Poet and novelist Owen Sheers explores loss, grief and redemption in NW3

Owen Sheers. Picture: Ian West

Owen Sheers. Picture: Ian West - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

As his latest novel takes place in South Hill Park, the writer talks to Bridget Galton about the notion of ‘the Hampstead novel’.

It was an uprooted period of Owen Sheers’ life that sprang to mind when choosing where to locate the grief-stricken protagonist of his latest novel.

South Hill Park – where Sheers lived between 2004 and 2007 – becomes the refuge for newly-widowed Michael in I Saw A Man.

“The novel started with that opening image of a man entering a neighbour’s house by the back door thinking it is empty but us having this suggestion that it isn’t,” says the 40-year-old, now based in his native Wales with wife Katherine and 16-month-old daughter Anwyn.

“I wasn’t sure where that image came from, but when it entered my head it did so very clearly in the sort of neighbourhood where I had lived.

“It was mainly for psychological reasons. Michael goes there to heal, to be safe and comfortable in the wake of his grief. There was also the natural landscape of the Heath and how its sense of wilderness acts upon people. At various points it’s a place of refuge and healing for all the characters.”

Sheers’ suspenseful story of loss, love and grief unfolds in flashbacks as Michael moves into a flat next door to the seemingly stable Nelsons and becomes folded into their lives.

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“I used to go swimming and walking on the Heath and was always fascinated by those houses that back onto it that seemed constantly thirsty for this view.

“I learned from a map at Burgh House that the occasional block of flats in the middle of these Georgian streets were the locations where bombs had dropped during the Blitz. I was interested in the solidity of those houses and the more fragmented living standards of those flats living cheek by jowl.

“When I lived there I wasn’t in a particularly stable part of my life. Moving between rented properties, things felt ephemeral and uprooted compared to your immediate neighbours’ solidity and rootedness.”

Sheers admits he was playing with the idea of ‘the Hampstead novel’ – the small time doings of privileged folk worrying about global problems that never touch their lives – via the parallel narrative of a conscience-stricken drone operator in Nevada who has caused the death of Michael’s journalist wife in Pakistan.

“I wanted to write an intimate, domestic novel about our globalised world, to use the associations of the Hampstead novel – that environment of emotionally protected comfortable solidity – and have that punctured by some of the more worrying shards of the wider world and by our inter-connected lives.

“That tension between proximity and distance is a feature of our modern world, we’re involved in lives of others but dislocated from the consequences.”

Growing up in Abergavenny, Sheers was a sporty, rugby-playing type, captaining the Oxford University Modern Pentathlon team, before a creative writing course at UEA led to a life of writing.

First making his name as a poet, he’s also written several novels, a passion play that actor Michael Sheen performed in his native Port Talbot, and more recently a verse drama Pink Mist about wounded soldiers returned from Afghanistan.

Despite the thread of writing about war, Sheers insists he never set out to write about conflict “but projects grow organically”.

“My professional writing life has run in parallel with these post-911 conflicts – I talk to 14-year-old students who have never not known there to be post-911 conflict or the idea of the everywhere war.”

For verbatim play The Two Worlds of Charlie F Sheers, he interviewed 30 recently-wounded service personnel.

“Some were still very raw in the wake of their wounding and afterwards I wanted to say more using verse which led to Pink Mist.

“I felt I was a privileged witness and it needed an unflinching truthful gaze to present that honest experience to parts of Britain where they don’t brush up against anyone involved with these conflicts. The rhythmic drive of the piece is a significant element of its power, it helps excavate emotion.”

It was stumbling across old plans for a “British insurgency,” had D Day failed and Hitler invaded, that set off modern day associations with the word and prompted his acclaimed novel Resistance “dealing with questions of collaboration and invasion”.

“Most of the soldiers I interviewed weren’t joining the army, they were leaving something else. I am fascinated by the similarity between troubled young boys joining the army and young boys joining ISIS. The idea that violent conflict satisfies certain fundamental emotional and psychological needs they can’t find elsewhere – a sense of belonging and purpose.”

Having just written his most dialogue-driven play for the National Theatre “so I can feel like a playwright”, Sheers is content to be a literary multi-tasker and let the form be dictated by the subject.

“The story increasingly defines the form I write in,” he agrees.

“It’s partly practical. I realised early on it’s no bad thing to be fleet of foot, able to turn your hand to different forms of storytelling, and I became fascinated by how these different engines of story-telling work.”

But if he could only write one thing for the rest of his life, it would be poetry.

“Poetry is where I began as a reader and a writer, and reading to my daughter – it’s always the books with rhymes she wants to hear again and again – makes me realise we are rhythmic beings who connect with the world through cadence and metre.”

A good poem, he says, has layers of meaning and the potential to take the reader a great emotional and intellectual distance over a short space of page.

“Poems are the hardest to get right, but as a writing experience I find it the most satisfying, you can work and work on a poem.

“It’s a fascinating mix of conscious and your sub-conscious working together.

“There’s often a wonderful surprise in the first draft of a poem, you continue with trepidation, sometimes it falls apart in your hands, and the shifting of a single syllable or syntax makes it either swim off the page or sink.

“But if that goes well it’s the most complete, immediate form that connects you with the writer. You have the voice of the poet in your ear.”

I Saw A Man is published by Faber £14.99. Owen Sheers is in discussion with Piers Plowright for Burgh House’s regular Lifelines event, tonight at 7.30pm.