I recently got to do a Q&A with Andy Owens, author of East of Coker, and am pleased to able to share it with you today.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I am married with two young children and I live in West London. East of Coker is my second novel.
How did you first come to be a writer?
Through reading. I have always read – both fiction and non-fiction. More specifically, whilst working for the government in the UK on counter terrorism duties I read Moby Dick and was struck between the similarities between some of the characters and situations in the novel and some of those I was encountering in my day job. When Melville introduces Ismael to us speaking of the need when he feels it is a ‘damp, drizzly November’ in his soul, to get to sea, he highlights something enduring in human nature. He highlighted the same existential ennui that I was seeing in some of those that were going off not to sea, but the mountains to join terrorist organisations and that had formed a part of the motivation to sign up for some of the soldiers I had previously served with. Melville’s characters embark on a journey that explores themes of obsession, belief, belonging and the impact of charismatic leaders on a group – all themes I was interested in and were relevant to some of the issues of today.
So, I started to write as I thought I had something to say on a subject that was been dealt with in a shallow and often ignorant way. It was something I had experience of and I thought I had found an interesting idea of how to do it – an idea that would mean it was a good story too. Since I started reading I had always been fascinated by how we recycle stories from one generation to the next. Ultimately I wanted to contribute to an important conversation that was been dominated by the loudest voices rather the most thoughtful. I also hoped it could be a way of helping raising funds for a good cause through donating the royalties.
What is your book East of Coker about?
If my first book Invective was about why people want to go off and fight, East of Coker is about what happens after you have ‘visited a place where the surface layer has been eroded and the bedrock that is beneath us all is exposed’. More than this it is also about how we can help each other move on. It moves through a London and an Iraq that shadows TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, asking what duty do those left behind have to those that would otherwise be forgotten and, how through acceptance of what we have done, who we are, and where we are all inevitably heading to, what happiness can be found. I think in the end it is a love story, but maybe not one in the traditional sense.
It follows the lives of Arthur, a wounded veteran of an old war, the love he left behind, an injured veteran of a new war and an Iraqi family in Basra, become intertwined as they all try in different ways to cope with the uncertainty the conflicts they have been exposed to has created. As their stories eventually collide in a hospital in London, while riots outside get closer each night, Arthur tries to free himself from the anchors of the past and ensure his new friend does not suffer like he has. As Arthur learns how to accept his fate he realises there is one more fight he must fight. He must reach the woman who has been waiting for him to return, for all these years, before time runs out. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a family try to cope with the consequences of a modern war fought on ancient soil by unwelcome intruders, threatening their way of life and traditions. I hope that despite some of its subject matter it is ultimately uplifting.
All royalties are donated to the Shoulder to Shoulder Project, a volunteer mentoring programme that supports ex-service men and women who are recovering from mental health issues or having difficulty adjusting to civilian life.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Ultimately it is experience and imagination, in that order. Both books have started with ideas. The ideas themselves are inspired by the desire to tell stories from the perspective of those who may not have a voice. I agree with Susan Sontag when in ‘At the Same Time: Essays & Speeches’ she muses on what literature can do and she says ‘literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours’. She says that writers ‘evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own’. Our brains are hardwired to learn through stories, from when we first sat round the fire, to the parables of the early religions through the whole body of world literature. We learn what we are like and value as a society by understand our own stories, but maybe more importantly we learn what others are like, learn that we are more alike than different by learning the stories of others and experiencing the world through their eyes even for the brief time it takes to read a few pages. Writing gives you the opportunity to increase the amount of empathy in the world, which should provide enough inspiration to give it a go.
What is your writing routine?
I start with an idea, then do the research, then do the writing. Writing happens in bursts and mostly at 30,000 feet. I travel a lot with work, mostly to Africa and Latin America, so long flights are great opportunities to get focussed bursts done with no distractions.
What’s your favourite book?
It’s a really hard question to answer, there are so many and different books have meant different things to me at different times. In the last 12 months I read Sebald for the first time. Reading Austerlitz taught me that you could tell a story through the gaps in what you do write. It stayed with me for a long time after, just as Camus’ The Outsider had many years ago. On a list of my favourite books Joyce’s Ulysses, which made me first realise that you could write language in a way that reading it could be like listening to music, and Homer’s original. Hemmingway, Orwell and Graves writing on war influenced me greatly and I will always happily read anything by William Boyd, Julian Barnes, Marilyn Robinson or John Le Carrie. And Moby Dick obviously…
Is there a question that you wish an interviewer would ask that you’ve never been asked? What’s your answer to that question?
What will you have? A Guinness please
How can people connect with you on social media?
I am on Twitter (@owen_andy)
About the book:
The lives of Arthur, a wounded veteran of an old war, the love he left behind, an injured veteran of a new war and an Iraqi family in Basra, become intertwined as they all try in different ways to cope with the uncertainty the conflicts they have been exposed to has created. Each chapter is told through a separate voice seeing conflict from different sides.
Their stories eventually collide in a hospital in London, while riots outside get closer each night, when Arthur recovering from a stroke meets the injured veteran from Iraq who is struggling more with mental injuries than the physical ones he received in the incident he described to us in previous chapters. Arthur tries to free himself from the anchors of the past and ensure his new friend does not suffer like he has. He helps his friend realise he should talk to his family and learn to move on like he never managed to do. As Arthur learns how to accept his fate he realises there is one more fight he must fight. He must reach the woman who has been waiting for him to return, for all these years, before time runs out. He uses all his strength to make one final journey to find out that she is still there waiting.
East of Coker moves through a London and an Iraq that shadows TS Eliot’s Waste Land, asking what duty do those left behind have to those that would otherwise be forgotten and, how through acceptance of what we have done, who we are, and where we are all inevitably heading to, what happiness can be found.
‘This is an ambitious and thoughtful book, valuable both for itself and its charitable links. It weaves stories of loss and war around a structure of T.S. Eliot’s the Waste Land and speaks for, as well as supports, some of those for whom speech is difficult yet necessary in the wake of past trauma.’ Gay Watson, A Philosophy of Emptiness.