Graham Greene began his life as a writer while a sub-editor on The Times. George Orwell worked for the BBC and The Observer before publishing Animal Farm. For me, and for many of my colleagues when I was training as a journalist with Reuters, it was the thriller writer Frederick Forsyth, once also a Reuters reporter, who acted as a kind of beacon, keeping our hopes of becoming fiction writers alive.
There may be a natural affinity between journalism and fiction, as suggested by the number of authors who have made a successful transition from the media world.
Robert Harris, author of acclaimed historical novels like An Officer and a Spy and Fatherland, was political editor of The Observer and before that worked in journalism at the BBC. Geraldine Brooks, winner of the Pulitzer prize for her novel March, worked as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Stieg Larsson, author of the Millennium trilogy, and Jonathan Freedland, who writes bestsellers under the pen name Sam Bourne, also began in journalism; Zoë Heller, Linda Grant, Jojo Moyes, Sophie Kinsella, Val McDermid and Ruth Rendell all also graduated from its ranks.
Yet despite this roll call of the illustrious, a previous life in journalism is no guarantee of success in the literary world. Journalism brings challenges as well as benefits to a reporter with a novelist’s dreams.
Journalism, which privileges those lucky enough to break into it with an extraordinary range of experiences, is a hugely demanding profession and it shapes you, perhaps because it governs so many aspects of your life. Not just your relationships, your sleep patterns and your reading: it dominates your worldview, your writing style, your time.
And one of the first things to get beaten out of a reporter is literary aspiration. In the cut and thrust of daily news, there is little room for poetry. Journalism is concerned with powerful information conveyed with immediacy. It is couched in the house style of its publisher that is upheld by the editing desks. Journalists, to succeed as journalists, have to write within specific parameters of form, tone and language. Poetry they can save for their spare time.
Another danger lies in the ways that journalism can skew your outlook on life. It may be a Hollywood cliché, but repeated exposure to the world’s most intractable problems can breed cynicism in even the most dedicated reporter. Cynicism makes you dismissive, and it closes you down. It is the enemy of curiosity, and the enemy of empathy, each of them essential to fiction. To become a novelist, you have to remain open-minded and guard against the hardening of the heart.
Nor does it follow that being a successful journalist will make you a good writer of fiction. The excitement of fast-moving events and the adrenaline of short-term deadlines have little bearing on the craft of fiction. Writing a novel takes stamina, intuition, and resourcefulness in solving artistic problems. It is an emotional and intellectual marathon, not a sprint to the finishing line.
One of the biggest shifts for the reporter who moves into fiction is the relationship to fact, which quickly becomes a question of form. In fiction, the factual must always be in service to the story; in journalism, it is the other way around. In novel writing, you must avoid slipping back into journalism, telling the reader baldly what should emerge with subtlety, or from between the lines. All but the very tip of that research iceberg must be discarded. Too many journalists-turned-novelists forget that slabs of information, no matter how fascinating, will deaden a narrative, whether delivered as exposition or in dialogue form. If your readers had wanted a lecture, after all, they wouldn’t have picked up your book.
Fictional truth, meanwhile, is a different creature entirely from journalistic truth. Truth in journalism derives from the exposure of facts that are weighed, tested, contextualised, and attributed as closely as possible to their source. It relies on transparency and balance, and packs its punch with immediacy, not by slow osmosis page by page. Fictional truth, in contrast, emerges from the weight of the story, from its themes or psychology or observations and what they impart. It is what a novel amounts to, a form of knowledge that resonates when you’ve finished it with something deeply held.
Bearing such caveats in mind, a past life as a journalist can be of enormous benefit to the would-be writer of fiction.
A novel’s success will ride, first of all, on retaining a reader’s attention over a timespan much longer than that of a journalistic article. Even in page-turning genre fiction, the story arc of a novel is very different from the breathlessness of the journalistic form. One advantage of the journalist, whose articles have had to pass muster with editors as well as readers, is an inbuilt sense of when a reader’s attention might wane.
Long experience of being edited in the newsroom, furthermore, makes journalists pretty good editors of their own work.
Another of the journalist’s skills is an eye for detail – known as ‘colour’ in newsroom parlance – that can lift a story or a character off the page. Though the fact that they deal in quotations rather than dialogue can be a handicap, journalists also acquire a finely tuned ear for the telling phrase. Their antenna for surprise, meanwhile, gives them a talent for investigation, whether out in the field or in the archive, while their skills at interviewing and listening are an obvious boon for research.
Overwhelmingly, it appears, among reporters who have crossed into fiction, it is journalism that provides the material for their first fictional work. Forsyth himself is a case in point. Having covered the attempted assassination of President Charles de Gaulle as a Reuters reporter in Paris in the 1960s, Forsyth reimagined it for his thriller, The Day of the Jackal. His second novel, The Odessa File, was also informed by his life in journalism, while The Dogs of War drew on his coverage of the Biafran War.
My own trajectory follows the same classic path. My first novel, Hinterland, grew out of my experiences reporting for the New York Times on immigration issues in Europe, and out of my encounters with refugee children alone on the road. It was when I understood that I had a privileged window on a subject much larger than journalism that my own crossing-over began.
I was still working in the newsroom while writing Hinterland. I felt an enormous sense of liberty as my vocabulary widened and my subject expanded, as I watched my characters grow. I explored the psychological and emotional dimensions of my narrative that a newspaper, by nature, could not incorporate. I wrote with tremendous energy, motivated by material I had already written about as a journalist, but which, it seemed, was not yet done with me.
Writing that novel brought the different qualities of each medium into sharper focus. Journalism, no matter how powerful, no matter how far it feeds into the wider discussion, remains by nature ephemeral — and that may be integral to the form. Fiction, though slower, is more expansive. While the process of publication can feel excruciatingly slow for a journalist used to the pace of a news environment, publication extends the reach of your narrative way beyond expectations, while offering a connection with readers that is surprisingly direct.
My second novel also had its roots in journalism, since its seed was planted in an interview I carried out long before writing my first. But that novel, The Memory Stones, quickly moved from its origins into something more psychological as my experience as a writer grew. In the service of fiction, I combined all my skills as a journalist, and all my skills as an historian, to understand Argentina’s experience of the disappeared. Its scope was far more ambitious as I stretched my wings as a novelist, and it catapulted me forward in terms of mastery of my craft.
It may be at such moments that the true crossing-over begins.
It is worth remembering that fiction writers may be born, but on some level they must also be made. In my case, I did not take a blind leap out of journalism into fiction. I took short courses with extraordinary writers; I read everything I could find on the craft of writing, and on what being a writer entailed. And all the time since childhood, and through all those years as a journalist, I avidly read other writers: Orwell, Greene and Forsyth, certainly, but also the classics, modernists and contemporaries – many of whom had never set foot in a newsroom – all the time learning omnivorously from those who had gone before.