Dear Reader: a letter from Nicholas Searle
A Traitor in the Family is the story of Bridget O’Neill and her husband Francis, who live in the border counties of Northern Ireland and whose fates are inextricably tied to the Troubles as the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 inches closer. Bridget and Francis are faced with impossible choices as political manoeuvrings and events weigh heavily on their individual lives.
My starting point for the novel was my experience working in security and counter-terrorism, as a result of which I learned a lot about what was euphemistically called the Troubles. It was far from a straightforward situation, and few caught up in it were straightforward people. I was interested in the big-picture issues and how they might be resolved, yes. But on a personal level I was at least as interested in the people, and how the large-scale sweeps up the individual and carries him or her with it.
So my starting point, rather than making statements or writing polemics, was the people. And, to be clear, each of the people is imagined from the ground up, built from an amalgam of the people I have met over the years, some of them in an Irish context, some not, and added to. They do not represent real people, so don’t be tempted to say ‘Ah, X is obviously a representation of Y’. She or he isn’t. Mind you, the disclaimer at the beginning of the novel is entirely true (as well as riffing on Heinrich Böll’s disclaimer at the beginning of The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum):
‘The events and characters portrayed in this novel are entirely imagined. Should similarities be noted between this story and the activities of real people, including members of certain august, once-proscribed organizations, they are neither intended nor mere coincidence, but unavoidable.’
I spent a lot of time thinking about Bridget and Francis O’Neill. My method of writing is generally both chaotic and arguably superstitious (to commit something to paper before I’m actually writing is somehow often seems to deaden it). So I didn’t write extensive biographies or character descriptions for them in advance as some writers do; I simply thought about them, pictured their movements and vocal tics, listened to them in my head, and imagined their feelings when certain things happened. It was only when I began writing that they actually took shape.
And it was the same for the other characters. Joe Geraghty was next, then Marie, Francis’s mother. Soon Liam appeared in my mind, then Kenny, John Boy and Brian, swiftly followed by Sarah and Richard. Before I knew it I had a cast of actors impatient to take to the stage.
Then it was just story. Start writing and let the characters do what they must. Occasionally I had to draw them back and say to them: no, that doesn’t work. Sometimes I couldn’t work out their motivation. This was particularly true of Bridget at one point. I couldn’t fathom why she was doing some of the things she did but I knew it was true to her.
There were, if not elements that I wanted to weave in, then thoughts swirling in my mind that I wanted to express. I was fascinated by, more than the Peace Process itself, how we got from there to here, with one-time pariahs on all sides of the divides now respectable, prominent citizens and representatives. I wondered about how that affected the victims and those close to the victims of terrorism on a personal level, all the while thinking rationally that it was the right thing to happen. I also thought a lot about the disappeared: what they’d suffered and where they were and whether what had happened to them could ever be forgiven – even if they had done the things of which they were accused. I wondered too about the terrorists who’d devoted their lives to what they called the armed struggle. Did they feel that their hardships and the suffering they’d caused were worth it in the end? Did they feel betrayed themselves? Would those who had died have thought that it was all worthwhile? On all of this and on the politics and manoeuvring I did a lot of research, which confirmed and extended what I already knew.
But I was determined not to cram all of this into the book. The fruits of my research and my thinking lay largely on the cutting-room floor even before I put pen to paper. There are flavours of these things in the final book – certainly I hope so – and I’d hope also that the stories of Bridget and Francis O’Neill have a wider resonance today. My characters are the product of their times and environments so it’s only natural they should echo them. I wanted to write about real people who lived, if only in my mind and not in reality. I hoped they would become alive too in readers’ minds. It was the people – Bridget, Francis, Liam, Joe, Sarah and all the others – who provided the impetus for the book and it was they who led me through it.