Conversation / 5 February 2016

The Confession Book: Hanif Kureishi

Great writers discuss their writing life.

What are a scent and sound that remind you of your childhood?

Well, my father wrote every morning and I remember hearing his typewriter in the morning. That habit has stuck with me. When I get up in the morning, I go to work. That’s what a Kureishi son is supposed to do, I guess. That’s a good way for me to think about the habit of writing, the every-day-ness of writing. It’s a profession, a job. The taste for me is the coffee I have when I’m working.

How did you first get started writing pseudonymous erotica? Sounds very exciting!

In the 70s London was a bit like New York. Damaged and dark and wild. Some of my friends were dealing, some were hookers, we were friends with transvestites. During the period of punk it got a bit wild, and we were doing anything we could to hustle up a living. So during a short time I wrote pornography. Pretty mild compared to what most of my friends were doing at the time.

Describe your morning routine.

I get up early…early for me, 630 or 7. I make my coffee. Then I go to my desk and start free-associating. Usually around a dream or something somebody said yesterday, something that’s been on my mind. Then I’ll segue into writing, into thinking about the piece I’m working on, new ideas for it. There’s a lot of waste in writing. There’s a lot of what you do that doesn’t go anywhere. A lot of distraction, staring out the window. A lot of wishing you were dead. Wishing you were somewhere else. I was talking about it this morning with my son, who’s supposed to be studying.

Do you use the free-association just as a warm-up, or does that ever find its way into published material?

It’s a warm-up, just a way of getting started. And it’s a good way to get started, because you’re not waiting for the perfect word, you’re just waiting for any word. Then another word follows, then another. If you’re lucky, you have a piece of writing. The point of the method is to try and write without thinking. Without preempting yourself.

With this in mind, do you “free-associate” in your fiction and screenwriting, or do you map things out?

Well, you try and map things out because you try to preempt the agony of not knowing. You still surprise yourself along the way, of course, because you seek to insert the surprise that the audience will feel. Trying to map it out would be like trying to have a conversation before you’ve had it. There’s something vertiginous about writing. You shouldn’t know. But that’s hard, because you start off and you don’t know where the hell you’re going, what you’re going to do. It’s slightly dangerous and nerve-wracking, but that’s the idea, I guess.

You’ve had great success with fiction and screenplays (most recently Le Week-End). I just wrote my first screenplay, so I’m interested in how your approach differs between the two media?

When I’m doing a movie I’m aware that I’ll be working with somebody else. At least a director, and we’d start working together early on, because I don’t want to go in a direction that doesn’t interest the director, you know? I’m writing in a sense for him or her. Last night I had a long meeting with a director who I may or may not work with. And obviously I had to think, when I was thinking about the story, what she wanted to do. What’s good for her to do as a director, what interests her. There’s no point of me writing a lot of stuff she doesn’t want to shoot. So you’re really working for someone else, combining her desire with your desire. It really is like being in a band, a collaboration. If you don’t want to work like that, then I wouldn’t. I’d just write stories or novels. When I write a novel, I write it as I like it and publish it as I like it. If I do a movie, there’s no chance of that happening!

Is any one of your films as close as possible as a finished product to how you imagined it while writing the script?

I don’t want them to be as close as possible. I wouldn’t want that.

So you like the collaborative aspect.

You see, as soon as one actor says a particular line, and another actor reacts to it…if you think of Jeff Goldblum in Le Week-End, that was Jeff Goldblum. He’s wonderful in that part and he particularizes it. When you write it you know an actor will particularize it. So it would be ridiculous to think that the movie will come out the way you envision it when writing the script.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I like to use particular pens and inks. I write in red, in purple, in brown. But I’m wise enough to know that these rituals don’t actually work. In the end, what you’re doing is difficult. It has to be difficult and it involves a sacrifice. If it wasn’t difficult, then it wouldn’t be worth doing.

What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

I want to feel that I’m drawing the reader in. I’m often getting my students to read, say, the first chapter of Portnoy’s Complaint or Catcher in the Rye or Metamorphosis, the openings of this, that and the other. How authors start stories, how quickly they get into it. There’s nothing particular, but the author should interest you, seduce you, take you into a different world that makes you want to carry on. You fall in love, in some sense, with the character you meet.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

P.G. Wodehouse always makes you laugh. I love his work. I read it normally before I go to bed, and it cheers me up. His plotting is very clever—a clever writer. And Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers film. Drama is easy, as they say, comedy is difficult and complex.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

Well, I cry with laughter at P.G. Wodehouse. But what I really want is to be amazed by the cleverness of a writer or director that I’m involved with. It’s that really that astonishes me. Somebody who can do something better than I can.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

I was thinking Sandor Ferenczi. A colleague of Freud’s, one of the first psychoanalysts. A very interesting man. I’m interesting in philosophy, analysis and literature, the crossover. I’m fascinated by the pioneering days of psychoanalysis. So I’d love to speak with him.

What is your favorite snack?

You’ve touched a sore point, Noah, because it’s absolutely true that writers want to eat while writing. I’m having my coffee and I’ll always look around the kitchen, so I try not to have anything in the kitchen that’s too tempting. One of the great dangers for writers is that you may become a fat bastard!

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event or film festival appearance.

The stupidity of the questions, really. I remember somebody asking me [at a film festival] if I have to see the actresses in the nude before casting them. I said that actually it was more important that they saw us in the nude.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Give up! Give up until you really feel that you need to this more than anything else. It’s a lonesome business, being a writer. But being an artist is a wonderful life, a very good way to live. I recommend it, if you can bear the loneliness.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

“He was an artist.”

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I’m a massive football (soccer) fan. I grew up a fan, I watch a lot of it with my kids and with my friends. It’s a real passion for our family. It’s not something I’ve ever written about, not something I seek to integrate with the rest of my life, but it’s a great passion for us.

Which is your team?

Manchester United.

Ooh, it’s a rough year for you guys. Sorry about that.

Yes, it is a rough year, thanks for reminding me of that, Noah! I appreciate that…