Today I am excited to interview author Tahir Shah on my blog.
What or who inspired you to start writing?
I have been inspired by various things and various people. If I think back to our family home as a child, the one sound that stays with me is the sound of a manual typewriter clattering away. Clack, clack, clack. I can hear it now. It was my father down in his study. He was driven like almost no one else I have ever known, driven to produce original work. And that inspiration – to create, to produce – was the most important thing I have ever learned. I don’t know why, but I am driven to create material… and I have a yellow Post-It note on my wall here at my desk with PRODUCE MATERIAL! written on it.
I was exposed to all sorts of people in my childhood. Most of them were very normal, but each one had something of value to pass on. Although, a child doesn’t necessarily understand what they have received until much later.
Some of these people came to our home, while others were encountered on journeys. A full spectrum of humanity was presented to us in a random order.
I was always fascinated by the idea that an author could take a blank sheet of paper, and fill it with something that came from their imagination. And, I suppose, it was the writers who sought out my father, who inspired me most. Writers with a vivid imagination. They included Doris Lessing, Robert Graves, and J. D. Salinger.
Later, I was inspired by other writers, most notably my great friend Wilfred Thesiger, and Paul Theroux, whom I met this summer for the first time.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
There’s nothing that gets me more worked up (well, almost nothing), than writers congratulating themselves on being a special breed. There’s absolutely nothing special about writers. To me, they’re just like basket weavers, making wares to take to market. (If you hang about with basket weavers long enough, you learn that they, too, think of themselves as special).
And, I say this, because I have always dreaded thinking of myself as a writer. It gives me goose-bumps because I regard it almost pitiful to talk about the craft of putting words onto a page. Writing is something that should be done, rather than discussed endlessly.
And, in my opinion, the moment an author stops writing, even for a single afternoon, he ceases to be a writer.
So, to answer the question… I don’t think I have ever considered myself to be a writer. I am just a humble of observer of Men. Someone who would be unemployable in any other field.
Do you outline a book or just start writing?
I am very careful in preparing. I write loads and loads of notes, and tend to plan a project out in great detail. But, then, when it comes down to it, I often don’t use the plan much at all. It’s important to have there though, on the desk, just in case you go off the rails. And, that’s what’s so important – to remember the rails.
Newcomers to writing forget the rails and they go off the edge. Rather like a mason carving lettering into stone, only a great master can begin without sketching the letters in pencil first.
What is the best and worst advice you have ever received?
The best advice was to write for myself. It was given to me by Doris Lessing when I was twelve. She later cautioned me to forget the publishers and even the audience, and to write for myself, and from my heart.
The worst advice on writing I have ever received was from an editor at a big publishing house. It was to cut the length of my book down by a third because the cost of paper was so high.
Editors are without exception some of the most foolish people walking the planet. They like to believe they are important, and most of them have overinflated egos – egos the size of the Eiffel Tower. And, I can’t tell you the joy it gives me to witness the rearranging of the publishing industry, watching many prominent editors being flung out on their ears.
What fuels you as a writer to continue to write?
Several things. The first is because my base character is lazy and, by writing, I get a sense that I am not being lazy. The second is to channel my fascination for observation. I love holding something in my mind and turning it into the light, as I observe it minutely. And, the third thing that fuels me, is the idea that one day perhaps, a single person will be inspired to change their life because of something I have experienced or explained.
Please tell us about your current release.
My latest book is a novel, entitled TIMBUCTOO. It’s the first novel I have written, and is based towards the start of the nineteenth century. It tells the true-life tale of the first white Christian to visit the city of Timbuctoo, which is in West Africa. At the time, that city was regarded as an African El Dorado. All the European powers worth their salt wanted to get there and to sack the city. But they were beaten by an illiterate American sailor, Robert Adams, who was quite uninterested at his achievement.
What inspired you to write this book?
Twenty years ago, I was in the depths of the London Library in St. James’ Square, when I saw a book propping up a water pipe. Without thinking, I pulled it down and began to read it. Entitled, the The Narrative of Robert Adams, it was the story of this illiterate American sailor who was the first Christian to reach Timbuctoo. From the first page, I was hooked by the story.
Did you base any of the characters on real people?
As I said, the book is based on a true-life story, but I had a lot of gaps to fill in. And, what fun I had filling in those gaps – with a mixture of real historical people, and others drawn from my vivid imagination.
My favourite of all is the Prince Regent, who later became King George IV. He’s totally overweight and decadent, but seems to have been a good friend to those he loved. I wish I could travel back in time and be a fly on the wall of his home, the palace Carlton House.
What’s your next book?
For a long time I have wanted to write a very very short book inspired by my love of The Arabian Nights. Of course, I already wrote a book called In Arabian Nights, which considers the way Morocco is affected and shaped by stories and story-telling. But in this new book – called SCORPION SOUP – I am using multiple frame stories to tell a group of tales. I am having so much fun with it. Hoping to have it published at the start of the new year. Watch this space!
If you could meet two authors, who would you pick and why?
Ok. I’m going to go one classic and one modern. I’d pick Oscar Wilde, not just because I’m a fan, which I am, but because he was also such an interesting and polarizing character. Then I’d also choose Michael Slade, who is a Canadian author I love.
If you could jump into any book and live in that world, which would it be?
On nights when I cannot fall asleep, I pretend I’m walking the streets of London in the nineteenth century through the landscape portrayed in one of Charles Dickens’ books. I picture myself going into Hatchard’s Bookshop on Piccadilly, and browsing the stacks of books – books that these days are so collectable and rare. I find myself soaking up the sounds and the smells, sensations that only Dickens managed to get through to his readers in words.
For centuries, the greatest explorers of their age were dispatched from the power-houses of Europe London, Paris and Berlin on a quest unlike any other: To be the first white Christian to visit, and then to sack, the fabled metropolis of Timbuctoo.
Most of them never returned alive.
At the height of the Timbuctoo mania, two hundred years ago, it was widely believed that the elusive Saharan city was fashioned in entirety from the purest gold everything from the buildings to the cobble-stones, from the buckets to the bedsteads was said to be made from it.
One winter night in 1815, a young illiterate American seaman named Robert Adams was discovered half-naked and starving on the snow-bound streets of London. His skin seared from years in the African desert, he claimed to have been a guest of the King of Timbuctoo.
Thought of an American claiming anything let alone the greatest prize in exploration was abhorrent in the extreme. Closing ranks against their unwelcome American guest, the British Establishment lampooned his tale, and began a campaign of discrediting him, one that continues even today.
An astonishing tale based on true-life endurance, Tahir Shah s epic novel Timbuctoo brilliantly recreates the obsessions of the time, as a backdrop for one of the greatest love stories ever told. Timbuctoo will be released on June 28, 2012. This is a limited edition hardback, very very high spec, and designed along the lines of the travel books of two centuries ago. It weighs 2 kilos (almost 4.5 lbs), has fabulous marbled endpapers, a silk bookmark, a pouch at the rear with inserts, and six huge fold-out maps. The paper is wood-free, and the cover embossed with raised gold type. In addition, each copy contains the clues needed to begin a treasure hunt that could result in locating one of four golden treasures of Timbuctoo. The book is a thing of extraordinary beauty, and the kind of book that will last two hundred years or more.
Find out more about Tahir on his website.