Chris Power on Russian Espionage, the Callousness of Writers, and How ‘Fiction Colonises Reality’
Chris Power is the author of two books. His short story collection Mothers was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. His new book and debut novel A Lonely Man is published by Faber. The novel is a cat-and-mouse thriller about two writers, Robert and Patrick, whose chance meeting in Berlin unravels a shadowy tale of a hanged Russian oligarch and the elasticity of truth.
I spoke to Chris over the phone from his home in Hackney about his new book, the political and cultural influence of the Kremlin, on writing as ruthlessness, and what he calls ‘stacked realities’.
The main character in A Lonely Man is something of a flâneur. How has it been for you living in the city during the last year or so?
It’s been interesting. Challenging in lots of ways but good in others. We’ve just had our one-year anniversary of having Covid. We got it very early, me, my wife and my two daughters. We quarantined for six weeks, just before the schools shut. It became very real very quickly for us. My best mate’s mum was one of the first forty people to die of it, or who had it officially recorded as their cause of death.
That was the weird thing about hearing other people’s experiences. It was sort of asymmetrical. You could be living next door to someone who had a completely different relationship with it, because they don’t know anyone who has been sick. It’s such an uneven plague. You see this sort of thing in films and everyone’s kind of affected to the same degree, but this is bizarre.
When I was out five weeks after I had it – I felt pretty weak for a while, before I eventually felt good enough to go for a run – I went down through London Fields and it was heaving. There were sound systems, people were partying and drinking. And I was like, Oh of course! You think your reality becomes everyone’s reality, so I thought everyone was bunkered down at home. But no, the weather’s great and everyone’s at the park.
Yeah, it seems fewer and fewer people are on the same page. Why do you think that is?
It’s that idea of competing narratives, isn’t it? You have to make certain decisions about what you believe or don’t believe. The number of times we ran into people early on, in the space between lockdowns, who didn’t believe it! They really thought it was a conspiracy. It was bizarre. And I would say, Well, no, I know someone who has died. It was almost like being offended by what someone was saying, because it’s so untrue. But at the same time, it teaches you – or reminds you – how much of life and your beliefs are based on your vantage point and perspective.
Russia is often blamed for disseminating conspiracy theories and misinformation. What about this world of uncertainty, do you think, makes it prime material for a novel?
I think there are definitely malign things that Russia or actors within Russia are responsible for in the world. I think that there are a lot of malign things that the British government are responsible for, and the American government as well. I’m conscious that Russia is your off-the-peg villain. Robert goes on this whistle-stop tour of the last thirty years of Russian history and concludes that if Patrick wanted a good villain to choose, that if he is a fantasist, then this is one of the best ones going. There are elements of it that did make me cautious, about not wanting to re-write the obvious. I grew up when the Cold War was still raging, and Russia was the villain in everything, whether it was Rocky IV or James Bond.
Russia under Putin, with the help of Surkov, who was his propaganda minister for quite some time, has created this bizarre and, I suppose, groundbreaking policy. The stories they fed to the media, they wouldn’t even disguise that they were stories. They would put out conflicting information, and it would create this storm of confusion. It was a very post-modern approach to propaganda, to create all these competing narratives and bewilder people so they can’t discern the truth. Everything seems like a lie, which I think – whatever the closeness of the ties between them – is certainly what the Trump campaign learnt from that. And I think the Brexit campaign learned from it as well. Creating doubt in people’s minds is as strong a tactic as pinning your colours to the mast and saying what you believe in.
It’s a process of destabilising people’s beliefs. In the case of Russia, it’s just more extreme than anywhere else. We saw it with the Skripal assassination attempt, which actually took place the same week I started writing the novel. You have these two guys who were identified by Bellingcat, the investigative reporting team that uses open-source evidence. RT, the state broadcaster in Russia, put these guys on and interviewed them, and their answers were just ridiculous. They weren’t even trying to be convincing. They were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to Salisbury because of the height of the cathedral spire.’ I forget the amount, but they precisely quoted the height of the spire directly from the Wikipedia entry.
Later I was reading the Bellingcat book that came out recently, and I learnt from that that RT gave out for Christmas presents that year chocolate versions of Salisbury Cathedral, just as a bizarre ‘fuck you’ to, well, everyone really. It’s the Putin administration, I should say, rather than Russia. As the Navalny protests have shown, there are many Russians who are not happy about the way their country is being run.
A Lonely Man, among other things, is about an encounter with a ghost writer of a Russian oligarch. What intrigued you about the ghost writer as a potential character for a thriller?
I wanted to write about the world of oligarchs and of these Russians who had come to Britain. A whole series of them had died in suspicious ways, whether its Boris Berezovsky or Perepilichnyy, and obviously Alexander Litvinenko. I was reading about these people and their British contacts, these fixers and lawyers who had also ended up dead. People like Stephen Curtis, who was apparently brilliant at creating financial instruments and labyrinthine shell companies to hide money around the world. And Scot Young, who was a fixer who worked with Berezovsky. They were very implicated but kind of knew they were operating in a dangerous world, I think, from what I’ve read about them.
The idea of a ghost writer appealed because they’re someone who is learning about that world, someone who can be innocent about it and needs it explained to them. Writing the book, I didn’t want someone who was too knowledgeable. I liked the idea of someone getting entangled in something without really knowing what they were getting involved in.
Writer-protagonists are kind of pathetic, aren’t they? There’s a powerlessness to them – the overwhelming irony of trying to write themselves out of a story that has already been written for them.
Robert and Patrick are two sides of a coin. They are tightly tied to one another, and I do think that in another situation they could have been friends. One of them certainly thinks friendship is what their relationship is about. Patrick is led to believe that via Robert being untruthful with him and using him, essentially. He wants to exploit Patrick for his story. He doesn’t really care if his story’s true or not. He sees the story and that’s all he cares about.
I think there is a certain ruthlessness in writing, a ruthlessness that co-exists alongside patheticness in a strange paradox. A writer, if a story appeals to them enough – if they think they can do something with it – will use it and justify that in whatever way they need to. I think there are ethical ways of going about it. For example, telling people when you are doing something. There are also unethical ways of doing it. What Robert does is unethical: he’s using someone without saying that’s what he’s doing.
My relationship with the two of them changed as I was writing the book. I did develop – Well, a tragic element came into it. I suppose I was thinking about the story in a mechanical way. Where would these people meet? At what stage would they realise certain things about one another? And as the characters grew, the idea of them as people who in another situation could have been close friends became really important to me. The mechanics of the book grew a heart.
There’s a funeral scene in the book that’s so well observed. Robert remarks how lonely the body looks in the coffin. Something about it resonates with him. It’s such an odd remark to make of the deceased, that they would be lonely. How did this scene come about?
It’s the emotional heart of the book for me, even though in some ways it’s a digression from the story. But in terms of who Robert is, it’s very important. And it is something that enacts what I was just talking about, of how one approaches telling stories. Because that part – certainly in the funeral home and the pub, rather than what happens after they leave the pub – was very autobiographical.
I spoke to the family concerned and said I’m writing about this. I felt that I had to tell them that. Obviously along the way it goes through that strange, transformative process, where you’re taking the real and grafting fictional elements onto it, and it starts to occupy a space where the two become entangled. Or, if you like, the fiction colonises the reality. It takes over.
I spent so long writing and re-writing those scenes that the fictional elements, and the people who didn’t exist but who I put in those places, take on their own reality; they get in the way of your memories. You have to accept – or certainly the way my mind works with this stuff, I have to accept – that reality is a kind of resource that I’m using up to create fiction, and that there’s a chance that it might not exist anymore in the state that it did, like a fuel you’re burning in order to write what you’re trying to write.
A Lonely Man opens with an interview with an author in a bookshop – it starts by skewering the interviewer who asks him whether the fiction he writes resembles his own life. I feel like I’m entangled in your web.
Haha, that’s true. It’s obviously an element of every interview and every discussion as well, but it’s rarely the most interesting part. I totally get why it’s there as part of the discussion. The popularity of autofiction – or the prominence, is perhaps a better word – means that a lot of things nowadays are called autofiction that twenty years ago would have been called fiction with autobiographical elements. The difference between them has dissolved, not in terms of what those things are but in the way people talk about them.
There’s always a relationship between the author’s life and the fiction they’re writing, whether that fiction is realist or not. And I think sometimes that relationship is interesting and sometimes it’s really banal. What autofiction does which is different is it makes that relationship a fundamental part of what the book’s about or how it’s constructed. Whereas in this book, while there are autobiographical elements, it’s not important in any way to the book. You don’t need to know that my wife is Swedish or how many kids I have. Do you know what I mean? Those are details that I have chosen to use but my choosing them is not in itself significant.
If you read Knausgård or Sigrid Nunez, there’s a specific reason, a closeness between the life and the work that is important to how those books function, which is a valid thing to do. I love those writers, but it’s different to what I’m doing in this book.
Do you think the collapse of the genre, between autobiographical elements and autofiction, and how we evaluate those narratives today, has occurred because of the ‘stacked realities’ you describe in your book? I wonder if the way we operate online virtually has influenced this.
That’s interesting. I don’t know if it’s to do with the greater visibility or accessibility of authors who are on Twitter alongside everyone else. Knausgård was never on Twitter. Even now with its longer character-count, I don’t think it would have been sufficient for his needs. In some ways, I think there have always been readers or viewers, in whatever media we’re talking about, who value ‘true’ stories more, or stories that have a greater basis in truth.
Over the last 10 or 15 years the inspired-by-actual-events title screen in films has become way more prevalent. I can’t remember how long ago it was now – probably fifteen years ago, maybe longer – James Frey wrote A Million Little Pieces, this misery memoir about being in and out of prison, and about substance abuse. The book was a huge bestseller. I think he first submitted it as a work of fiction but it was rejected by everywhere, and so he took it away and re-wrote and presented it as a memoir. Then he had to admit it was all made up. He went on Oprah Winfrey and did this mea culpa and was crying and stuff. It was a huge deal, one of those books that you saw in every house you went to.
Of the people I knew who had read it, some of them really didn’t want to let go of the truth of it. Even after he came out and said ninety percent of it is made up. People would say he just tweaked a few things or just massaged this or that. They couldn’t accept that it was fictional. The fact that it didn’t happen really affected and threatened their relationship with it. They needed it to be true, which is fair enough if that’s what they’d been told. It interested me that the problems of the book weren’t literary, they weren’t aesthetic, they were all about whether it was true or not.
Publishers have leaned into this a bit – the autofictional trend, to a certain extent, is on both sides. It’s not just people looking at books and saying it’s autofiction, readers are being told it’s autofiction as well. The borderline has collapsed between the two in a way that I think is sometimes unhelpful or sometimes silly, because it doesn’t really pertain.
Does the distinction between the autobiographical and the autofictional matter to you? Does it affect how one might approach a piece of writing?
Maybe it puts too much pressure on authors to write from life, which in some regards is important. Certainly I wasn’t writing anything decent until I’d experienced some stuff. I think it’s different for everybody. I’ve read brilliant novels by 23-year-olds and I’ve read brilliant debut novels by 60-year-olds. Life is so various, as are people’s responses to it.
I was pretty stupid for a long time and I was trying to write stories that had nothing to do with my life and what I’d experienced. They were more based on stuff I’d read that I really liked. I tried to emulate Denis Johnson for many years, and so I’d write about junkies in Iowa, which I knew absolutely nothing about. So I do get that your life experience informs your fiction. But if someone’s starting to write now and they feel that they have to document their life, that that’s what fiction is then – while that might produce brilliant books – I hope that people also feel that they can take their emotional experiences and put them into stories that have very little to do with their own lives. Because that’s also part of what fiction can provide and supply. It’s how you end up with the most interesting stories sometimes.
The process you describe, of returning to your literary influences before fictionalising life experiences, is the process Robert undergoes. He is keen to tell us about his own reading, the Carver at the beginning and later on Shakespeare. As you see it, what kind of relationship do reading and writing have with lived experience?
What you read is part of your lived experience. It’s a cliché that writers are primarily readers, and there’s something that gives me pause about that, because there’s a sort of snake eating its own tail element to it, where you’re consuming work to produce work. It leads you to questions about why anyone writes and what literature does that I certainly don’t have any answers about. I’m dubious about the idea that reading makes you a better person. Certainly writing doesn’t. But we do this because it’s primarily what we love in life. Sometimes the ethical arguments seem like justification for the fact that we like to spend eight hours on our own with a book.
Ghost writers tell stories on behalf of other people. Have you ever taken a story that is not yours to tell?
The open casket viewing in A Lonely Man. Not that I didn’t think I had a right to tell it, because I was there and the conversations I had were the conversations I had. It was my experience – but it’s also someone else’s very painful experience. So I certainly felt a responsibility to inform those people that I was writing about it.
I’ve written stories that are autobiographical that incorporate other people. Writing from experience, your life has all sorts of interconnections with other people’s lives. Often you are dealing with situations that are probably emotionally complex, because that’s why you are writing about them in the first place. Emotionally complex situations normally involve several points of view about what actually happened or what certain things mean. As soon as you are writing about those things, you are facing questions about what you have the right to do and what you don’t have the right to do.
It brings us back to the callousness of writing, because you may decide to tell a story even if you think it might hurt someone. Even if it’s as simple as making them return to a memory that is painful for them, regardless of the relative truth or otherwise of how you describe something. And that’s a decision for each writer to take individually. How they live with it is an individual thing too.
Before you go, what’s your take on the Navalny protests? It seems like the mood has changed in Russia, potentially in his favour.
We’ve been here before. When Patrick goes to see Vanyashin in Buckinghamshire (they’re talking in 2011 or 2012), there were very large protests against Putin that he survived, as he has done since. I think that really rattled his administration because it was the first time that there were really significant numbers, including people who had previously been moderates and supporters of him. His support is based on this huge middle class that has benefited very much financially from high oil prices. Over the last few years oil has been very shaky, so more questions have been asked about him. Leading up to this period, you had the invasion of Crimea and various other events. Putin will act to shore up support; he doesn’t really have a programme or beliefs in any regard. It’s just about maintaining and prolonging power.
Navalny is interesting because he’s a complicated person, and he’s someone who has held some dubious political beliefs of his own. He first made his mark, I think, when he was in his mid-twenties as a nationalist. He was saying some pretty repugnant things about Muslims and about the Caucasus. And then he reinvented himself. People now say that he regrets those views and turns his back on them, but I don’t know. I haven’t heard him directly saying that but certainly his people do – I was reading something in the New York Times recently, a profile that was addressing that. But you know, he reinvented himself as this anti-corruption candidate and this very savvy user of the internet for organising protest, for putting stuff online showing corrupt officials’ tax records or their ill-gotten gains, and identifying the people who poisoned him with Novichok. He managed that from his hospital bed in Berlin. He’s super smart and rattles the creakier administration he’s fighting against.
I guess the hope is that they put him in a prison camp, which is where I think he’s gone, and that that’ll reduce his power, or that people will forget, not having this rallying point. People were confused why he came back to Russia if he knew he was going to get arrested. I think the truth is, the way Russia works is that you need to be there to have an effect. If you go into exile and you’re attacking Putin from outside Russia, it’s very easy to deal with by saying that he’s living in his penthouse in New York or Paris. What right has he got to slag off the country.
Whether he can maintain his profile or be effective when he’s put away, or if someone else can take on the baton, it remains to be seen. Navalny delivered this speech when he was sentenced decrying Putin, basically saying that they’re arresting me because I didn’t die when they tried to kill me. It seemed like it could be a pivotal moment. We’ll see. We’ll see if he can maintain this momentum.
Chris, thank you.
Chris Power is the author of Mothers, which was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. He lives in London.
For more information and to buy A Lonely Man, visit Faber’s website.
Jack Solloway is a writer and critic living in London. He is the Online Editor for The London Magazine and former Assistant Editor of Voice Magazine. His articles have appeared in the TLS, Aesthetica Magazine, Review 31 and The Times.
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