Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Tamim Sadikali - Dear Infidel




Tamim Sadikali is a software developer by day, novelist by night. His first novel Dear Infidel "a story of love, hate, longing and sexual dysfunction, sifted through the fallout from the war on terror" is already making waves, though it's not out until August 1. You can follow Tamim on Twitter, check out his blog, and read his reviews at BookMunch. We asked Tamim about the writing life:

How do you balance the day job with your writing?
My life as a software developer and business analyst couldn’t be further removed from writing fiction. Yes, software can be creative, but business analysis involves many meetings and often tricky negotiations, and money is foremost in everyone’s mind. When I write fiction, my only need is for splendid isolation. Writing is a kind of meditation, and I’m torn out of the moment if I so much as hear another soul. I don’t have a writing schedule (and with two very young kids, regulating it would never work). I keep a scratch pad on me at all times, and whenever an idea strikes I put it down. To flesh it out and refine it then takes anything from a few hours to a couple of years… Patience is indeed a virtue.


Tell us about your path to publication.
I started writing Dear Infidel over ten years ago, and right from the beginning, my intention was to get it published. I ignored all reality checks (statistical likelihood etc), and saw every rejection as just another bend in the road. I never doubted that I’d reach journey’s end. What I didn’t appreciate at the time, though, was how little I knew about the craft – the science – of writing; that there was more to it than stringing together a couple of cute sentences. It is a truism that practice makes perfect, but in my experience, real learning – and real improvement – needs honest feedback, too. I don’t mean asking your friends what they think, or relying on views from those writers’ circles where everything gets a thumbs-up. I paid for critiques, and had my work torn apart, and boy did it hurt – but it was priceless.

I also went to many, many workshops – I found Spread the Word’s events particularly useful. Johanna Bertie of Chapter One Promotions unofficially mentored me in the early days, and gave me some great tips – for example, when you read your own work, read it out aloud, as if performing to an audience – the flaws become transparent. I came runner up in C1P’s 2008 shortstory competition - and my entry can be found in that compilation. I’ve also had a ‘vignette’ published by the magnificent Vine Leaves Literary Journal.

You’ve got a maths degree and a career in computing. What has the reaction of your family and friends been?
I didn’t get into writing by design – in truth, I stumbled across it. One night, for a reason that I still don’t know, I just picked up pen and paper and began scribbling. Over the next few days I kept on scribbling, and within a week I had over 10,000 words worth of scribbles. (Some of that has actually made it into Dear Infidel). And by then I was hooked. But after the initial excitement of wanting to tell the world that ‘I’m writing a novel!’, I decided to keep that part of my life secret.
My family are so proud; really made up for me. I must especially mention my wife, from whom I stole so much of what should have been ‘couple’ time, to lock myself away and write. Sometimes she understood and sometimes she didn’t, but I was selfish and did it anyway. Farah – thank you. 

What does it mean to be a British Muslim writer in 2014? Or are you simply a writer and other labels are meaningless?
I’m British, I’m Muslim and I’m a writer – I’m comfortable with all that. Does that, though, make me a ‘British Muslim writer’..? It would be churlish to deny how big a part my own experience has played, in shaping my first novel. But in no way would I accept being pigeonholed. If I choose next to write about a gay, Irish New Yorker, I will. Good fiction resonates across boundaries – categorizations such as British, American or ‘ethnic’ are fine as reference points to the story, but certainly not to any (potential/likely) audience. I can think of no greater insult than to be told my work would only appeal to some well-defined subset. 

Did you face any technical challenges in writing it? Or did it ‘write itself’?
Irvine Welsh has said that ‘…you have to respect the blank page’, and there is much in that. However I don’t see writing as an exercise in ‘free-styling’ – previous experiments were too hit-and-miss. At the other end, I once read a book on novel writing that reduced the whole thing to a sum of parts, like manufacturing widgets or assembling IKEA furniture: connect A to C and D to F, tighten all the screws and Hey Presto!...you’ve got yourself a bestseller. Frankly, I found that approach appalling. Over the years I’ve worked out my own Zen middle-path, wherein I first become clear on what I’m really trying to say, and thereafter just roll with it.
I consciously spent time on making my characters believable. The challenge was not only to give each of them a unique voice, but also to ensure that ‘their’ voice, their POV on life, was not polluted by mine. I found this very hard to achieve. There is also an inherent contradiction in this as I am, through the vehicle of my characters, trying to say something; but nevertheless – once a character is reduced to a mere mouthpiece for the writer, they are effectively dead. Another great tip I got from Johanna was that the story had always to continue moving forward. Every chapter, every scene had to contribute to the wheels turning. I edited out over 20,000 words on this principle alone. If a passage – however well written – does not contribute to an unfolding story, it is dead weight. These and other aspects to the craft of writing, I learnt organically and slowly. It took me three years to write this novel, and a further seven years to edit.

Who are your favourite writers?
I love Irvine Welsh – the rawness, the honesty of his writing really appeals to me. And that his characters are so variegated – i.e. able to evoke love, hate, disappointment and awe – gives his stories real depth. Marabou Stork Nightmares is my favourite novel of all time. There aren’t any other writers whose body of work interests me, but some novels have really left their mark – The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson and The Fattest Man in America by Christopher Nicholson. I read The 25th Hour by David Benioff as I began writing Dear Infidel, and I was so impressed, it made me doubt my ability to produce something of a similar standing. Whether I have, I’ll leave for others to decide… 

What are your tips for aspiring writers?
Of course, keep writing. But beyond that, get honest feedback on your work. Pay for it, if need be. And attend writers’ workshops. I found that just the mere act going somewhere new and being around different people, sparked some moment of epiphany. 

What now?
Play more squash. Take my kids swimming more than once a week. Try to be a bit more romantic, and less of an automaton. I’m also sitting on a collection of short stories that’s about 60% complete. I’d love to see that project through.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Gooseberries



Chekhov's Gooseberries is one of three linked stories featuring the old vet Ivan Ivanich, high school teacher Burkin, and reluctant country farmer Alekhin.  Ivan Ivanich and Burkin are on a walking holiday together, and the men tell stories to pass the time. Burkin’s tale features in The Man in a Case, Ivan Ivanich’s in Gooseberries and Alekhin’s in About Love.

Each tale within a tale illuminates a problem, an aspect of life: The Man in a Case is about a man who shields himself from life with external protections and coverings: galoshes, an umbrella but also inflexible and judgemental attitudes than eventually cause his undoing. Ivan Ivanich’s tale is about a brother who acts most unscrupulously in pursuit of his dream of country life and growing his own gooseberries; and Alekin’s tale is about the pointlessness of undeclared love.

Gooseberries has ambiguity in spadeloads, and nothing that resembles a traditional plot. It feels perplexing if you read it as a standalone story, but with its companions it makes more sense, though we are left with a tangle of ideas, no moral.  FrancineProse writes: “I have often thought that Chekhov stories should not be read singly, but as separate parts of a whole. For like life, they present contradictory views, opposing visions.” I find this profoundly reassuring: it’s not just my leaning towards longer narrative: these stories make more sense when read together – and if Francine Prose says so it MUST be true.

Prose says Chekhov breaks all the rules she tried to teach her creative writing students. Instead they have “the impact of direct experience” as one blogger describes it.
As writers perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Chekhov is to learn to observe and absorb life, and reflect something of its mysteries back on the page.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Short stories and photographs



  'Isn’t it odd how much more one sees in a photograph than in real life?' [said Virginia Woolf] This gives us, I think, a clue to the enduring power and appeal of the short story – short stories are snapshots of the human condition and of human nature, and when they work well, and work on us, we are given the rare chance to see in them more 'than in real life.' ”


-          William Boyd from his essay A Short story of the Short Story