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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, George Buchanan shares what inspired him to write his memoir, Dangerous Ways.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed George Buchanan about his life and career, what inspired him to write his memoir, Dangerous Ways, and his creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Most of my working life has been spent in higher education. Previously, as a young graduate from Cambridge, I had taught at secondary level in Nigeria, which was followed by employment as an editor at OUP in Oxford and then, briefly, as a radio producer at the BBC in London. I am married.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Aged 12 or 13 I wrote and edited a series of family newspapers. This was during a summer holiday visit to my family at a military camp between the Suez Canal and Cairo. From the age of 16 I began writing poetry, a process I continued in and haven’t entirely given up, though I no longer place any weight on it.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
Approximately three years. Beyond initial drafting there were continuous iterations and revisions. By the end of these, however, I felt I could regard the text as finished- that there was no more tinkering to be done…
What made you want to write Dangerous Ways?
I have always had an enveloping desire to write something. In this case I felt the moment had come when I could stand as it were outside my life and look in at it dispassionately. It would be a book about my experience of the world and my complex place in it, with an emphasis on the great diversity of both people and places I have known, and the different challenges, fulfilments and failures they have given rise to.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Dangerous Ways?
I’m not conscious of any ‘big’ challenge, except in the sense of the subject’s largeness and complexity. I was, though, mindful of a key one: to write with absolute honesty and in a manner that draws the reader in, creating a rapport and dialogue between the text and reader.
What is the inciting incident of Dangerous Ways?
If there is one such thing, it is my encounter with my father at the book’s beginning. It is 1947 and my sixth birthday, and I have arrived with my mother and little sister in the bombed-out harbour of Tobruk, Libya, where my father, a senior Army officer, is waiting to meet us. This confrontation would radically affect the nature of my life, feelings, and disposition, including my relations with my family.
What is the main conflict of Dangerous Ways?
Probably as set out in the answers above and below. This, however, represents a conflict with another person at the surface, whereas it may be that the book reflects more fundamental underlying conflicts within myself, which the book explores, one being the ambivalence of my feelings, whether of guilt or repudiation, in dealing with my father’s negativity.
Did you plot Dangerous Ways in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
It was conceived in broad terms ab initio, but I made significant changes as I proceeded. The major change was to transfer the original first chapter to the beginning of the second part of the book. This meant that, instead of the book’s setting off with my birth and earliest years during wartime in a female world, it opens more dramatically with the abrupt transition from a feeling of security to one of fear, uncertainty and antipathy. Thus, my earliest experience, which preceded the tensions that came later, may be viewed by the reader as a child’s ‘Garden of Eden’, though in a deprived industrial landscape. The reader knows by now what the young child doesn’t,- that the relative stability of his life is already nearly over. The narrative, as it continues, shows how over time I acquire or construct alternatives to my family, a process speeded by my entry at eleven into boarding school, which in effect concludes my family life. Thereafter I rely upon myself and others, some featuring within the main body of the narrative, others in a final chapter devoted to them, which I have called ‘Mentors and Quasi-fathers’.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Dangerous Ways need?
I was my own continuous editor. External editing required was minimal.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
In my case the tense of the question is inapplicable. The past tense fits, in that over many years I have written and rewritten a number of fictional texts varying in length from 12,000 to 60,000 words. These include a novel- set in West Africa and drawn from my experience during the years that led to the Nigerian Civil War, one of whose key characters (shot dead in the war) I knew intimately. The story’s climax involves the protagonist’s anguished fear of his having been betrayed by the two people he adored- a fear which can never be resolved. A short story (12,000 words) entitled ‘Lunch in St James’s’ is about the reunion of three old schoolfriends and the destructive insurgence of a fourth person familiar to them all. A further story (13,000 words), ‘A Moral Affair’, explores a man’s awakening to emotions and desires he had excluded from his life as morally pernicious and which now morally confront him.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I have to say I am as content with what has come through as I would have hoped to be in starting. It has been the outcome of three years’ intensive work on a task in which I have been continuously engrossed.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
I have no social media links. My suggestion would be that any sought correspondence should come through the publisher.
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