Which story, of fiction or non-fiction, has had the most impact on you in your life? Can you tell us a little about it?
I first read Martha Gellhorn when I was eighteen. I chanced on a paperback copy of The Face of War in a second-hand bookshop, and devoured the first thirty pages standing there among the shelves. The characteristic blending of fact and fiction ensnared me. Then I went on to read about her: it was the story of her life that had the greatest impact on me.
Where and when did you first read or hear that story? How did you discover it?
I read her biography, and that set me off: I was starting out on my own career as a writer. Gellhorn, who lived from 1908 to 1998, was a feisty, fastidious American war correspondent. She was writing the fighting for six decades, and although each conflict was different, her message remained the same: ‘There is neither victory nor defeat; there is only catastrophe.’ Then of course there was Hemingway. She and he covered the Spanish civil war together – when fascist shells hit their hotel, the prostitutes came scuttling out of the foreign correspondents’ rooms ‘crying in high voices like birds.’ Gellhorn married the old dog in 1940.
Do you think the place and context of the reader causes people to experience stories differently?
Oh yes, without a doubt. I found her when I needed a role model – a woman who gave me the confidence to become who I am as a writer
What is it about this particular story that struck home with you? What differentiates it from all the others you know?
Not only do I think Gellhorn is a marvelous writer – at her best, one of the best – I also identify with Gellhorn the woman. ‘The open road’, she wrote, was ‘my first, oldest and strongest love;’ elsewhere she recorded that, ‘Only work gives shape and sanity to life’; and she once wrote to a friend to say, ‘I have only to go to a different country, sky, language, scenery, to feel it is worth living’. I feel and think all those things. Like Martha I loathe domesticity (she called it ‘the kitchen of life’). She was her own woman: she created style, she didn’t follow it.
Has the story had an influence on how you live your life or do your work?
Like almost all really good writers, Gellhorn found writing excruciatingly hard: she called the bad times, when words didn’t come, ‘chewing cement.’ But she worked harder than the rest. That influenced me more than anything: no matter how hard it is, the only thing that matters is to keep going. She wrote short stories and novels as well as hundreds of non-fiction pieces and several non-fiction books; her best known book, the autobiographical Travels with Myself and Another, appeared in 1978 and still sells steadily. For sixty years she wrote about the poor, the weak and the dispossessed, whether in the textile mill towns of north Carolina or the bombed-out villages of South Vietnam.
Above all, she was true to herself, and that was what I wanted to be (still do). ‘I do not wish to be good,’ Gellhorn wrote, ‘ . . . I wish to be hell on wheels, or dead.’ My own sentiments exactly.