I’d decided very early on that I wanted High Dive to explore the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, in 1984—an attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet. I was interested in setting the book mainly within the hotel, because I think hotels are such interesting instances of closed, private spaces. Everything—from the flowers, to the arrangement of furniture, to the rugs, the pressed bed-sheets, the rich curtains, right down to the staff behind the reception desk—is carefully curated to put you, the guest, in a private domain—one that will keep you away from the struggles and stresses and noise of the outside, of history happening, of the world of actual events.
The central moment of my book—an Irish Republican Army man walking into the hotel and planting a bomb in room 629—is, I began to realize, about the outside world coming in.
I grew up seeing photos of the hotel after the bomb went off. People would still talk about it in the decade that followed, the way the bomb ate this huge chunk out of the hotel. In the most memorable photos, smoke seems to be escaping from the missing chunk of the Grand Hotel’s roofline, this huge gash in the building. But it turned out to be mostly dust, the imperceptible dust you would never notice, the dust that had lived behind and beneath the carefully polished surfaces of the hotel, its hidden spaces, for decades. The bomb blew it all out and up into the night sky.
Before the bombing happens, most of the characters in High Dive are fixated on the daily details of their lives—as we all are, every day. The deputy general manager of the hotel is worried about his promotion, and thinks Thatcher’s visit will be an opportunity for him to be promoted and improve his family’s life. His daughter is worried about her love life and what she’s going to do after university. These characters are trapped in their own world, and that myopia we all share seemed, every time I glanced up at Zadie’s lines, to reflect my own myopia as a writer: The characters worried endlessly about the details of their own lives, and I worried endlessly about the details of my novel. When was the last time I’d joined a political protest? When was the last time I’d even listened to more than 10 minutes of the news on NPR?
My gut instinct is that writers don’t have any obligations, other than to what they put on the page, their own characters and their sentences. The idea that a writer should be obligated to deal in politics, or to raise questions about the political environment in which they live or their characters live, seems absurd to me. I feel the same when it comes to the question of whether artists should be activists. Surely the answer is each to their own.
At the same time, I have this nagging question in my mind: Why is it that so few novels published in the last few years in Britain and America—the two countries I call home—have addressed politics, or freedom of expression, or civil liberties, or protest, in any meaningful way? Not every novel should engage with political ideas, or politically fraught moments in history—that much we can all agree on. But isn’t it surprising that hardly any contemporary novels published in the western world seem interested in doing so? So many novels arrive on my doorstep every day bearing blurbs declaring that they are “universal love stories,” or “timeless explorations” of X or Y. Those novels are often excellent, but does every novel have to be like this? It’s as if there is something shameful in a story being tied to a particular time or place or political climate.