Damian Barr is introduced by James Robert Carson, a senior lecturer for drama here at UEA, with a quote from a review of his new book and third published work, You Will Be Safe Here – ‘only someone who is wise and kind could have written such a book.’ Carson describes Barr’s accomplishments over the years, including his fifteen-year journalistic career as a columnist, his writing and presenting credits for Radio 4, and his ten years running his Literary Salon based in London. He also mentions the awards Barr has won; he was voted Stonewall’s writer of the year thanks to his 2013 memoir Maggie & Me, about his childhood in Scotland during Margaret Thatcher’s stint as Prime Minister.
Barr is here to talk about his latest work, and his first fictional novel, You Will Be Safe Here, set in South Africa during three different time periods. He starts by reading an extract, written from the point of view of Sarah van der Watt. Sarah’s farmer husband is away fighting in the second Boer War in 1901, leaving her and their young son to wait helplessly as ‘day by day, farm by farm, the English draw closer’, destroying any land in their scorched-earth tactics. Sarah passes the time by writing in her diary a record of events; ‘I’m setting these words down for us and for Fred’.
Barr describes how he never started out knowing he was going to write a novel – instead, he says, he starts with a moment or a feeling and goes from there. This novel, he explains, began when he saw a photograph of a young boy that reminded him of a childhood crush of his, except the boy in the photograph had been murdered in a camp like the one Willem, another of the protagonists in You Will Be Safe Here, is sent to by his parents. For research, Barr travelled to South Africa and spent time with the boy’s mother, and it was further research into South African history that led Barr to the Boer War.
Barr credits his meticulous researching to his journalistic career; ‘I wanted to know everything.’ It is the responsibility of the writer, he says, to research and understand the story they’re trying to tell, to ask better questions even if you can’t find the answers, especially when you’re telling a story that isn’t your own. Barr says he owes his findings to Emily Hobhouse, a Cornish suffragette who reported on the horrors in the British concentration camps in South Africa. Thanks to her work translating for illiterate South African women, Barr was able to gain insight into the lives of these people.
Barr’s aim with this novel, he explains, was mostly character driven. Carson asks if there is an overarching thesis of any kind in the book, to which Barr answers; ‘Well, how did you feel about Rayna as a character?’ ‘I loved her strength, her individuality’, Carson replies. ‘Did you love her racism?’ Barr explains that he wanted to write characters with nuances and complexities, people like Rayna who, despite being a wonderful grandmother and family person, is also a horribly racist – ‘everyone’s experiences when they go home to family at Christmas’, Barr jokes.
There are other, more irredeemable characters in the novel, such as the General who runs the camp, and Barr explains that writing those kinds of characters requires you to suspend your own beliefs for a while. ‘Evil people don’t know they’re evil’. To write the character convincingly, you must force yourself to empathise with their views.
Writing this novel was extremely personal for Barr. He believes that to understand your past is to know where you will go in the future. You Will Be Safe Here plays with history; there are large parts of historical background absent from the book, because, Barr says, history is constantly renegotiated by different people who believe in different histories.
Instead, the history is told not by the men on the front lines, but by the women at home, the absent male family being familiar to Barr. Carson praises him for his characters, which have such a strong sense of voice. Some of this is down to Barr drawing on real life inspirations, such as the boy in the photograph, or Thokozile Masipa, the presiding judge for the 2014 trial of Oscar Pistorius, and the inspiration behind his own judge character, Violet Khwezi. A lot of it is also down to Barr’s own writing methods; he reads his novel out loud again and again – ‘if your voice catches, something is wrong.’ This method works; You Will Be Safe Here is now being turned into an audiobook.
Carson hands the conversation over to the audience and their questions. When asked how he discover and fix mistakes in his work, Barr credits the ‘brilliant’ South African writers who proof-read for him, including former head of South African PEN Margie Orford, a student of J.M. Coetzee, and those that helped him strip everything back to the real meat of the story; ‘It’s like Jenga. You take away and take away until it’s about to fall down, and then it’s done.’
A woman in the audience raises her hand to say she herself has family history tied to the Boer War. Her grandfather, she explains, was a doctor in one of the British concentration camps, and it took a long time for the family to admit the history they are ashamed of. Barr thanks her; this book, he says, is bringing out so many interesting stories, and expanding the narrative on what really happened. As for his next works, Barr has two very different ideas competing for attention. ‘Which one do I want to spend this time with?’ he says of his decision-making process. ‘You have to be fascinated by it’.