Interview with Orhan PamukPosted by Goodreads on November 10, 2015
I spoke with Pamuk by phone about the vanished world of boza sellers ("street vendors are the songbirds of the streets," he writes, "they are the life and soul of Istanbul"), the necessity of writing from multiple perspectives, and the tiny, significant details that animate his novels.
A Strangeness in My Mind, is another epic about Istanbul and Turkey, and also very much a view from the street up. Tell me about your decision to tell this story through the vehicle of Mevlut Karatas, a street vendor.
Orhan Pamuk: Well, you know, novels are not only about upper middle-class intellectuals and middle-class life. This time I very much wanted to see my city through the eyes of a lower-class street vendor. So once I began to really think of this novel, I asked myself, Where did this guy come from? And almost immediately, after I did my research and interviews with people, I realized that all the boza and yogurt vendors came to Istanbul in the 1950s and '60s from the same part of the country. This is the essential thing about immigrants, no matter what businesses they do: If someone is successful, they invite the next guy, who invites the next guy, who invites his cousin, etc. So I wanted to write about people who built their homes with their own hands, on the land where today, 50 and 60 years later, skyscrapers are now standing. I wanted to tell this epic story, never forgetting that the hardest thing is not talking to people and getting the facts correct; what was important was representing the individuality of my main character. It's all about that!
GR: The novel is also a portrait of a very polyglot Istanbul, influenced, as you say, by waves of immigrants and refugees. Perhaps reflecting that, you've created a book made up of a chorus of voices with shifting points of view and a variety of perspectives.
OP: Yes, perhaps that's something of the postmodernist in me! I actually decided to write this novel in an old-fashioned, 19th-century, Stendhal kind of way. But after many, many interviews with street vendors and political figures and so many others, I realized that the third-person singular voice wasn't sufficient to create the sense of authenticity I wanted, the sounds and colors of so many people. So I decided to intercut the old-fashioned, 19th-century novel with first-person singular voices, to manipulate the book in such a way that it is still a coherent story but from many points of view. Why not add a little originality?
The Museum of Innocence—which is unusual for a novel. Tell me about these added elements.
OP: OK, a family tree—that's common. But keep in mind there are so many characters that even Turkish readers will get confused, so a family tree helps with the reading of a 600-page book. There are lots of cousins marrying each other—it gets confusing! But a chronology and index—I argue that after digital technology, it's possible and cheap to do an index. You want to read a page of a character again, why not have an index? What's wrong with that? I think we novelists haven't been innovative enough to benefit from the developments in technology. What's wrong with having an index? Some critics in Turkey, and internationally, have said it's something of a spoiler. I say, No, novels are not just about the subjects but about tiny, little, beautiful details. I care about my novels—of course, I care about the story line, but I also care about the galaxy of little, little details! And I collect these details like a person collecting jewelry or small coins.
GR: Yes, you've actually created a real museum in Istanbul out of some of the small, precious details found in your novel The Museum of Innocence.
OP: Yes, I'm that kind of novelist, where moments and objects and literary experience and details count. A story should be the line that connects all these details.
GR: Another unique aspect of this book is the wonderful cover design. You did the artwork, right?
OP: Don't tell anyone that I'm a failed artist!
OP: Yes, it's true, as I wrote in Istanbul, that I wanted to be a painter when I was young. But in this case what happened was that Chip Kidd, one of the greatest American book designers, said to me, "Orhan, can I see some of your art?" And then he took one picture and made it bigger and asked me for more. He gave me instructions by email: "Do this! Do that!" And so I also gave him what's now on the jacket cover. It was a real joy working with him. So, yes, the artwork is mine, but the design—which is more important—is Chip's.
GR: Here's a question from Goodreads member Np: "You've written so poignantly about the melancholy of Istanbul. Have you experienced other cities outside of Turkey that have had a similar effect on you despite their geographical or cultural differences?"
OP: Well, I've been warned by many people that Portuguese cities like Lisbon have a similar quality, called saudade. And there are other places that people associate with that feeling of sadness, post-empire places that are now relatively poor. But when I travel, I'm a happy tourist. I don't feel sad at all. For me, this is a feeling that only locals can feel and writers can express. If you live in Istanbul, you feel it! However, a younger generation of Turkish readers have said to me that Istanbul is now a more colorful, happy town! Since 1972, over the past 40 years, as it's gotten richer, perhaps Istanbul has lost some of its melancholy feeling.
GR: Goodreads member Deepa wonders, "Among the wealth of characters in A Strangeness in My Mind, who was the most difficult to create?"
OP: Mevlut, the main character, because he carries the vitality, the strength, of the novel. There is this prejudice running through the history of the novel that it is hard to explore, develop, and exhibit the full humanity of a lower-class character. They are treated as either melodramatic or background to the middle-class intellectuals who are worried about them; we never see their interiority. I made it my first constraint in this novel not to have any middle-class characters; or if there are, to have them start out as lower class first. In such a work you have to be very inventive, very humorous, very clever. Your characters should fight back, exhibit their humanity, their own particular language. I didn't want to write a kind of Émile Zola novel, where the lower classes are passive and unimaginative. I wanted to make a world of their humanity!
GR: Goodreads member Brian says, "From a Western point of view one of the things I've found most interesting in your books is the way you depict the 'Eastern' culture of Istanbul, something that may be taken for granted by your local audience. As your international reputation has grown, especially after winning the Nobel Prize, has your writing become more conscious of this international readership? Has it affected any of the choices you've made in your recent books?"
My Name Is Red, I was doing an interview in Europe, and I remember this distinctly, one journalist said, "Wow, your book is an encyclopedia of Islamic painting and culture! It's a very enjoyable novel, but unfortunately some of us in Europe feel that we are missing a lot because we don't know these old Islamic stories, etc." And I said, "Don't worry, Turkish readers don't know, either!" The same situation applies more or less to Mevlut because my Turkish readers have said, "My God! We learned so much!"
GR: Can you tell us a bit about your basic writing routine and process?
OP: The secret to being a writer, of course, is discipline. I am a hard worker, an obsessive worker, and I also know that production grows exponentially according to the amount of time you spend at your desk. If you spend three hours writing three pages, in ten hours you can write 30 pages! It grows exponentially, though it consumes your soul! I work hard—coffee and tea have been my friends all my life! I write, then I give it to my publisher, and when it comes back, I change, change, and change it! The secret to writing well is editing and re-editing.
GR: I've read that for you walking the streets at night has also been an important part of the creative process.
OP: Yes, especially before my daughter was born I used to write until four in the morning. In this book, Mevlut has lots of my nocturnal and solitary habits, and my own walks helped me develop his character. I share Mevlut's imagination! All my life, especially when I was a teenager, my friends would tell me, "You have a strange mind!" Then one day I came across the William Wordsworth quote that is one of the book's epigraphs ["I had melancholy thoughts ... / a strangeness in my mind, / A feeling that I was not for that hour, / Nor for that place"] and I decided that one day I'd write a novel about this idea. It turned out to be Mevlut's story, and it took me six years.
OP: I've learned a lot from William Faulkner. I really care about variations on points of view—that is, telling a story through various characters, implying that there is not one single truth, that everyone has some truth. I've been doing this in many of my novels, and as you can see in this one, even changing the rules and developing them.
GR: Are there specific Faulkner books you'd like to mention?
OP: OK, now that we're talking about Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying—these are important books for me. But these are not easy books, be warned! If you want great books—don't forget I'm teaching a course at Columbia called "Art of the Novel"—perhaps the greatest novel ever is Anna Karenina. And the greatest political novel, though you don't expect it to be political, is Dostoyevsky's The Possessed.
OP: Well, I'm just starting to read Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, since my daughter was shocked to realize I had never read it! She just bought me a copy and told me to start it right away! I've heard so much praise for this book, how it's a world all its own, so I'm thrilled to finally start reading it!
Interview by Anderson Tepper for Goodreads. Anderson is on the staff of Vanity Fair and has written on books and authors for a variety of publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and The Paris Review Daily. He is also on advisory committees for both the Brooklyn Book Festival's international stage and PEN World Voices, where he has moderated conversations with the authors Nuruddin Farah, Ben Okri, Rian Malan, and José Eduardo Agualusa, among others.
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