Article published on March 5, 2012.
He currently lives in Barcelona. The Golden Scales is his first crime novel.
Are you a bookgeek?
I’ve probably been a bookgeek for as long as I can remember. I hoard books so that I always have several stacks waiting to be read. I think it’s probably what you might call an obsession. I’ve lost a lot of books along the way, too, but if I once had a certain edition, I always try to find the same edition again, even if there are newer and better editions available.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?
The two best pieces of advice I know are; if you think something is finished, think again. I have a feeling that comes from Elmore Leonard. I try to remember that every day. And the other one is simply read as much as you can. You can always learn something, even from bad writing.
Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
In recent years I have probably read more detective fiction than anything else. I try to read as widely as possible, starting with the classics – Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Hammett, and a lot of new writers I had never paid much attention to before; Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos. I probably lean more towards the European writers in terms of pace and subject matter; Andrea Camilleri, Petros Markaris, Leif Persson, Jo Nesbø, Åsa Larsson, etc. I’m always on the look out for new writers to read, so ask me tomorrow and I’ll probably give you a different list.
Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
Writing just for yourself would be incredibly self-indulgent and I’m not sure the results would be particularly interesting. You want people to enjoy your writing, otherwise what’s the point. Naturally, you have someone in mind, an ideal reader who understands everything you want to say. Still, it’s always a nice surprise when someone tells you that it actually worked, that they enjoyed reading it!
Where do you write, and why?
Most of the time I am at home in a dark room lined with books, but since I tend to travel a lot I’ve learned to adapt to whatever environment I am in. Once I am working, however, it takes a lot to disturb me. I can work in railway stations or in airports. I used to write with my baby daughter on my knee when she was small.
Tell us the book you most wish you had written.
The English Patient. A sublime novel which probably exerted far too much influence on me at a certain stage.
You’re an established literary novelist. What motivated you to delve into genre territory?
There are lots of stories I want to tell and not enough time to tell them in. Genre fiction tends to move more swiftly than the world of literary fiction. I’ve always had an interest though and certainly there are elements of crime fiction in my previous work.
Do you think we’ll ever see a day where a crime novel wins the Booker?
I don’t see why not. I think the exclusion of crime fiction creates an artificial barrier. The Booker should be about the best novel of the year and nothing more.
Economic inequality is a major theme in The Golden Scales, as is football. How are footballers who land lucrative contracts in Europe perceived by their African countrymen?
Everyone dreams of coming to Europe and making big money. It’s not surprising. All over the continent people follow the European teams. Besides, in many parts of Africa the middle class is disappearing, which means that there is little to aspire to for many young people. Education is no longer the key to a secure future, so people are struggling to find their way. For many people football is just another way of dreaming yourself out of your present difficulties.
Makana is a fascinating character, and could comfortably sustain a series. Is that likely, or do you see The Golden Scales as a one-off?
Makana came up after several failed attempts at trying to write a crime novel. He was the key. Once I had him I knew he would provide the structural support for whatever I wanted to write about. The idea was always to do a series that would stretch out over the events of the last decade. I’ve just finished the second one and am already planning the third.
Can any positives ever come from religion involving itself in matters of state?
Religion and politics are a dangerous mix. In many parts of the world religion and religious institutions play a major role in providing people not only with spiritual comfort but with material help, food, clothes, medical assistance, etc. But that’s as far as it should go. Religion is a private matte and should remain well separated from state affairs. Being an authority on religion doesn’t automatically qualify you to run a country. Islam stresses that religion is the responsability of the individual. Nobody should have the authority to tell others how to live their lives.
How do you see post-Spring Egypt’s relationship with the West developing in the coming years?
After thirty odd years or more of dictatorship, or pseudo-democracy, it was never going to be easy to turn the system around, to dismantle the security apparatus and tackle social and economic inequality, to fix education and health care, to restore society. It was never going to happen overnight. There are going to be hiccups all across the region, but Egyptians are resiliant and inventive. They are also pragmatic. They know they need the West. They need trade and they are very dependent on tourism. I’m sure there will be setbacks, but we can only hope that in time sense will prevail and life will improve for the majority. The old system was not only unjust it was simply unsustainable.
Additional questions by Mike Stafford