‘I am not that interesting,’ insists Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel laureate for literature and one of the top-billed writers attending the Sharjah International Book Fair this year. ‘Let’s talk about my books instead.’
I am in conversation with a 67-year-old author whose 10 novels have sold over 14 million copies across the world, but he is more than a tad reluctant to answer questions about himself. ‘I think it is important that I talk about my novels,’ he says, enunciating every word. ‘My works are more important.’
[Unspooling a historical tale: she uses fiction to illuminate the past]
After a bit of cajoling, Orhan agrees to reveal a little about himself, but only after ‘I talk about my books. Actually all the interesting things in my life I have put into my books,’ he says, with a loud guffaw.
One of the most prominent authors – and in not just his home country Turkey – Orhan is known for some of the most discussed and acclaimed novels of modern times, including The Black Book, My Name is Red (‘one of my most ambitious books’), The Museum of Innocence (‘I have a lot to talk about that’), Snow (‘my most popular book in the US’) and A Strangeness in My Mind.
‘Let’s start by talking about each of them,’ he suggests, in a Skype interview from the US on the eve of his journey to the Sharjah International Book Fair.
Since my favourite book of his is A Strangeness in My Mind, his ninth book that was published five years ago, I ask him to share his thoughts on that.
‘I gave six years of my life for A Strangeness in My Mind,’ says Orhan, whose favourite authors include Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann.
Set in the Turkish city of Istanbul, A Strangeness... is more than just the tale of the life of street food vendors. Chronicling the changes that occur in the bustling city over more than four decades, the novel spans more than 600 pages, telling the story of Mevlut, a food and beverage vendor in Istanbul, and the woman to whom he would write love letters, before marrying her, and their life in Istanbul. Mevlut picks up different jobs and over the course of decades, witnesses the city’s transformation.
The mention of the book title is enough to bring a sparkle to Orhan’s eyes. Pushing back a shock of salt and pepper hair that falls over his forehead, he is animated as he leans forward earnestly and smiles. ‘OK, Anand,’ he says, ‘ask me your questions.’
Excerpts from the interview:
I found A Strangeness in My Mind fascinating particularly because I enjoy reading about people and places…
A Strangeness in My Mind is about the life of street vendors, especially street food sellers of Istanbul. In my childhood, yogurt was not a bottled product. It was sold by street vendors. In fact almost all foods – potatoes, tomatoes, corn, yoghurt, milk – were sold by street vendors. They would bring these things to our doorstep. But I’ve been living in Istanbul for the past 65 years [and now find] that this city is getting modernised.
A Strangeness… is the story of a street vendor Mevlut who has been selling things on the streets of Istanbul for 40 years. To be able to write that novel, I interviewed several street vendors of Istanbul. My Mevlut comes to Instabul, like many people, as an immigrant in the late 1960s. [Over the course of a decade], he singlehandedly builds his house and lives there with his family. Today, on the land that he built his illegal little shanty house some 40 years ago stands a high-rise of some 20 floors. So Mevlut’s story is also the story of Istanbul.
You once said you enjoy observing the city in the middle of the night to see humanity embedded in various disguises. Why middle of the night?
Because the city is more poetic at night. I used to walk a lot on the streets of Istanbul in the night, especially in my youth because I used to write my novels until around 4am [and then take a break]. That’s when I’d see packs of dogs, drunks and night watchmen roaming the streets. I like the poetry of dark nights in a big city like Istanbul and that’s why I write about it.
And why do you say they were ‘in disguises’?
Ah, this is a subject I like. I use it in my novel The Black Book. It’s a very Oriental subject. People hide their personas… their characters [behind disguises]. This is part of Arabian Nights and I like the subject. Also, all of my novels are about identity; I like the symmetry nature of identity so write about these things. Anand, I like this. Let’s talk more about such things related to books.
You started off life wanting to be a painter, then studied architecture, before picking up the pen. Has art and architecture impacted your works in any way?
Between the ages of seven and 23, I wanted to be a painter. I come from a family of engineers – my grandfather was a civil engineer, as were my father and uncles. So it was expected of me to go on to be an engineer; go to the same university where my father and uncles studied. That was what grandmother and father wanted me to do. Everyone in my family was mathematically minded so they expected I’d become a professor or an architect since I was studying painting in my childhood.
In fact I enrolled into the best architectural school in Istanbul, but after three years I dropped out because I realised that I wanted to write. I also realised I cannot be a painter in Turkey at that time because perhaps there was no tradition of painting there…. But later in life, when I became a famous writer, people began to ask me ‘Mr Pamuk, why did you quit painting and become a writer?’.
At that time I decided to write a novel about painting and painters and about painting in Islam. My Name is Red covers all the areas of classical Islamic literature. There you can read about [Persian poet] Ferdowsi and the book he wrote The Shahnameh, classical Islamic stories, miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire... My book is about Islamic miniature paintings and in that novel I dramatised classical Islamic stories in a new way, a modern way… even in a postmodern way.
You must have done a lot of research for that…
Yes. For [historical novels] I read a lot of historical books and historical novels. My greatest historical novel – and perhaps my most popular book in the world – is My Name is Red, which takes place in the 16th century among Ottoman miniature painters. It not only chronicles their lives and techniques but also of Persian and partly Indian Mughal painters and how Western influences changed the way they painted.
My Name is Red is one of my most ambitious books. It is a kind of an encyclopaedia of classical Islamic literature. I wrote that novel after reading a lot of historical books and researching extensively and studying Persian, Ottoman and Mughal miniatures of the 15th and 16th centuries. That book is a poetic work based on classical stories but written in modern idiom, modern language, modern literature.
Which is your most popular book?
In the United States and Northern countries it is Snow, but that is not my most popular book in Turkey or in Asia. Snow is popular in America and the northern European countries because it is about political Islam. Turkish and Asian readers know about Islam, [but] Americans or Northern Europeans don’t and that’s why they have read my book. The main character of Snow is a fundamentalist and next to him is someone like me – a guy who has liberal ideas but wants to live in Turkey with his ideas. He wants to belong to the community of Turkey. The character has European liberal ideas but he also wants to belong to Turkey; he wants to belong to the spirit of Islamic society…. But it’s hard to do both. This is what I wrote in Snow.
Tell us about how you craft a book.
Ah, this is a question I’m often asked. People think that in five minutes I can teach them how to write a book. Maybe I should teach this at the Columbia University and make some money – telling people how to write. (Laughs.)
I’ll be brief: First, you must have a story that you believe in or have an area of human experience. Maybe you are working in a grocery store that is very interesting; or you are a traveller; or you have an experience [to share]… maybe you have a lot of friends [and know their stories] or you know of lots of people’s experiences that you want to write about.
You need to have these to start writing a novel.
Next, you have to reduce [those experiences] to a story. You should also think about the details of the story and, most importantly – and [he leans forward] I tell you this is the most important part – you have to chapter the stories. You have to divide your story into 15 or 20 units. Then start thinking about the units one by one. This is the advice I can give you. [Laughs heartily.]
You once compared creativity to listening to an inner music. Have you attempted to understand the source of that music, the wellspring of creativity, so to speak?
A writer has many moods. Sometimes I feel poetic and write in a poetic way. Sometimes I feel very rational and then write in a very rational way. A writer is just like his characters. He experiences many moods. Finally, you edit out the moods. A novel is just like music – it carries many feelings in it. Sometimes you are poetic, sometimes you are instructive or educative, sometimes you are rational, sometimes angry, sometimes happy…
A novel is also like a tree, you have said...
My novels tend to be long, some 450 pages, some more. People believe that in just one night, I think about everything that goes into a novel. That is impossible. Human imagination is limited. I first think of the story of the book and some of the details.
Let us imagine a novel to be a tree. Right at the beginning I cannot imagine all the leaves, all the branches, all the roots. No, that is impossible. But yes, to begin with I have an idea about the trunk; I have an idea of some of the leaves, not all but some; I have an ideas of some of the roots...
The more I write about the things I know, the more details start coming to me – some of the other leaves, other branches, other roots. I use the example of the tree because people believe that a writer [has everything in mind] from the first leaf to the last leaf. That is not correct. You imagine a novel as you write it.
How much of research goes into your books?
A lot. I do a lot of research. [In the case of some books] I go into the street to ask people questions. That is also a kind of research. Sometimes, as in A Strangeness in My Mind, which is about street vendors, I go out and find these people and try to get them to talk.
Is it easy to get people to talk?
Some people talk, some don’t. Why do they not want to talk? Maybe they are afraid of politics; maybe they are afraid of other people; it could also be because they might be ashamed of their poor lives or of their struggles. People should first trust you to tell you their stories.
I’m gentle with them. I help them open up. I invite yogurt sellers, casual workers, well-diggers, drunkards to my house. We have long conversations. Once they trust me, they begin to tell me their stories. Sometimes, they would tell me ‘OK, I have told you all of my stories; now there are stories of my cousins, my brothers, uncles, sisters… there are other people who want to tell you their stories’. This is also a kind of research.
Is it easy to cut the umbilical cord with your work once it is done or do you keep going back and making more changes until it goes to press?
Editing is a normal process and, of course, you have to change. The secret to beautiful writing is changing and changing… and rewriting. It’s not that I write a book and it is immediately published. Most of my time is actually spent rewriting, correcting and changing.
Truth figures strongly in your works. Is it easy to tell the truth in today’s world?
Truth is getting very hard to communicate because of developments in media. In digital media, everyone has his or her own truth. People get their news from Facebook, learn about the world through Facebook and Twitter… They learn about the facts they want to hear, what they like and not the hard facts or the facts that they don’t want to learn. This is the subject of Western civilisation now. It is becoming very hard to tell the truth in today’s world.
You have often written about the relations between Eastern and Western civilisations. What is your take on the issue now?
My books are partly about what is known as the East-West conflict. Black Book, My Name is Red, The Red-Haired Woman are all about differences of big civilisations – the Western civilisation and Islamic or Asian civilisations. There are some differences and I like to talk about these subjects. Why? Because I am a Turk and Turkey is made up of partly Europe, and partly Islamic and Asian cultures. So this conflict interests me. But not only that, all of the political problems of East and West are also problems that shape Turkey culturally and politically. So this subject interests me a lot.
That said, I don’t believe in a clash of civilisations. I don’t believe Muslim and Western [civilisations] should clash. I don’t believe in that and worry about it. I am upset when Muslim countries have problems with Europe or America. I believe Muslim countries should be friendly with Europe and not define it as their enemy.
So, do you think globalisation has brought the two civilisations closer over the years?
Globalisation has made us come together. But very few people benefitted from globalisation. In Asian societies, underprivileged and poor people who do not benefit from globalisation, don’t like it. Globalisation works if it is successful, and the success comes if there are no class differences. Globalisation is a good thing, but unfortunately only big companies and the rich are benefitting from it.
With television and streaming platforms such as Netflix becoming increasingly popular, do you think the joys of reading are slowly disappearing? Does that worry you?
No, I’m not worried about it. This is a question people who don’t read books ask. I’m proud to say that I am a happy writer. My books have been translated into 62 languages, millions of people are reading my books. I’m not the person who will complain that people are not reading. And I’m also happy that Netflix is doing all these series; they will also be producing a series of my novels.
Could you tell us more about it?
I shall talk about them later. But [Netflix] has been in touch with me.
Do you think today’s writers are writing books with television or movies in mind? Would that affect the quality of a novel in any way?
Scripts and novels are two different things and a script writer is different from a novelist. Novelists write novels. Scriptwriters adapt their novels to movies or the TV. As to whether writers keep movies in mind when writing, I don’t know. Maybe some of your friends do that (guffaws). But seriously, I don’t think there is such a trend.
What makes you happy, Mr Pamuk?
To be totally immersed in what I’m writing, to be able to forget the rest of the world and be busy with only my novel, and to be happy with it. To be able to forget political, economic and social problems… and personal problems. I am a hard worker and I want to work hard and more. That makes me happy.
And what makes you sad?
Seeing my dreams about my country and my friends not being realised; to see that I wasted a day, that I misspent my time; seeing that social conditions in my country are not developing… Poverty and injustice are also things that make me sad.
The Nobel Prizes were announced recently. What are your memories of receiving the Nobel for literature in 2006?
I felt happy. It was not a surprise. Everyone believed I might get it. I thought I might get it perhaps after 10 years, but I got it a bit early. It gave me a lot of responsibility. It is truly such great joy – power and joy. And a great responsibility.
At the time I received the prize, I was being translated into 42 languages. Now I’m translated to 62 in over a 100 countries.
[Because there are so many readers waiting] I don’t want to waste my time. I want to write what I believe in and address all of these people.
I have nothing to criticise about the prize. Turkey, Europe, the world… they give me all the best prizes. How can I complain? I am a happy writer. I cannot complain.
With such responsibility you must also be under some stress to produce?
You are right. There is a certain amount of stress. And when I feel I am becoming [stressed out], I [start] doing things to get rid of it. When I come to Sharjah for the book fair, I will completely forget my stresses and will be happy meeting with my Arabic and international readers.
Do you prefer to live in the moment?
Sometimes. This visit to Sharjah is a possibility of living in the moment, seeing the entire Asian publishing industry in one place. I have so many Asian publishers. And I am looking forward to seeing them all.