‘I do not regret any of my books’: Orhan Pamuk reveals his creative process
Orhan Pamuk’s appeal is undeniably global, if the audience at his recent talk at Sharjah International Book Fair was anything to go by, as fans of all nationalities listened to the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author speak last Wednesday night.
The numbers prove it, too. Pamuk has sold more than 13 million books worldwide, and his works have been translated into 63 languages. But with all these readers (and huge markets in South Asia and China), who does he write for?
“I write first for the Turks,” said Pamuk in response to the question posed by moderator and fellow author Omar Ghobash. “But I think about the other 62 countries, too.”
In the past, Turkish nationalists have attacked him for acknowledging the deaths of Armenians and Kurds in Turkey. The author has braved not only criticism, but also court cases and potential imprisonment, to exercise free speech. Despite this, Pamuk said he is a “happy writer”. “This is normal in my part of the world. There are so many writers in jail [that] I’m embarrassed to talk about my problems. I’m happy. I’m out. I’m doing fine.”
He added that authoritarianism and political upheavals often draw people to reading. “This happens after military coups,” he said, explaining that when television and newspapers are filled with government propaganda, people turn to fiction instead. “I thank the Turkish government to get people to read more books,” he said jokingly.
“In the end, I have the goodwill to say the truth as much as I can,” he added. When it comes to his books, Pamuk’s truths are about connections between East and West, fitting for his city, Istanbul, which straddles Asia and Europe and where most of his novels are set.
Born in 1952, Pamuk grew up in a family of civil engineers, and it seemed the most creative profession he could pursue was architecture. From the age of seven until his early twenties, he wanted to paint. Then it all changed three years into architecture school.
“A screw was loose in my head at the age of 22, and I decided I wouldn’t be able to be a painter. I began writing novels,” he said, adding that it took “self-imposed discipline” to undertake the process.
Despite giving up painting, the influence of art is evident in Pamuk’s novels. He compared the act of painting to writing – both are fuelled by an innate “impulse to create”, and in the same way that every painter’s signature is revealed through his gestures and brushstrokes, a writer composes a story mediated through his inner world. His most popular book, My
Name is Red, is a mystery tale with a cast of 16th-century Islamic miniature painters. During the talk, he spoke about the impact of Renaissance painting, with its focus on portraiture and use of perspective, on eastern art. The “death of miniature painting”, he stated, is partly due to the “globalisation” of these Renaissance styles. The same goes for the novel. Developed in France and England in the late 1700s, it has now become the most popular literary form. With the novel’s ascendance, poetry’s value began to fade, something the author laments, especially in the context of the Arab world and Turkey, which have historically rich oral traditions.
“The persona and prestige of the poet in Ottoman times was so important,” he said. “Arabs and Turks were busy with poetry. We are forgetting that past. We are all writing novels.” Now with 10 books under his belt, Pamuk has near-perfected his writing process with prose that is considered, affecting and imaginative. During his talk, the author spoke about the importance of research and rigorous editing in his writing. “I come from a family of engineers. I plan everything ahead of time,” he said, adding that he is currently writing a book he has been thinking about for 30 years. He revealed that the character of Fusun in The Museum of Innocence, for example, took six years to develop. For works such as
A Strangeness in my Mind, Pamuk and his assistants interviewed a number of street food vendors in Istanbul. “I’m an interviewer. I sometimes work like a journalist,” he said. For his more historical novels, which include My Name
is Red, Pamuk spoke to academics as well as conducting his own research.
Then, he goes through his words methodically. “You write in a poetic mood. The next morning, you edit like an engineer,” he said. Because of this, he has no contrition about any of his work as a whole. “I do not regret any of my books, but many times I regret some chapters, keeping that sentence or portrayal of one character.” This usually lasts for about a month after the book is out, when it still has that “plasticity”, after which “I’m already opening my mind to a new book”.
Arabs and Turks were busy with poetry. We are forgetting that past. We are all writing novels
The Turkish writer is currently working on a novel he has been thinking about for decades, the Nobel laureate revealed at Sharjah International Book Fair Getty