The development of the novel is inextricably connected with the growth of modern cities, said the Turkish Nobel laureate at a Guardian Live event to discuss his latest novel A Strangeness in My Mind.
Cities give rise to novels, and novels in turn mythologise and further the growth of cities, he said, explaining why his own work returns again and again to Istanbul, the city of his birth, as both the primary location of, and inspiration for, his fiction.
The importance of street vendors and hustlers
In A Strangeness in My Mind, Pamuk set out to write “an epic of the city” spanning 40 years, told from the perspective of its ordinary, often forgotten, inhabitants: its street vendors, hustlers and slum dwellers.
While the narrative centres on one such figure, Mevlut Karataş - a yoghurt vendor and waiter by day, and a seller of boza (a low-alcohol drink) by night - it sustains a vast network of characters. Some of them make it, some of them don’t, romances blossom and wilt – or, in Mevlut’s case, turn into something else entirely as a result of mistaken identity.
“I wanted to tell the small, petty street history of this town,” said Pamuk, who conducted dozens of interviews with real-life boza sellers and street vendors across Istanbul. He added that some of their accounts found their way almost unedited into the pages of A Strangeness in My Mind, veering as it does between first and third person, fact and fiction.
Throughout the story, Mevlut wanders the streets of Istanbul at night, selling his boza, reflecting on, and occasionally overwhelmed by, what Pamuk describes as “the forest of signs and symbols” that defines the city.
Pamuk revealed that he too liked to go out and about at night. “I like to observe the city in the middle of the night ... the city is a place where humanity is embedded in various disguises,” he said. “It is a joy to be a novelist and walk and walk, to observe and take notes. I also use my iPhone to take photos, and sometimes films now, of anything I find interesting.”
Writing a novel is like imagining a tree
“Human imagination, as we all know, is limited. You cannot preconceive a whole 600-page novel,” said Pamuk, responding to a question from the event’s host, columnist and critic Mark Lawson, as to how a writer goes about the task of imagining and constructing a novel which takes place over four decades and incorporates a multitude of secondary stories and themes.
“Writing a novel is, perhaps, like imagining a tree,” he said. “You think of the trunk, you think of some of the branches, then you think of some of the leaves.
“An epic is very similar to a fresco; you start from a corner. You go and write various corners for a year, then you continue with another, then you change the place of the trunk, you reinvent the story, then your loved ones say: ‘What are you doing?’, so you clarify it, you continue to edit out and clarify … that’s how I’ve been writing for 40 years or more.”
Pamuk also pointed out that despite the popular conception, novel writing is not a completely solitary undertaking – writers are only as good as their editors. “A novel works best if you rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it,” he said. “Then I also ask my editors to help me with consistency and continuity.”
Writer’s block is an American cult
Turning to the subject of writer’s block, he was quick to dismiss it as “a kind of American cult … a constructed sickness”. The remedy for the problem, to the extent he believes it exists, is a simple one: “Write only about subjects and characters you like, and hope the reader will like.”
Is the novel dying?
The notion of “the death of the novel” continues to prompt much handwringing and no shortage of material for thinkpieces in the literary press and popular media alike. And it’s not just the critics – in 2009, Philip Roth said that novel reading would be a “cult-like activity” within 25 years, while Will Self recently went so far as to declare the novel to already be dead.
But could they have a point at a time when, as Lawson suggested, the high-quality TV box set is coming to be regarded as the “new 19th century novel” in terms of artistic merit and scope?
“One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is: ‘Do you think the novel is dying?” said Pamuk. “My answer is: ‘Let’s look at the numbers.’”
“In the last hundred years, the novel has marginalised many other literary forms – drama, poetry are now marginalised … humanity is communicating literature through novels,” he said, adding: “Every young Turkish man, until the 1970s or even 80s, would aspire to be a poet. Not anymore: everyone writes novels.”
“The business, and the human instinct, to read and write novels, thank god, is continuing.”
Orhan Pamuk was speaking at a Guardian Live Members’ event. Find out what else is coming up and how to sign up as a Guardian Member.