped away by the bullets from the Serb machine gun which has seen me in there and is trying to kill me.
CBF: To pick up on Zac’s question to Miles at the start of the book “What’s your idea of heaven?”
Patrick Bishop: Like Zac I have an utterly materialistic view of heaven. It would basically be a luxury resort where I would be reunited with my dead dad and all my family and friends and spend my days fishing and my evenings sitting around drinking wine and talking.
Many thanks to Patrick and his publishers for arranging the interview.
Follow Me Home by Patrick Bishop
Published by Hodder and Stoughton, paperback, April 2011
You can read the review of Follow Me Home here…
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