About The Author
Harry Parker grew up in Wiltshire. He was educated at Falmouth College of Art and University College London. He joined the British Army when he was 23 and served in Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009 as a Captain. He is now a writer and artist and lives in London.
His debut novel, Anatomy of a Soldier, tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes who is leading British troops in a war zone. Each of its 45 chapters is told from the point of view of an object that plays a part in what happens to Tom. Exclusively for Foyles we talked to Harry about taking himself 'away from the baggage' to say something new about the experience of conflict, humanising the insurgents and how as a writer he copes with dyslexia.
Author photo © Gemma Day
Questions & Answers
Each of the book's 45 chapters is written from the point of view of an object that plays a part in what happens to Tom. How did you come to the idea of telling the story in this way? Were there objects that you tried to make part of the narrative that didn't work?
When I started working on Anatomy of a Soldier, my aim was simply to write the best story I could. There are some brilliant memoirs and non-fiction books that record the very complicated campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq – the rights and wrongs of those conflicts are still debated. I wanted to avoid all of that, and every time I started to write, ‘I was in the Helmand valley…’ it felt odd and I’d wince, weighed down by all the politics and opinion, and wanting to be more creative with my experiences. That was the problem I needed to solve: how do I take myself away from all the baggage; how can I say something new? I tried a few different things but the objects were the answer for me. It was fiction, and an altered reality, that let me truly express how I felt about conflict and those involved, and to hopefully tell a more interesting story.
Objects often have a significance that is beyond their material value or visual impact, holding meaning and story within and they become central to the way we experience the world. The equipment that soldiers carry, that keeps them alive and lets them kill the enemy, has an importance that is hard to describe. In conflict, objects become imbued with meaning and ritual as you survive with them. This made the inanimate an interesting point of view for me, but also made deciding which object should narrate come quite naturally; the thing would pick itself: the Persian rug to describe the interweaving of culture; the handbag to tell the personal moment when a mother sees her injured son for the first time; the soldier’s radio to describe a patrol. The objects that didn’t make the cut were those that didn’t say anything to drive the story forward.
Your book, like others written by others who have served in Afghanistan, shows sympathy to the situation of insurgents. Was the humanity of those you fought against something that it was important for you to convey?
So often in conflict the combatants feel only ever-increasing hatred for each other and violence spirals – war is the dehumanising activity. But the soldiers I served with – in the counter-insurgency role they had – tried hard to understand their enemy. This was often to better understand how to defeat them, but it also meant there was an appreciation of their situation. Since I have left the army, I have thought about the ‘enemy’ and wondered how I would react if foreign soldiers walked past my house every day – would I be planting bombs? Probably. I joined the British army for many reasons – money, excitement, a meaningful job – and I believe the people we were fighting probably had very similar motivations. Writing about the insurgents, thinking about their motivations and fears, was a way of humanising them. That balance is very important in the book.
Is there an anti-war message is showing the reality of enduring such life-changing injuries?
I didn’t set out to write an anti-war book. My hope was that impartial narrators could tell the story in a way that removed the sentimental and political. But any thoughtful story about war will be anti-war and the loss and destruction in the book reflects the reality of conflict. Life-changing injuries are visible – a man walking past on prosthetics is perhaps a reminder of the bomb he stepped on, but I also wanted to show the hope in overcoming injury. I suspect it is easier for us to forget the deaths, which can become invisible with time. In the book, I wanted to show death in the local population and how it seemed to be valued differently.
Like Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford, you're dyslexic. What advice would you give to others coping with dyslexia who have ambitions to write?
I was very lucky with my education; from the age of eight I was having extra lessons to help me to read and write. But it is still there; dyslexia is not something you can cure. As I write, half of these words are underlined with a squiggly red line and grammar and punctuation does not come naturally – I have to work hard on it. But I wouldn’t change the way my brain works. For all the frustrations it causes me, I’ve never seen it as any sort of a barrier to writing. I think technology is a massive help. Sometimes, when I am stuck on something, I will dictate it into a program I have and the words appear on the screen. This means the brain has one less step to make – there is no keyboard, you can just speak it. But practice seems to be the most effective way of dealing with it, just keep writing and remember that dyslexia is about things like short-term-memory and spelling, not about storytelling or imagination.
Have any of your former colleagues had the chance to read the book? How did they respond?
A few have read it and have been complimentary. I will always worry that those I served with will feel that writing it in some way betrays an experience that was private to us all. This was one of the reasons that I didn’t write a memoir or non-fiction.
Do you feel you have more to say about military life or do you intend to tackle a different area in your next book?
No more soldiers for now – or inanimate points of view. Maybe one day I will return to investigating military life, for now I am working on something different.