Peter Adamson is the author of two previous novels, Facing out to Sea and The Tuscan Master. His short story ‘Sahel’ was awarded the Royal Society of Literature V.S.Pritchett Memorial Prize in 2013.
For sixteen years Adamson was Senior Adviser to the Executive Director of UNICEF in New York. In the 1970s he founded New Internationalist magazine.
The Big Issue Off The Shelf: Books About New York
Peter Adamson writes about revisiting New York—‘city of a thousand novels’—and how the city has changed since the 1980s, when the action of The Kennedy Moment takes place.
An interview with Peter Adamson: the story behind The Kennedy Moment
Our social media manager, Anna, interviewed Peter Adamson ahead of the publication of The Kennedy Moment later this month. Here she asks about the story behind Adamson’s groundbreaking political thriller, and questions about activism in the 21st century and his writing influences.
The Kennedy Moment explores the strengths and pitfalls of activism. How have you seen activism develop throughout your career?
One change has been a huge increase in the number of people and organisations campaigning on more causes and on more platforms than ever before. And one result of this has been the increase in competition for people’s attention, concern, solidarity, time, money, commitment, anger at injustice and willingness to get involved. These are perhaps the most important finite resources of all.
This is something I wrote about in a recent poem:
I cannot watch the news tonight. To have
the rags of pity stretched and torn across
the pixels of a stranger’s pain. To have
the ghost of empathy make rounds of over-
crowded wards, adjusting drips and checking
charts and moving on, ever moving on
to find fresh wounds and persecutions new.
To feel a passage-migrant empathy,
arbitrary, lost, alighting here and there,
never staying long, always moving on,
posing the unbearable moment and then … gone.
And what of opportunity cost I ask
when miseries and wrongs contend on air,
when this day’s outrage cleanses yesterday’s,
the coverage moving on, always moving on,
all lingering imaginings soon gone?
But this is to be too negative. There are of course plenty of people and organisations who harness themselves for the long haul and dedicate their efforts towards effecting real change – the opposite of virtue signalling.
The dedication and postscript to The Kennedy Moment tell the story of an extreme example of this. As head of Unicef, James P Grant decided that the single greatest rightable-wrong in the world was the fact that 13 million young children were dying every day from diseases that could be prevented by 5 cents-worth of vaccines. For sixteen years he made that the organisation’s over-riding priority. Many others were involved. But Grant led and inspired the effort that saw immunisation rates rise from under 20% to about 80% across the world, saving many millions of young lives every year and preventing hundreds of thousands of cases of paralytic polio.
The novel follows friends from university several decades after they graduated. You depict these with such wonderful detail and nuance… Are these relationships based on real friendships or entirely fabricated?
No character in The Kennedy Moment is based on any one individual. I could go through the character traits, behaviours, words and peculiarities of each one of them and probably be reminded of people I have known and the things they have done or said. But this is to say no more than that the characters are drawn from a synthesis of imagination and experience, and that is surely true for most writers.
I do love creating characters, and especially the challenge of developing their voices. In my ideal novel, a character would be recognisable to the reader by the style of their direct speech, without the author having to indicate who was speaking. But I’ve never got near that!
As the founder of New Internationalist – a publication that aims to expose inequality and strives to create a more sustainable future – does The Kennedy Moment tie into your work for NI? Do you think this is a book that will expose inequality and make a small step towards a better future?
No. I think the NI does that well, much better now than when it began, and much better than The Kennedy Moment ever could. The book has moments, and the conspirators are driven to do what they do by a burning sense of injustice. But although I do draw on previous involvement in such issues, I really wanted to write a full-on literary thriller rather than a treatise, a novel with a strong narrative plot and a diverse group of characters that I hoped people would be interested in and perhaps identify with.
What is the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Lack of experience.
What was the most challenging scene to write?
The most challenging scenes were those in which it has to be made utterly believable that five middle-aged, middle-class, mid-career individuals from five different countries would decide to embark on the outrageous, illegal, high-risk and high-stakes conspiracy at the heart of The Kennedy Moment.
In the age of ‘Social Media Activism’, do you think there is still a place for books and publications that aim to expose, challenge and change? Why this novel, why a thriller, and why now?
Of course it’s true that the increasing time spent on social media tends to squeeze the time available for reading. But reading has survived death threats before, and there are many who still feel the appeal of settling down with a book. Literary fiction, in particular, seems to be in steep decline, but I agree with The Guardian’s Tim Lott who argues that this is because too many literary novelists have ‘lost the plot’. In fact I think it’s not plot but ‘plot and character’ that can hold readers spellbound even in the face of all today’s distractions. Even the most dramatic storyline will fail to hold readers if they don’t believe in and identify with the characters and so are not interested in what they think and feel and in what happens to them and why.
In one of the most moving scenes of the book you reference Joan Baez’s song ‘To Bobby’. What else was on the playlist while you were writing the novel?
‘To Bobby’ seemed right for that scene both because it was of the period and because it was relevant to activism. Strangely, when I contacted Joan Baez’ agent to request permission to use those lines, he noticed that the title of the novel was The Kennedy Moment and pointed out that ‘To Bobby’ was about Bob Dylan not Bobby Kennedy. I did know that, but it was kind and observant of him. And it is a little strange that ‘To Bobby’ is about the only time I’ve ever heard Bob Dylan referred to as ‘Bobby’.
Other than that, I do listen to music when writing, but nothing with vocals. Almost always cello music, often Brahms played by Fournier or Yo-Yo Ma.
This is your first novel for 16 years. Is there a difference between the way you see yourself as a writer now and your younger writing self?
I really like Alain de Botton’s Twitter tag-line – ‘Anyone who isn’t embarrassed by who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.’ For me, the common strand in growing older, apart from a declining drinks bill, is steady progress towards greater uncertainty about so many things. In many ways I think this is a good thing, as perhaps it relates to both knowing more and more fully realising how little you know or can know. And in many ways I distrust certainty.
In The Kennedy Moment, it is Seema Mir who gives expression to this when she is refusing to be bulldozed into a decision to join the conspiracy. What she says is ‘I’m wary about people who put too much faith in their own rightness – moral, political, religious, ideological. Wary of certainty, I suppose. It too often leads to misjudgement and imposition, quite often with an ugly outcome. A fine line, I think, between certainty and Fascism. Being uncertain, a little hesitant about one’s own judgements, isn’t always a sign of weakness.’
The trouble with this line of thought is that it tends to leave the world in the hands of those who are certain. And usually those are the wrong hands. I think.
I worry about this a little whenever I see that quote from Margaret Mead on the door of the New Internationalist building in Oxford: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.’ It’s probably true, but it can apply as much to neo-con think tanks as to any left wing group.
Annie Proulx said ‘Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write’. Who have been your writing influences?
If I had to single out one person (given the complete works of Shakespeare and a copy of the King James Bible) then it would be former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, who also had a big influence on the founding of the New Internationalist. When I first read pamphlets, like The Arusha Declaration and Education for Self-Reliance, I was truly inspired (so much so that I persuaded a foundation to give me £700 to print copies and send them to every student political society in every university in the UK). It was Nyerere’s ability to communicate big ideas and grand ideals in language that was so honed and sophisticated it could be understood by anybody including the barely literate. Magnificent. Goodness knows how hard he worked on those texts to achieve that clarity of thought and expression. But even he wasn’t immune from Shakespeare’s influence – I still have on my shelves his Sahili translations of Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice.
But yes, Nyerere too fell victim to his own certainties and eventually had to admit that his policies had been largely a failure. Sad, but a lesson in itself.
Other than that, I would like to think that my writing has become at least a little more spare and less indulgent. Hemingway’s said that the most important asset a writer can have is ‘a shock-proof, built-in bullshit detector.’ Mine goes off rather too often, but my family help me to keep it in good working order.