Elif Shafak: ‘Reading Orlando was like plunging into a cold but beautifully blue sea’

The novelist on her love of Virginia Woolf, being inspired by HG Wells and how Jack Kerouac’s ego puts her off his books

My earliest reading memory
I was in my grandmother’s house in Ankara, Turkey. I must have been six years old. I learned how to read from Grandma’s cookbooks and traditional Middle Eastern love stories – Layla and Majnun, Ferhat and Shirin.

My favourite book growing up
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Back then a company in Turkey had published the story as a graphic novel, and I adored it. I not only read and reread the novel, but also painted every little drawing in it – the bonnets, the gowns, the guillotine. I loved history and I now realise that perhaps there was something personal going on as well: after my parents separated, my father stayed in France and remarried. He had another family, half-French, half-Turkish. We were completely estranged for a long, long time. So I was especially interested in books that had a connection with the bloody history in France.

The book that changed me as a teenager
I was very fond of Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Andersen. When I was about 12, I read The Neverending Story by the German author Michael Ende and it blew me away. A child, Bastian, who was chased by bullies and had to hide in a bookshop where he found a strange book – that boy and that story spoke to me on so many different levels.

The writer who changed my mind
Virginia Woolf. Reading Orlando for the first time was like plunging into a cold but most beautifully blue sea. Until then I didn’t know you could write fiction like that – that kind of fluidity! Travelling across centuries, geographical limitations, gender boundaries. I am not claiming I understood the book fully the first time I read it, but something inside me shifted radically. I have read and reread Orlando many times throughout my life, always tasting that sense of freedom I felt the first time.

The book that made me want to be a writer
From an early age I needed to read in order to make sense of the world around me. Books opened up other worlds, other possibilities. The decision to become a writer came to me later. When I was 18 I changed my surname. I chose the pen-name Shafak because I liked the meaning (dawn, inbetweendom), and because it was my mother’s first name, so using my mother’s first name rather than my father’s surname felt like turning a power hierarchy upside down. That said, Gabriel García Márquez and Albert Camus were both very important to me in my early youth.

The book I reread
And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov and Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge on the Drina. Both books are so multilayered and the canvas in each is so large that one needs to read them again.

The book I could never read again
Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. I loved it when I first read it, it is incredibly powerful and visually compelling too, it stays with you for a long time, but I don’t think I would like to read it again. And for completely different reasons I have little desire to reread On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Although I used to like his maverick spirit and critical mind, I find his inflated masculine ego highly troubling.

The book I found later in life
I started reading HG Wells a bit later than I should have, after I had read Aldous Huxley, Ursula Le Guin and George Orwell. Wells is a fascinating thinker and storyteller with remarkable futuristic prophecies and an extraordinary appreciation of human rights. As I get older I am valuing him more and more.

The book I am currently reading
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. Sharp and riveting.

My comfort read
This is going to sound odd, but for a long time Emil Cioran’s books were my comfort read. The Trouble With Being Born, On the Heights of Despair, A Short History of Decay. His pessimism is so acute and dark that you feel more optimistic by comparison.

Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees is published by Viking (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Elif Shafak

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