Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read John Saul’s fiction piece, Click

John Haggerty: I love the ambiguous use of locks, alarms and barriers here—they confine the narrator as much as they keep the external world away. Is this an inevitable consequence? Do we invite fear into our hearts every time we click that deadbolt shut?

John Saul: Certainly locks and alarms can be confining as well as protective. By their very purpose, locks do set up a barrier. A front door lock in particular—worrying about it, thinking about it—does suggest to me that a person is nervous about their contact with the world beyond. Traditionally, not locking a front door was a sign of trust in the neighbourhood. But not all locks have such an emotionally-charged content—a clothes locker, for instance, simply makes sense in order to “keep the external world away”. People will use such a lock-up without much thought, as they usually will with their more modern counterparts—computer passwords and the like.

Fear is a huge subject. People learn fear, and everyone has different learning experiences and will fear different things, to varying extents. I don’t sense fear on sliding a bolt to the front door, but I haven’t had the sort of adverse experience that might produce this fear and have it recur.

The boundaries we place around ourselves are much in the news today, of course, and I was struck by the parallels between Anthea’s fear and those of the larger xenophobic movements at work around us. There are subtle resonances of this throughout the story—the Christmas carol, the glancing reference to Brexit. Were you thinking of that when you wrote this, or were you just describing a small moment in the world of a small, frightened woman?

I wasn’t consciously thinking of xenophobic movements or Brexit, although the latter—an utterly appalling idea from the outset; nothing could have gone more against my own values and in so many ways—has clearly fostered a new mean-spiritedness and easy shunning of other people.

Anthea’s husband, whether serious or not, has adopted a fairly rigorous anti-technology stance. Are you with Richard on this? Is all technology doomed to be enslaved by our worst impulses?

Like it or not, humans can’t be divorced from technology, it is part of what a human is. All technology—take, say, the knife—has its upsides and downsides. So it makes little sense to be firmly anti-tech (itself I think in most cases simply an aversion to change).

To fully answer your question, I would have to go through the developments we know, one technology at a time. And there would always be upsides and downsides. Sometimes the downsides are really slight. Glasses/spectacles to see with seem to me a great advance. Again, a bicycle is a fine development; I don’t see our “worst impulses” coming into play over bicycles. Cars on the other hand have a lot to answer for, given the resources they consume and the contribution to climate change they’ve been making, to say nothing of how ugly they’ve rendered what would otherwise be far more natural spaces. And so it goes on—I’m no great fan of telephones, certainly. Cell phones are to me a minor extension of the original 170-year-old invention, at least so far. But they have enabled text-messaging; and email is a great piece of technology. There again, I don’t want to go walking everywhere looking down at a phone. I’ve always been one for looking up and out of the window, wherever possible.

After 9/11, we Americans were told that if we didn’t behave in certain prescribed ways, that the terrorists would have already won. Have the terrorists, in fact, already won?

This brings us back to Fear and the possible management of it. I don’t think I’m hedging when I say I don’t expect to see a clear winner or loser in such a question. No one has won, and I doubt that anyone ever will. It isn’t as if our world must be heading for some conclusion, some final judgement. It isn’t!

I’m not sure a sense of ‘we will not be beaten’, ‘we will carry on as before’, impacts at all on the minds of those who become terrorists. While this attitude feels like the right one I don’t think it has much effect (on the perpetrators or potential perpetrators). Let’s not kid ourselves, we are clearly tussling with fear. The truth is: we carry on as before and we are living with fear. We can pretend we’re not afraid, but it is pretending, it isn’t not being afraid. At the same time we can also say, What have terrorists won? There is no sign of a terrorist movement or faction coming anywhere near the point of Hitler’s Nazi organisation, which did ‘succeed’ in murdering six million people and clearing most German soil of Jewish people, for good. But nowadays, what would even constitute winning? And would winning mean the same for one side as losing would to the other? There are also many more sides than just two. These are questions that take me far from my piece of fiction—although that goes into large questions too, as the protagonist may not be fearing terrorism—but she fears grasping her own freedom.