35. Conversation with A U Latif

This is the first of an occasional series of conversations with other authors about their work. Last week’s post reviewed A U Latif’s debut novel Songs from the Laughing Tree. This week he talks about the process of creating the book.

Laughing Tree
This is an extraordinary first novel, full of poetry and succulent prose. What’s the story behind writing it? Why did you write this book?

As with all my writing, there is never a set goal or plan; I write to write, for the pleasure of writing and having written. Although it can be a laborious process, it is a labour of love. Songs from the Laughing Tree was definitely that. It took around five years to complete, through sporadic outbursts of inspiration, buckets of sweat, harsh editing, and long, silent bouts of procrastination.

I pin the birth of the novel sometime in 2010 during an exceptionally stagnant stretch of writer’s block. I’d written a good 20 – 30,000 words of a now stillborn manuscript and was forced to see months of hard work go down the drain. As the saying goes, a writer writes. To clear my head, I wrote something completely random—the first thing that popped into my mind—to get the juices flowing. The fruit of that session became the second chapter of my novel. On its completion, I put the scene away somewhere in the netherparts of my computer and stumbled across it a few weeks later. Intrigued by the characters, I wanted to know more about them. So I gave each of them backstories. Later, when the notion of an emperor with thirty wives and three hundred daughters in a palace by a lake in a snow globe came to mind, I knew I had the trappings of a good Arabian Nights style story!

Story is a significant word, and looking back I sometimes feel I’ve let it take a backseat to the prose. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel my style has evolved since then, and this book marks a clear (if not surprising) snapshot of the writer I was at the time. Songs was heavily influenced by the books I was concomitantly reading, most notably Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I fell deeply in love with the Russian’s master prose, his genius for creating intense, colourful scenes with a single well-placed word here and there; and the Indian’s playful, meandering, orotund and sometimes irreverent narratorial voice. I wanted to blend those two styles together with my own voice; and thus came Songs.

Why do you write? And how do you write?

As before, I write for the sheer pleasure of writing. In the same manner as many of my contemporaries and forebears, I blended my English upbringing with my subcontinental heritage. I am of Pakistani descent, although I look more fondly to India, which lends much more romance to my prose..

The initial draft of Songs was written with a purely European frame of reference. It still featured a snow globe encapsulating a city, but the city was a gothic grotesquery that I struggled to connect with. My playful narratorial voice did not feel authentic or, more fundamentally, true in the world I was creating, and it was only when I read Midnight’s Children that I realised I could write from the, shall we say, less solemn Indian perspective. It seems so obvious now, but then I was much more naïve. When I am writing, I put all my favourite books on a shelf above me

The writing process was very tough at times. Some scenes would simply tumble forth onto the page. Whole chapters could go by like this, and they were so perfectly formed that they required very little editing. Other chapters were very difficult and would leave me in no mood to write for months at a time. Without expecting the book to see the light of day, I didn’t set myself to a rigorous schedule, and so I wasn’t too disheartened to let the months pass without setting down a single word. Early feedback by fellow writers on Webook enlightened me on how challenging the prose could be. As such I didn’t anticipate the book would find much luck with modern publishers, considering the books that sell might not be the same as those I wished to write. However, Hannah and the other staff at Webook read the first three chapters and saw promise in it. They offered to publish the book before it was even finished, which was definitely a confidence boost, providing the impetus for me to finally complete it. I was given my first taste of a deadline and a much more concrete motive.

I’ve started work on a new novel now, and have gradually taken to a more strict approach of how much I will (or, rather, must) write per day. I think it is a vital aspect of the art if you wish to do it professionally.

I guess you’d describe this as magic realism. What is it about magic realism that appeals to you?

At the heart of it, there is an indescribable element to such literature that appeals to me. I was just starting to plant my feet in it (“literature, as opposed to “stories” or “books”) and I found the works I loved best just happened to be magical realism. Something about the fantastical being treated as mundane was so charming, much in the same way I find deadpan comedy the funniest. I do love fantasy and science fiction and I’ve never been too fond of pure realism. I read books to escape reality, not to immerse myself in it. Magical realism seems to offer the perfect blend of both. It offers the ordinary lives of ordinary people, but allows magic and wonderment to permeate the world in a sweet, subtle fashion.

For me, reading the book was like taking mind-altering drugs, because of the way story threads interweave with each other until I didn’t know any more which story was which. Was it your intention to create this effect, or was that accidental?

It was not my intention for the book to have this effect, but it is very interesting to hear this is how it came across for you. The blending of the stories was definitely intentional. It was to represent the manner by which the narrator’s own life influenced the fairytale he creates. Eventually the two tales clash together by the end and it was my intent to leave the reader unsure which element exclusively belonged to which narrative strand.

Is it your natural style of writing or did you have to work at it? What techniques did you use?

For me, one of the most potent techniques was the use of metaphor, a complex layering of words, to bridge the gap between one reality and another.

It took time to work at, but once I got it came much easier. I like to think I perfected the prose with the opening chapter, which was written much later in the process. I framed the rest of the chapters against this style. It must be understood that the prose is written as if being spoken by the main character, so I wanted him to have his own unique voice. This concept of layering words, phrases and metaphors, with meandering thoughts thrown in here and there, is very typical of the Indian fashion of storytelling. It follows a more oral tradition, with raconteurs telling tales to an audience, much in the same way people flock to cinemas to watch films. As such, I intended for this book as one to be heard as opposed to simply being read, similar to the works of James Joyce, in which there is a real music to the Irish (or “Oirish”) brogue.

It’s a very “technical” book. Many of the sentences are long, there’s a succulent layering of adjectives, and of course there’s the interweaving of stories. Does it trouble you that it may be difficult to read? Where do you think is the intersection between what the author needs to do for the reader, and what the reader needs to do to meet the author half way?

I’ve never been one to hold my reader’s hand. I find joy in being challenged by literature, in coming back to it, giving it the time it deserves, and unravelling the layers of imagination beneath all those words.

I did get some early feedback from other members of Webook, some of whom said they struggled to get through the density of the prose, which was perhaps a little discouraging. Being an insider to the writing process, I couldn’t perceive the convolution. But I have come to realise that I don’t read Songs as I might read other books with more direct prose. Some readers did give it a second chance, much as you did, and discovered their own way of reading it that made the somewhat languorous pace come alive. For the beauty of the prose, for the depth of the characters, for the poetry and rhythm and musicality of the words. There is more than one way to read the book, I am sure, and I hope people can find their own way to enjoy it.

I do think there is a point where an author can go too far, however. Now that I have developed as a writer, I have come to understand the power of pace and plot. Beautiful prose is an excellent element to capture in a novel, but keeping your reader engaged is just as masterful.

Ultimately, ambiguity makes art timeless. A work of art only persists as long as people still have reason to talk about it and ask questions of it. If everything is laid out before the reader in black and white, it does not lend itself to interpretation or discussion. It does not become personal to the reader. It loses the spark of life that bore it into the world.

What comes next?

I’ve only just started to get back into the swing of writing again. I took some time out following the completion of Songs and began to focus on other creative ventures. Music has been dominating most of my time.

Writing seems to have taken a second fiddle, but I have a new idea for a second novel. It’s going to involve similar elements of magical realism and will again be set in a fantasy version of India, but this will also incorporate elements of steampunk. I have the characters in mind, the setting, the main arc of the story, and I’ve come to develop a regular habit of writing. I’ll be looking to send it to an agency when it’s done and test my work against established publishers. Fingers crossed for that.

What are your three top tips for writing?

Read and write. Those are the top two. You’ll never get anywhere without doing either of those. When you read, you need to read with a writer’s eye. If you like something in a novel you need to learn how the writer did it and apply it to your own writing. That’s not to say copy what they did, but simply use their work as an example. See how they structure sentences, paragraphs, chapters. See how they build characters, story arcs, side plots. See how they incorporate twists and see if you can pick out how they use language to convey mood and tone. When you write, read what you written. Read it aloud. There is no better way of picking up kinks and flaws.

The last tip, I suppose, is to enjoy yourself. You will never be a successful writer if you don’t enjoy it. Those who write for fame or money should choose another career pronto. Being a writer means struggling, working hard, isolating yourself from friends and family, finding truths within yourself that you didn’t know where there and perhaps didn’t want to know were there.

In the end, in the immortal words of Hemingway, there is nothing to being a writer; all you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.

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