Tim Finch’s debut novel, The House of Journalists, has a number of driving forces. One of them is writer’s envy. “It was a sense of, good lord, these people have something so much more interesting to write about—they have a voice that’s very true and legitimate,” Finch says.
By “these people,” Finch means the refugees he reported on and worked with for years, first as a reporter for the BBC in the early 2000s, when political asylum became a big issue; then, in his five years at the Refugee Council, a British NGO. Throughout, Finch was writing fiction in secret, “trying to find a story and a voice for writing a novel.”
The House of Journalists, which imagines a safe house for writers seeking asylum, is a marriage of Finch’s political and creative interests. The specific idea came at an event where a colleague mentioned La Maison Des Journalistes, in Paris. “I just thought, ‘The House of Journalists’—that would be a good name for a book,” Finch says.
Finch didn’t do any research specifically for the novel, which he felt would be constraining—in novels that rely heavily on fact, “it just feels as though you’re showing the workings, and it doesn’t seem to me that that is what literature is for,” he says. But—and here’s where the writer’s envy comes in—to craft his characters’ histories, he of course drew on his many years of experience hearing refugees’ tales. “I was taking inspiration from stories I’d heard elsewhere and heavily fictionalizing them,” he says.
This is not to undercut the fact that The House of Journalists (which Kirkus starred) also grew out of a great deal of compassion. Beyond Finch’s obvious interest in the refugee cause, there’s his empathy for policy-makers working to help as best they can. In 2008, Finch left the Refugee Council to join the Institute for Public Policy Research. At the former, “you’re backing a constituency—that’s the job, really,” Finch says. “I was largely telling ministers and journalists how we should treat refugees and asylum seekers much better than we do, and it’s all so simple. And yet I knew in a way that that wasn’t the case.” At the Institute for Public Policy Research, a progressive think tank that’s pro-migration, his role is “more to think about how incredibly complex these issues are,” he says.
Which is a good description of how Finch views fiction’s role. “The last thing you want to do in a novel is adopt the techniques of campaigning or politics,” he says. Just as he finds the slogan “asylum seekers need better treatment” reductive, he finds some refugee fiction—and some political fiction in general—didactic. But novels have a remarkable ability to reveal complexity, and it behooves them to do so: “You are bound to gain in sympathy by being inside someone’s head or hearing their voice,” Finch says.
Black-and-white thinking has its place: If policy-makers think too much about individual people, Finch points out, they’ll be paralyzed. But in the end, “I genuinely think what we need to find is reasonable people of good will to chart some sort of middle course,” he says. Fiction is one place with room for nuance, which can yield empathy. “If someone said to me, ‘The problem with this novel is I don’t know quite where you stand and it’s all a bit complicated,’ I’d say, ‘Thank you, that’s a magnificent compliment.’”
Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York.