My friend, Tony Walker, who in a long and distinguished journalistic career spend several years covering the Middle East, was kind enough to launch Submission at Readings in Hawthorn, early in 2015. Here are my own remarks on that occasion.
The Launch of Submission
Readers tend to ask me what my stories are based on. When you’ve written a thriller, I suppose that’s flattering. The short answer is that I make them up.
Philip Cooper in Submission is not Harrison in disguise. I have never been a spy. I did serve in the U.S. Army as a Special Forces officer, but nothing exciting happened to me in Vietnam.
I was seconded to Bahrain in 1981, but my assignment was prosaic. I was helping some Kuwaiti clients of Morgan Stanley start a bank. It was a rather unadventurous bank, in fact, which is why it survived. One of the founders of the
bank was a nephew of the Ruler of Kuwait, but that’s the closest I ever got to royalty.
My description of manic expat banker life is mostly accurate, however. And the sergeants Philip remembers from his time in the Army are entirely realistic.
I set the story in an imaginary country called Alidar. I thought that would be more polite than inventing a King and launching a war in the Emirates. Alidar’s port and souk make it resemble the Dubai I visited thirty-five years ago. Alidar’s tradition of tolerance echoes Bahrain’s.
I spent six months in Bahrain, living in a modern hotel. There was approximately nothing to do. I started writing fiction because the
alternative was becoming an alcoholic. The book I wrote was an experiment to see if I could invent a plot and produce passable dialogue. I seemed to be able to, but I didn’t think the book was interesting enough to publish.
I started Submission the following year. I’ve written it three times, over more than thirty years. It has three points of view. At one stage it had four. The second version was twice as long as the book Jane Curry has published.
That second version meandered badly – but it also kept me sane in the Beijing winter, which is unrelentingly grim. Writing, for me, is like meditating. I can lose myself for hours.
What finally made the project work was reading Robert Key’s book, Story. It’s about writing screenplays, but Key’s advice works for novels as well. He persuaded me to relax and simplify. When I finally loosened my grip, the character I’d started the book with essentially evaporated. My subconscious wouldn’t have anything to do with him. I don’t think you know what you’re up to, with a novel, until you finish it.
I read somewhere, years ago, that the title of Philip Roth’s famous novel is a triple pun. Portnoy’s Complaint is a whinge. Portnoy’s Complaint is an illness and Portnoy’s Complaint is an Elizabethan love poem.
Submission has four meanings. Philip Cooper has been sent to the Gulf with an undisclosed sub- mission. Several of the characters allow themselves to be dominated. A submission is what an aspiring author sends to a publisher.
And of course, the English translation of the word, “Islam,” is submission. I am embarrassed to admit how much that pleases me.
I suppose I should tell you, since it sells books, that there is sex in Submission. None of the three main characters is chaste. As Allison says, there’s not that much for a trailing spouse to do in Alidar. I’ve said elsewhere that a spy novel without sex would be like a dinner party without wine. I like giving dinner parties. But I also believe that what Philip and Allison and gorgeous Cassandra do or don’t do when horizontal tells you enough about them as people to justify the intrusion. For the record, Cassandra is an invention too.
Re-reading the book – as one will when the first beautiful copies arrive from the publisher – I was surprised to realize how much there is about military matters. I mean, I knew that, but I’d forgotten. The four sections of the novel are named after parts of the U.S. Army’s five- paragraph field order: situation, mission, execution, command. I left out “logistics,” which comes between “execution” and “command,” but it gets a mention at one point. The book is dedicated to a friend with whom I went through infantry training, and who was killed in action in Vietnam. Philip is awash in memories. And of course, there are his guardian angels, Sergeants Webster and Hatfield.
The thing about the army is that someone else makes most of the decisions. Soldiering is a life of faith. The characters in Submission want to be in control. They are intent on inventing themselves. But each of them discovers – or demonstrates – that freedom involves surrender. I suppose that could be a fifth reading of the title.
What is there besides sex and sergeants? Reality. Layers of reality. Or whatever name you care to give to transcendence. Those of you who have read Partners, which Jane brought out a year and a half ago, may remember that God manifests himself to Thomas the “half-partner” as punctuation. He’s a lawyer after all. Thomas, that is. If God is a lawyer, we’re all in trouble.
Anyway, He addresses Cassandra through her profession, which she unblinkingly describes as “pleasing men.” Here she is toward the end of the book: “God, I know, is present, and His most ironic manifestation is desire, which makes us both angels and fools. I know this from my work.”
Cassandra says this to the reader. She speaks in the first person in her chapters. But she wants God to overhear her – wants Him to understand that she understands. I think He does, by the way, but a reader needn’t agree. You can ignore that bit and enjoy Submission simply as an “airplane novel” – part thriller, part love story, with plenty of local color.
As in a lot of novels, the characters in Submission are embarked on journeys of self- discovery. They don’t know that, of course. They’re busy being spies and so forth, which I think is realistic. Most of our lives have subplots we don’t notice, or attempt to ignore. Understanding takes us by surprise. In some respects, life is a thriller.
Life is also messy. I am fond of Randall Jarrell’s definition of the novel as, quote, a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it, unquote. Like all good jokes, this conveys an important truth. What I think Jarrell means is not just that the form is challenging and that all novels fail in some way, but that imperfectability is part of their method, part of their charm.
A good novel is like a friend who makes you laugh – articulate, full of unexpected information, outwardly cynical but covertly virtuous, brought up not to take herself too seriously, a welcome houseguest. But even a flawed novel can be beautiful. You see what the author was trying to do, and didn’t quite. A narrative that has something wrong with it becomes a metaphor for the human condition.
Jarrell was a poet, or as he put it, “a man who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightening five or six times.” Poems can be perfect. I gave up writing them at seventeen.
Submission aspires simply to entertain, to be taken on holiday, to make an afternoon melt away. I had a lot of fun writing it. I hope you enjoy reading it. If it makes you see the world a bit differently, well – to quote the clever Kuwaitis whose bank I helped launch – “no charge.” And thank you for coming this evening.