About The Author
Robert Allison was born in Yorkshire. He has worked as a theatre director and as a reviewer for film and music. He has had more than 20 pieces of short fiction published internationally in print and online journals.
His first novel is The Letter Bearer, set at about the time of the First Battle of El Alamein. It opens with an unnamed motorcycle despatch rider lying badly injured in the north African desert, a bag of letters intended for loved ones in his bag. He has no recollection of his mission or even his own name.
Robbed by first passing German troops and then local tribesmen, he expects to die where he lies, but overnight he is found by a small band of deserters. He has little time to recuperate at their encampment before their makeshift outpost is found by the Italians and the motley group is forced to move on. Still with no knowledge of who he is, the rider is forced to tag along - perhaps the letters he is carrying with him offer some clue?
A beautifully written and gripping story of the moral ambiguity of war and the fragility of our very identities, it's a novel that will appeal to fans of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient or Pat Barker's Toby's Room.
In this exclusive interview with Foyles, Robert talks about developing a backstory for a character without a name, the problems with democracy in a military setting and the peculiarity of fighting over tracts of empty desert.
Questions & Answers
You've also worked in theatre as a director; are there any parallels between directing a play and writing a novel?
In both disciplines you're looking for ways to maintain narrative pace and momentum. But of course with directing you have the benefit of working to a ready-made dramatic structure, which I think makes novel writing a much stiffer challenge.
So much about the 'rider' remains a mystery; did you develop an untold backstory to help you create and direct the character?
Very much so. I had a complete chronology of events written out along with several chapters involving episodes from earlier in the character's life. There was quite a bit of material in fact and I was sorry not to include more of it in the book. But in the end it didn't fall within the scope of the narrative.
The rider encounters a cast of dubious characters at the encampment; were you keen to avoid any romanticising of wartime exploits?
I was more interested in putting a lens on characters who have removed themselves from the straightforward obligations of military rank. A group of abstainers having to survive by their wits seemed a more provocative and morally complex premise.
Brinkhurst is the ranking officer, but doesn't mention it when first introducing himself and the encampment is run on loosely democratic lines. Does this reflect a breakdown in military discipline or Brinkhurst's pragmatically manipulative nature, 'casually shuffling the truth'?
There's certainly an element of spin in Brinkhurst's presentation because he wants to sell the idea of a democratic collective. But it also goes to the conflicted nature of his character. On the one hand he sees himself as striking out against a command structure which has failed in the field, yet on the other his conditioning, training and class status mandates that he's the group's natural leader. It's a balance he struggles to find throughout.
Does the novel suggest a dichotomy for soldiers, in that it is in the interest of the cause to fight but in the individual's interest to focus on self-preservation?
It's actually one of the things that intrigued me most about this particular theatre of war, because here you have a combat zone thousands of miles from any kind of recognisable civilisation, and where many battles were fought over tracts of empty desert. I think that whenever a combatant nation's civilian population isn't directly implicated, that balance between selflessness and self-preservation is naturally going to become more precarious.
There are a few instances of the use of graphic elements - a returned letter, a diagram showing how to hold a gun, Coates scrawling his words in chalk - in the text of your novel. Given the rich and diverse vocabulary you employ, why did you decide to do this?
Part of the rider's early recovery involves the re-indexing of his visual memory, and so I wanted the reader to receive certain ideas instantaneously in order to simulate that process. With Coates, the intention was slightly different: prior to his injury he's the one individual from the group who engages with the rider in a conversational way, so that when he loses his voice he effectively loses his identity. The attempts at communication he makes afterwards are rendered graphically to both underscore his predicament and emphasise the parallel with the rider's own loss of self-expression.
Can you tell us anything about what you'll be working on next?
It's broadly a mystery/suspense story set in an English boarding school immediately post-WWI. I have some very interesting ideas for it and I can't wait to get started!
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