In 2000 – long before everyone had an expert opinion on Afghanistan – a friend suggested I write a thriller set against events there. I had visited Afghanistan a dozen times since my first clandestine trip with the mujaheddin in the 1980s, written a book about it, and remained privately obsessed with the place.
It was a simple plot: a wicked terrorist mastermind, threatening to blow up civilian airliners, is chased back to his secret lair in Afghanistan and hunted down by American special forces in a climactic, conflagatory shoot-out.
I shared the idea. ‘American forces in Afghanistan? It could never happen,’ said someone. ‘Too far-fetched,’ someone else agreed. Eyes rolled.
A thriller unfolding against a regime as reviled as the Taliban, and in a place as far away as Afghanistan, was – at the time – almost as fantastic as science fiction. But to anyone familiar with the forces at work in the region, a storyline based on the ironies and high intrigue surrounding Afghanistan would have seemed far from outlandish. A decade ago, people who knew the country well also knew that something was brewing there. Nobody could have guessed the form it would take, but the prospect of a retaliatory campaign against Western powers by extremists, incubated in the ruins of the Cold War’s final battlefield, seemed almost inevitable. Afghanistan had been ruined, abandoned by the parties that had sponsored its destruction, and the wrong sort of people were gathering there, where the world paid them no attention.
We know the rest. We know some of it, at least. Western countries, and especially America, have a long history in Afghanistan, which until recently has been virtually ignored. Had it not been for 9/11, most people would know nothing about it. Some excellent works of non-fiction have brought the historical backdrop to life, but there is very little in fiction that treats Afghanistan and its recent history in a balanced and credible way.
Or so it seemed to me a few years ago, when I saw that, having finished an earlier book about Iran, there was an opportunity to write a story about the country.
But seeing an opportunity is not the same as realising it. I had never tried to write fiction. I had never been tempted, as have many writers of non-fiction, to construct literary photo-fit characters who never really existed, or scenes that might as well have happened. My discipline as a writer was geared entirely in the opposite direction: to invent nothing that had not actually happened, and to be scrupulously faithful in matters of dialogue and chronology.
In non-fiction, to begin with at least, one has a surfeit of raw material but no plot; now I had a plot but no material. It was like learning to write all over again; and like Frankenstein trying to bring life into his monster, there was a lot of hand-wringing and lever-pulling. How much detail to include? How much dialogue? There was no-one to tell me.
Like everything else, you learn by doing. You write a chapter, let the dust settle, and re-read it. As a fallen rider is encouraged to quickly re-mount, a writer should quickly re-write. The bruises heal, but it does help to be stubborn. About a third of the way through the book, I realised it simply wasn’t working. It had all the right bits – like Frankenstein – but it needed a great crackling bolt of electricity to bring it to life. I threw out much of the plot, wrote an entirely new beginning, and stripped the narrative of the past tense. After that, my monster came unexpectedly alive.
One of writing’s many mysteries is that, although you don’t necessarily know where a piece of writing is taking you, you do know when you get there. In fiction, this is point where you begin to inhabit the writing, and taste the experience of the characters themselves. Deepening this experience transmits authenticity into what one writes.
My earlier plots were more fantastic. I had been reading Ludlum, where anything is possible. ‘Why not make it all more realistic?’ asked a friend and former soldier. From then on, this simple question informed the entire book. Keeping closer to researched events was much more difficult, but the result has been more satisfying.
A book has layers or levels. Beyond the nuts and bolts of character and plot, the fictional narrative can be designed to transmit both information and ideas. It can also raise questions. I had all these in mind when writing The Network. I wanted not only to share a story – or stories, because there is another story that unfolds behind the overt one – but also to offer an alternative to much that is either distorted or absent in mainstream accounts of the Islamic world and particularly Afghanistan. I hope it raises, questions too.
The Network is published by Bloomsbury