Excerpts from the interview:
“With HARM, I found I had been slow on the uptake. There was a television documentary about how British forces actually torture their prisoners and it came as a total shock to me. I didn't think we were doing this crap stuff. I do remember when I was in the military in Sumatra; we were up against the Indonesians, there were two fellows who used to come into our mess, and they said, 'Just killed a woman with golf clubs.' They were really proud of this. We were all sick about it and wouldn't have anything to do with this duo from then on. But then suddenly, watching this TV documentary, I realized, 'This kind of thing is a regular process.' Then there was the scandal about Abu Ghraib prison....
“For the book's main character, Paul the writer, I wasn't thinking of Salman Rushdie or anyone in particular. I was just interested in how it would be if you had someone who had been born a Muslim to this family in Uganda, where Idi Amin kicked out all the Asians, so they'd come to England for rescue. This lad is now 20, and he's adapted so much to the English way of life that he has actually ventured to write a novel -- which you gather is a sort of P.G. Wodehouse jokey thing.
“Unfortunately, the couple in the book are a bit drunk when they're walking in Hyde Park, and one of them says, 'Yeah, well maybe we should shoot the Prime Minister.' It's this line that has drawn Paul into this horrible institution. Originally it was just going to be called Harm, but then I realized it would stand for Hostile Activities Research Ministry, and I think it gets quite a lot of power from that, somehow.”
“You may think I've been unproductive lately, but that's not the case. For three years, I was writing and rewriting a novel which I call Walcot. It got as far as my literary agent, who said he couldn't bear it. One thing he took offense at is that the entire novel is told in the second-person singular -- 'you did this, you did that....' It covers the life of a family throughout the 20th century, family events and world events. That's very difficult to make feasible. You can't just say, 'On the very day Auntie May got married, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia.' It's too crude! I worked on this damn thing for years, and so far it's never earned me a penny, but that wasn't the object of the exercise.
“The point about the second-person singular is that the chief character dies and afterwards finds himself in a kind of limbo where there are kind of cube-like personages. You realize you have actually been reading science fiction, because the whole 20th century is staged as an experiment. One of the cube-like things says, 'We got it all wrong. It shouldn't have been staged in time; time is such an untrustworthy medium. We're going to do something better with the next world.' And you realize that all that's happened is being retold to the central character, so he can see exactly how the scales were loaded against human beings. In other words, it's an antireligious novel, really -- although there's a kind of religious flavor even in that. But it's going to make many people think, 'Shit! I was reading science fiction and I didn't know it.'
“That book is going to be published in England later this year...”
“If you want to make money, you don't attempt anything new. You start a series that can go on and on, whereupon the publishers don't have any crisis of decision to resolve. I don't want to work like that. It always seemed to me that one of the principles of writing is you should enjoy the actual writing, the feel of something evolving under your fingers, under your keys. You must try to please yourself, to be your own judge. Often you fall flat on your face. But there's such pleasure in trying something that is new, or passes for new.”
“It's been about ten years since my wife Margaret died. (I wrote a book about her, When the Feast Is Finished.) Ageing seems truly tragic when you're 60, but when you get to 80 you're so pleased you're above ground! I had a wonderful party for my 80th birthday last year. ... Just at present I am having my portrait painted in oils. I am also doing a fair amount of abstract artwork. Next week, at a new outfit called Science Oxford, I deliver a lecture on 'Science and Civilization'. Pretty good going for a guy who once regarded himself as a barbarian!”