Samuel Johnson Shortlist Q&A:Emma Sky
Describe your book in one sentence?
The Unraveling is the memoir of a British woman who went out to Iraq in 2003 to apologise for the war, and ended up governing a province, then becoming the political adviser to the top US Generals through the Surge and the drawdown of US forces.
What drew you to this topic in the first place – was it your own desire to know more or that you wanted to shine a light on the issue for other people?
I felt that I had witnessed so many key events in Iraq that I had a duty to record them. I wanted to honour the lives that were lost by trying to learn the right lessons from this war. I wanted to acknowledge the huge effort of those who served. And I wanted to show Iraqis as real people, with their dreams, hopes and struggles.
How do you go about your research? Can an author read too much into the subject matter?
I kept a diary off and on whilst in Iraq. I also kept notes of all the meetings I was in. I had plenty of material. The challenge was in determining what to keep in and what to cut out.
What book do you wish that you had written?
This is the first book I have ever written. And it was really hard! If I ever write another book it might be about the changing world in which we live and my travels, after I left Iraq, to remote places.
Do you read your reviews? How do you respond to them, good or bad?
I knew that a book on the Iraq war was bound to be contentious. I didn't know whether people would ignore it or engage with it. Initially, I determined not to read any of the reviews. But that did not last long as I was curious to see the different things that people saw in the book. One reviewer said the book made us unlearn what we think we know; another, that it allowed readers to see Coalition soldiers and Iraqis through their own eyes; and another that it helped troops to understand the war they had been in, and thus to heal the wounds. As for the bad reviews, some of the criticism I felt was fair. But some was way over the top. A bad review is just a bad review - no one dies.
If you were trapped on a desert island, which two books would you want to have with you and why?
Two books: a poetry anthology by Lord Wavell Other Men's Flowers. I would stay busy learning the poems off by heart. And Lord of the Rings. I have loved this book since childhood. I have read it again every decade or so, and see such different things in it each time. These two books would keep up my morale while I devised ways to escape the island.
What was the last book you read?
Last book: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.