York PEN members Rosanna O’Donnell and Heather Stewart interviewed York’s Writer in Residence, award-winning author and journalist James Meek, about his career as a foreign correspondent, the ideological implications of modern media, and the crossover between his journalism and fiction.
Inspired to travel to Soviet Kiev in 1991 by Mikhail Bulgarkov’s The White Guard, it would be 8 years before Meek returned to live in England permanently. The novel helped him to “reimagine the city, give it an extra dimension, and see a life and heartbeat behind the architecture.” During his years abroad he reported from Saudi Arabia, Soviet Kiev, and Moscow, where he held the title of Moscow Bureau Chief for The Guardian. Fiction and journalism have always coexisted for Meek who wrote his first short story whilst at Edinburgh University and two years later began his Journalism course at City University, at the same time as embarking on his next work of fiction.
And yet he’s not sure if the two influence each other; he tells us he’d have to let his readers decide that one.
But as with The White Guard, it’s clear that fiction certainly helped to edge Meek towards a life working abroad.“That’s what good literature should do in general, enable people to live not just as tourists. People who see a wider dimension to life.”
An offer to work for The Guardian in Moscow gave Meek the opportunity and stability to remain there. Moscow provided Meek with an opportunity to be his “own boss,” wake up late and to live cheaply, after all “the economic motives for writers should never be underestimated.”
He spent five years experiencing the “different phases of discovery of a country” using his newly-acquired command of the Russian language, yet enjoying the thrill of “being a foreigner in a foreign country.”
As we compared working in Moscow in the 1990s with reporting there today, the relationship between capital cities and their influence on those writing from within them is something Meek thinks is potentially overlooked these days. Some of PEN’s campaigns make us all too aware that reporting from Moscow today might not carry the same freedom that Meek was afforded in the 1990s.
“If you’re exposed to an incessant ‘wall of lies’ it is impossible to come out without believing the truth of some of it,” Meek suggests.
When asked if he ever felt restricted whilst reporting, Meek said that it “didn’t seem dangerous in the sense of life and limb.” In fact, whilst he was there, “the Soviet Union was stable, too stable, […] stagnant”. Meek only ever felt it was “dangerous in terms of livelihood.” Leaving the UK meant taking a risk career-wise, but certainly one that seemed to pay off.
Whilst political restraints don’t seem to have affected his writing, Meek did feel the journalistic restraints of deadlines and word counts, whichhe seems grateful to have had lifted as he focuses on his fiction and writing for The London Review of Books.
During his career, Meek has certainly experienced the ideological implications of writing for a specific newspaper. Your “readers themselves are the strongest ideologues” and every writer “wants to be read and enjoyed.” This pressure is something which, though Meek seems to try hard to ignore, is undeniably present for all writers.
Whilst travelling with American forces in Iraq, Meek was made well aware of the factions within his own newspaper, which was taking a partisan position against the Americans. As a good journalist, “you should ignore that” and write from a personal perspective, he says.
His specific approach, which may have been what won him the Foreign Correspondent of the Year in 2004, was “spending longer with individuals than others might” and listening to their personal stories. He stressed the importance of finding out “where they came from, how they got there,” “how they got their information.” For Meek, forming the bigger picture is all about the individual stories. Meek told us you should be able to look at an individual report and see the wider story behind it.
Meek identifies himself as principally a novelist now, with his most recent novel The Heart Broke In published in 2013. He remains a contributing editor for The London Review of Books where he feels he is finally “approaching the same freedom in journalism as in fiction,” dedicating the same time and care to his reviews as to his fiction.
Having been a foreign correspondent and now currently contributing to the contemporary world of fiction, we were interested to hear Meek’s stance on the Prison Book Ban. Searching for an adjective yet to be usedin condemnation of the ban, he called it “monstrous,” “primitive,” “a step backwards and a step towards a punitive approach.” All in all, to Meek as to so many others, it is “nonsense.”
Rosanna O’Donnell is York PEN’s Events and Publicity Officer for the academic years of 13/14 and 14/15. Heather Stewart is the Campaigns and Social Media Officer for the academic year of 14/15. They both study English and Related Literature at the University of York.