Damian Barr: ‘Give voice to those with unwritten stories’
The author of Maggie and Me on researching his first novel set in South Africa, being edited by Diana Athill, and the book he can’t bear to finish reading
Damian Barr is a writer and broadcaster, and the founder of London’s Literary Salon, which features writers reading from their latest works at the Savoy hotel. His books include Maggie and Me, a darkly witty memoir of growing up gay in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. His debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, is set both in contemporary South Africa and at the time of the Boer war, and is published this week in paperback by Bloomsbury.
What made you want to write about South Africa?
My way into it was a news story about a 15-year-old called Raymond Buys, who in 2011 was sent by his mother to a camp near Johannesburg, which promised to make men out of boys. The camp was run by former soldiers who starved, beat, electrocuted and tortured Raymond to death. When I saw his photo in the newspaper, he looked just like a boy I had gone to primary school with, who came from South Africa to Scotland, but returned a year later and I lost touch with him. So, when I saw the photo, I felt I knew Raymond. I felt an emotional connection with this lost boy. I wanted to know who he was, who sends a child to a place like this, who runs a place like this? I had so many questions. I thought originally I might do a piece of journalism.