Prior to writing his new book, O’Hagan has authored five novels — Our Fathers (1999), Personality (2003), Be Near Me (2006), The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe (2010), and The Illuminations (2015) — as well as two books of nonfiction — The Missing (1995) and The Atlantic Ocean: Essays on Britain and America (2008). He’s earned a BAFTA for his play, Calling Bible John (which he adapted from The Missing), and has received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the E. M. Forster Award, and has been both short-listed (Our Fathers) and long-listed (Be Near Me and The Illuminations) for the Man Booker Prize.
On this sunny afternoon last August, at the end of a long day of events, he and I had nabbed the last cushioned bench under the fainting canvas of the busy Authors’ Tent. In its convivial atmosphere of batik footstools, abandoned glasses, and disheveled newspapers — it felt like glamping crossed with my granny’s living room post–Sunday roast — we settled in for the first part of a long conversation, the rest of which took place six weeks later in October.
“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” runs Orwell’s oft-quoted aphorism. Day after day Twitter feeds trill with disclosures about the role foreign powers and social media corporations might have played in the American presidential election and the British Brexit referendum, along with seedy revelations of abusive shenanigans by powerful men in dressing gowns. Against this disheartening backdrop of obfuscation, slant, and misogyny, the essays within The Secret Life, though previously published in the London Review of Books (LRB), read like urgent news. Only a few days earlier O’Hagan had warned an Edinburgh audience that our reality is not what it was, that the internet is not just another space, but has “become the space of all spaces, and it seems inevitable now that nations will be, in some important respect, subsumed by it.”
Once we’d found a perch for our polystyrene cups, he reiterated that writing his latest book had not felt like undertaking a clinical overview of the porous dangers of the internet, but more akin to an intimate reportage, an excavation of the self. I asked him to clarify that his fascination with what he called the “unstable border between fiction and nonfiction” did not mean he advocated “truthiness” in journalism.
“That’s an important point, maybe the most important point of all.” Completely focused despite the chattering around us, he leaned forward. “I’ve never been an advocate of crossing out the truth to glory in a rich fictional tapestry that has no bearing in reality,” he said, “but to work like a dog to get at what I believe is the truth behind the facts. A person could write a memoir of their mother’s life and a friend could write a novel, and the novel is the truer. You have to ask yourself what that means. The fictional treatment could be truer because it gets further inside the social history, the patter, the dialect. If you work in both genres, as I do, you can write nonfiction where you look at a subject from many angles, bring the craft techniques of fiction to bear on understanding, utilize a novelistic sense of penetration, of detail, of setting, of pacing, of telescoping into memory, of playing with notions of time. But, boy, you’d better get it right.”
O’Hagan was raised on a council estate in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, 20-odd miles southwest of Glasgow, in a working-class household where books, with the exception of the telephone directory, were sparse. A Scottish education steeped his early years in verse, and, like many writers before and since, he owes much of his love of language to a high school English teacher. Mrs. McNeill, he once said, “saved my life,” by tutoring him after class on the works of W. B. Yeats and Thomas Hardy. Later he encountered the pragmatism and direct engagement of British essayists including James Boswell, Robert Louis Stevenson, and George Orwell. After graduating from the University of Strathclyde, he began working at the LRB, undergoing a sort of unofficial four-year literary apprenticeship, beginning an association with the magazine that has lasted over 25 years, leading to his current role as editor-at-large.
But American writers of the New Journalism movement, such as John Hersey, Truman Capote, and Joan Didion, also influenced O’Hagan’s development, and I asked him how he perceived the differences in style between American and British practitioners of the essay.
“The British form developed in ways more didactic and less professionalized,” he suggested, resulting in “lone wolf” figures, such as Orwell, and a “more essayistic tone,” whereas many key American essays had been commissioned by large journals. He cited Hersey’s “Hiroshima” (published in its entirety by The New Yorker in 1946), arguing that although Hersey’s moral consciousness resides within it, “his voice is missing.” Had “Hiroshima” or Capote’s In Cold Blood been written by their contemporaries in the United Kingdom then “a sting of class and personhood would have crept in somewhere.” And as a young writer he’d determined to “take the professionalized, objective standards of American nonfiction and blend them with an essayistic autobiographical energy from the Brits.”
He leaned back, and looked away. “I was just thinking about Norman Mailer this morning, and realized what a debt I owed him.” He must have noticed my eyebrows rise because he clarified that despite Mailer’s contentious personal reputation “he was thinking as a literary artist all the time, he had the courage to risk the ire of audiences by coming up with different perspectives; there was no comradeship, groupthink, or school behind what he said.”
“You mention Mailer in your introduction to The Secret Life,” I said. “That you’d once asked him which of the other arts were closer to writing, and he had replied: ‘acting.’ Do you agree?”
I wasn’t surprised. While rereading his work I’d been struck by the diversity of narrative voices on display. If I hadn’t already known he was the ghostwriter behind Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Biography, I doubt I would have pegged him for the job. In his introduction to The Secret Life, he emphasizes again the link between authorship and performance by quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald, who believed there could never be a successful biography of a writer because “a writer is too many people if he is any good.” Given O’Hagan’s track record of profiling complex public individuals I asked him whom, if given the choice, he’d like to tackle next.
“I hate to say it because it is Donald Trump,” he replied. “When I came across the full presidential ambitions of Trump, I realized I’d met my nadir.” Without elaborating about when or where he ran up against the current commander-in-chief, he bantered that he wasn’t bolshy-bonkers enough to take on the job. “You’d need Norman brought back to life. Ding, ding! Bring Norman out the left corner!”
An image of Mailer sprang to mind. I found myself comparing it to O’Hagan, who sat, charming and dapper, swiveled toward me on our bench — our precious few feet of Authors’ Tent real estate — and concluded he was the writer I’d least expect to land a Glasgow kiss across a chat show chair. Now and then when our interview was interrupted by friends bending in to say hello, O’Hagan was unfailingly polite, and I’d noticed before how accommodating he was when asked for books to be signed at inopportune moments, and how swiftly he engages with the audience, slipping into Scots brogue or employing humor to soften his more contentious remarks. Yet, based on the astute and unsettling complexity of the profiles he’s written previously, the current occupant of the White House, whom O’Hagan characterized as the perfect manifestation of “a populist monster,” would do well to hope such an opportunity doesn’t arise.
“Ghosting”, the first and best essay in The Secret Life, describes O’Hagan’s experience writing the autobiography of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. Assange had signed a contract with Canongate in return for a £600,000 (approximately $790,000) advance, but subsequently reneged on the deal. Given O’Hagan’s prestige, I had been surprised when I’d learned about this assignment, but, as he explains in the essay, he’d found the concept of ghosting a book about an organization that was itself involved in the debate about privacy and abuse of power, to be completely irresistible. “I had written about missing persons and celebrity, about secrecy and conflict, before,” he explains in the essay, therefore, “the Assange story would be consistent with my instinct to walk the unstable border between fiction and nonfiction.” Nevertheless O’Hagan had hoped that his identity as the ghostwriter would be kept confidential.
“You write in ‘Ghosting,’” I said, quoting from the book, “That ‘I’d never been with a person who had such a good cause and such a poor ear,’ and ‘the man who put himself in charge of disclosing the world’s secrets simply couldn’t bear his own. He’d signed up for a project his basic psychology couldn’t allow […] He didn’t know who to be.’”
“I found it ironic,” O’Hagan smiled. “I was supposed to be the ghost, but Assange was the ghostly figure.”
“How did you feel when Canongate decided to publish the autobiography?”
“I felt entirely divided but I understood their need to claw back some of their investment. It never occurred to Julian that this independent firm had expressed such faith in his talent and significance and that he owed them a debt of decency.”
“Did Assange contact you when he found out the book was going ahead?”
“He did, and he acted as if it was the biggest outrage. He objected to the book and exploited it at the same time, employing a strategy of both rubbishing it and promoting its sales.”
After Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Biography was released in September 2011 — and many times since — O’Hagan’s computer and emails have been hacked, presumably by WikiLeaks supporters. It would be a pity if Assange has still not read the book, because O’Hagan’s “ghosting” portrays him as a complicated, interesting man. Flawed — yes — but with a deep conviction in his mission to uncover corporate, governmental, and military corruption.
O’Hagan agrees. “Had he read it,” he told me, “he would have understood that I did him an enormous favor. It presented a person who had a sense of self-deprecation, of ease about the story, none of which he had.” He went on, bearing out Mailer’s contention that all writing is acting: “Remarks aren’t literature as Gertrude Stein said, so I wasn’t going to make too much of his temporary foibles. I was trying my best to round him out. That’s a ghostwriter’s job. It had a voice, a reasonable, even-tempered, slightly amused but moral voice, which was as invented as anything I’d ever produced in fiction.”
The version of “Ghosting” in The Secret Life differs slightly to that which appeared in the LRB in 2014, by the inclusion of a few paragraphs referencing WikiLeaks’s association with some of the controversies surrounding last year’s American election. On the same day that the Access Hollywood tape was released, in which then–Republican nominee Trump bragged about his predatory sexual exploits, WikiLeaks dropped a batch of emails that proved detrimental to the Democratic campaign. In recent weeks, suggestions of collusion between Cambridge Analytica (a controversial British data collection firm owned by prominent Trump supporter Robert Mercer), WikiLeaks, and Nigel Farage (a founding member of UKIP, the right-wing pro-Brexit party), have resurfaced, and another Twitter spat has erupted between Assange and the former presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, over remarks she made while promoting her latest book, What Happened. When interviewed by David Remnick for The New Yorker (September 25 issue), Clinton gave her view of Assange: “I think he is part nihilist, part anarchist, part exhibitionist, part opportunist, who is either actually on the payroll of the Kremlin or in some way supporting their propaganda objectives.”
I asked O’Hagan if he really believed that Assange was unaware of the damage to WikiLeaks credibility that would inevitably ensue if he allowed the organization to meddle in a democratic election to the benefit of an authoritarian regime. He replied that Assange’s actions were entirely attributable to his character: “I have to say it is a particularly male middle-aged egomaniacal trait to judge the world’s value in terms of other people’s loyalty. You could say exactly the same sentence in relation to Trump. He, too, has no system of values. He has not even anything as grand as an ideology. The reason Assange was happy to rubbish Clinton, whether he admits it or not, was because Clinton had spoken out against him and Putin never had. Assange is a child. You were nice to me on the playground and the other person wasn’t, so the other person’s evil.”
“Ghosting” didn’t appear until some time after the events it describes, and I wondered if he had been reluctant to write it.
He shook his head quite emphatically. “For a while I thought that telling the truth about Assange and his behavior — the extent to which he is an enemy of his own welfare — would harm him, and I’m not a natural harmer of people. I’ve always tried to look after the people I’ve written about. After three years I realized I wasn’t protecting his vulnerability, I was allowing myself to be recruited into a silencing exercise, and writers should never do that.”
Many newsworthy events occurred during O’Hagan’s time “embedded” with Assange — including WikiLeaks hacking into cell networks during Egypt’s “Day of Rage” and the release of the Guantanamo Bay documents — but the most fascinating aspect of “Ghosting” is O’Hagan’s description of daily life in WikiLeaks’s temporary center of operations, the kitchen of Ellingham Hall, Norfolk, where Assange was under house arrest fighting extradition to face rape accusations in Sweden. Here was the dark blue Aga, the Belfast sink, and the farmhouse table littered with paperwork, laptops, and crumbs, around which orbited Assange’s young, enthusiastic acolytes. Assange and his team became oblivious to O’Hagan and his tape recorder, careless with conversations and sensitive data, as though the writer in the room were simply another spindle-back chair. “Is this a good use of our time?” O’Hagan would prod repeatedly, as Assange Googled himself and rivals on the internet, opened clothing parcels sent to him by his more sartorially blessed supporters, entertained passing troupes of film crews, ate food with his hands then licked the plates, tossed poly bags of encrypted mobile phones between his hacker crew, all the while verbally parsing his acquaintances into two ever-fluid groupings of allies and enemies — the enemies list being topped by The New York Times and the Guardian who garnered extra-sweary contempt. Meanwhile time was running out, rumors about O’Hagan’s association with the project were leaking to the press, and housekeeping standards hovered just above slovenly despite everyone, including O’Hagan, chipping in with the chores.
“You wrote that ‘if you told [Assange] to do the dishes he would say he was trying to free economic slaves in China and had no time to wash up.’”
O’Hagan laughed. “His pride could engulf the room in flames.”
I asked him why he didn’t just throw in the dishtowel.
“The story was just too big,” he said, reiterating the exact reason he gave in “Ghosting.”
“You were just this guy in the kitchen,” I said. “The guy leaning on the Aga.”
“Yep, I just passed around the cigarettes, stirred the pot. I wasn’t there to shame anybody, or unmask anybody. Quite the opposite, I was there to do what they’d asked me to do, describe the truth. Unfortunately the truth was a bit of a mouthful for them.”
“Did you always feel like the grown-up in the room?”
“You were the grown up in ‘The Satoshi Affair,’ too,” I said.
“Funnily enough, that’s either a role I assign myself, or something I naturally am, I’m not sure!”
“The Satoshi Affair,” the third and most complicated of the essays in The Secret Life, concerns O’Hagan’s time spent with Craig Wright, who professed to be the man behind the pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto, creator of Bitcoin. As with Assange, “The Satoshi Affair,” had, as he put it, “all the lineaments of a modern morality tale,” and his assignment to produce Wright’s biography comes to a similarly sticky end. The players directly involved with both these projects are left to deal with the consequences of O’Hagan’s commitment to journalistic freedom while we readers reap the benefits. “The Satoshi Affair” concludes with O’Hagan’s apologetic confession to all those involved, that: “my story wouldn’t die if the deal died, that human interest doesn’t stop at success.”
“Wright felt he had made a Faustian bargain by agreeing to do these deals with another company,” I said, “but is it really feasible that Wright — the goose that lays the golden eggs — couldn’t monetize his own patents without getting embroiled with wily Californian venture capitalists?”
“It’s a good question. I was always confused about why he couldn’t just sell off some of his Bitcoin and pay off his debts. But, if you understand the complex, contradictory character I’ve created on the page, he always felt that he couldn’t sell any Bitcoin because that would be a corruption of its potential. And he was right about that. Because when I was writing this piece, one Bitcoin was worth $250, and this morning it’s worth $5,500.” (At the time of editing this interview, one Bitcoin was heading toward $10,000, more than seven times the value of an ounce of gold.)
The healthy profitability of international finance relies on two things: secrecy — including hiding funds in offshore tax havens — and exchange rate fluctuations. Bitcoin is a direct threat to both.
“All those companies on Wall Street,” I said, “their method of working will be eradicated.”
“It would prove that it was all built on a hill of sand, just like in the collapse of 2008. There’s a conglomeration of banks, as we speak, desperate to control Bitcoin.”
Much of Assange’s and Wright’s naïveté in their relationships with O’Hagan and others stemmed from their narcissism. Both men sometimes referred to themselves in the third person.
“Nobody else was quite real to them,” O’Hagan said, in a tone of amused bafflement. “At least not in the sense they were real to themselves. Assange’s reputation is in tatters for about four different reasons. His instinct for self-sabotage is like a secret agent double-crossing his self-belief. He carries within him the corrupting gene.”
I remarked that they reminded me of other personalities — such as Steve Jobs, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, and now Harvey Weinstein — men careering destructively through life like loose shopping trolleys in a stormy car park. (When I mentioned Weinstein, O’Hagan leaned forward and whispered, “Careful with that,” concerned it might land me in hot water. But I reckon I’m the least of Weinstein’s worries.) If their narcissism was combined with creative brilliance and channeled into a worthy objective — as in the case of Assange, Wright, and Jobs — it was often presumed they were neuro-diverse, yet, I went on to conjecture aloud, if a woman, or a black person, or a gay person, or transgendered person, walks into a bar, he or she will know that his or her “otherness” might be reflected in the eyes and attitudes of those already there. Such self-awareness sure puts the kibosh on narcissism. “Whereas some powerful white men never worry about walking into a bar; they are the bar,” I suggested. “They think they’re the default position.”
“It is a malformation of the male ago,” O’Hagan replied. “They presume the logic of their own importance is apparent to all around them. And I think, as you suggest, a feminist analysis could be made of all this. This self-distortion would have been recognized by others, and themselves, much earlier had they been women.”
I mentioned Boris Johnson’s recent bafflement over being shushed while quoting Rudyard Kipling in a Myanmar temple, and we both laughed.
“The digital era has magnified this ugliness, but it was always there.” O’Hagan said. “Johnson, Trump, and others like them remind me of Tom Buchanan in F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, who causes tremendous damage and hurt before retreating into his vast carelessness.”
At this point in our conversation, a prominent Scottish editor stepped in to say hello to O’Hagan, and made some jocular remarks about O’Hagan being a scoundrel by meddling in Scottish independence. While they bantered, I finished the last of my very cold tea.
A couple of days before, I’d attended a festival event at which Elif Shafak and Siri Hustvedt lamented that, in the cultural fracas currently engulfing both the United States and the United Kingdom, around such topics as climate change, immigration, fake news, and racial and gender identities, the term public intellectual had become synonymous with arrogance and elitism. Seat-of-the-pants bravado seemed to be valued over anyone scathingly labeled a “so-called expert.” Shafak and Hustvedt, however, argued that artists (in any medium) whose work rigorously engages in contemporary political and cultural debate should reclaim the term.
By this measure, O’Hagan joins a long line of Scottish public intellectuals — including David Hume, Thomas Carlyle, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, John Muir, Alastair Reid, and Alasdair Gray. Together with his sister-Scots Ali Smith and A. L. Kennedy, and their English peers Geoff Dyer, Alan Hollinghurst, Marina Warner, Kazuo Ishiguro, Will Self, and Zadie Smith, O’Hagan is part of a contemporary cadre of British writers who toggle with ease between different literary forms, and concerned with the impact of cultural and political phenomena on the personal lives of the individual. And in his role as a public intellectual, he had recently delivered the Edinburgh Festival’s keynote lecture, causing a wee stramash in the British press.
In “Scotland Your Scotland,” (his title mirroring Orwell’s 1941 essay “England Your England), he put forward a passionate case for Scottish independence after many years of refusing to be drawn into the separatism debate. In an essay “Scotland’s Old Injury,” written in 2002, he had once described his home country as “a half-hearted nation” holding fast to its grievances and “failing the test of its own modernity,” and most readers, myself included, presumed that, despite his reticence on the issue, he still believed in the union. In the 13 years since that essay’s publication, however, he’s changed his mind. Brexit, he told the festival audience, was “the death-knell of the union,” and the Conservative party’s “round of silly buggers” over Europe now “posed a threat to Scotland’s discreet authority,” given that the majority of Scots had voted against it. Referencing the political intellectuals of the Scottish Enlightenment, O’Hagan argued during his lecture that maturity depends on the ability to recalibrate one’s opinions based on unfolding events. “Newness in thinking is like loyalty in love,” he said. “It doesn’t just exist because it was there before you, you have to create it afresh every day.” He concluded with rousing quotes from T. S. Eliot and Robert Burns, because “Burns’s rage for fairness and equality was Scotland’s gift to Burns, and Burns’s gift to us.”
Few things wind up the political literati more than changing one’s mind. Although most of the Scottish papers welcomed O’Hagan’s intervention — the response at the festival was overwhelmingly enthusiastic — many in the English press reacted with skepticism. David Torrance wrote in the Guardian that the lecture consisted of “beautifully expressed nonsense,” in which O’Hagan harped on about “Scottish moral superiority,” and presented “curiously old-fashioned nationalist arguments, full of romantic clichés and with Burns at its heart.”
Torrance’s jab about Burns is a dog-whistle to those opposing independence. Whenever an English (or Scottish) unionist wants to taunt a separatist for what they believe to be economic impracticality or mawkish sentimentality they retort with Burns. Burns, they imply, is tainted with the same tartan kitsch as shortbread and haggis, conveniently ignoring the poet’s radical egalitarian import. Given O’Hagan’s well-known love for the bard — he hosted a television documentary about him and edited a collection of his poetry distributed to every school in Scotland — Torrance’s arrow hit a very a soft target. His barb that O’Hagan was no match for Orwell, on the other hand, veered wildly off-kilter. Regardless of one’s views on Scottish independence, O’Hagan has done more than any contemporary writer to scour the twee-romanticism off Burns’s image and reveal his relevance to modern audiences. It was natural that the poet would play a prominent part in O’Hagan’s lecture and natural that predictable knees would predictably jerk in response.
This interruption to our interview felt like an opportune moment to ask him, once his colleague had gone, about the brouhaha. He looked a little weary, took a breath, and said, “Let me just tell you straight. As far as I’m concerned I’d been given an opportunity to square the matter with myself and that means realizing that since Brexit the weather has changed. I’m not a political animal. I won’t be joining any political parties. I won’t be sponsoring a whole movement. I wanted to say to people who are stuck in the mud, spinning their wheels, spattering each other with gore, that there is a way to look at Scottish history, and Scottish literary history, and to recognize that moving forward is something we’re actually quite good at.”
Six weeks later, on a clear but chilly early afternoon in October, O’Hagan and I met again in Edinburgh to complete our conversation, this time over lunch in the genteel, midcentury dining room of the Scottish Arts Club. Its residents gave us a very warm welcome. Colorist paintings adorned the walls; beef stew anchored the menu. Taking my seat, I felt like an extra on the set of a production of Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.
I wanted to turn our attention to the second essay in The Secret Life. “Did you choose the name Pinn because you were thinking of Nabokov’s Pnin?” I asked O’Hagan, after the waiter took our orders.
“It might have subconsciously appealed to me. Much more important was the fact that Ronald was the same age as me. It’s one of those elisions that a nonfiction writer does. All of the three men profiled in this book are my age.”
From Assange and Wright — men blind to their contradictions — our conversation turned onto Ronald Pinn, a man who never existed at all, and the subject of “The Invention of Ronald Pinn,” the most emotive essay in the book.
In 2013, the London Metropolitan Police admitted that their Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) had, from the 1960s until 2008, taken the names of young people from gravestones or death registers — without the knowledge of their families — and built false identities, called “legends,” to be used by undercover officers. Struck by how quickly this story faded after it broke in the British press, O’Hagan decided to replicate the actions of SDS by animating his own “legend,” and chose a name he found on a Camberwell gravestone. Over the months of his existence, Ronald Pinn acquired an email account, a mailing address, a birth certificate, a high school history, a college degree, credit cards, and Bitcoins. He joined Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Craigslist, and Reddit, picking up “likes,” “friends,” and “followers,” and, after O’Hagan has a photograph taken and doctored, Pinn applied for a British driving license and passport. Pinn, O’Hagan writes, develops “certain enterprises of his own volition and I let him,” and soon he slithers down the well of the Dark Web to buy drugs and guns.
O’Hagan once described the relationship between a writer and her subject as a danse macabre, and nowhere is this better illustrated than by his decision to trace Pinn’s real family. The essay ends at a particularly poignant moment when the fake Pinn and the real Pinn collide, and the human consequences of the unstable border between the physical and digital worlds are laid painfully bare.
During a Q-and-A following his festival reading, O’Hagan also revealed he would be writing a play based on his interactions with the Pinn family albeit under fictional names. Naturally, the first question from the audience touched on authorial responsibility, and over lunch I followed this up, playing devil’s advocate by quoting Janet Malcolm. In her essay, “The Journalist and the Murderer,” she wrote: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
O’Hagan managed to both smile and bristle in response. “Janet gets too many hats tipped to her for that line, including mine,” he said before going on to clarify that Malcolm was referring to a specific case and not the entire profession. Furthermore, he said, “I don’t think the trade is morally indefensible at all. I don’t believe it’s a sleight of hand to be a fictional writer or a memoirist, I think one can address the moral conundra head on. I’m not a man on the run from the techniques and devices of contemporary writing. I’d like to think I was one of the people who had actually raised them as problems worthy of discussion by readers and writers alike. I could have made life much easier for myself, for Pinn’s mother, and for the reader by never going anywhere near Pinn’s family. But then again I don’t accept the principal that we own our loved ones, or indeed our own lives, so there would be a separation between most people and me on that point anyway. To me, a writer must push the boundaries of sense and acceptability all the time.”
I sensed his frustration at being asked to justify the complexities of the danse macabre, even with those who, like me, agreed with the choices he made. If he had simply made up a name for his “legend” it would have resulted in a (no doubt interesting) essay about the Dark Net, but one purged of the grubby taint of exploitation. He had to choose the more devilish tango, to force himself and the reader, to wrestle with the moral consequences of what he — and by inference the police before him — had done. Still, I was actually reminded of a passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin: “Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?”
“You had a hard time trying to eradicate your creation,” I said. “His shadow is still there.”
“The fictitious person will go on and on. I never really felt Ronald Pinn was anything to do with me, his character ran away. But, you know, erasing him was no more difficult than trying to erase any of the characters in my novels.” He threw his hands up in the air. “How do you rub out a person you’ve invented?”
“Are you getting interesting mail at that false address you used?”
“Funnily enough, I kept it open for a while. I’ll never forget the last time I looked at that empty room. I felt that the ghost had become his own haunter. ‘The Invention of Ronald Pinn’ wasn’t written off the top of my head, this was an actual physical journey for me, and I hope, putting aside the ethical debate, it will give some readers an enlarged sense of the philosophy of humanness.”
Assange, Wright, and Pinn, join the ranks of other “lost boys” profiled by O’Hagan over the years, men who, like Peter Pan, have, in their different ways, failed to grow up. The Secret Life could be read as a sequel to his earlier nonfiction book, The Missing, as it advances its theme of the slippery dangers of double-lives into the digital age. His most entertaining lost boy, though, appears in his novel The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe, in the guise of a tightly wound Frank Sinatra. Sinatra suffered, like Assange, from that “wonderfully comic kind of curse, the wish to be cool, chiefly because the people who had the curse were generally those whose free-floating anxiety made coolness an impossibility.” Watching Sinatra’s fevered attempts to match the effortless hipness of the other members of the Rat Pack, Maf the dog concludes that “Mr. Sinatra was actually the least relaxed person I ever met,” before peeing in the back of his car. I suspect Maf would’ve had something to snarl at Hugh Hefner, another self-absorbed and exploitative lost boy, given Hefner’s final indignity to his beloved owner.
“You’ve profiled many men in your nonfiction,” I said, as our coffee arrived. “Do you intend to write more about women?”
“I’d love to.” He replied, enthusiastically. “I really would.”
“It struck me that when I compared the behavior of two women you’ve portrayed in your fiction to some of your lost boys, that the men’s manipulation of selfhood skews toward emphasizing power while the women’s manipulation often attempts to suppress it.”
In Personality, his heartbreaking novel inspired by the life of the Scottish child star Lena Zavaroni, his main character, Maria Tambini, suffers a breakdown under the strain of instant fame. Like Marilyn Monroe, whom O’Hagan has profiled in both fiction (The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe) and nonfiction (“Saint Marilyn” in The Atlantic Ocean), Tambini struggles to create a public persona that is more compliant to cultural norms than her private self. Monroe’s threat lay in her intelligence and humor; Tambini’s lay in her developing sexuality.
“People are so quick to tell women they are grotesque,” said O’Hagan. “Monroe was described as grotesque many times in her career. She completely understood publicity in the 20th century, something Arthur Miller never did, and publicity has come to haunt us.”
Monroe attempted to manage her own exploitation, I suggested, while Tambini eradicated her selfhood — literally — through anorexia. These two women privately imploded as the fissures cracked between fantasy and reality.
“That doesn’t seem to happen to men,” said O’Hagan. “Men tend to go down like burning planes, still shouting the odds of their correctness.”
“Strutting and fretting to the bitter end of their hour upon the stage,” I added, before turning to notes tucked on one side of my lunch plate and quoting from his essay, “Saint Marilyn”: “Frank Sinatra gave her the dog. She called it Mafia. Right now someone is looking at the license and thinking they’re grasping the meaning of the twentieth century. And who’s to say that person’s wrong?”
Was this the moment, I asked him, when he’d decided to write Maf the Dog, which appeared a few years after this essay?
“It’s possible,” he laughed. “I’m fascinated by the way my books suggest each other. Sometimes a novel will throw a line out to a previous essay, as though I’m storing a certain amount of literary energy in my head.” He described how he’d “met” Father Anderton, the central character of Be Near Me, his novel about an English priest and some Scottish teenagers, years prior to the novel’s writing, while researching sectarianism and the Orange Walks.
“You know,” he paused for a moment and took some more coffee. “Be Near Me is an imperfect book, but it’s my favorite. It has all my DNA in it.”
This struck me as illuminating, if unsurprising, given that its title is taken from a line by Tennyson and that it is O’Hagan’s most lyrical work. Although he’s an enormous fan of poetry — he enjoyed a warm friendship with the late Seamus Heaney — it’s the one genre he doesn’t write; though if you crossed a journalist with a poet O’Hagan would be the result. I suspect he composes out loud, and at the risk of tickling Torrance’s ire with heathery claims about literary exceptionalism, many Scottish (and Irish) writers share this poetic DNA, due, I’m convinced, to oral cultural traditions; stories were often heard, not read. Not written but sung.
“I’m kind of frightened of poetry,” he went on to confess, saying he agreed with Martin Amis who said that the great poet is a breed apart. “Whenever I read Heaney, or Tennyson, or Hopkins, or Burns, or Dickinson, or Bishop, I believe they’ve purified the literary impulse to the point of creating a new ether. I’m not implying a hierarchy of literary forms: to create a perfect novel like The Golden Bowl or Middlemarch is an almost insurmountable task. Even so, I still feel that the person who could write ‘In Memoriam’ or ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is operating at a level that … well …”
His voice drifted away and he looked out the window. The sky had turned a grubby gray, successfully camouflaging with Edinburgh’s somber architecture. The dining room was empty but for us. We’d entered that hazardous trough in late afternoons after a long lunch when one is in danger of succumbing to either a nap or feelings of inadequacy.
O’Hagan needn’t worry about having the chops to write poetry, I just doubt he has the time. Every three years or so he publishes a novel, while concurrently producing multiple long-form articles and reviews, his modus operandi seemingly based on Robert Burns’s maxim, “dare to be honest and fear no labour.” Like Orwell before him, he prefers to be embedded in the location of a story, to be on the ground. “There is something intoxicating about the odor of pencil shavings and cut lilies,” he once wrote, “but I always felt that outside was the place to test the weatherproof nature of one’s style.” Presently he is immersed in an investigation of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire for the LRB and I asked him, as we finished the dregs of our coffee, how it was going. He admitted that it was emotionally challenging but that “the piece is beginning to have what Proust referred to as ascending power,” and finding its own form.
“Will it provide seeds for fiction?” I asked.
“I don’t think it’s going to sway the material of the novel I’m working on,” he said, about his current work-in-progess, Caledonian Road. “But it is certainly giving me additional acuteness on the disequilibrium between rich and poor in British society.”
“You write in your introduction to The Secret Life, ‘that none of the stories I was able to tell was the one your subjects would have wanted.’ Despite this, folks are still brave enough to work with you?”
“There are fewer phone calls in the middle of the night. But you’d be surprised!” He laughed. “The pieces I’ve written have made it clear that if I was anybody’s friend, I’m the reader’s friend.”
Joan Didion famously wrote that we tell ourselves stories — or, perhaps, more accurately, lies — in order to live. Some lies are trivial, some may even feel morally necessary, while others can scupper careers or sway elections. Now, as we gathered our belongings to leave, I wondered aloud how human nature would adapt to a digital world that not only provides us with the opportunity to reinvent and curate new public personas, but, conversely, due to the increasing encroachment on individual privacy, also has the power to strip away our storied facades and reveal our secret selves.
“Almost a hundred and forty years ago Ibsen muttered the phrase, ‘the saving lie,’ or the ‘life lie,’” responded O’Hagan, tapping a finger against the now empty table. “This notion of the saving lie within the family allows the family to function. Were we to be relentlessly telling each other the truth, we’d fall apart in days, if not hours. It’s been in our lives forever, really, this unstable border between fiction and nonfiction, it’s just that we now have the internet to print the legend so rapidly, so universally, that we can no longer keep up.”
“A lot of comfort you are,” I said. He snorted good-naturedly and we went to collect our coats.
While editing this interview, I discovered my well-worn Orwell aphorism has not been definitively attributed to him. In the end, I decided to leave it be; it might be a perfect example of a fiction proving to be more true than a fact. I did, however, manage to verify the authenticity of this chilling warning from Hannah Arendt:
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie: the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie: the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Exceptional long-form journalism as exemplified by The Secret Life is even more vital now we live in a world infested by those who are not only incapable of honoring the difference between the truth and a falsehood, but who also couldn’t give a damn. “Oh, wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us,” Burns once wrote, “to see ourselves as ithers see us,” but until that higher Power sees fit to do so, I’m depending on writers like O’Hagan to step in and take the strain.
“Stories and lies,” he remarked, as we left the cozy set of the Arts Club for the hard reality of Edinburgh’s streets. “There’s hardly a cigarette paper thin enough to slip between them.”
Susan McCallum-Smith is the author of Slipping the Moorings, a collection of stories. She was born in Scotland and currently lives in Ireland.