Interview with Elif Shafak

Posted by Goodreads on February 8, 2010
Turkish writer Elif Shafak's first novel, Pinhan, won the Rumi Prize in 1998. More than a decade later, it's fitting that her newest book, The Forty Rules of Love, circles back to the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. Couched in Rumi's philosophy of love, Shafak's book is a novel within a novel. When Ella, a disillusioned 40-year-old American housewife, reads a manuscript about Rumi, she leaves her unfaithful husband to pursue a new and unexpected love. The most widely read female writer in Turkey talked to Goodreads about how Eastern and Western modes of storytelling can be fused to create something universal.

Goodreads: What about Rumi and his poetry is special to you?

Elif Shafak: My interest in Sufism started some 15 years ago. At the time I had no idea why—I did not grow up in a spiritual or religious family, and my lifestyle had nothing in common with the Sufi philosophy. Or so I thought. But there was a part of me that was almost pulled toward Rumi as if by a magnetic force. At the beginning it was more of an intellectual pursuit. But in time it moved from my mind down into my heart. That is how I started writing this novel. I wrote it from my heart. I wanted to show how the words of a poet and philosopher who lived in the 13th century can resonate with our modern lives in the 21st century. His voice is still heard. That is why I constructed my novel along two parallel time zones and two dimensions, today and yesterday, East and West, spiritual and mundane.

GR: The Forty Rules of Love explores the bond of friendship between the poet Rumi and the wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz. How much is documented about their relationship?

ES: Every time I start a new novel I do a lot of research. I read on the subject as much as I can. As a novelist I think I have no right to be lazy. However, after reading for weeks and months, there comes a point when I stop reading and start writing. From that point onward, I do not write like a researcher who is guided by rationality or intellectual accumulation. I write with intuition. To me intuition is more important than information. So there is a lot of research behind this book, but at the end of the day it is fiction. It is pure imagination. This is the way I see Shams of Tabriz. Perhaps someone else will portray him differently. There are no absolute truths in the world of fiction. Because ours is a fluid world, it flows like water. It is not made of bricks and stones.

GR: What do readers need to know about Sufi mysticism, dervishes, or 13th century history to read The Forty Rules of Love?

ES: The themes that The Forty Rules of Love deals with are so universal and timeless that I do not think readers need any extra knowledge to follow the story. Sufis believe that we, as human beings, already "know" what we need to know, albeit they call this "the dormant knowledge." The only thing we need to do is to turn "the potential" into "the actual." And the only way to do this is to look deeper within. I believe in the power of literature to help us transcend the boundaries of the Self and to build bridges across cultures, religions, and nations. I think the ancient art of storytelling is about building connections between things, places, and people that might seem different at first glance. It is all about connections.

GR: As many of your books do, The Forty Rules of Love blends Western and Eastern ideas, characters, locales, and styles of storytelling. Why pair the story of Ella, a 40-year-old American housewife, with the tale of Rumi and Shams? What is unique about Ella?

ES: I believe in the depth and beauty of syntheses. When I am writing fiction, I like to combine the heritage of women and the oral culture with the foundations of written culture, which is more male-dominated. In a similar way, I like to combine Eastern and Middle Eastern techniques of storytelling with Western literary styles. As for having Ella as a central character, that was a deliberate choice. In many ways she is a simple woman. She is not an extraordinary character with unusual personality. She is familiar. Someone living in Michigan or someone living in Madrid or in Smyrna...we all know someone like Ella, perhaps we all are like her in some ways. In my novel Sufism is not introduced as sheer abstract theory. It is a living, breathing, moving philosophy of life. In that sense I am interested in what Sufism means for us in the modern world. I wanted to bring out how Rumi's philosophy appeals to us today, even when we seem to be miles and centuries and cultures away from it.

GR: American housewife Ella falls in love with Aziz, a modern Sufi living in Amsterdam. Their love transcends time zones, nationality, and culture. What parallels can be drawn between the challenges of experiencing love in the 13th century and today in the 21st century?

ES: There are amazing similarities between the two centuries, especially in the way civilizations, cultures, and religions clash. The age we live in harbors two opposite tendencies. On the one hand there is a growing interest in spirituality, and perhaps to a lesser degree in Sufism. On the other hand there is also a deeply rooted xenophobia and fear of each other. There is deeply rooted ignorance with regard to Islam and too many clichés and generalizations everywhere around the world. These two tendencies flow side by side. The Forty Rules of Love will come out against this kind of background. Yet at the same time, I think we all are looking for love, and we all feel incomplete without it. The story of Rumi and Shams invokes our needs and longings in the modern world.

GR: Is it true that you wrote the book separately in both English and Turkish, rather than simply translating a final draft in one language to the other? How did this exercise in language aid the creative process? How does writing in English differ from writing in Turkish?

ES: I wrote this novel in English first. Then it was translated into Turkish, after which I rewrote the translation. After that I went back to the English version and rewrote that, too. So in a way the novel was written in two languages separately. I do this because I enjoy commuting between languages the way I enjoy commuting between cultures and cities. English to me is a more mathematical language, and I love walking in its labyrinth. Turkish to me is a more emotional language. I feel connected to each in different ways. I am a commuter, a nomad in spirit. For me, writing fiction is about journeys anyhow. It is possible to be local and universal all at once. Like a compass. One leg of the compass is fixed and stable. It is local. The other leg draws a huge wide circle and travels the world. It is universal. This is how I see my fiction writing.

GR: The Bastard of Istanbul was the best-selling book of 2006 in Turkey. However, your character's mention of the Armenian genocide of World War I (a taboo subject in Turkey) brought you the criminal charge of "insulting" the nation of Turkey. Has the dialogue between artists and the Turkish government improved since 2006?

ES: Many things have changed in Turkey since then. Turkey is an amazingly complicated, multilayered country of syntheses. It moves forward very fast and has a very dynamic and young society. Literature and art play a special role here. Especially the art of the novel. Most fiction readers in Turkey are women. And women make men read, too. When The Forty Rules of Love came out in Turkey, women loved the novel, and they not only read it but they also gave it to their husbands, boyfriends, and fathers to read. It was amazing. I get so much inspiration and positive energy from the society and especially the women in my country. To me this is much more important than governments and politicians.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

ES: I read everything and anything that I find interesting and moving. I read novels all the time, but I also read philosophy. I try to read as many different styles as possible, not only one style. I feel close to many writers and philosophers. Sometimes in style, sometimes in spirit, and sometimes for no reason at all. Some of these writers are contemporary and some are voices from the past. I love Gabriel García Márquez, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Joyce Carol Oates, Edgar Allen Poe, William Blake, Balzac, A.H. Tanpınar, and Iris Murdoch. They all have influenced me at different stages of my life.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

ES: I am not someone who writes with the same pace every day. I do not have fixed working hours. Instead I have an inner pendulum. When the pendulum swings to one end, I start writing my new novel. Then I write nonstop, day and night. I feel pulled into the story, and I live with the characters inside my mind. This goes on for months and months. When the novel is over, the pendulum swings to the other end. Then I do other things. I socialize more, I travel more. I become a student of life again.

GR: What are you reading now?

ES: These days I am reading Boris Akunin and enjoying it very much. I have also just finished The Blue Mountain by Meir Shalev.

GR: What's next?

ES: I have started my new novel, so the pendulum has swung again. I have in mind an Ottoman novel, but one that deals with our innermost fears and dreams, and the pain of unreturned love.

GR: Finally, do you have a brief favorite passage or verse from the writing of Rumi that you'd like to share?

ES: Rumi says that "Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along." I find that beautiful.

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Laurie (new)

Laurie thank you, i am ordering this book now.

message 2: by Aban (Aby) (new)

Aban (Aby) What an interesting interview! Elif Shafak appears an intelligent, compassionate writer and I am eager to read her book: "The Forty Rules of Love". My thanks to Goodreads for bringing her work to my attention.

message 3: by Jules (new)

Jules This interview is quite fascinating. I like the multilayered and even multicultural approach to writing (and the writing process) that Elif Shafak talks about. I'll definitely check out this book; it seems like something I might enjoy tremendously. Thank you!

message 4: by Cans (new)

Cans I have read the book in Turkish.I know that when you begin reading this book, you won't be able to stop till you reach the end. It is a fascinating book. Elif shafak has a unique and impressive way of writing. I am planning to read the English version, too. I think it will have a different taste.Thank you for this interview.

message 5: by Irwan (new)

Irwan Such an inspiring interview! Looking forward to reading her works.

message 6: by Ahmed (new)

Ahmed Very interesting and inspiring indeed. I really liked how she was so fluid and able to combine the intellectual and emotional sides of the mind. I can't wait to read her book and see how this synthesis turns out.

Thanks for posting.

message 7: by Kay (new)

Kay Forrester It's fascinating when things move into your way to help you unravel tangled thoughts and emotions. On our summer holiday this year my friend brought a book called Rumi with passages of his peotry and philosophies.From the moment she opened the book and started reading aloud to us we were completely captured searching the pages for his insights into things happening in all our lives.I'm so glad Rumi has reappeared to me through this excellent interview and I can't wait to read Elif's book.

message 8: by Sandy (new)

Sandy Oh you are Turkish what a surprise
Can I ask you something ..
What is your religion Elif ?

message 9: by Sourov (new)

Sourov Kabir Very interesting.

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