A conversation with David Blacker, author of A Cause Untrue

1. What made you write this book? How long did it take you to complete it?

Well, I’d always been asked what the SL ‘situation’ was like by Europeans, and it was always a challenge to explain. It wasn’t as glamourous as Vietnam, it wasn’t as well-known as Northern Ireland, it wasn’t as important as Israel. So how did you describe it?I always felt popular fiction was the best way to tell it. But there was no way to make it relevant to the west. It was just a little war on a little island. The only way was to give it an international link, and for years there was no practical credible way to do it. Until 9/11 made terror internationally relevant. So why did I write it? I like telling stories.

It took me 10 days to plan the main plot and seven months to fill it in.

2. What is it that you wish to say through ACU?

Nothing at all. This isn’t some great definitive account of the war. It isn’t even a war story. Read it, enjoy it, it’s one story. There are many.

3. Is the fiction of ACU a catharsis of sorts?

If you mean, is this a way of me working out my feelings for what I did and saw, no. My demons are mine, and not for public consumption right now. I once thought I could work things out by writing about them, but it’s not that easy.

4. Why is writing as catharsis difficult for you?

I’m quite a private person, and not always comfortable with sharing my feelings and emotions. It’s easier to write about someone else. I’ve never really told anyone what it was really like in the Army. Though I’ve attempted it with some people, like my wife, Antje. I did attempt writing about it soon after I came out of the Army, but it was hard to rationalize what we did out there and explain why we enjoyed it without coming across as some sort of war-loving sociopath. But I’ve not rejected the concept, and maybe I’ll give it another go.

5. What did you think the reception to ACU would be from the Sri Lankan public?

Honestly, I didn’t know. I still don’t know what the reception’s been. I’ve never been published before and haven’t been in literary circles, so I haven’t a clue about how contemporary SL English fiction’s received. If the book’s enjoyed, sells well, and creates a demand for this genre, I’ll take that.

6. What made you join the SL Army at a time when there was all out war in the North and the East?

Ha ha. Here come the demons. I was brought up on war stories. My grandfather was a WW2 veteran, and a lot of those war stories were passed on second-hand to me by my father. My childhood was immersed in everything I could find on war, from comics to model aircraft to biographies and history. It was all I ever wanted to do. To see if I could handle what my heroes had. My younger brother and I grew up in an urban Christian home, and there wasn’t a lot of scope for adventure outside a young mind’s fantasies, and I wanted everything I didn’t have: death, violence, freedom, adventure. I wanted to know what it was like to kill.

7. You said you wanted to know what it was like to kill. Once you found out, was it difficult to stop? In other words, where does the war end and life outside of it begin?

8. What are the experiences from real life, in the battle field and outside, that fed into this book?

Well, some of the individual flashbacks in the book, particularly of soldiers, are my own. The plot obviously is total fiction, but many experiences are mine or second-hand stories.

9. What is the cause untrue in this book – terrorism or the war against terrorism or both?

I think it’s fair to say that it’s both. They are both great causes – freedom from oppression and national unity. The way we’ve fought to try and achieve them, the way we’ve been obscenely ready to sacrifice the lives of the young on these altars isn’t so great.

10. There is a curious mix of the real and fiction (what Muller would call faction) in this book – say for instance the comments on the Sunday Leader. Is this thinly veiled social commentary?

I wouldn’t agree that there’s a mix. It’s fiction based in a real world. The war, the government, the places, the causes, those are obviously fact. The plot springs from a real background, a real society. Beyond that, it’s a plausible story. Comments on real institutions – or publications – are just my observations.

11. Sri Lanka’s fiction sometimes plays out the violence and conflict as something exotic. Do you feel fiction’s role is to obliquely throw a mirror at the real world or provide a means of escaping it?

It all depends on the reader, doesn’t it? Terrorism was probably seen as something exotic in the US until 2001, not anymore, so it isn’t escapism to read about it. It might be to someone else. On an individual level, yeah, it’s escapism to read about things one will never ever experience, I guess. If that’s fiction’s role, it’s one of many, I think. And each genre takes on a role appropriate to it. It’s hard to compare a book or movie that deals with a political or social subject with one that is a historical romance, for example.

12. Your meticulous attention to detail is impressive – what fed your imagination for such a breath of locations and events?

It was just a case of making the plot credible. All of the events had to feed the pace and build-up. Many of the locations were picked by balancing off personal knowledge of those locations against plausibility. For example, I’d rather have replaced Canada with Norway because I think that would have been a lot more pointed, and also a lot more credible. On the other hand, I’ve never been to Scandinavia, and doubt I could have given the scenarios the authenticity required.

13. There is a certain glorification of actions against the ‘terras’ – is this personal bias showing through the fabric of the novel?

I’m not sure I understand, but do you mean that there’s a glorification of the war? If so, that’s natural. War’s pretty glamourous. People tend to forget that because popular thinking in the last decades has focused on the fear. But war’s the most exciting thing one can experience, and fear does have a lot to with that, but not just fear. A lot of current thinking on war is done and published by people who’ve been observers of war rather than participants. But read anything by a vet, be it as old as Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, James Webb’s The Fields of Fire, or the new stuff out of Iraq like One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Fick, and you’ll see what I mean. War’s the single most intense thing in a human’s life. High’s and lows that love, sex, drugs, or even the birth of your firstborn can’t compare with. How can you take the glamour out of that? As Tim Page said, “How can you take the glamour out of war?It’s like trying to take the glamour out of a Cobra gunship, or getting stoned at China Beach. Like trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones.”

If there’s a bias against the Tigers, yes, it is mine, and it’s not surprising. I’ve tried to be objective, but it isn’t always possible.

14. How important is objectivity important in fiction?

I think it’s important for the sake of credibility and authenticity. Particularly in the genre of the military or political thriller, where you want to convince your reader that this is possible, even probable. A bias is easily detected and cripples the story.

15. Your novel is shows great texture in the characters of the Special Forces but less so when describing those from the LTTE. As noted in my review, the character of Devini is simplistic and flat in comparison to others in the novel. What were the difficulties you encountered when imagining characters from the LTTE and their motivations?

Well, it was easier to put myself into the heads of the soldiers, because I once was one of them, and their motivations are familiar to me. It wasn’t as easy with Devini because while I have met one or two ex-Tigers, I had to presume many things. Also, in the end, I wasn’t trying to empathise with her, or make the reader walk in her shoes. She remains a terrorist. But if she seems simplistic, then that is my failing rather than intention.

16. The novel is very violent – did you feel this was a necessary condition of fiction based on the conflict in Sri Lanka?

It is a violent subject, be it a hijacking or any other hostage situation, to say nothing of war itself. I don’t think it is a necessary condition. There are several novels with plots situated in the war that are not as violent, true, but I saw no reason to gloss over the violence. ACU may seem more violent than most, but that maybe because of my graphic style of narration where I describe many details.

17. Love is only skin deep and there is a lack of any meaningful transformative human relationships in ACU. Why have you not explored more the possibilities of redemption and change in the novel?

Why should I? This isn’t a parable with a nice moral at the end. Many human relationships aren’t very meaningful, and don’t really transform our lives, and my story just takes a slice out of many of those lives. It would have been very ‘Hollywood’ to end it neatly and take a stand on something, to make a point, but life often isn’t like that, and I sacrificed many things to authenticity.

18. Would you endorse real world events to combat terrorism that mirror those in ACU?

Yes and no.

19. If not, why not?

Many of the methods in the book have already been used by nations expert at fighting terrorism; Britain, Israel, and South Africa, to name a few. Some have been adapted by Sri Lanka in the past, and are currently in use, so it’s nothing new. But there are certain moral grey areas, some things that would be disastrous if detected, as seen in the book. To carry out a ‘black op’ against a friendly or neutral state in order to gain an incremental advantage can be counter-productive. Also killing someone in order to frame another is unethical.

20. Do you intend writing more in the future? If so, do you intend branching out into non-fiction?

Yes, I do want to keep writing, but it’s unlikely to be non-fiction. There’s a chance I might team up with another writer and a photographer to do a history of certain SL military units, but that’s as far as I’ll go down that road.

21. What kind of fiction should we expect from you in the future?

I think a lot of my stories (if there are lots!) will have a connection to the war, even if they are not war stories. I think there’s a lot of potential in an event that has had such a defining role on SL and it’s people for almost three decades. But I don’t think I would spread myself across such a ‘large’ plot for awhile. Some of the criticisms of ACU has been in the areas of character development (or lack of it) and I’d like to have a closer look at that. The scope of ACU prevented too much character detail, and I’d like to experiment with a more linea plot, with a more defined single protagonist.

22. As perhaps the first and only author of fiction to date with front-line experience, what are your thoughts on the transformation of the real world ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka?

Well, I see a certain amount of change where public enthusiasm has faltered, compared to the early 1990s. There’s also been a more balanced attitude to the war internationally, which wasn’t there in the last century. As for the war on the ground, I don’t see a lot of difference. Just better armour, more choppers. The move to a more conventional style of warfare was inevitable due to the disastrous handling of the situation on the PR front, internationally.

23. Do you feel this book will resonate more with a Sri Lankan audience familiar with the fictional terrain of violence or with an audience unfamiliar with bloody terrorism?

I think the impact will be heavier on a local audience because of its familiarity. For a westerner it’s more likely to be just an exciting read, which is OK too.

24. Someone recently said ACU would be a great read on a long haul flight – which makes ACU airport fiction, that breed of books churned by hacks to read and dispose. What makes, in your mind, ACU more enduring as fiction?

I can’t say it is more enduring. Will you remember it in six months, or a year? If you will, then you tell me why.

25. What would make you remember a work of fiction?

I think it’s more about remembering the way it made me feel at the time. For all its hype, I doubt the Da Vinci Code will stay with me for long. But I still remember and can quote whole passages of Webb’s Fields of Fire. It’s written by a former US Secretary of the Navy who’d been an infantry officer in Vietnam. I read it just after I left the Army, and its bitterness and sense of loss touched something in me I’ll never forget. I think even the greatest works of fiction are forgettable if not for that touch. Stories about love and death go very deep because what else touches us more?I think contemporary fiction is memorable when it brings us something we’ve experienced and lost, or never experienced but would like to.

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