Writers are made, not born, and the process is never easy. For proof, consider the case of Peter Hobbs, a healthy young Oxford graduate on the brink of a promising diplomatic career when a mysterious virus shattered his health, condemning him to a decade’s painful convalescence as multiple other disorders – “parasites, infections” – overran his damaged immune system.
“And it was because of that,” Hobbs says while visiting Toronto to launch the Canadian edition of his new book, “I became a writer.”
Slight and reserved, seeming both eager and embarrassed to be talking about himself, Hobbs is still fragile, dealing with continuing repercussions from the ordeal. “It took a lot from me,” he says. “It took the career I really wanted. It took my health.”
What the ordeal gave him in return was scant recompense. “I’d give anything not to have gone through that,” Hobbs says. “I would happily sacrifice my writing career if I could choose again.”
Happily for readers, he can’t.
Although it is hardly necessary to know Hobbs’s personal story to appreciate his latest novel, In the Orchard, the Swallows, the book would have been inconceivable without it.
Set in Pakistan, where Hobbs contracted his initial disease, the short, fable-like novel is narrated by a contemporary Pakistani villager thrown without trial into the worst imaginable prison for a victimless crime of passion and left to rot for more than a decade while periodically undergoing the most hideous tortures. Somehow he survives, the love that led him into darkness ultimately delivering him out of it.
Published earlier this year in Britain, In the Orchard, the Swallows was described by reviewers as “achingly moving,” “beautifully told” and “a perfectly cut jewel of a book.”
The story is not his, Hobbs insists. “However,” he adds, “I knew something about extended periods of suffering, of confinements and enclosure of a different kind than prison, and what happens to the mind when you have the normal habits of life taken away from you.
“I needed to use that in order to be able to write about a character who had been in prison,” he adds. “But I didn’t write about it as an allegory of my life.”
The effect of his own prison – what turned him into a writer – was the new ability to imagine lives as different from his own as that of his nameless villager. “The illness really forced me to look at the world in a different way, and everything looked new to me,” he says. “It was the first time I got the shock of being jolted out of my world and seeing things a different way. It was the first time I really understood that the world is real, but our lives are imaginary.”
The one part of his experience that remains beyond reach, according to Hobbs, was the depression it caused – “quite a rational depression” in view of the circumstances, he notes, “but no more pleasant for that.” It is there where the author’s unbidden ability to imagine other lives fails.
“Depression is one of those things that escapes imagination,” Hobbs says. “It’s inconceivable if you haven’t experienced what it is and what it does to you – the way you think and see things.”
As his health gradually improved, Hobbs suffered from a creative flurry, producing more than 40 short stories over two years and then a first novel in 2005, The Short Day Dying. “It was weird,” he says. “It was a tremendously inventive time.”
But as he recovered, the inspiration abated. “I felt like I didn’t need to write any more,” he says, explaining the long gap between his first novel and the second.
“For a very foolish second I regretted getting well,” he says. “I got over that fairly quickly.”
Made a writer in a furnace of suffering, Hobbs at first hesitated to embrace his fate. “It was the first time in years I had been able to choose,” he says. “It was the first time I had options. I could choose whether I wanted to write or not, and it took me a little while to work out that I probably did.”
Whether or not it really was his own decision, the world of letters is richer for it.