First person

Nadine O’Regan interviews Ed O’Loughlin

I wanted to be a writer from a very young age. Journalism was something I decided on later – it was a more pragmatic choice.

Being a foreign correspondent isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, although flying in a helicopter over rebel held bush was exciting. Sometimes I miss it.

I lived in Johannesburg for almost eight years. I left in October 2001 and was sent to Jerusalem to write about the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I’ve covered the Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, Somalia, Darfur and the Iraq invasion. I’ve had a gun pointed at me lots of times and I’ve been shot at, but not from close up.

I once got a death threat by telephone in South Africa. I was in a shopping mall, the phone rang and this guy said, ‘Hey, they’re going to kill you. You should know this.’ I said, ‘Who is this?’ And he said, ‘I can’t tell you.’ And I said, ‘Well, this is Ed O’Loughlin. Were you looking for me?’ And he said, ‘Oh no, sorry, I got the wrong number.’

In Johannesburg, you have to harden your heart to the fact that you’re living in a grossly racist, classist society. There’s a new black elite who despise the poor blacks.

The people who suffer most in South Africa are the poor blacks – they’re as poor as they ever were, maybe poorer. The health service has broken down, the education system is worse now than when the whites ran it.

If you allowed yourself to become upset on the job, you wouldn’t be able to function. At least we don’t have to pick up the pieces and inform the next of kin.

I’m suspicious of journalists who claim they have post-traumatic stress disorder. This cult of victim hood has become fashionable.

What are the misconceptions about foreign correspondents? That they’re well paid. I didn’t get paid danger money – newspapers don’t have to because people will do it for free.

Some rich kids wander around war zones, pretending to be freelance photographers.

Being married to another journalist is interesting. I can’t blow smoke in her eyes about how I’m doing something important, because she will know exactly how important it is.

Newspapers are cutting their own throats. We can read papers for free on broadband. Why bring a dead tree into the house?

It felt great to get good reviews for my novel. I didn’t know how it would strike people, and I didn’t try to make the characters particularly likeable.

With fiction, you can tell the truth much more accurately. One of the real-life massacres in the Congo is very similar to one I described in the novel.

I’m not religious and my two kids aren’t baptised. But we’re a bit late putting their names down for schools, so it might not be a bad idea.

Being a father has changed me. I’m no longer the most important person in my life.

I haven’t introduced myself as a novelist yet. I’m not used to the idea.

I own a bullet-proof vest. I don’t use it a lot since I moved back to Dublin, but I’m keeping it handy just in case.

Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin is published by Penguin.

© Ed O’Loughlin – Writer and Journalist