INTERVIEW: JM Ledgard

In JM Ledgard’s Submergence, James More is a British spy who was captured by Somalian jihadists and spends most of the novel in a shack and eventually in a cage shitting himself and meditating on the soul and utopia as you do. Danny Flinders is an acclaimed scientist who specializes in deep ocean trenches and is something of a sensualist who revels in the object world, drinking Australian wine and smoking cigarettes “in the French way.” As Danny prepares to go on a deep-sea dive and James is slowly whittled away by the torments and amateurish decisions of his captors, both reminisce on a brief if otherworldly love affair they had at a French hotel on the Atlantic during Christmas. The plot arc, which foregoes suspense and operates via a sort of lyrical seduction, goes the only way it could: sadly. 

Submergence is nothing if not heady – brutal as well as beautiful. It has been quite awhile since I’ve gotten that “hit by a bus” feeling from a work of literature and the rainy afternoon in March when I finished Submergence on the subway, I had to go about the rest of my day more deliberately. It’s the sort of the book that changes the texture of chocolate and the look of puddles. The work is modular and favors establishing layers of meaning through fragments and twisting metaphors, and much of the prose is to be chewed on. The novel explores the frightening questions of human existence, namely, what the hell are we doing to our planet through war and more crucially environmental degradation that is reaching apocalyptic proportions. Below even this, though, there is also a rather darker attempt to chart human loneliness, that emptiness that appreciates beauty and wants to understand truth and develops profound connections with others. As it becomes clearer and clearer what the fate of James and Danny will be, one gets the sense that perhaps if Danny goes down deep enough into the pitch-black oceanic trenches, and if James goes far out enough into the Somalian deserts, they will eventually fall through a black hole or cosmic furrow and happen upon each other. 

JM Ledgard was born in the Shetland Islands. He is a political and war correspondent for the Economist and a thinker on risk and technology in emerging economies. He lives and works in Africa.

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas 

Can you tell me about some of your experiences as a foreign correspondent that informed Submergence?

The first thing is my undergraduate degree rather bizarrely was in medieval Islamic history so I have this whole very positive understanding of Islam . . . the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and of course a lot of great Islamic thinkers. So that was the first thing. Then there were certainly the wars in the former Yugoslavia, which I reported a bit on and then some of the wars in the former Soviet Republics and then the Kosovo War, and all of these wars were involved in Islam in some way. Of course what blew everything out of the water was 9/11 here in New York, and after that I got sent by my newspaper to be an Afghanistan terrorism correspondent. Then, again, in Africa, I think probably because of my experience after 9/11, I continued on this tracking and writing a lot about al-Qaeda and jihadist groups, and was very taken with Somalia as a country and traveled there as much as I could even though it was quite dangerous. Several times I was very lucky to get access to jihadist commanders on the ground, some of them al-Qaeda guys, and that was really very quite interesting. 

I had a really wonderful, bizarre episode where I went to the Comores Islands near Madagascar. I think the third most wanted man in the United States was a guy called Fazul Mohammed who was from the Comores and he was the guy who blew up the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. I just felt really interested in this particular guy and tracked him around and followed where he’d been and then I got to go and meet his wife, his sister, his children, his mother, and that experience is slightly fictionalized in Submergence. So these are real people, but obviously in the book I’m much more interested in the ideas than an exact personal narrative. 

Though there’s an interesting story about one of these al-Qaeda guys I met that was very bizarre. It was like something I might have written in my novel. I went to southern Somalia and there was an al-Qaeda commander, a tough guy, a Somalian, not a foreigner – the foreigners are really scary, you don’t want to meet one of those guys because they’ll just kill you. The Somalia guys are tough, but they can talk to you a bit. Anyway this guy was in a compound and he’s sitting there and he had a dik-dik, one of those dwarf antelopes. Very cute little animal, but they’re very shy in the bush. You walk along and they’re just gone. But here was this commander with this little pet and it’s very rare to see such a tough guy with a little dik-dik as a pet and he told me this story. I don’t know if it’s true, but it was just a great story, which is that he had been marching through the bush with his men and they were hungry and they found a dik-dik so they killed it and they praised Allah and they had food for dinner, and as they were butchering it, the fawn was alive inside the dead mother, and so they took it and it became a kind of mascot for them. Something about the fact of being monstrous is not enough to dehumanize you completely. There is always something these guys have, but then they’re terrible and some of them are sociopaths. 

In an interview with The Paris Review’s Philip Gourevitch you describe Submergence as a “planetary novel that seeks to alter the reader’s perception of earth.”  How does fiction interact with cultural and individual perception?

Not enough, in my opinion. I think my view has always been it’s better to be slightly off, but really have a go at saying something profound. We’re born out in this unknown, it doesn’t matter what your religious persuasion is, this is as much as we know that we’re born into the world and we die in the unknown and we’re suspended in this few years of consciousness, and it seems to me the most amazing and profound thing is to try to make sense of that. I got depressed last night when I was at a book talk in Brooklyn and the lady who was interviewing me, all she wanted to talk about was terrorism.  I just thought terrorism is not the big thing.  The big thing is our planet and the biosphere and the perception of time and space that makes our human experience much more profound when we reflect on it.

When I think about planetary writing, there are two things I want to talk about.  One is that mystery element, which is cosmic, which really is strange.  You can look at anything and in the right eye it becomes quite magical and fantastical. But then there’s another side, which is one where I’ll get in more trouble in the states, which is basically that literature is a really profound calling. Literary fiction like great art can really influence people’s perception of who they are and what they think in a small way, and I find, particularly in the states, a lot of misery fiction. It’s beautifully crafted, much better than I would ever write, but it’s going nowhere, it’s middle class families working out middle class angst. I don’t see enough writers out there who say, Holy moly, we’re losing like 50% of the biodiversity of species. We’ve had this incredible revolution of technology and science, and we’re going to see another one in the next 10 or 20 years, and people are going to be super connected in ways they’ve never been connected before. One of the points I made in Submergence is about incredibly primitive chemosynthetic life at the bottom of the ocean, which looks really stupid, but that life has been there for three billion years and we’ve not been around for very long. I would really like to see more fiction that is tackling these really big themes even if you kind of trip over your shoelaces a bit.

I will know in five years time if my novel was a success if you are like stuck on the subway or skiing in Colorado and you just have a flash, a moment where you think consciously about the ocean or the desert or a suicide bomber or whatever it is. I want to leave a kind of residue, a false memory, a sense. Obviously it’s not character-driven fiction. The characters are secondary to these much bigger themes.

Exposure and discourse about environmental issues are waning.  For example, The New York Times canceled its green blog earlier this year. 

There is an absence of environmental coverage in media.  To me this is madness.  I won’t speak for musicians or anyone else, but I do know about literature and I do feel that a lot of great writers are missing the ball . . . though it’s a difficult balance because you don’t want to manipulate the reader in stupid ways. 

I became a novelist when I was younger because I read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and I thought, Wow, this was written in the mid-19th century and it’s still speaking to profound, relevant truths and about changing society in the way that we deal with power structures. So I think we need to see more of that.  I won’t say all literature has to be crusading and serious, but there are some writers that are letting themselves down by not having a go at these things. Literature is making itself irrelevant basically and people are going to go to other mediums and forms like video art or whatever it is where they’re going to find those challenges and questions and emotions that they need to process this incredibly fast-changing world.

In a smaller way, a lot of my novel is about oceans. It’s still amazing to me that 90% of our living space is in the ocean and we just don’t spend any money on it, we don’t think about it.  We’re not even capable of thinking about it mostly because it’s quite dark, quite cold, there’s a high pressure, and you realize that actually we’re not these sort of Star Trek universe-conquering species. We’re actually designed for a very thin habitat and we have this relationship with light, with gravity. 

Your writing style has been criticized as too intellectual or as a heavy prose-style, and I’m curious about your choice to favor beauty and complexity over simplicity and superficiality. 

First of all, I don’t mind if even a majority of readers don’t like the novel or don’t get it.  I think anyone who really likes a very traditional narrative arc where you have characters who find catharsis . . . they’re not really going to like my fiction. Also, people who read really fast are probably not going to like it. The one thing I can say about this book even though it’s really short is that probably it should be read really slowly, three or four pages a day. On the whole, it’s like when you have a very high-cocoa content dark chocolate. You just write what you want to write and really go for it. People just have their artistic paths to travel. 

One way you deal with modulating this heavy subject matter and dense prose is by working in fragments, which actually turn out to be basically meditations in a way.  In the novel, there’s a lot of sitting around and thinking that the characters do. 

Again, I can see how this could irritate a particular kind of reader. Naturally you’re trying to put the novel together, but you’re in Somalia and then jump to the Greenland Sea. For me it was really important to build up these layers and hope by the end there was some connection between these incredibly weird, disparate worlds. I think very carefully about what I put in and especially what I take out. It’s a very short book, but it could have been like 600-pages.  I took out so much two ways. One way was that I cut out lots of sections that I’ve already written, and two, I pared down all these passages. One thing I’ve gotten working for The Economist is how you relay the maximum possible information in the shortest possible space.  Obviously, I’m trying to convey completely different thoughts and emotions in the novel.  The fragmentary style, I’m just very interested in kaleidoscopic effect, visually and also cinematically and especially emotionally and intellectually.  It’s confusing what exactly everything all adds up to, but it puts you in a different space. 

Something that concerns me as a writer is how technology is shortening our attention spans and how this could kill the novel. 

One thing I was really struck by, a few years ago, I read the letters of President John Adams to his wife. He used to incredibly write two or three page letters to her every day while he was away. What was extraordinary about these letters in the late 18th-century were these long loops of thoughts that don’t resolve immediately and you’re not actually sure where the trajectory is until you get two pages along and then eventually it curlicues to the end. I think we are in danger of losing the capacity to in and of ourselves create these longer loops of thought, and some people are probably even losing the capacity to read these longer loops of thought. Not entirely, you know. It’s possible that people can push back, but of course we have to realize that all other things being equal, and even if these writers who I would like to stop writing about Park Slope and soccer moms, even if they actually start writing Melville-like work, the space for literature is much smaller. All our devices and all the ways we perceive with music and film and gaming and travel.  Literature had it really good for a long time and it’s never going to be quite as big as it was.

One theme of this novel is disaster and the political and natural crises that the world is on the brink of. Both Danny and James spend a lot of time dealing with questions about where humanity is going and it doesn’t look so good.

It’s a very dark novel, this one, and I don’t make any apologies for that. Strangely, the one lesson I learned living in Africa the last decade is that pessimism is a redundant quality, if it is a quality at all. There is inquiry and it can be very dark inquiry, really pushing you to the abyssal, but the great privilege of the human condition is that we have still the next day to think about the way we conduct ourselves collectively. 

Look at the fossil fuel situation that we have at the moment. I’ve known from these negotiations I do with big companies and looking at oil, coal, natural gas, car companies . . . there is a lot of money on the wrong side of the table. It’s kind of banal and I don’t think it’s the best film in the world, but I always come back to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. I remember from the film this cartoon image of the planet on one side of the scale and gold on the other, and everybody in the cinema laughed when they saw that because it seemed so absurd. Why, how can we value money over the planet, but actually nothing has moved from that cartoon, it’s basically that stupid. I mean, the planet is going to be fine, nothing is going to happen to life on the earth. The question is how many species, including our own, have to be annihilated before we are sort of vomited off. But I don’t think it’s actually certain at all. We have a tremendous capacity as a species to self-correct, but at the moment we’re not on a good path because we’re not concentrating on the right things. We’re very much like an autistic termite colony where someone like these mad Chechen brothers in Boston poke it with appalling consequences and then the termite colony goes completely crazy. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a severe reaction to terrorism, but I am saying that we should have at least an equal reaction to the decimation of the planet we’re living on and our ability to survive and particularly the ability of other species to survive. It’s very worrisome to me that we end up with purely anthropomorphic species and that when a species for one reason or another finds it difficult to cohabit with humans we expunge them. I do feel like the future generations, maybe even close future generations, will look at us like, My god, for a bunch of new Chevrolets, you managed to oversee a mass destruction. That is a clear and present danger, and I’m very happy to think in dark terms, but I’m not so interested in fatalistic terms. 

There is a great deal of beauty in the novel – especially coming out of the brief love affair between James and Danny in a rather surreal, wintry landscape.  Why did you choose to hang these dark questions on this very intense romance?

Well, as I say, we have to get up and live our lives. The really amazing thing about the human condition is that despite this cosmic mystery, whether it’s watching a baseball game or having sex or being in a strong relationship or seeing a relationship break apart, getting old, the actual fabric of our lives are colossal to us and they are of never-ending, immense consequence in these completely irresolvable ways. For example, James is there in captivity and he is trying to hold onto his humanity and mostly he’s holding on through strong emotions. For Danny, she is almost a hard woman, she is certainly heroic to me and she sacrificed a lot of warmth and empathy for the path that she chose. It is possible and it is wonderful to have those profound connections.

I thought about how trauma is perhaps related to empathy and how we’re motivated to reach outside of ourselves. A reading that I had of the book was as a series of dark meditations draped over a love story, which is perhaps a way that we’re disturbed by our existence.

That’s a very perceptive point. You might be onto something there. That’s harder for me to talk about. It almost hits too intimate really. 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a book, but I don’t really know whether it’s going to be fiction or non-fiction. It’s really on that cusp. What I realized in my first two books is that reality and lyrical reality are very closely knit for me, they’re almost zipped together. To be honest, it probably doesn’t matter that much which side of the line we fall on. Except maybe in America because in America the reader demands to know what the truth is, which I’ve never really understood. Some of it is set in Africa. I never show anyone anything I write or talk about it until I know that it’s literally 90% done. It will be building on some of the themes we talked about in Submergence and looking to the future.