Jonathan Freedland and Adam LeBor on Fact Vs. Fiction

Journalists-turned-thriller writers Jonathan Freedland and Adam LeBor compare storytelling in fact and fiction in JQ Spring 2016:

JONATHAN FREEDLAND: I think there’s a reason why so many journalists turn to fiction. Frederick Forsyth, Robert Harris, Gerald Seymour… there are just so many. I’m convinced that in some way it’s all borne out of frustration: we’d write our news dispatches, columns, whatever, and there’s always a sense that you haven’t quite conveyed it.

ADAM LEBOR: Yes, there’s only so much you can say in 700 or 800 words.

JF: But even if you have a longer piece, there’s something about it being journalism and nonfiction that means you don’t fully get at it, you’re not quite telling the full truth. Maybe it’s about the bits you have to cut out, the atmosphere etc. Even at the Guardian, where we have introduced the “Long Read”, it still doesn’t always quite do it. It’s a mad example to pop into my head, but this Trump phenomenon: I was thinking, what is the best description, really, of Trump? And it is Biff in Back to the Future. Biff in Back to the Future 2 is the big casino owner who – it turns out – was based on Donald Trump. And it’s an amazing screenwriter who merged this big casino owner with Donald Trump, so putting his finger on something about Trump that all the journalism hasn’t quite got. Which is that he really has the personality of a high school bully. He’s crude and vulgar and all those things that Biff is—if you want to describe Donald Trump, you find yourself resorting to a fictional character, in this case Biff. Anyway, I think a lot of us as journalists were in these various places thinking “yeah, wait, there’s something else” and we’ve somehow turned to novels or thrillers, or whatever, to convey what we couldn’t otherwise convey.

AL: It’s true.

JF: And yet the idea of the real world is constantly the source material. I think these novelists who just sit there in their metaphorical garret and stare out the window… it’s never going to work. Philip Roth talked about this fifty years ago—the problem for the novelist that reality keeps outstripping anything that you could imagine. You just have to look at Donald Trump and Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz… you couldn’t have made it up.

AL: You couldn’t… and I mean the whole situation in Europe—the notion that the controls over who’s coming into a country would just evaporate, that the EU would be found to be totally useless in controlling its own space, like a giant House of Cards… if you wrote a short story about that eighteen months ago people would say what are you talking about, it’s never going to turn into something, they always get it under control—but they clearly don’t. Last summer was very interesting for me because suddenly Budapest, where I was living, was really in the news … Keleti train station became one of the crunch points of the globe, through the European and Mediterranean migration crisis. I spent quite a lot of time there and it got me back into the news—unlike you I had cut back on my foreign reporting to focus on fiction writing—to see the people marching up the station and down the road, the families huddled in the corner, the police standing across the gate of the station not letting people in, the desperation of the refugees… Then this other stuff comes out about how some of the Paris terrorists might have passed through Keleti and been recruiting people there, and I realised how important it is to me to be a journalist as well as a thriller writer. I’ve now done so much journalism since last summer. It was really useful to remember that current affairs can still be a great inspiration because some of what I saw at Keleti I will certainly be using in my next thriller.

AL: I think the fact that both of us are Jewish has influenced what we write about in our fiction, don’t you?

JF: Yes, the first three novels I wrote as Sam Bourne had Jewish themes in all of them. The first was set among the Haredim in Crown Heights, the second one in Jerusalem, and the third one actually begins at the UN and then goes into a Holocaust story.

AL: And for me, being a foreign correspondent and a Jewish foreign correspondent, I was definitely very interested in Hungary, in its dark history, the rise of the far right and anti-Semitism. In The Budapest Protocol there was the potential to let my imagination run a little wild as to how nasty it could get—it’s pretty easy to make a few fictional jumps into a very unsettling scenario. Of my non-fiction books, one was about Bernie Madoff—that was obviously very Jewish; there was City of Oranges, about Jaffa; there’s one about the United Nations and genocide; two about the Holocaust and the Nazis – so Jewish themes have been very important for me.

JF: What’s interesting for me is that it’s my novels with Jewish themes that have sold best. The minute I moved away and did one that was a bit less, then it sold less well. Which is interesting. Maybe, again, it’s about the intimate knowledge, knowing something from the inside out. I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel… the Holocaust story is something which all Jewish people grow up with really…

AL: Yes. There’s something else about writing as a Jew—it’s like you’re always looking in from the outside. As a writer you’re doing that anyway, and as a foreign correspondent you’re doing that again, so we’re three times removed!

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