Friday, March 05, 2010

Authors on Tour: Paul Harris Discusses the Difference between Journalism and Fiction

Author Book Tour

Mystery Books News is pleased to welcome , who has been on tour this week to promote his novel The Secret Keeper (Plume Trade Paperback, February 2010), which chronicles the story of one man's search for the truth in war-torn Sierra Leone, where the rules of civilized society don't apply.

Today Paul joins us to talk about the difference between journalism and fiction.

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What's the difference between writing journalism and writing fiction? The answer should be easy. One involves the reporting and communicating of facts. The other involves the invention of plot and characters and creating an imaginary series of events out of thin air. But one of the strangest things to come out of writing The Secret Keeper was the discovery that I felt my novel far better allowed me to communicate “the truth” than any article I had ever written.

The Secret Keeper by Paul Harris

That should be a contradiction in terms. Non-fiction should always be more truthful than fiction. It surely has to be. But I firmly believe the opposite holds true. I love being a journalist. It is the most fun it is possible to imagine and the fact that it pays me a wage and I get to call it a career is just fantastic. But it is also a flawed process by its very nature. Articles are not always produced simply to reflect the facts on the ground. They often reflect the needs and demands of an editor back home. They are trimmed for space, losing vital information simply because something else happened somewhere else in the world or the marketing department happened to sell a bigger advert. Then there are the pressures of time. Deadlines can warp a story, forcing it to be filed before the true picture is known or before an event has played itself out. Finally, there are the limitations placed upon a journalist in the field. This was especially true in Sierra Leone during the war. It was a difficult environment to work in. Sometimes you could not get close to the action. Other times it would have been too dangerous to do so. Communications were a nightmare. It was a fiendishly complex situation and hard to explain to a readership back home that did not really even know where the country was. And then one had to convey all that complexity in 800 words. It is inevitable that a lot of truth gets lost.

That is why a novel is a far better vehicle for explaining the end of the conflict and what it was like to be there at that time. You have space to fully express the complexities of a country and a situation. There is no foreign editor breathing down your neck or inserting prejudices into the narrative. You write the story as you saw it, with time to reflect and gather extra information, not rush to tap out some hurried sentences and then dictate it down a phone line (that was how I worked back then in an era when Internet connections were a lot harder to come by, especially in a city surrounded by rebels). I had found reporting as a journalist on the end of Sierra Leone’s war an intensely emotional experience. But it was also a frustrating one. The situation had been frightening and surreal. Ordinary people had struggled to make do. Some had plotted war, others had wanted peace and yet others exploited the situation to become rich. Aid workers and the UN had struggled to help, some successfully, some not. Some journalists had been brave, others foolish or ego-driven. I did not think anything I had written for my newspaper really conveyed the truth of that. That was why I wrote The Secret Keeper: to try and tell a true story that journalism had not allowed me too.

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We're thrilled to announce that Paul is giving away a signed copy of his book, The Secret Keeper, to one lucky tour visitor. Go to his book tour page, enter your name, e-mail address, and this PIN, 2288, for your chance to win. Entries from Mystery Books News will be accepted until 12:00 Noon (PT) tomorrow. No purchase is required to enter or to win. The winner (first name only) will be announced on his book tour page next week.

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Paul Harris
Photo courtesy Paul Harris.

Paul Harris is currently the US Correspondent of the British weekly newspaper The Observer, the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper. He has held the post since 2003. Prior to that he reported from Africa for the Daily Telegraph, the Associated Press and Reuters. He has covered conflicts and trouble spots all around the world, including Iraq, Sudan, Burundi, Somalia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Pakistan. In 2003 he was embedded with British forces during the invasion of Iraq.

The Secret Keeper was inspired by his reporting on events in 2000 in Sierra Leone as that country’s long civil war came to an end.

Paul now lives in New York and is happy to have swapped the dangers of the front line for the less obvious perils of writing about American politics and culture.

To learn more about the author and the book, visit his website at

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing -- I especially agree with the comment, "a novel is a far better vehicle for explaining the end of the conflict and what it was like to be there at that time." I have never enjoyed non-fiction reading, but yet I cherish the fiction novels that can shed life on real historical events. I look forward to reading The Secret Keeper.



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