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23 January 2020

Elif Shafak and Jonny Geller: ‘You have to follow the story’

Elif Shafak and Jonny Geller
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From the Agents, Writing Tips

A very special component of our selective-entry novel-writing courses are the visiting speaker sessions where the literary agents from Curtis Brown and C&W come in with major authors or leading publishers to talk to the student group. These evening events give our students a great chance to find out about the reality of publishing and what an author’s life is really like, as well as picking up insights and tips on writing and pitching.

I was lucky enough to sit in on last week’s session for our current six-month course, which featured Curtis Brown Chairman and top literary agent Jonny Geller and his client, award-winning British-Turkish novelist Elif Shafak. Elif is the most widely read female author in Turkey and has been published in over 50 languages worldwide. Her latest novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and chosen as Blackwell’s Book of the Year.

In this intimate and inspiring session our students heard about Elif’s writing journey – from creating stories in her journals to establishing a career as a novelist and navigating the ups and downs of the publishing industry. Here are some of the highlights:

On starting out …

Elif: I began writing at a young age. I was around eight when I started writing in journals and diaries. I thought real life was boring, so I would use my imagination. The desire to become a published author came to me when I was around 18. When I found the novel as a genre I felt at home. I felt the freedom of the big canvas.

There is not a single formula and there is no one path to becoming a novelist. When I started writing I did not think that being a novelist was a possibility; I wrote because my heart knew it was what I had to do. As writers, our first loyalty is to our story.

Jonny: When I started agenting in the late nineties there was nothing fresh, nothing that appealed to people my age (at the time) in my 20s. The book shops were predominantly filled with the same names so there was a lot of opportunity there.

Agents look for opportunity based on what’s happening in society. And contrary to everything that’s happening now I think we are looking outwards. Readers are looking for diverse voices and international stories. We’re looking for characters that we care about and that’s the key – it doesn’t matter how great or high concept an idea is, we need to care about the characters. I think that this has played a big part in Elif’s success.

On research …

Elif: I always do a lot of research and I take it very seriously. I’ll read everything, including lots of non-fiction and scientific texts. I research for myself, not for the book. I know that not all of the research will make its way into the novel, but I do it for my own confidence. When I feel I’ve read and researched enough, then I can fly. We need knowledge but at the end of the day we write with our emotions.

On plotting …

Elif: There are two different ways to approach writing. The first is engineered. This approach is more mathematical and focuses on structure. These writers like to know everything that is going to happen before they start writing.

The second way is to follow your instincts. I have always felt closer to the second path. My first instinct is to write in the silences, to write about taboos: sexual, political, cultural …

On the writing process …

Elif: When I am writing I won’t read other novels, as it is important for me not to lose clarity of voice. I do read poetry and I will listen to music. I’ll listen to the same song seventy or eighty times. I don’t like to write in silence. I like the sounds of the city, the traffic and the swearing. I’ll often listen to very loud and aggressive heavy metal.

On editing …

Jonny: Editing is all about shedding what you don’t need. Think about what your novel would look like if you left your opening chapter on the tube and it was lost for ever? Try exercises like this; you’ve got to be ruthless with your writing.

Elif: When I’m writing I go back and forth. I like not knowing what is going to happen in ten pages time. I like it when my characters surprise me, when they have a life of their own. I delete and then I add. Knowing what to erase is just as important as knowing what to write.

It is important to know when to get editorial help. Share your work with a few people whose opinions matter, this could be your agent, your editor or someone close to you who you trust. Feedback from these people can help to renew your faith in the craft.

On language …

Elif: Writing in English was a big turning point for me. I did not grow up bilingual and I love to commute between languages. For me writing in Turkish is more emotional and writing in English is more cerebral – it gives me the cognitive distance to work things out. There are studies that say if you’re struggling to figure out a problem you should try thinking about it in your second language. With my acquired language, I find that the mind runs faster than the tongue. If you learn not to be frustrated by this, then it can be really helpful. You can be more rational. I love humour and I find that humour, irony and satire work better in English. Whereas I tend to have a more emotional reaction in Turkish.

On 10 minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

Elif: The idea came from lots of different places. The Cemetery of the Companionless is a real cemetery in Istanbul: sex workers, AIDS patients, members of the LGBTQ community and refugees are all buried there, and I was interested in them. For years I would seek out and read newspaper clippings about the cemetery.

And then I was reading about neuroscience and came across a study which said that people’s brains could still be capable of thought for minutes after their heart had stopped beating and that fascinated me. Then everything came together like a collage.

Jonny: Writing from the perspective of a dead prostitute is an extremely dark idea, equally a life story told by a corpse from a dustbin is also quite a comic premise. In the first drafts the novel was much darker.   

Elif: When you introduce humour into a dark story there is always risk there. In life, everything is mixed, the sad and the beautiful. I’ve always been interested in crossing those boundaries.

On being a writer …

Elif: If we are writers, we are readers. Don’t stay in one zone, be curious individuals – historical novelists shouldn’t just read historical novels. If it speaks to me, I keep reading – it’s important to have an eclectic reading list.

Writers also need to be good listeners. Listen to slang and how people speak when they are angry and shouting. It is important to come into contact with different people. That is why cities are important and why travel is important to the writer.

Jonny: To have a career is very rare. You need passion and discipline. Above all you need to work out what success means to you. There are different stages of success: success is getting onto a writing course, getting an agent, getting a book deal, seeing your book on the shelf, getting a good review. Ask yourself: ‘What do I want to achieve? What are my motivations?’ At the end of the day you have to be motivated by the writing. Forget all of us, write what brings you joy.

When it comes to writing to agents, the best thing you can do is write a concise, unpretentious note. Say what compelled you to write the novel and why you feel ready to submit. Include something interesting about yourself and perhaps a line about why you’re approaching that agent (maybe mention authors you like on their list, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of flattery…).

On identity …

Elif: When London became my home, I felt very free as a writer and as a woman. We all have multiple identities and multiple belongings. I believe that I am a citizen of the world. I have multiple motherlands. I will always be drawn to Istanbul, but it is not my only interest. We all contain multitudes.

When you’re an author, publishers want to know your niche and I always want to push against those boundaries. I don’t want to be known as a Turkish writer or a female Turkish writer. I want to be known as a writer.

Jonny: A novelist is divided into two halves: the ‘author’ and the ‘writer’. The author must think about the outside world, they put on a performance – they are professional. The writer focuses on the craft and the story. An agent’s job is to help writers become authors.

On returning themes …

Elif: I always felt more interested in the stories of minorities, perhaps that is because of my own story. I don’t like writing that tries to teach something, I find this arrogant and it damages the art. The novel is not a place to be didactic.

I find that my style, voice and rhythm changes with each story. Each book needs its own voice. You have to follow the story.

Jonny: All writers have obsessions and themes that they keep coming back to. Something deep down that needs to be answered, an unresolved problem. All writers are trying to work something out. In fiction you can’t lie (even though it is full of lies). You have to be ready to expose yourself, to reveal your inner self.

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