The trials and pleasures of a literary calling

Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk is nervous about talking to the media. The press, particularly Turkish journalists, have often criticized Pamuk’s political views, while a few years ago he almost went on trial for «insulting Turkishness» over remarks he made about the World War One-era killing of Armenians. For his part, Pamuk likes to repeat that he only became a target when his books hit the best-seller lists in Turkey. Pamuk, who visited the Greek capital this month for a speech at the Athens Concert Hall, is a charming and skillful speaker. And he’d much rather talk literature than politics.

In your books, Istanbul is a city of «huzun,» or a light and almost pleasant melancholy. Is huzun a personal or a collective feeling?

It’s melancholy but not depression; it’s some sort of sadness but not something tough. The Turkish melancholy that I refer to in «Istanbul» and other books is also a world view – what the Germans call Weltanschauung. It is a philosophy of life as well that cautions against asking or expecting too much. If you ask or expect too much, you may drop out of the community. What do I mean by «community»? I mean the people of Istanbul, the people who don’t take too many risks or ask too much. The huzun of my childhood told me and all of us, «Don’t be too demanding.»

Have you followed this principle in your life?

I don’t know. In my youth, writing novels, that’s what I wanted in life: to live in a room and write novels. I didn’t think I was asking too much. My friends who went into business, banking, advertising or journalism – I thought they were demanding and expecting too much. When I went into literature, I was not really dreaming much of success. If you demand too much then you become impatient, you become very fragile when faced with possible failure.

But it seems to me that the characters in your books do in fact demand too much. They live passionate lives, they fall in love at first sight, they suffer, they have existential anxieties and fears – and they often pay a heavy price for their feelings.

I care and tend to write about characters who drop out of their communities, who think of different things – like the character in «My Name Is Red.» A poet ends up in Kars just because he is curious and wants to write a book of poems. And people who drop out of their communities trigger a mechanism that reveals the bones of the system. There is no morality tale: I am not saying, «Be like these people.»

Reading your books is like reading the same story but with different chapters throughout history – chapters that bring out human sentiments.

I am looking at the spirit of the nation through different windows. «My Name Is Red» looks through the window of art, «Snow» through politics, «The Museum of Innocence» through love. I did my best not to rewrite my older stories.

You seem to be a person who has many small rituals during the day. You wake up in the morning, you walk into the room where you write, and you want to be alone. And when you meet your partner at the end of the day you like to read out what you have written so far. Is food also a ritual for you?

Food is not a ritual. As I get older I am trying to stay away form fried potatoes, burgers, Turkish pizza and Oriental pastries. For breakfast I take a bowl of fruit and a cup of coffee and go over what I wrote the previous day with a fresh mind. If you want to be a novelist you have to be very disciplined. For me ritual is part of the discipline. That is, it prepares you for thinking, it creates a frame for the spiritual preparation for being lonely, inventive, hardworking, not leaving your table for quite a lot of time. Ritual is related to will power. These are not rituals that make you happy, like eating a chocolate.

You have said in the past that the plot exists in your mind from a very early stage. Do your characters ever revolt and say they don’t want to do something?

This was first expressed in E.M. Forster’s book «Aspects of the Novel.» He says that characters may revolt against the writer and have an autonomy of their own – after a while they impose their version of the story on the writer. In reaction to this, Nabokov said, «No, my characters are galley slaves, they never change.» I think the problem is that the human memory and imagination are limited. I cannot preconceive all the details before I begin writing a book. Many details of a novel are invented as you go along and the interesting thing about writing novels is that these surprises, serendipitous moments, things that you were not expecting and you suddenly found on the way, you sense that anything in the world can go into it. Sometimes I joke that if you are deeply in the novel, you can open an Istanbul telephone directory and everything is an inspiration. When you have found something so shiny who cares about the plot? But, please, do care about the plot.

When do you know a novel is really finished?

Finishing a novel is fine-tuning all the details to the center, the real meaning of the whole composition. But you have to travel the whole way, very carefully inventing all the time so as to make sure that all the details are crisp, nice, clear-cut and colorful, but never lose the idea of the whole. If you lose this, then you begin to invent interesting but irrelevant details. The secret to writing is rewriting and adding up details. You may have a galaxy of details but it may not fit the book. It’s all about adding details and deleting details.


Some interviews have caused you trouble in the past. You have been attacked by people who have not read your books or who have taken your comments out of context. Is there a way to defend what you do as a writer rather than a public figure?

My writings do not need that much defending. Most of the manipulation and misinterpretation of my views happens in Turkey so that they can make me look like an intellectual living in an ivory tower or make me look like I criticize Turkey more than I do, or to simply look like a fool – and they often succeed in that. It’s a political fight. I do my best to protect myself but you can’t control everything.

Your relation to politics is a bit ambivalent. In «Snow» Stendhal says politics in a novel is like a gunshot in the middle of a concert. You have made openly political statements. It is normal for people to give you a political identity, whether you like it or not.

Yes, sure. But it’s also normal for me to say that political identity is not an important thing in my life. Yes, I firmly stand behind whatever I have said, but I would like to remind you that I am better when I write novels.

What is your opinion about the Greek economic crisis?

I hope that the Greek nation will get out of it fast. This is not just a Greek crisis. It is, in fact, related to the identity of Europe. Big countries like Germany should take more responsibility. Turkey is keenly following what is happening from various points of view. There are Turks that want to be part of Europe, like me, and there are Turks who are confused and so on. For you, it’s personal sadness, for the world it is a very interesting situation where history and ideas matter.

You have said in the past that Turkey’s split between East and West gives it character depth.

Turkey, because of its particular location, is a Muslim country in Asia and also a country with European history and aspirations of becoming a European power. Turkey has two sides and identity anxiety is in the nature of the Turkish spirit. It is mostly expressed in culture and culture has always been political – our architecture, our alphabet. Culture in Turkey is sometimes overpoliticized.

What would be your advice to a young, aspiring author?

I would say, «Don’t take advice from a 59-year-old author.» I run away from established authors out of fear their personalities might be too strong and crush my fragile spirit. If you want to save your spirit, sometimes you have to run away from people. It’s like falling in love with that demonic woman; it may be fun at the beginning but it will not be so much fun at the end.

Like Kemal in «The Museum of Innocence,» some of your characters are victims of passionate love.

Kemal is not a victim of love. He may be a victim of the ideal image he projects on that woman. There is a lot of ego and narcissism in the making of big love stories.