“I don’t think there is enough accessible literature on Afghanistan”
After working as a journalist in Afghanistan, Pia Heikkila decided to write Operation Lipstick, set between Kabul and the Helmand province, which explores the love life of maverick war reporter Anna Sanderson. She tells Ayan Meer why Afghanistan was the perfect setting for a chick-lit..
How did you come up with the idea to write a romantic novel set in such an unconventional setting?
I used to work at Al-Jazeera in the Middle East and I was single. With my female journalist friends, we realised that we were living a crazy life across borders, so we thought that someone should write about our lives: I decided to do it, but the project took a bit of time. Then I moved to Afghanistan and saw all the interesting things that were happening, how it was full of adventure, intrigue, conspiracy…so I told the story of a single woman correspondent in a war zone, marrying it with the love and admiration I have for Afghanistan. I don’t think there is enough accessible literature on the country, it’s either high-and-mighty academic work or men who write about the war. I felt writing chick-lit would make Afghanistan more accessible.
Was chick-lit your main inspiration for Operation Lipstick?
I had never written fiction before, but one book that inspired me was Born Under A Million Shadows by Andrea Bushfield, which is also about Afghanistan and is amazing. Then obviously I was also inspired by classic chick-lit like Bridget Jones, yet not entirely, because Bridget Jones is very passive, whereas Anna Sanderson [Operation Lipstick’s protagonist] is a go-getter. She knows – like all single ladies – that she has to go get her men.
How much of yourself did you project into Anna Sanderson?
Some characters are realistic, but I’m not going to tell which ones. The things in the books are things I’ve experienced, but 90% of the stuff is still made up. I just wanted to entertain women, while telling a story in a place that doesn’t have a lot of this kind of literature.
How was your personal experience of being a journalist in Afghanistan?
I wanted to live in Afghanistan because I thought the stories of “real” people weren’t covered that well. Women were particularly left in the shadows of the war – apart from the occasional sad stories related to the war. I wanted to know what ordinary women experienced, and I had that opportunity as a female journalist, because men cannot have access to them. I could tell the story from the grassroots, yet I couldn’t ignore that there is a war going on, so I also had to travel with the troops and do more traditional “embedded” stories. However, bear in mind that 25 million people live in the country, and ordinary life goes on: that’s the aspect I wanted to show in the book. There is so much more to Afghanistan than what you read in the papers, it’s really wonderful.
As a journalist in Afghanistan, didn’t you live in a “bubble”, socialising only with other journalists or foreigners working there?
It is one of the aspects that inspired the book. You live a very enclosed life, and if you’re single, you have to find a partner in these circumstances. The circles are relatively small and it’s a challenge. We used to have a saying in Kabul: “The odds are good but the goods are odd” – there were many men, but few were accessible. My journalist friends in Afghanistan enjoyed the book. There have been some questions about certain characters… but most of them were pretty jubilant that I wrote the book.