THE WRITING LIFE ... Perihan MAĞDEN
THE FEISTY LITERATI
ALEXANDRA WONG comes away amused, awed and just a little bit intimidated by feisty PERIHAN MAĞDEN as she talks about her writing and her influences, and why she thinks competitions or creative writing courses don’t improve the quality of writing
PERIHAN MAĞDEN is one of Turkey’s most recognisable literary voices. Her newspaper column in left-wing liberal paper Radikal and her novels—including the best-selling 2 Girls, which was made into an award-winning movie—brim with “demonic wit and formal elegance,” according to her countryman and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk.
A passionate advocate of the freedom of expression (she won the 2008 Grand Award for Freedom of Speech by the Turkish Publishers Association), Mağden has earned the wrath of the Turkish Government and several trips to the courthouse for daring to go at (as reported in FAZ) “all warmongers and generals, high-handed public prosecutors and bull-headed nationalists ... with a sledgehammer in her books and her column.”
You are one of Turkey’s most popular and best-loved authors. Fellow Turkish author and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk paid you the ultimate tribute: “Perihan Mağden is one of the most inventive and outspoken writers of our time.” Did you ever imagine that you would reach this point in your life?
Imagination has nothing to do with mundane matters. I never “imagine” such topics. Life is pointless; or full of points. It doesn’t matter really. And I haven’t reached anywhere.
When and how did you get your first big break in writing? Was it difficult getting your first novel published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for your books?
If you mean fame by “break,” I got it when I became a columnist. I’ve been a published writer since I was 17. I started out with poetry. Then I wrote my novel, The Messenger Boy Murders, which was published immediately. As the singer Linton Kwesi Johnson said, “Things I do best come easily.” I can only write anyway.
You write columns, short stories, novels and poetry. How do the creative processes and challenges differ for each genre?
I wrote poems at the beginning of my career. For 10 to 15 years, I have rarely written poems. It’s not chemistry, rocket science and engineering that I’m dealing with. They are different forms of writing but easy, smooth and the same for me—just writing.
You were described as an unruly girl in your teenage years, and your mother was proud of this fact! To what extent did your formative years and experiences influence your writing?
Nothing ever influenced me more than my horrific childhood years. Nothing has been more important than my (hellish) relationship with my mother. And I think it is my only topic in my work: injuries, childhood and inability to heal.
You were once sued by the Turkish government for an article you wrote in December 2005, ‘Conscientious Objection is a Human Right.’ Were you frightened? How has the experience affected your writing in terms of your worldview, choice of subjects and your writing style?
Yes, I was very frightened when they “mobbed” me in the courthouse. They were screaming ugly names, and they were an ugly and threatening group of people. I didn’t get an enormous wave of support. Turks are cowards when it comes to this type of issues. And conscientious objection is still not a right in my country! But after the court scenes (the ugly mob with the ugly scenes) I was very embarrassed that I was so shocked and frightened that I went on writing even heavier articles. I didn’t back out; I just became louder.
You have a knack for drawing the reader into a story, so that he or she feels like an invisible participant. How did you develop this whimsical (for want of a better word) yet intensely visceral distinctive style?
A friend of mine said I have had my “writing voice” since I was a teenager. I have it naturally, I suppose.
What is a typical working day for you like? How do you brainstorm for plots and story ideas?
I avoid writing! I do anything in order not to write. If a writer claims he or she enjoys writing, he or she is (1) not a real writer, (2) a fool, (3) a conceited person, and (4) a conceited foolish person who really is not a writer.
You have been described as a playful yet serious writer. Some of the best writers have been overlooked, or worse, not taken seriously because they choose to deliver their messages in a light-hearted tone. Have you ever encouraged this issue?
Again, you’re talking about my first-born, The Messenger Boy Murders. 2 Girls is like a stone. It doesn’t make me heavyweight as a writer though.
Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
No! I think they make books much worse. Crafted. Fake. Overworked. Engineered. Manufactured.
Do you find real life interfering with your writing? How do you organise time to write, and how do you cope with distractions?
I find writing interfering with my real life. I would rather have the distractions than writing, which is a form of self-torture.
How do you know when your manuscript is completed? Do deadlines determine this or do you feel a sense of confidence that there is no way you can improve on the text anymore?
I need deadlines. Otherwise I shall prolong, delay, postpone and avoid it.
What are three of your all-time favourite books and why would you recommend them?
Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, Alberto Moravia’s Time of Desecration, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. They are modern yet timeless; they are real diamonds.
Who are some of your biggest literary influences? What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. I have seen the movie which was excellent, and now I think it’s the right time to read the book which is highly recommended by precious sources.
ALEXANDRA WONG is a Malaysian newspaper columnist and travel writer who suffers from terminal wanderlust.
Reproduced from the 2009 Singapore Writers Festival issue of Quill magazine