Dorian Lynskey longlist author interview
Dorian Lynskey talks about the enduring influence of Orwell's work in his longlisted book, The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell's 1984.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
Wonderful. For me the prize has always been the gold standard for non-fiction and it’s an honour to be a part of such a strong longlist.
What inspired you to write this book?
For me book ideas accrue over time from a confluence of interests. In 2016 I began thinking about tracing the evolution of the dystopian novel and Nineteen Eighty-Four felt like the obvious focus. I find that when a work of art becomes ubiquitous it is both taken for granted and misunderstood, and one way of making it feel fresh again is to examine it from the ground up. Then, while researching the proposal, I was struck time and time again by the ways in which Orwell’s observations chimed with the current political situation, particularly his interest in power’s assault on objective truth. When the Trump administration’s coinage “alternative facts” caused sales of the novel to spike, I realised that my book could help to shed light on where we are now. It wasn’t just history.
How did you research?
My bible was Orwell’s Complete Works, which runs to approximately 9000 pages and two million words. I was trying to get as deep inside Orwell’s head as possible and follow up on anything — a cornerstone essay, a line in a forgotten film review, a diary entry, a letter to a friend — that related to Nineteen Eighty-Four in any way. Although I interviewed people who had adapted the novel for stage and screen, the bulk of my research took place in the British Library and the Orwell Archive, retracing Orwell’s intellectual steps and reading a vast number of books and articles ranging from the nineteenth century to the present day. It was an exhilarating process.
We see frequent comparisons to Orwell’s world of 1984 in headlines around the world in 2019. What is it about this story that has ensured it maintains its place in our culture 70 years on from its initial publication?
The book contains so many ideas about power structures, language, war, technology, surveillance and psychology that, no matter the political situation, it always has something vital to tell us. What’s more, Orwell expressed those ideas in unforgettable language that I’ve seen used at least once, in print or online, every single day since I began the project. Unlike almost every other writer of utopias and anti-utopias before him, Orwell also took pains to fold his insights into a gripping narrative which is at once a satire, a love story, a spy thriller and a postmodern mystery. It’s the only political thesis that can thrill and horrify a 13-year-old. Ultimately, the book endures because it contains hard truths about human nature. However much the world seems to change, the abuses of power and pernicious cognitive biases that Orwell described in Nineteen Eighty-Four never go away. He gave us a myth and a vocabulary with which to understand the most dangerous phenomena of his time, and ours.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
I don’t have an all-time favourite anything but two relatively recent books that I find inspiring are The Unwinding by George Packer and The Future Is History by Masha Gessen. They’re both commandingly stylish writers who weave together empathetic case studies of uncelebrated lives with vivid sketches of major careers. In this way they’re able to tell the story of an era from both the top down and the bottom up, explaining the decisions of the powerful and also their unforeseen consequences on the ground. Each book is as narratively addictive and as emotionally devastating as a great novel.
What are you working on next?
I’m looking for another idea that brings together art, politics, biography, history and the predicaments of the present day. Unfortunately, there’s only one Nineteen Eighty-Four.