The majority of Terry Stiastny's journalistic career was spent reporting for BBC News, which she left in 2012. During her time at the BBC, she worked in Berlin and Brussels, covered politics in Westminster and spent many years on BBC Radio 4 news programmes. She was educated at Oxford University, studying PPE at Balliol College and International Relations (MPhil) at St Antony's College. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.
Shots Magazine decided to turn the tables just a little on Terry and to ask her a few questions about how ‘Acts of Omission’ came about.
Q: You’re walking into the House of Commons and about to reach the first security check. Just in case there’s anybody out there who hasn’t added Acts of Omission to their TBR pile or read a review, can you give us a quick summary of the plot, please? (No spoilers, of course).
A: It’s the story of what happens when secret files, originally taken from Berlin by Western agents after the Berlin Wall came down and brought to London, go missing; it follows the agent who lost them, the journalist who finds them, and the minister who’s held responsible for the loss. Their lives are all connected and they discover secrets that come very close to home.
Q: The novel is essentially about mistakes, bad decisions, history and ambition, all intertwined and affecting the main characters in various ways. Did this come out in your mind this way early on, or was it something that changed as time went on?
A: I knew that I wanted the book to deal with some of the consequences of failure and disgrace for individuals as the flip side of ambition. I was also very interested in the choices people had to make during the Cold War and how family histories and the bigger picture of history are connected. I think the way these ideas played out probably evolved in the writing of the book.
Q: I felt you’d given your characters the baggage of doubts, as if stumbling along their chosen paths; the reluctant communist, the SIS officer, at times the journalist – even the smooth and rising politician. Was this taken from the kind of people you worked with or was it a general theme you wanted to portray?
A: Many of the people I worked with or interviewed had huge self-confidence and didn’t appear to have that many doubts about their abilities or their beliefs. However, I’m a natural sceptic and I find it quite hard to understand true believers of any sort. I probably felt that characters with doubts are more interesting and have more shades of light and dark to them.
Q: It’s difficult to imagine a society controlled so rigidly by an organisation such as the Stasi (East Germany’s all-seeing security apparatus prior to Unification). In the novel, Mark’s father is clearly still affected by his exposure to it, even after many years away. Do you think former Stasi members - or those affected by it - have thrown it off completely, even now?
A: When I worked in Berlin, we visited the former Stasi headquarters that features in the book and I think you can’t fail there to notice how huge the impact on people’s lives was. I remember interviewing a former dissident who still showed visitors around the prison where he was held, so that no-one forgot what happened. So many people you spoke to had a story about relatives or friends who had applied to see the files held on them. So I’m sure the legacy remains.
Q: Your picture of the visible (the politician) being led by the invisible (the movers and shakers of Westminster), while clearly not ‘Yes, Minister’ material, is quite unnerving, yet from what we see, utterly believable. Was it as frustrating in your career dealing with this dual-world - as both Anna Travers and Mark Lucas discovered - or simply a matter of experience and grit and learning to adapt?
A: As a journalist you’re always to a certain extent an outsider and dependent on how much people choose to tell you. Obviously part of the job is trying to build contacts who will tell you as much as they can, but then equally I often found, as characters do in the book, that you can be shut out and there are things you can’t get to the bottom of.
Q: This book is billed as based on a true story. How much self-censorship did you have to put yourself through to avoid problems?
A: It wasn’t a question of self-censorship so much as of just asking the question ‘what if?’ While the book starts from the premise of a true story, what happens to the files and what they might contain is pure fiction, so I allowed my imagination to take over.
Q: You’ve portrayed individuals in jobs of importance, yet somehow all at the whim of fate – or of someone else’s ability to make decisions. Does that make it hard for a reporter to get at the truth in such an atmosphere?
A: If you look at news stories like the recent Cabinet reshuffle, you realise that all political careers are ultimately at the whim either of the Prime Minister or of events. There are several sides to most stories, but you depend on what people say for public consumption. It’s one reason writing fiction was appealing -- I could go beyond news reports or even diaries or memoirs and imagine what was inside characters’ heads.
Q: On the writing side, after your years of daily deadlines, detail, interviews, appointments and coping with all manner of obstacles in the media/political world, was there a great feeling of freedom in writing a work of fiction?
A: There was, but it’s also very different to have to have a longer attention span than I was used to. I found the discipline of having spent years writing to a deadline very helpful when it came to actually sitting down and writing.
Q: I’m afraid I have to ask (and forgive me this one): Anna Travers. Is there perhaps a little bit of the young reporter, Terry Stiastny, in there somewhere?
A: Oh, definitely. We certainly share the feeling of being if not quite out of our depth, then at least being on the brink of it, as well as an ambivalence about being an insider or an outsider.
Q: Apologies – another standard question. In an ideal world, faced with a TV or film version of ‘Acts of Omission’, who would you see playing Anna, Mark or Alex?
A: I’m sure every author plays fantasy casting. Well, if Michael Fassbender wanted to play Mark Lucas I wouldn’t object. Anna and Alex are harder -- Andrea Riseborough, maybe? Alex: Nicholas Hoult or Ben Whishaw? And I can see Simon Russell Beale as Lord Callander.
Q: Was this your first fiction project or do you have more secret manuscripts in the bottom drawer, published or otherwise?
A: This is my first fiction project, at least since I was a child. When I was much, much younger I used to write stories and screenplays, but they’re only for the attic.
Q: What’s next for you? And will it feature Anna Travers or is that over and done with?
A: I’m working on my second book. It’ll be on similar themes but will be partly set in France, and with a completely new cast of characters. I wouldn’t completely rule out bringing back Anna in the future, though I have no plans to do that right now.
Read Adrian’s review of Acts of Omission.
ACTS OF OMISSION published by John Murray 17 July 2014
'An intriguing, compelling story that cuts across the decades and generations and brings the issues of the Cold War days right into present times ' Man Booker shortlisted author Simon Mawer
'Intelligent, gripping and convincing. Terry Stiastny displays a real grasp of the art of mystery writing, as well as an ability to evoke the particular atmosphere of the post-communist era and the secret dealings of the British establishment. I loved it.' Henry Porter
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