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Talking to author Terry Stiastny about Conflicts of Interest

20th October 2017

Terry StiastnyTerry Stiastny worked for the BBC for many years as a journalist, spending time in Berlin and Brussels, covering politics in Westminster and reporting for Radio 4 news programmes.

Her first book, Acts of Omission, was set in Berlin and London and won the Paddy Power Political Fiction Book of the Year Award in 2014. No mean feat when Andrew Marr was amongst the competition.

Her new book, Conflicts of Interest, is set mainly in the South of France. She was talking about it at the Guildford Book Festival recently, where TripFiction’s Andrew was lucky to chat with her.

TF: Firstly, I believe you went to Tormead School, Terry, so welcome back to Guildford. You were a journalist for the BBC in Berlin, Brussels, Westminster and around the world. At what point did you think: ‘I’m going to write novels’?

TS: I always had in my mind that I would write fiction. I took redundancy from the BBC and thought ‘it’s now or never’. And I had the kernel of an idea running through my head…..

TF: Yes, Acts of Omission, your first novel, was published in 2014. It takes place in the late 1990s, in Berlin and in the UK, and weaves a story around the human cost of making public some confidential Stasi files containing details about British informants during the Cold War. What was your Eureka! inspiration for this story, and how did you approach your research, beyond information you’d already garnered from your career with the BBC?

TS:  The inspiration was a combination of factors: a Daily Telegraph article in 1998, telling the true story of the ‘incident of the lost laptop’, left in a bar near MI6. And, around the 10th anniversary of the Wall coming down, I visited the former Stasi HQ building in Berlin, where secret files had been taken from Berlin by Western agents. It started me wondering, what if….? 

In terms of research, I first wrote the scenes from memory and imagination. I deliberately didn’t go back to Berlin until I had written the first draft…I didn’t want to taint the memories of how it was, and what I felt, at the time I had been there.

TF: How have you adapted to the very different disciplines – and deadlines – of political journalism and fiction writing?

TS: Spending three months at the Faber Academy really helped. I use different aspects and hard information from journalism – I’m still a news junkie! – but I can also embrace the more human, creative side of writing. And yes, I do find it harder to write without a fixed, short-term reporting deadline.

TF: Your new novel Conflicts of Interest is “a gripping story of moral compromise and betrayal in the South of France where the political elite of Britain and France spend their summer holidays.” Journalist Lawrence has the opportunity to bring down old colleague Martin, who became a wealthy PR for politicians, and who is now having an affair with the sister-in-law of a French politician. Why did you choose France as the setting for your second novel …and is there any extent to which this story might be a journalist’s revenge against the political elite …?

TS: My parents moved to France a while ago, so I spent a lot of time there. They live just north of Avignon, and I found it a little strange to see so many politicians holidaying in the area, being so friendly with each other. I thought it would be interesting to write the story from the viewpoint of someone looking in from outside the inner political sanctum, and demanding accountability for personal actions. There are some parallels to be drawn between the recent collapse of Bell Pottinger and the plot in Conflicts of Interest, I think.

TF: How important is a strong sense of place in your novels? And do you already have a story and location in mind for your next book?  

TS: Yes, I do like to create an atmospheric setting, introducing the history of a location and questioning how people in the present would cope with the past. My next novel will probably be based in Westminster, possibly with a Middle East angle, and I’m considering making the main character a female politician.

TF: Your appearance at this year’s Guildford Book Festival was on a “Crime Panel” with Tim Weaver. Do you enjoy literary festivals, or are they just an essential piece of the promotional jigsaw for an author these days? 

TS: Yes, I do enjoy them. I was at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival this year, and also in Penzance, where I shared the stage with Peter Fluck, of Fluck & Law fame, creators of Spitting Image. Great fun!

TF: What does the future hold – more novels? Any different genres? A return to journalism? Or something completely different …..?

Terry StiastnyTS: I enjoy freelance writing, and also radio journalism. In terms of novels, it’s hard to predict what themes will be relevant in 2 years time, by the time your story has been conceived, written and published. But I’ll try!

TF: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me for TripFiction, Terry. Good luck with all your writing projects, wherever they might take you and the reader.

You can follow Terry on Twitter and you can buy her book through the TripFiction website

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