David Savill is the author of the new novel They Are Trying to Break Your Heart. He has worked as a journalist for the BBC, and he teaches creative writing at the University of Salford in Manchester, England.
Q: You've spent time in both Bosnia and Thailand. Why did you decide to combine the Bosnian war and the 2004 tsunami in Thailand in this novel?
A: How do we put ourselves back together after the worst of disasters? This was what interested me. The idea that in the darkest of times, we also find the most beautiful light.
It’s an idea a lot of Americans might need just now. I had witnessed the aftermath of both war and natural disaster, and it was the fact of survival, and hope, that stayed with me.
In the story, three characters have been confronted with different kinds of disaster; the pain of having a loved-one go missing, the grief of having your childhood stolen by a war, and the injustice of being a victim to a terrible crime.
The story doesn’t flinch from its realities. The world is trying to break the heart of my characters. But in the end, we are seeing these people struggle towards the light, and make their worlds anew.
Q: The book jumps around in time and location. Did you plan out the structure of the novel before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I began with a very organic drafting process. I didn’t plan, and I followed the dramatic journey of each character. At the heart of each narrative is the shock of the unexpected: the day of the tsunami, the day a Bosnian town is shelled, the day a human rights researcher discovers the truth behind an awful crime.
Later, I shattered the narrative, just as a bomb or tsunami would. I began to arrange the events in time and space around these shocks.
Tsunamis cannot be detected at the point of the earthquake. The surface of the water is still. The energy of the shockwave gathers as it meets the continental shelf, piling up and pushing out of the water to create the wave we see. In the novel, the dramatic energy of the three stories gathers, and time and space pile up until they all become one.
Q: You write from the perspectives of various characters. Were there some whose viewpoints you particularly empathized with?
A: I have to empathise with all my characters, especially the most troubled. Empathy is literature’s redeeming feature. This doesn’t mean all fiction seeks empathy. But as a writer I do see it as my job to practice a deep empathy, and what I learn from this becomes my gift to the reader.
People in this book do bad things, but I don’t believe people are bad. Alice Munro said we should never underestimate the meanness in people’s hearts, even when they are being kind, especially when they are being kind.
I think this is a great key to understanding people. I understand you can be mean, and cruel, but I’m going to love you anyway. And love changes you.
Q: How was the book's title selected, and what does it signify for you?
A: During the writing I was listening a lot to the Wilco song “I am Trying To Break Your Heart.” It’s a song about seeing the other side of someone’s story, about how love can be cruel and selfish but achingly beautiful and redemptive at the same time.
There is more than one protagonist in the book, so I changed the pronoun in the song title, and suddenly it became a way of saying – these people are trying to break each other’s hearts; but the world is also trying to break their heart. Trying, but it won’t succeed.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel called Disinformation. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but it’s about journalism in the new age of political conspiracies. It’s very “post-truth.”
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Only that I deeply appreciate my readers. The book isn’t a straight thriller, and it isn’t completely literary either. It’s challenging at the beginning, but I know you won’t be disappointed by the time you get to the end. The best thing a reader ever said to me was, “This book taught me how to read it, and I’m so glad I made the effort.”
--Interview with Deborah Kalb