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Ronan Bennett: From Prisoner to Writer

Novelist Ronan Bennett endured two stints in British prisons before he ever imagined himself a writer. He was young then, and wrongly accused of crimes committed by the Irish Republican Army.

Years later, his fiction has rarely taken the Troubles of Northern Ireland as a subject. But Ireland's centuries of struggle against British rule are always there as a subtext.

His writing has been likened to that of Graham Greene and Arthur Miller. Like them, he uses historical events to explore the passion and dark energy that fuel conflict.

As a Catholic boy in Belfast, Bennett was caught up in the bloodshed there in the 1970s.

Bennett was accused of participating in an Irish Republican Army bank robbery during which a police inspector was killed. He was convicted at age 18 and sentenced to life in prison. But Bennett says he was released within a year "because the evidence, even by the standards of the times, was poor."

While serving time at the Long Kesh prison camp near Belfast, Bennett recalls, he read a lot. But writing was discouraged. Fellow prisoners saw writing as trying to draw attention to oneself, Bennett says.

His 1999 novel, The Catastrophist, takes place in post-colonial Congo, but is an allegory of the situation in Northern Ireland, Bennett tells Renee Montagne as part of a series of conversations on war and literature.

"I was thinking very strongly of Ireland," the author says. "I was thinking, how can I write about what the wider responsibilities of the artist in general are to the society he or she comes from? And how do you express that ... role without the politics taking over the art?"

The more he read about the former Belgian colony, "the more the parallels came through," Bennett says.

All five of Bennett's novels contain an interrogation scene — influenced by his own experience as a young man in trouble with the law.

"I'm interested in it because it's such a raw confrontation," he says. "The person being interrogated is weak, is vulnerable, is often trying to hide something, sometimes innocent. And the interrogator is in a position of supreme power over the person in front of him.

"And that relationship I always found full of possibilities for exploring truths about individuals, truths about the relationship between the strong and the weak."

Bennett says writing about interrogations is "kind of reliving an experience that was one of the most fundamental experiences in my life, one of the most formative experiences and has left me with a profound distrust of authority.

"Writers should be distrustful of authority," he says. "I think writers should always be in a position of tension in relation to governments and power and authority."

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