Q&A with Ed O’Loughlin, the only Canadian longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize

Mark Medley interviews Ed O’Loughlin

When the Man Booker Prize long list was announced earlier this week, it appeared no Canadians were among the 13 nominated authors. Canada, it seemed, would go at least eight years without winning the English-language’s most prestigious literary prize; Yann Martel won for Life of Pi in 2002. Well, it turns out Canada has a torchbearer: Ed O’Loughlin, author of Not Untrue and Not Unkind, was born in Toronto and spent his early years in Edmonton. The novel tells the story of foreign correspondent Owen Simmons, a subject the 42-year-old O’Loughlin knows well: he’s reported from Africa for several newspapers, including the Irish Times, and was Middle East correspondent for both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age of Melbourne. Mark Medley recently spoke to O’Loughlin, who lives in Dublin with his wife and two children.

National Post: And here we thought no Canadians made the long list. When did you leave Toronto?

Ed O’Loughlin: We left Toronto [when] I was only a few weeks or months old, but we moved, then, to Alberta. I lived, I think, until I was almost six in Edmonton. I remember that quite a bit. I went to kindergarten there. I have pretty strong and fond memories of that. But then we were in Manchester for a year and a half, and then back to Ireland, which is where my father is from … I grew up there and lost my Canadian accent along the way somewhere. Although I used to have one. They used to call me the Yank at school, so I’m familiar with that frustration Canadians have when misidentified abroad.

What did your parents do that caused the family to move so often?

My father was an engineer and my mother’s a doctor. They both really liked Canada — I’m still not sure why exactly they moved back. They’ve divorced since then and my mother moved back to Canada, must be going on twenty years now — the early 90s, anyway. She still lives there. And my brother moved out there about seven or eight years ago. They both live in Alberta. My mother’s in Edmonton and my brother is in Calgary. He just moved down there recently from Edmonton. My mother, when she moved back to Canada, she went initially to Newfoundland and she was working in the psychiatric hospital in St. John’s. And then after several years she moved to Grand Prairie, and I think about two years ago she moved to Edmonton.

Do you get the chance to visit often?

I was back there almost every year for seven or eight years, up until three years ago when we had our first baby and it became harder to travel. I would go back there a lot more than I have been if I could. I’m hoping to get back there soon.

In reviews of the book, several critics have alluded to Graham Greene and specifically The Quiet American. Was Greene an influence?

Very much when I was younger. I read it as a teenager and I re-read it a few years back. It’s such a great book about foreign correspondents. It’s always going to be there somewhere [but] I didn’t set out to redo The Quiet American. But its DNA is in there. So yeah, I guess it’s an influence, though not an overt one.

Who do you pinpoint, then, as influences?

The only really overt thing was I’d just finished reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. And the first book of that, Justine, I liked the way he framed the story as being a character looking back; he’s removed from the scene of the action geographically and in time and he’s looking back trying to make sense of it. I used that framing device in my book. Apart from that, there’s not really much resemblance.

I understand that you’d chosen the title of the book (from the Philip Larkin poem Talking in Bed) well before you ever wrote the novel?

Pretty much … From the moment I started writing I decided on one title … I knew that what I was trying to do with the book was in some ways to create the same understanding or emotion you get from the punchline of that poem.

What year did you sit down and begin the novel?

In late 2001, I’d basically been in Africa for almost eight years and I decided I had to do something else … I’ve always wanted to write, and I figured it was time. So I moved back to Ireland for what I thought might be for good, but it turned out it was only for a few months because I moved on to the Middle East.

Talk about making the transition you made from journalist to novelist. This idea that you have a career based in fact and now you’re not only allowed but encouraged to make things up.

It’s very different, obviously, in that you don’t have the limitations and deadlines and fact and so on to stick to. You can get a bit overwhelmed by the fact that you can [write] anything you like. You don’t have your boundaries set for you, which is great, but is also a bit daunting at first … I didn’t have a publisher — I didn’t look for one until I’d finished the first draft. So nobody was egging me on to do it but me. That made it difficult. But what made it particularly difficult was although when I started writing it I was only freelancing a bit here, when I moved to the Middle East, which is a really difficult beat to cover, really demanding on your time, you never know when you’re going to have to drop everything and get on a plane or go to Gaza or something like that. And when stories are big they can consume you for weeks at a time, so it’s very hard to do that thing that you have to do when you’re writing — just to sit down for three or four hours a day, several days a week, for weeks on end. So what’s why the book took so long to write, really, because it was written in occasional spurts over seven years.

Was it your decision to go to the Middle East or did your editors assign you there?

They asked me to go and I was delighted. It’s a fascinating place. It’s a real challenge for a reporter to go and report in that region.

Where were you stationed in Africa and what kinds of things did you cover?

I was based in Johannesburg, but there was an awful lot of travel. I think I must have reported from nearly 20 countries, which is still less than half the countries in Africa, but it’s still quite a lot … When you’re an African correspondent, you’re not a war correspondent. That’s not a word I’d ever use to describe myself. If you’re in Africa, or the Middle East, or South America, or North America, you’re reporting on anything that goes on on your beat, where as war correspondents just from one [war] to another. You could report sports stories, business stories, war stories.

Do you miss that adventure?

To an extent. It’s nice to have the adventure, but you get old and even that begins to [tire] a little bit. And family comes around. I couldn’t do the work I did before now, I don’t think, because it would mean abandoning the children for weeks on end, which would be pretty hard on my wife. I’d miss them and they’d miss me, I’d like to think … But when I started out, you’re young and somebody calls you up and says get on a plane and go somewhere and cover this exciting event, that’s as much fun as you can imagine.

Do you still work for a newspaper or are you a full-time novelist now?

I guess I’m a full-time novelist. I just finished a draft of the second one. I’ll probably do some more journalism in the future.

How does it feel to make the Booker Prize long list?

I was delighted. It’s a huge boost. A first-time novel, literary fiction, it’s extremely difficult to get people to look at it let alone buy it and read it … You have to really get on a prize list, or get your film made by the Coen Brothers, to get attention. So to get onto the long list of the Booker Prize really just catapults you … Suddenly everyone is buying your book on Amazon. At this point hardly anyone’s read it, so it’s kind of amusing. I was looking at some of the blogs and I don’t think anyone who’s written about the Booker Prize has actually read the book.

© Ed O’Loughlin – Writer and Journalist