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Ian McMillan's Writing Lab interviews: Hanif Kureishi on... narrative

Updated Friday, 12th January 2007
Hanif Kureishi describes the process of narrative, starting with by talking about writing about his own life.

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There are all sorts of memoirs which are quite different to the memoir which I wrote, which is, in fact, extremely respectful towards my father and full of love, but there are other memoirs which are very popular these days of children who have been abused, children who have had sexual relationships with their parents or whose parents have been alcoholic or violent or whatever. And some of these memoirs are extremely powerful and extremely effective, and I would imagine that the writer probably went through a much harder time writing the stuff down than I did writing about my daddy.

Do you use any kind of aide memoire when you're writing that memoir, or even in your fiction?
When I was writing My Ear at His Heart, I had the manuscripts of my father's novels and some of these were hand-written, and they were written on odd bits of paper and backs of envelopes and so on. I also looked at some photographs of dad and mum, and so on.

You know, all writing's difficult, but it might make it easier for you to look at a photograph, it might not make it easier. In the end you just have to sit down for a long time at a desk and fiddle around with these words and put that in that order and then turn it around again all day. There's no way round the real difficulty of writing. And I think writing about your family may be more painful than something that is probably more disguised because you're going to be aware all the time of the feelings of the other people around you, and of the danger of what it is you're saying.

I mean one of the things, I mean, one of the reasons why people want to write their memoirs or whatever, or they want to take up what's now known rather oddly as life writing, is that they want to say things that they haven't had the opportunity to say before, so they may well find themselves saying things that are rather dangerous or difficult, and this is going to be quite a perilous occupation actually.

I mean even if the person's dead you're still going to imagine that they're going to come round and bonk you one for saying these things. So you have to live with this as a writer, and it's not an easy thing to do, but this desire to speak and the desire to say something that probably you haven't said before, perhaps to your parents who didn't understand in certain ways, this remains a very powerful thing.

Is there one tip or principle you can subscribe to that you think that, you know, as an aspiring writer you should just how you order your narrative, whether it's non-fiction, whether it's fiction?
I think writers always want one or two tips, you know, as though that's going to make them better writers. There really aren't any tips, you know, because in the end being a writer is like being a professional sportsman or a dancer, you know, you're trying to attain a very high level of achievement. So there aren't little things that you can do, there are only big things you can do, which is that you have to spend an enormous amount of time working very hard on this material, I think.

But I would say one thing is probably necessary for all writers, which is a kind of ruthlessness with your material, you really have to have the ability to go through it and take stuff out, and it's really painful to do that and to move it around, because you think "oh that bit's really good, God, that page is fantastic", and then you look at it a month later and it looks completely terrible, but you can't bear to take it out because you like the way you wrote it at the time and so on, and you go through all these conflicts in your head. But there's no easy way to be a writer, and why should there be, it's got to be difficult otherwise it's no fun.

Do you have separate kind of files or folders for your characters, or how much back-story do you work out in your own head for each character?
The characters have to develop because that's what's interesting for the audience, ie to identify with a character and then for you to push that character probably into some sort of perilous or difficult place. The characters develop as the story develops, and the characters develop as families develop, ie they all develop together.

And one of the things about taking real people, for instance, and putting them in a book is that they become less like the real people and more like imaginative recreations. So you may take this person who lives round the corner and looks like so and so, but after five hundred pages they become something else.

And that's one of the pleasures of imaginative recreation, I guess, which is the writing of fiction, is that actually it does leave reality quite far behind, it becomes like a sort of parallel world or dream world. So, in that sense, you really aren't taking real people or you're taking them only as a beginning, but in fact they relate to you in the way that a dream relates to you. I mean these are real people but in the dream they become symbols, they become something else.

Do they all need to have an existence that's outside of the novel for you to understand how they would behave, or do you just let them, they just, it comes alive on the page as it were?
You spend a lot of time when you're writing a novel which, after all, is quite a substantial piece of work, there's a lot of words in a novel and there's a lot of stuff, you know, you have to put in to make a novel work. And you spend a lot of time weighing up the balance between what's now known as the back-story and the present actually. And you can only experiment and take stuff out and put stuff back in and so on, you don't want too much back-story because it slows it down. On the other hand, you need a certain amount of back-story because you can't make any sense of where the characters come from.

But this can only be done, it's practical work really, you know, how much of this do we need, is it slowing up the story, shall we move it somewhere else, and so on and so on. I mean the thing is that writers often put all this material in the wrong place, they often put it just at the beginning, for instance, so you wade through all this stuff before the story actually kicks in, and you might need to distribute it more carefully among the pages.

But this is something you can learn actually probably from studying other people's work. You know, if you read a novel, let's say, by a very good writer like, I don't know, Graham Greene, it's quite possible to go through a novel by Graham Greene and see how he distributes the information, where he puts the stuff in. Actually, someone like Greene puts in very little from the past, and yet you do get a real sense of his characters, a real sense of their briefcases and their raincoats and the city and so on. And it's a good idea to study the way he does that and see how he just does it through little, very careful details.

What's one of the sort of openings to any novel that you really love, that you think is most successful?
Well, may favourite novel is probably The Remembrance of Things Past, by Proust, it's a novel which I've read twice and I really enjoyed reading. I don't have the time now to read it again I don't think, but I did enjoy reading it and I spent many months reading these damn very, very long books. And I love the opening of the book, it's very languid, very slow and you know you're in for a slow, languid time. For a long time I used to go to bed early. It's not very exciting, it's not really that sexy, I mean he goes to bed as a child alone, but it makes me think of long afternoons lying on the sofa.

But I've got a very good editor at Faber & Faber called Walter Donaghue, and he goes through my work and he's vicious person, you know, and I look at it and I really can't bear some of the cuts he makes, and then I think about them and I think he is probably right about a lot of this stuff, so I think it's a good idea to have a good editor.

I don't mean a member of your family, I don't even mean a friend actually, but somebody who really has the knowledge to go through your work and to point out to you the fact that it would be much better if it was half as long.

Where do you write?
I write at home now. Sometimes I write in cafes, I make notes in cafes, I write on aeroplanes. The other day I was writing during the Arsenal-Chelsea match, which is a good thing to do.

So I can sit in front of the telly and I'll have my computer on my knee and I can sit there tapping away and watch a bit of telly, which I find obviates some of the terrible boredom of being a writer.

But I think if you're a writer it's not the writing, it's not really the sitting down writing that's important, it goes on in your head all the time, you know, you're always thinking about it, maybe this bit, maybe that bit, when I do this, when I do that. You know, you kind of worry about it all the time, it's a full time job. It's more than a full time job actually.

I write by hand, I'd rather write by hand. I write by hand first and then I'll stick it all in the computer later on because it's a nightmare, you can't walk around with, you know, 160,000 words written, hand-written, you know, you put it in the computer and it makes it easier to organise it, but I prefer writing by hand. And, in fact, most of the writers that I know will probably say to you that they actually write by hand with fountain pens.

After all, when you're a child you don't learn to type until quite late. You probably don't learn to type until you're a teenager, until late teenager, but there's something hard wired into your brain about writing by hand, which is something rather sensual actually. It's like drawing for me, writing, actually. I like using my hand across the page, I like the ink, I like making the shapes and so on. So that writing in a sense becomes almost a practical activity rather than only an intellectual one.

I don't read much fiction when I'm writing. And I think you'll find that a lot of writers will probably say that to you. You're not going to sit around all day writing a novel and then lie down in the evening and then read another novel, you know. Because, first of all, you want to get away from novels and, secondly, you don't want to get the other writer's voice in your head. So I tend to read newspapers, and I tend to read non-fiction. At the moment I'm reading books about psychiatry, as it happens, because I'm interested in psychiatry. But I like the fact that the writing is just informative, you know, non-fiction writing isn't on the whole intended to be beautiful, and so it sort of cleans my brain as it were.


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