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Twenty Questions with Ahmet Altan

Newspaper: The Times Literary Supplement
Date: Oct 11 2018

To what extent is writing a political act? ‘This question sounds a bit naive in countries like mine . . . . Writing becomes engulfed by politics’

Ahmet Altan is a Turkish author and journalist. He was arrested in September 2016 and is serving a life sentence on false charges. His latest novel to be published in English, Like a Sword Wound – the first book in the Ottoman Quartet – is out now. Altan is working on the fourth book from his cell in Silivri Prison, on the outskirts of Istanbul.

What is your favourite book published in the past twelve months?

I don’t have access to new books here. The only thing I read that was published in the past twelve months was the prison magazine. It wasn’t all that interesting.

What subject have you found it most challenging to write about?

Anything that is grotesque is hard for me to write about.

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most underrated?

I believe categorization is unjust to most writers. George Simenon and Patricia Highsmith are underrated when labelled as writers of detective fiction. John le Carré is underrated if you view him as a spy novelist.

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?

People admire authors, but then as soon as they get the chance they love to trash them. Since Homer, almost all authors have been subject to one form of belittling or another. I’ve read quite a bit of nonsense about Balzac and Dostoyevsky. It makes no sense to me that authors themselves would join the line to trash other authors so let me just pass.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Noblesse oblige. I must have been fifteen when my father told me this in a tone halfway between advice and scolding. A good rule to remember especially in the face of pain. (And I know what George Orwell said!)

To what extent, in your view, is writing a political act?

This question sounds a bit naive in countries like mine. Wounds are so deep and painful in these countries that in order to clean those wounds you have to use your pen like a scalpel. We are forced to go outside literature and write directly political pieces. Writing becomes engulfed by politics.

Do you have any writing tics?

I move my hands in the air trying to construct a harmony between the words and phrases in my mind and put them in their right place. It must be an entertaining act of mime for those watching me.

What is the first thing you wrote?

I wrote a play when I was five. It was about the relationship between a woman and a man who took shelter in her house. Then I rewrote the same play at the age of twenty-six. I can’t decide which version is better.

How, in your opinion, should we measure a book’s success?

Death and time. Your success can only be measured by the longevity of your books after your death. This is the authors’ curse. We never know if they have succeeded. That is perhaps why we’re so passionate about what we think to be an indication of success.

What do you read on holiday?

If prison is the holiday spot that I think it is, I read whatever I find here. Novels, history books, essays, indictments, court files and shop receipts.

Quick questions:

Toni Morrison or Philip Roth? Both.

Ursula K. Le Guin or Philip K. Dick? Philip K. Dick.

King Lear or The Tempest? King Lear.

Jack Kerouac or James Baldwin? James Baldwin.

Virginia Woolf or Emily Dickinson? Virginia Woolf.

Hamilton or West Side Story? I haven’t seen Hamilton, but yes to West Side Story.

Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones? Lord of the Rings – the books.

Gabriel García Márquez or Angela Carter? Both.

Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle? Arthur Conan Doyle.

Beyoncé or Bob Dylan? I asked my two cellmates. Our anonymous and definite choice is Beyoncé.