17 April 2023
Today, thousands gather to run the annual Boston marathon. For most it will be a day of joy and achievement, time spent strengthening bonds within family groups and a wider community of runners. It is also the ten-year anniversary of the terrorist attack that killed three and injured hundreds in 2013.
It marks, strangely, and in a very different key, an anniversary for me too. Indirectly, the Boston marathon terrorist attack was one of the reasons I began writing.
Ten years later I am on a train to Birmingham to take part in training for a project organised by the Royal Literary Fund and Writers Mosaic. The project is called Reading Round. Eventually, I will be one of twenty authors charged with setting up and leading reading groups across different regions and different communities in the UK. The aim is that reading habits are broadened, diversified and enriched.
I am not sure what to expect from the training but I am looking forward to it. And surely it is proof that I am, still somehow unexpectedly, a writer.
We are shaped by our environment. We learn the world from within a context influenced or entirely authored by our society and media, by our dominant culture and our personal habits. A news editor must know their consumers as well as they know the news. What we learned at school might shape our reading habits lifelong. The papers we read, the news platforms we trust, the cultures we consume give us a certain, partial view of the world. Some seek to evade this narrow remit, actively reach for wider and deeper truths, stories that are shaped by different sources. Many, equally, accept the story that falls before their eyes.
It is impossible to know everything. Our knowledge, our understanding stretches like a torch beam, out from a bright centre of focus, fading in a sweep through a ring of dusk and into darkness. We forget, often, that this darkness is not equivalent to absence.
The Boston marathon bombing was the focus of all the media in the UK. A joyful day had become a tragedy. The papers described the lives of those killed and injured, inviting us to understand the value of what had been lost.
In 2013 my family were dealing with our own tragedy, the sudden death of my step brother, Jonny, from an undiagnosed heart condition. Grief and loss were on my mind. Where it belongs, how it is shared, how we participate in the grief of others.
Also in 2013 the west was engaged in war with Iraq and Afghanistan. People going about their business were being killed by terrorist bombs and by drone strikes, the accidental collateral of actions increasingly ordered by Nobel peace laureate, Barack Obama. The news reports gave us a location, the type of strike, the tally of victims. That was it. The victims were not even named. The details of what had been lost unmarked.
My thoughts drifted on a long slow path, in and around these circumstances, wondering about shared and private grief. Wondering about the lives so easily dismissed behind the tally of deaths recorded in a small paragraph inside a newspaper. Wondering about the people for whom these deaths were as piercing and brutal as the death of my step brother was for my own family. I thought about the families connected to the victims in Boston. I wondered about the nature of distance as it affects empathy. Whether this distance is measured geographically or, it seemed, culturally.
I wasn’t a writer then, I was an artist. In May of 2013, as a response to this time of quiet thinking, I started what I described as an art project. I began writing a blog where, by invention, I tried to imagine the reality of the unnamed people dying in the daily tragedies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In almost real time I sought out these bald little news items, and for every unnamed person in that bleak, spare tally, I wrote a short portrait. I thought by making them up it might in some way make them more real. Real enough to grieve. The writing would improve, and I hope ten years on that is still so. But it was the first creative writing I had done since school.
21 April 2023
I was perplexed about the legitimacy of the project but felt the need to continue. I was wary of trespass, ignorant of the ways their lives had been lived, how a mother in Baghdad might pass her day, how a grandfather in Kabul might have occupied the world. I wanted to try to be somehow specific but universal. I wanted to see how we might care about these relentless, daily tragedies.
After around four months it became too much, too sad, too bleak. I mothballed the newspaper searches but the habit of writing stayed with me and the project became my first novel, Twice the Speed of Dark.
Writing was a revelation for me. I felt like I had discovered what I should have been doing all along. I don’t celebrate this as an anniversary – that day in Boston was too bleak a marker. But, still buzzing, back from working for three days with an incredible group of writers and Royal Literary Fund lectors, I am profoundly grateful for the discovery of writing for myself, and for the beautiful ability that literature has to explain and share the wider world, to shine a beam as far as we are willing to see.