Original long-form nonfiction narrative writing
By Karl Whitney.
The Mammoth aims to publish new non-fiction narrative writing, while also showcasing quality non-fiction narrative published elsewhere. This is the first in the ‘Selected’ series of blogposts, which will discuss examples of excellent factual writing and, where possible, link to the text of the original piece.
Rachel Andrews is a frequent contributor to Irish newspapers, and is a lecturer in journalism. She is the recipient of a number of awards for her writing, and has an interest in writing about landscape; her piece on Irish wildfires appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of the Dublin Review.
In 1971, the largely disused airfield at Maze near Belfast was turned into a prison camp and used for the internment – the imprisonment without trial – of suspected terrorists. In 2006, the prison finally closed. Andrews’ piece is extremely precise in its description of the ruined landscape of the prison:
After the grey and the silence, the first thing you notice when you visit the ruins of the Maze prison is the rabbits. A tail disappearing behind a bush, a frantic scatter at the edge of your vision, droppings to the side of the sports areas or in the thick moss beside the barbed wire and the high walls. People will tell you there are also feral cats, buzzards, even oyster-catchers. Around you, ivy trails up and over the walls and fences still untouched by the demolition process. The pink rose bushes and the cherry trees, the copper beeches and the evergreens, once planted and cared for by the prison’s occupants, now grow according to nature’s whim.
This is a place of signs and warnings. ‘stop, hold, lock.’ ‘Switch off engine when parked in airlock.’ ‘Caution, we patrol the area.’ It is a place of concrete and razor wire. Of steel doorways shutting behind us.
This listing and grouping of visual cues recurs throughout her text, as her eye roves in search of some means of making sense of the rubble-strewn location. The casting of the paragraph in the second person – ‘the first thing you notice’, ‘the edge of your vision’ – has the effect of drawing in the reader, of seeming to elevate the experience of the place beyond the reporter’s own to a more general level. It seems to say: these are not just my impressions of the Maze. The use of ‘you’ allows the writer to process a large amount of information: her own notes and impressions, but also her interviews with other people who have experienced the location. Thus, when she writes ‘people will tell you’, people have told her – most likely during interviews where she may have dropped in a question about the species of wildlife one might encounter on the site. This information could have been gathered by design, or perhaps accrued as she conducted her investigations.
What she finds in the Maze is a place halfway between its former existence and an uncertain future: will it become a museum; will it be cleared for other purposes? This tension is played out throughout the piece.
Andrews talks to the security men guarding the site, who for the most part had been prison officers in the Maze. One of the men tells her about being ambushed by the IRA:
the boy said “Get in, get in,” and another one pointed a gun from behind the screen from inside the Tally Lodge, and the next thing I looked up and recognized a prisoner – ah what’d you call him – McGlinchey, and when I seen McGlinchey I knew then it was the IRA, and I said to Keith, “Shut up it’s the IRA,” and then my heart just, I thought it was going to pound out of my chest and after a couple of minutes it went back to normal and there was quite a few of us, ten, eleven, twelve fellas, and I could only see four or five prisoners and they were all pasty white, to me they were all scared, they were all pale, pale white and there was a boy beside me and I said, “You know, I think we could take these boys,” and one of them turned to me and he says, “You’re a hero, you’re a dead hero” and he pointed the gun at me and he says, “Sit down and shut up” and I says “Right”. And then, ah, I don’t know how it happened, I don’t know who struck the first blow or what happened, but a fight started and there was hand-to-hand fighting inside the Tally Lodge.’
Getting shot was like – ‘You ever play deadener?’ He was halfway to hospital before he felt the pain. He remembered the blood soaking through the bandages and some guy handing him a cigarette. Later on he received the Queen’s Gallantry Medal. You call the Queen ‘Your Majesty’ when you meet her first. After that you address her as ‘Ma’am’. He doesn’t wear the medal. ‘I got it, put it in the drawer of the house.’
The writer moves between modes of narration, going from the apparently solitary walks she takes around the site in the first half of the article to the interviews conducted with mostly Unionist locals from the towns of Maze and Halftown. These different perspectives illuminate the strangeness of the prison, and the changing situation of Unionists in Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. The latter shift is captured by Andrews in a brief portrait near the end of the piece:
I was waiting for Jackie McQuillan, who came out of bed ill and coughing with one of those chest infections that grab at your throat and heave you up double. Jackie lives at the heart of a tight little area of fifty-two small houses. He is a joiner. During the Troubles he worried about his country, keeping it British, keeping it safe. When the peace came, he wasn’t sure if he had a country anymore, so he worried about his community instead.
The local focus on the regeneration of the Maze is shown to be partly about pride, partly about economic necessity. In focusing on the landscape, the article deals with Northern Ireland’s difficult history from an interesting angle. Its dialogue also captures individuals processing their own roles in the events of the past, most notably the former prison officer who had been shot during the IRA ambush:
Twenty-nine of my colleagues died, murdered, trying to impose the regime set out by the Northern Ireland Office – ‘Don’t give in to the Republicans, they’re not getting political status, not getting segregation’ – so twenty-nine men died trying to uphold that and at the end of the day they turn around and give them it and I feel a bit betrayed by that, why did they not give them it in the first place and let twenty-nine men live?
The directness of these quotations signal a candour that is difficult to establish instantly – the product of a degree of trust between the writer and interviewee. How does one establish this trust? Through repeated conversations (Andrews indicates that she visited the Maze several times) and by the writer laying their cards on the table as early as possible: this is what I want to do, this is what I don’t want to do. This kind of non-fiction writing is different from the strands of journalism in which one seeks sensational quotes to instantly dramatise a story: instead, you want people to explain themselves and their situation at length. The result of this patient approach, as we can see here, can be uniquely revealing. Most forms of good narrative non-fiction writing are, to a greater or lesser extent, the result of what Gay Talese calls ‘the fine art of hanging out‘.