WHEN I finally started to seriously write my novel I followed an old fashioned dictum: write what you know. But what I knew was at first extremely difficult for me to put down in print. I had just returned to Britain after four years spent as a journalist in Africa, living first in South Africa and then in Kenya. I had spent a lot of time, especially during the last year, bouncing around from trouble spot to trouble spot. From famine in Ethiopia to political violence in South Africa to civil wars in Burundi, Sudan and Sierra Leone, I had reported and filed stories. My problem was not the simple act of writing about these places. Conflict journalism is so dramatic it simply writes itself. No, my problem was writing WHAT I KNEW about my experiences.
The back story behind journalism is often a strange place. The stories that appear in newspapers can hide the journalists’ opinions. Or even their beliefs on what actually is the truth. Facts are sorted out and rejected or used depending on the needs of the day. Angles are pursued. Or not. The whole messy picture that is actual reality is often simplified. Western reporters, who mostly just dip in and out of an African war zone, often have little real idea what is actually going on. They are war’s tourists: popping in for a visit of the ‘highlights’ and then going home.
I had certainly felt that way about Sierra Leone. I spent a month there in 2000 covering the dramatic end of a civil war which pitted a vicious rebel group against the government and, eventually, a British intervention force.It was an exciting time. It was a dangerous time. I spent most of my time either exhilarated or terrified. Road blocks manned by child soldiers were negotiated. Fire fights were survived. Massacres were covered. I emerged from the experience shaken, both my by own experiences of being close to incomprehensible violence but also at the feeling that many of the journalists, myself included, had little understanding of what was really going on. So when I started to write my novel I decided to jettison any attempt to write a fact-laden account of reporting a war and go instead for the emotion of it. So I set my thriller against the backdrop of that time in Sierra Leone. Men and women I had known morphed into characters in my book. Incidents that happened to me carried through into the novel.
Finally, through writing the book, some of what I had never put down into print for my newspaper finally made into the public eye. Emotionally, it was a relief to get it out. I can’t pretend that my book will shed much light on war in Africa and the real reasons why it is so often fought. But it is honest about those who cover it. It is honest about the confusion and the ignorance, the egos and the ambitions. All of which lie behind each printed word in the newspapers that for many of us is all we ever hear about these far away places.
Please visit Paul Harris' website to learn more about him.