Hanif Kureishi: ‘I’d like to be more difficult’ – Writing courses are a waste of time, writers need to be more economical, and disturbing books are a triumph – the British author is in typically combative form
Writers, if they’re worth their salt, can write at least one sentence in their life that a reader never forgets. Better yet, if it’s a sentence devoid of quotable sentimentality. In Intimacy, his unflinching 1997 novel about infidelity, Hanif Kureishi wrote the following jaw-dropping line. “There are some f**ks for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a frozen sea”. It’s a catastrophic image, violent and narcissistic and brilliantly captured the obsessive quest for passion by the book’s protagonist. Kureishi has a gift for such one-liners, but is quick to point out, as we sit in the West London office of his agent, that being an artist “is agony”. “Writing IS difficult, it has to be. It’s only fun if it’s difficult. I teach creative writing [at London’s Kingston University], and my students have no sense of what a marathon it is. It’s not like a film, where someone else who can take over. With a novel you’re doing the whole damn thing yourself. It’s a lot of intellectual juice.” Last weekend Kureishi told an audience at the Bath Literature Festival that creative writing courses are a “waste of time”, and that “it’s probably 99.9 per cent who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent”. It is a typically contrarian outburst but revealing that “a lot of my students just can’t tell a story” might not impress his employers.
Kureishi was in Bath to discuss The Last Word, his first novel since 2008’s Something To Tell You. In between, his Collected Stories appeared, and there was collaboration with his friend Roger Michell on the 2013 film Le Week-End. The new book focuses on a burgeoning working relationship between Harry, a young writer who agrees to write a biography of an older, famous author. In the run-up to publication, there was speculatation that the story mirrors that of VS Naipaul and his biographer Patrick French. Kureishi bats away the question as to whether Mamoon Azam is based on anyone.
“I wanted to write a character who doesn’t give a fuck. Its such an attractive idea… if you woke up one day and didn’t care what other people thought, ‘what would I do if I was completley free from my own inhibitions or super ego?’, how would my life be different? I love people like Francis Bacon, who didn’t give a shit. I like the idea of writing about someone who is really difficult, someone who’s really a problem for others. I like difficult people. I’d like to be more difficult than I am now.” Kureishi is not so much difficult, as a little gruff, and happy to praise his own work. In the novel, Mamoon and Harry engage in conversational duels, examining the idea of memory, truth and public versus private personas. As a writer whose combined screenplay and theatre output runs to double figures, it’s no surprise that The Last Word is such a talky book, and that the dialogue is so good. It’s also funny, which Kureishi points out, is just how he sees the world, even though he is not a writer most people reach for when they think of comic writing. His work has probed and poked recurring subjects that are hard to raise a laugh from: racism, familial conflict, emigration, being an outsider. One of his biggest themes – and one that resurfaces the more Mamoon’s life is delved through – is infidelity.
“It’s the most fascinating question of all”, says Kureishi. “If you’re faithful to someone, is it worth giving up all these other pleasures for? Do you stay in a relationship and become a masochist, or do you fuck off and become a sadist? These questions are alive all the time, not only in terms of sexuality – they apply to education and to political commitment. What do you abdicate by becoming a Muslim fundamentalist, but also, what do you gain? Questions about fidelity are not just about who is fucking who, but about what you’re gaining and giving up.” In Intimacy, a man leaves his wife and family for another woman, and was published after Kureishi himself had left his partner and two young sons. After the publication of a memoir about his father, Kureishi’s sister wrote an open letter to The Guardian claiming it was an unfair representation. Tellingly, a character in The Last Word, declares: “a writer is loved by strangers and hated by his family”. Does he have regrets about some of what he’s written? “My only regrets are to do with quality, and I ask myself how I let that through. Why do you ask?”
Kureishi knows well what I’m getting at. I mention his sister, and Intimacy, pointing out that the book is almost unbearable to read, and Kureishi seizes on this. “That’s why it’s such a good book and why it still has such an impact on people. It’s great to have written a book that people are still horrified by. The fact that it really bothers people is a triumph to me. In terms of the book about my father – what would I regret about that? That they were annoyed? Sometimes you have to say disturbing things. My kids say disturbing things to me all the time.” We’re about to move on to race and Kureishi has another thought. “Fatherhood definitely changes your attitude to sexuality, your relationship to the mother, to the sort of relationships you can then have with other women. Women feel worse and more guilty about this in relation to children. Children disturb everything about the balance of your life, in a good way, but in a disturbing way too.”
West London is home, and he has three sons: the youngest is 15, and his twins are 20. Fatherhood suits him and he is proud of the fact that he has supported his family through writing. Several of his characters are men who run away from relationships, from pregnant girlfriends and his female characters are often passive and put upon. He disagrees. “I don’t think Eva in The Buddha of Suburbia or DeeDee in The Black Album or Leanna in the new book are passive. I tend to tell stories from a male point of view, but I wouldn’t say that the women suffer more than the men, or suffer more because they’re women.”
Race is a benchmark of Kureishi’s fiction, and he roundly criticises media representation of immigrant experience as one of “the greedy, needy immigrant off the boat and running towards the nearest Benefit Office” and believes “the Tories are racists without being racist… who have transferred all the wealth to the rich”. At 59, he says he found writing the latest novel hard going. Currently, he’s working on a film, some essays and has plans to write more short stories. “The other day I was thinking that the one thing that I don’t want to do is write another novel, but then writers always say that. I had an idea for one, but a novel just feels like too much work. I can’t face the thought of pushing that fucking stone up the hill again. You want to get more economical as you get older, and get more work out quickly. You start to wonder ‘why so much elaboration?’ My Beautiful Launderette and Le Week-End are both 90 minutes long, not three hours. The Last Word is the length it should be. Economy is one thing that all artists should develop as they get older. It’s an virtue in an artist.”
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on March 6th, 2014