How do you think being a poet affects one’s prose, and being a writer affect one’s poetry?
What a difficult, lovely question. I love writers who are equally strong in both forms, but they are rare. Boris Pasternak comes to mind. Joseph Brodsky too, if by prose you don’t mean only fiction. Patrick McGuinness is wonderful in verse and prose alike. Prose and poetry share a lot – an alertness to language and its rhythms most obviously – but they come to me from different places. I often start from an image and I know, almost the moment it arrives, if it’s poetry or prose. If it lingers, it’s a poem; if it starts walking or running somewhere, it’s a story. The fiction writer helps the poet by reminding her that a poem should also move from A to B. The poet tells the fiction writer that the story must be arresting too, that it should have those lines that make your heart miss a beat.
Your first book took you ten years to write, but your subsequent three you wrote in a flurry, like you were possessed. How are you feeling about your current project? Has it caught on fire with you?
The first, Inventing Ruritania, took years of research. I read hundreds of books for it. For TheAngel of Salonika, the poetry, it’s impossible to say: some poems took hours, some took months. The memoir, Chernobyl Strawberries, and the novel, Gorsky, were indeed written in a kind of possession. I thought both times that I could lose the nerve if I stopped. I don’t like to say much about the current project, but I no longer fear the loss of nerve.
In terms of ideas for your novels, you have been inspired by both The Great Gatsby and now Anna Karenina. Would you recommend to first-time authors that they look to the classics for ideas?
Anna Karenina is more oblique as an inspiration for the novel in progress than was Gatsby for Gorsky. In some ways London is much more important for both. I would not recommend the classics for ideas, nor was I necessarily looking at the classics, if by “looking” you mean something active, goal oriented. I just happen to be someone a bit boring who lives in books. If you need to look for ideas, you might be approaching the business of writing the wrong way. I am a great believer in encouraging people not to write.
You say that you’re obsessed by writer’s processes, that a keyboard is better for poetry and longhand for novels. Please can you explain?
This is just me perhaps. I start burrowing into the heart of the paragraph the moment I hit the keyboard, just because the technology makes it easy. I polish every word, find it difficult to move on. In longhand, you can only cross words out a few times before the page becomes a mess. A good way to write a chapter is to take a notebook to an empty table and just dive in. Loose sheets of paper are all too easily thrown away. A notebook represents commitment. This is my Marxist pennyworth of writerly wisdom (laughs): how the mode of production influences the superstructure.
Are you writing your current novel in longhand?
You caught me out here (laughs). This one is mixed media. If I am feeling a sense of mission when I wake up, yes. If I am feeling daunted, and need some encouragement when I show up at work, I take to the keyboard. The ticking word count bottom left soothes me. By the time I hit two or three hundred, things usually take off or, if they don’t, I take off. I have so much other work to go to; a writing day is too great a luxury to insist on having it if you are not getting anything back.
At Wordstock you said that you love being a debutante and that you appreciated the advice of writer Hanif Kureishi to move towards your fear. You’ve written a memoir, a collection of poems, short stories, a novel from a man’s perspective. What fear would you like to tackle next?
You often don’t know where your fear is until you are on the move and face the beast: then it’s fight or flight. This can mean tackling a new form, but it can also be new subject matter. I find writing about London in 1947, inside the period as it were – I am doing that now – really scary. Will I leave the mics in the frame, like some daft film producer? Will I take the wrong bus? Or will I research too much and kill every spark of freshness?
Do you think being a poet and/or a non-native English speaker influences how strongly you feel about how your novels sound spoken aloud?
Oh, yes. I read the pages out loud all the time, and I am immensely pleased when my prose gets close to poetry without being leaden. I also have to be more deliberate, more strategic about my choice of narrator. But I don’t want to pontificate here; I am speaking about two novels (one written one half-written) and a memoir. I am not a prolific writer.
English is not your mother tongue, yet you write beautifully in English. What advice would you give to a writer about finding one’s voice in a foreign land?
Thank you. Very kind. I arrived in Britain before the internet, when writing in your mother tongue felt so much more isolating. You submitted pieces by post and often had no idea if they got there until, very many months later, the postman delivered a literary journal with your poem or your essay in it. My advice now would be: you don’t have to write in the language of your host country, you can keep writing in your mother tongue. If you do write in a foreign language, do not think of it as a handicap; find ways in which it is an advantage.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?
Yes. I was four or five when I started saying it out loud. I am aware that makes me sound like a precocious member of some cult. Perhaps I am.
If you couldn’t be a writer what would you do?
The question does not really apply. I grew up in a relatively poor country where no one could be a writer in the sense of writing full time, writing for a living. There was just not enough money in it. So I always knew I had to do something else too, and I have been in full time employment since my early twenties. I worked in publishing, I worked for the BBC for ten years, I have been an academic for eighteen. I became professor in English literature, then I started teaching creative writing, and that is what now takes most of my time. So the question might equally be: if you could be a writer, what would you do?
What books are on your bed table?
I have too many books on the go all the time. My students’ books, bound proofs from publishers, books written by friends, novels everyone is talking about, classics I haven’t managed to read when I was a student of comparative literature at Belgrade. I still keep the recommended reading lists (laughs). So my bed table is a mess. There are teetering piles of books all around it, and under the bed. I have just finished Elena Lappin’s lovely memoir, What Language Do I Dream In? I was struck by the title: it is a question I am often asked. I am about to read Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, which comes out next year and sounds riveting.