Novelist Louise Doughty’s Black Water explores Indonesia’s troubled political history

PUBLISHED: 13:30 14 October 2016

Louise Doughty. Picture: Charlie Hopkinson

Louise Doughty. Picture: Charlie Hopkinson


Archway With Words book festival runs from October 13 to 22 with 40 events at various venues throughout Archway.

Novelist Louise Doughty’s eighth novel Black Water is a taut psychological thriller set in Indonesia between the 1960s and modern day. The north west Londoner’s previous book Apple Tree Yard about a woman in her 50s who gets tangled up in sexual intrigue and murder has been adapted into a major BBC TV drama starring Emily Watson to be broadcast later this year.

Q Black Water made me feel ashamed that I had visited Indonesia but knew nothing of its turbulent history. How did this subject catch your interest?

A The opening scene came to me when I was a guest at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in 2012. I had terrible jet-lag - and was probably drinking one too many cocktails at the festival parties - I was awake at 4am most nights, listening to the ghekkos on the roof and the insects chirruping and an image came to me of a man lying awake in a hut in rural Bali, and feeling mortally afraid. He thinks he is going to be killed. I didn’t know who he was or why he was there but I knew that what he was really afraid of wasn’t what was going to happen but something that he himself had done. It was only after that that I started researching Indonesia’s troubled political history - I also felt ashamed that I knew so little about it. It’s a common ignorance. Indonesia has no place in the cultural imagination of the UK, for multiple reasons. Whenever I come across a subject that hasn’t been written about before, that’s what really gets me going: the desire to learn and the desire to render it interesting to a reader who wants to hear a story.

Q Your protagonist John Harper works for a private security firm working for governments and corporations. How much research did you do into this shady area?

A I interviewed operatives for such a firm in London and Jakarta - on condition of strict anonymity. And I did a lot of reading and online research. I’m very interested in the grey areas of that sort of work. Most people know that multinational corporations such as mining or oil companies employ private security or ‘risk analysts’ - fewer people know that national governments also use these companies for jobs they don’t want their own army or spies to do, or be seen to be doing. The company I talked to was very organised and capable - if you were held hostage anywhere, you would really want these guys to get you out - but it’s a very fluid and unregulated field and at the time when Harper starts working for one of those companies, in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War, the industry would have been in its infancy. That left me free to invent the Institute, the shady outfit that employs Harper. At the beginning of the novel, he thinks the Institute has turned on him and is going to have him killed - although there’s a question mark over how reliable he is as a narrator.

Q He’s a man shaped by war, death and upheaval were you interested in the kind of individual who might work for one of these firms?

A Very much so. Harper’s background is what makes him good at that kind of special ops work - he was born in a Japanese internment camp in 1942 and grew up in the Netherlands and Los Angeles at the height of the Civil Rights movement: in that sense, he’s always been a global citizen. He’s also mixed race and a kind of chameleon, at home nowhere but able to fit in almost anywhere. That’s why he’s good at his job.

Q Like your last book there are time shifts and secrets do you lean towards writing thrillers?

A It’s a style that comes naturally to me - although technically it can be very tricky. I love flashbacks and revelations and foreshadowing - but you have to hold two versions of the novel in your head at the same time: what you know about the book and what your reader knows at any given point are often quite different. It can be fiendishly complicated but it’s essential that it reads naturally on the page.

Q Black water has been compared to Le Carre or Graham Greene…

A Well they are very flattering comparisons! I’m re-reading Greene’s The Quiet American at the moment and I think it’s stunning: that kind of world-weary man, a cynic doing good in spite of himself, is what I was aiming for with Harper. I think where Black Water differs is that it is more up to date in terms of its racial and sexual politics. Harper isn’t a white man in a strange climate: he’s mixed race and Indonesian-born. And Rita, the love interest, isn’t some beautiful ingenue, she’s a solid middle-aged woman with her own tragedy.

Q How have you found the process of Apple Tree Yard is being adapted for TV?

A I didn’t write the adaptation - I actually think there should be a law against novelists adapting their own books - but I was an Associate Producer and I hit lucky with a fantastic production team, Kudos TV, who were very welcoming. I went on set about once a week throughout the shoot. I was very keen to learn about the whole process. It was a very happy production and great to observe: due in no small part to the fact that we had the fabulous Emily Watson in the lead role. She is such a consummate professional, it was a joy to watch her at work.

Q Will it feel odd to see your characters on screen?

A It will although I’ve already seen episode one and there is a cast & crew and a press screening to come. But it will still be strange when it comes into my own living room. I think the oddest thing will be when I see a trailer accidentally while I am watching something else. That’s when it will hit home. The whole thing has been incredibly exciting from start to finish: I’m very glad I got to experience it at least once in my career.

Louise Doughty speaks on Friday 14th at 7.15pm at Archway Methodist Church Further details

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