Author Interviews

Jill McGivering talks about her gripping novels, reporting in conflict and the joys of writing

Jill McGivering, BBC foreign news correspondent, was born in Otley, West Yorkshire in 1964. Upon leaving school, Jill went on to complete an English degree at the University of London. Prior to embarking on her twenty-year career with the BBC, she worked as a staff features writer for the South China Morning Post, based in Hong Kong.

Jill then joined the BBC in 1992 as a production trainee, a fast track induction programme. She established herself first as a senior producer, then as an East Asia specialist. From 1997-2000 Jill was based in Hong Kong as the BBC correspondent for Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, during this time winning the Hong Kong Human Rights Press Award. For three years after this posting Jill was based in Delhi as the BBC’s South Asia correspondent. From 2004-2005 Jill was the BBC’s State Department correspondent, based in Washington. Having been living in London since 2005, Jill still travels extensively across the Asian region (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China) and to other locations worldwide covering major news stories. She was nominated as Journalist of the Year in last year’s SONY Academy Awards and also in the One World Media Awards for her coverage of Pakistan’s floods. In terms of fictional writing, Jill’s debut novel, The Last Kestrel, was released in August 2010. Her second novel, Far From My Father’s House, was released in August 2011. Jill has also written for The Times and The Financial Times.

Jill out in the field

Jill out in the field

Hi Jill,

Wow! Looking at all the places you’ve travelled to to report from, it puts our yearly trip to Cornwall to shame! Thank you for agreeing to talk to us today Jill, we appreciate how busy you must be.

Q: Your first novel, The Last Kestrel is set in Afghanistan, and your second book, Far From My Father’s House, is based in Pakistan. Obviously you have worked closely with the different communities within these two pieces of work. How much inspiration have you drawn from your own experiences in these war-torn countries? Are there parts of the stories that hit closer to home than we initially imagine? 

The Last Kestrel Cover

The Last Kestrel Cover

– The plots and characters in both books are fiction. I imagined and ordered events in the hope of creating a suspenseful, fast-paced read. But both novels are also inspired in a broad sense by some real life incidents and by the many people I’ve met in the course of my reporting in both war zones. I wanted in The Last Kestrel to give readers a very immediate sense of what the current conflict is actually like for civilians, especially women, as well as for British troops there. The physical details in both books – the landscape, wildlife, sights, smells and so on – and the depiction of Afghan/Pashtun culture are drawn of course from my own visits over the years and I hope they add authenticity. I am not a typical “war” correspondent – I’m more interested in society and civilians than in military strategy. While The Last Kestrel is set on the frontline, FFMFH (Far From My Father’s House) looks at the impact of war on a family which is forced to flee its home village and take refuge in a camp. Again, it draws on years of interviews with displaced families and reports from such camps – but the actual characters and their story is fiction.

Q: Do you prefer digital or physical books?

I can definitely see the attraction of the Kindle but I haven’t bought one myself yet. I was brought up in a house which brimmed with books and, as an adult, I find it hard to imagine a home without over-filled shelves for browsing. There’s something very immediate and special about the physical presence of a book: the smell and texture of the printed page, even the sense of progress as the bookmark advances. It is a very sensual experience which I would hate to abandon altogether.

Q: We know that throughout your career you have entered into tense and potentially dangerous situations, often more dangerous as a woman in countries where women are not expected to speak their mind. We admire you for having worked with British troops in the Helmand Province, Afghanistan, and for even spending several days with armed Maoist rebels in an Indian jungle. Do you think about the danger you may face in these situations? What drives you to enter them head-on anyway?

I have been in danger and had some close calls and I’ve been lucky. There have been times too when I’ve been in the middle of a volatile situation and thought “this time I’ve gone too far” and times when I’ve been afraid. Generally though I’ve entered hostile environments because there’s a story which I think it’s important to report – and that’s the main driver. I’m very conscious too that I have choices about how far to go and the means to get out when I need to. Civilians in conflict zones rarely have that luxury.

Q: Although you must have experienced an exceptional amount on your travels, they probably can’t be placed in the same class as holidays! What top three things are on your bucket-list?

– I have been really lucky and visited a range of places for work, many of them in crisis or conflict. In terms of personal travel:

I’ve visited Australia briefly but I’d love to have a long enough break to explore it properly. In an ideal world, that would be months rather than just weeks.

I’ve always wanted to drive coast to coast across the USA…or, to be more honest, for someone else to do most of the driving for me.

I’m not sure if this counts as a holiday but I’d dearly love to be able to travel freely in North Korea one day. It would be wonderful if that were possible in my lifetime. I’ve written a lot about the country over the years but unfettered access is still impossible, especially for journalists. I want to know how people are living, what they’ve experienced in their lifetimes and what they think about the rest of the world.

Q: What do you do to relax (when you have the time!)?

– There never seems to be enough time but I try to go home to West Yorkshire whenever I can to see family there for walks on the moors, drives in the Dales for lunch or cups of tea and quiet evenings watching films.

The Beautiful Yorkshire Dales

The Beautiful Yorkshire Dales

Q: What is the current book on your bedside table?

– Actually there’s a pile. I’m reading The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru at the moment. It’s set in pre-Independence India. It’s a period I’ve been researching for the last year or so and am writing about in my third novel. Next I’m hoping to start on a book which I’ve been saving up since Christmas: Blindness by Jose Saramago which several friends strongly recommended.

Q: What genre of writing do you prefer, fictional or reporting?

– They’re so different and satisfying in totally different ways. Reporting is all about accuracy and factual truth and being faithful to reality. It’s rational brain writing.

Fiction writing is about the creative imagination, especially in the first draft when the characters and narrative are first emerging. Writing fiction to the length of a novel is a more complex and long-term project than the average news report – a huge amount of work but very absorbing and fulfilling too.

Q: In 2010, your documentary ‘Dying to Give Birth’ was shortlisted for two national journalism awards (Amnesty International and the One World media awards) and won an Association of International Broadcasters award. The radio programme focused on maternal mortality in Pakistan and received a warm audience. Do you believe that documentaries such as these are a strong way of highlighting social issues across the world that are otherwise not known or deliberately ignored? Do you believe that things will one day change?

I feel passionately about social issues in the developing world. Journalism is an important conduit for voices which may not otherwise be heard. Documentaries can be a wonderful tool for engaging listeners and making these issues compelling and accessible. A subject like maternal mortality may seem rather dry, for example, but in the programme we tried to bring it to life by sharing some extraordinary real stories, including a woman having a dead baby removed by Caesarian and a young girl screaming in terror as she was rushed in, as a complicated emergency, to deliver her first child.

I am optimistic that human and social rights do steadily advance as countries develop the resources to address them. I’ve reported on many forms of cruelty and violence but also met countless people who fight for change. Their courage and determination give me hope.

Q: When speaking about the joys of writing, you have said that the best moments are “those moments of complete engagement when I feel as if I am the characters, feeling their feelings and thinking their thoughts”. How difficult do you find it to separate yourself mentally from the characters in your story, especially when most deeply engrossed in the writing process?

There is something special about those moments when, as a writer, I feel totally caught up in creating and imagining a scene or character. The characters feel very vivid to me and it is odd to realise that they don’t yet exist for anyone else. By the same token, once I’ve lived with the characters for two or three years before publication, they feel very personal to me. That makes it exciting but also startling when I first start to hear readers talking about the characters, for example members of a book group debating a character’s motivations or actions. Perhaps there are parallels with being a parent: they begin with you but it’s right for them to evolve to such an extent that they can leave you eventually and live an independent life.

Q:  And lastly, the one we ask everyone! World of Books is dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?

One of the many pleasures of reading a good book lies in sharing it afterwards. A well-thumbed copy of a novel has the additional layer of its own history in someone else’s hands. Since I was a child, I’ve always browsed through second hand book shelves. There’s the additional excitement of the unexpected: never knowing what you might find. Every writer wants as many people as possible to read their work – so the more times a copy is read, the better for everyone.

Thank you for a fantastic interview Jill, it’s been really appreciated. Make sure you have a nose at Jill’s website here. And why not grab a copy of her books from World of Books?

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