James Meek‘s third novel, The People’s Act of Love is set in a small town in Siberia in 1919, during the Russian civil war. The characters and drama, though, are far removed from the stock literary gallery of reds and whites. Amongst his drammatis personae are Christian castrates, cannibals and a division of the Czech army stranded behind in a war that should, by rights, have released them at this stage.
Novelist Michael Faber has described The People’s Act of Love as “a big, bold, thrillingly different story told with an uncanny authority”, while Irvine Welsh wrote, in the Guardian, that it is “a beautifully written novel which, though set in the past, feels like the most contemporary fiction you’ll ever read”. Accolades from his fellow novelists aside, Meek has also received high praise from the critics, with The People’s Act of Love being longlisted for the Man Booker prize.
Equally well known as a journalist – his reports from Iraq and Guantanamo Bay have won both British and international awards – James Meek graciously took the time to discuss The People’s Act of Love, and his writing in general with Three Monkeys Online
TMO: Many novels come wrapped in a title of convenience, a title that is easy on the ear (and the eye), but that neither adds or detracts much from the work within. The People’s Act of Love, as a title, it seems to me, bucks this trend, acting almost as a key to unlock meaning within the novel. Is that fanciful? How important was the title to you?
James Meek: The title is a quotation from the book. I found it in the book after I’d written it, and made it the title. In that sense it is embedded in the narrative and in the ideas of the character who expresses it, and by choosing it as the title, I’ve drawn attention to its significance to me.If there is one thing which the four central characters in the book – Anna,Samarin, Balashov and Mutz – agree on, it is that love exists and matters.What they disagree on is what love may be. Samarin and Balashov believe that it may go beyond the love of man for woman, or mother for son, or friend for friend, beyond individual love; that there is a real love whichis greater than individuals. This is God’s love; this is the People’s love; this is your country’s love. Anna and Mutz are more skeptical of this kind of idealism. Yet Samarin and Balashov’s yearning for God’s love or thePeople’s love is, until it is taken to extremes, attractive to Anna; Mutzknows that he lacks something, for her, without it. The people’s act of love is, literally, an act of cannibalism. But to Samarin’s mind, it is a small gesture of love, of care and cherishing, from one failed, dying generation of humans to the next, happier generation. The ability to seesomething wicked and cruel as an act of love is characteristic of the extreme idealist and, in some form, characteristic of a particularly male way of thinking. This idea is reflected throughout the book.
TMO: You are an award winning journalist as well as novelist. The differencesbetween journalism and fiction-writing are obvious: one discipline requires the writer to make things up, the other precludes this. What, though, are the similarities between journalism and fiction writing?
James Meek: I’d make a distinction within journalism between reporting, which iswhat I have done mainly, and other kinds of journalism – reviews,commentaries, interviews with the famous, coverage of sporting events,gossip. One of the main constraints on the reporter, as opposed to thenovelist, is space. The reporter is required to be economical with words,sometimes extremely so. The 150-word news story leaves little room forconsiderations of rhythm or poetry, and the 1,500-word news story not much more. As a rule, there is a close deadline involved, too. It might be thought that this training in economy would benefit a fiction writer. I’m not sure. To be comfortable as a novelist or even a short story writer, you don’t want to feel uncomfortable with setting your own limit, or no limit,to length.
Over the years the kind of reporting I’ve done has changed .Lately I’ve been given the opportunity to write pieces which may be longer,which may be impressionistic, more about mood and atmosphere in a particular place at a particular time than about the actions of leading players in an event considered news. In that kind of piece, there may be a similarity between the novelist and the journalist in two senses – the figurative eye of the writer, actually his eyes, ears, nose and touch ,needs to be able to pick out the few details which convey a sense of place and time without the impossible tedium of listing everything perceived. The difference is that the fiction writer is likely to be remembering these much later.
The other similarity is imagination. Imagination is usually thought of as the expansion of the real, but it is, equally, a tool to curb the vastness of the actual world of experience. Just as the novelist uses his imagination to delve only into those tiny parts of the infinite worldof possibilities which serve his narrative, so the journalist, before he sets out to report a story, needs to use his imagination to decide in advance where he is going to go and who he is going to speak to – to imagine the kind of things which might be happening there and the kind ofthings real people will actually say to him.
TMO: Writing in the London Review of Books about a rash of World War II books,you commented, “For novelists, war is the bass line, not the melody”. This begs the question, what’s more important – the bass line or the melody? To what extent, by setting events against a backdrop of war, does the novelist automatically create drama?
James Meek: In the same article I wrote that war turns the simplest relationships into a ménage à trois – the girl is flirting with a soldier, but the soldier is flirting with death. In times of civil war and tyranny, everyone is flirting with death. To that extent the novelist has certain dramatic possibilities. I don’t think there’s anything automatic about it. Books set in wartime can still be bad and dull. If a writer relies on any setting for drama, he will fail. Gravity’s Rainbow and A Farewell To Arms are not great novels because they’re set in wartime but because of what the characters do in that setting. Besides, few human acts, no matter how extreme, occur exclusively in wartime. Times of peace are full of the germs of cruelty,suffering and loss. They are less likely to achieve their full evilflowering. But they are there, waiting to grow, they can be seen, and theycan be written about.