AMR: Anna Schaffner meets Mike Stafford in our AUTHOR MEETS REVIEWER series

Article published on June 17, 2016.

Mike was very impressed with Anna’s novel, The Truth About Julia and was able to put some questions to the author on our behalf.

It’s extraordinarily hard to get away from the idea of radicalisation at the moment. Did you write the book in response to the climate, or was there something else that drove it? 

My novel was definitely inspired by the fact that ours is the age of terrorism, and that debates about radicalization – how and why it happens, and what we can do about it – are ubiquitous. But I have always found those debates dissatisfying: in their analyses, commentators tend to emphasize one aspect of the problem only, presenting it as the master key, such as psychological factors, parenting styles, religious and cultural values, political disenchantment, economic hardship, social alienation, and so on. And the idea of powerful and irresistible corruptor figures, charismatic tempters who can lure vulnerable teenagers into joining Isis, which is a much-repeated narrative, seems to me a particularly weak explanatory model. Every individual story of radicalization would in its own way be a result of all of these factors, and many others besides – it is their specific order of significance which makes every case unique.

I was also working on a non-fiction book on the cultural history of exhaustion while I was writing The Truth about Julia. The research for that book fed into the novel in unexpected ways: my main protagonist, Clare Hardenberg, suffers from an acute case of depressive disenchantment and capitalism fatigue. She is driven by anxieties about the significance of her writing career. As an investigative journalist, she has dedicated her life to writing, and had been very successful before a libel trial ruined her both financially and emotionally. At the time she takes on the writing of Julia’s biography, she fears that all has been in vain, that her writing has changed nothing about the political status quo. She is angry because those she has exposed as villains in her books continue to thrive without consequences. Clare feels utterly disenchanted with the legal forms of political activism at the time she encounters Julia – a state of mind which makes her very vulnerable to Julia’s radical theories. As a writer and academic, I share Clare’s anxieties and doubts about the power of words to bring about genuine political transformation.

Sticking with radicalisation, the predominant image we have of a radicalised character is one of poverty, poor education, disaffection and misdirected anger. Conversely, Julia is wealthy, educated and well connected. Do you think the two different types of character would be radicalised by the same means or process?‬‬‬

Probably not, but the masterminds of most terrorist organizations tend to be quite articulate, auratic, and often well-educated. Think of Osama Bin Laden, or of Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin of the German Red Army Faction (or Baader-Meinhof Group). I grew up in Germany, and when I was little I saw ‘Wanted’ posters with the images of stern-looking women wanted for terrorist acts plastered all over my home town. Meinhof in particular was a highly intelligent woman, well-educated, and a journalist before she became a terrorist, and many of the reasons she presented for her actions – if not her means for achieving her aims, of course – were thought provoking. I imagine that the psychology and background of those who are drawn into existing terrorist organizations rather than leading or creating them is very different; they probably share to some extent the profile of those who are vulnerable to being lured into religious sects. 

There’s a really strong academic tone running through ‘The Truth About Julia.’ For all her fire, Julia is essentially a creature of reason. Would you say writing the book was more of an emotional or an intellectual exercise? 

It was certainly not an intellectual exercise. I care deeply for all of my characters, and I tried to bring them and their psychology and their emotional dilemmas alive on the page. But my novel is also ideas-driven; that is just a result of the way I work. I thought of the themes I wanted to address and the overall framework first, but then the characters took on a life of their own and did things that I had not at all planned at the beginning.

Julia is a wonderfully evasive character. Sometimes she’s intellectually convincing, other times she’s a petulant bore. Do you yourself have any preference as to what readers think the ‘true’ Julia is? Is there a “correct” way to react to her from your perspective?

Just like all the characters in the novel, I have a clear vision of Julia in my head and theories and thoughts on what made her the way she is, but I won’t tell. The novel has to speak for itself, and it is important to leave it to the reader to decide!

Julia’s politics – although not mainstream – are recognisable to a British audience. They’re a kind of amalgamation of classic Marxism and modern globalisation-scepticism. Do you have any sympathy with those types of positions yourself? And would it have been harder to win the reader’s sympathy if Julia had been a right-leaning bomber?

I do, absolutely. I think many of Julia’s positions are right, but the means she chooses to achieve her aims are obviously not. I was interested in creating a character who does the wrong thing for (perhaps) partly valid reasons. She obviously does something completely unacceptable, something that is callously calculated and coldly executed. Clare’s action, by contrast, although equally unacceptable, might seem more understandable – it targets someone who is guilty, and it happens on the spur of the moment, in a hot-headed emotional rather than a cold-blooded intellectual way.‬‬‬

And finally, in human relationships, do you think there is such a thing as objective truth?‬

I think there are external interactions and visible behaviours that most people would agree exist in a fairly objective manner, but the interpretation of these actions and behaviours, and what causes them, is entirely subjective. Most of my characters agree on the external ‘facts’ regarding Julia, but each one of them interprets those facts differently, creating radically different narratives about her. I have a lot of sympathy for psychoanalytical explanatory models, but also feel that they, too, cannot explain everything and have their (political and historical) blind spots. My favourite writers are those who challenge singular and stable perspectives on the world, and who constantly remind us that we all tend to see the world in radically different ways, such as Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf.

Many thanks to Julia and Mike.

You can see further reviews from Linda Hepworth and our Real Readers.

The Truth about Julia is published by Allen & Unwin in pbk. 41oBVkBRPEL

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