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Q&A with Tahir Shah

Tahir_bio_pic 2013bI just did a Q&A with myself, based on some of the questions I’m asked on a regular basis.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WRITING FICTION AND NON-FICTION?

There are both huge differences and huge similarities. For me, book writing (any writing for that matter) is about storytelling. Tell the story in the right way and the reader will do a kind of dance through your work. The most important thing for me is that my reader has the right experience, and that’s achieved by giving a great deal of thought to the way a passage will be read. I devote time to thinking about the reader whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.

Naturally, though, with fiction you can let yourself loose a whole lot more. But, having said that, I think there’s enormous scope for non-fiction writers (especially travel writers) in observing what they think they know and understand, in new ways. It’s a great challenge, but one that pays great dividends when you get it right.

HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH IDEAS FOR NOVELS?

I have ideas all the time. They often start with a word or a phrase, or a photograph, or something strange that I overhear someone saying to their friend on a bus. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from, but rather how you use it. At my desk, I write ideas down on coloured Post-It notes and stick them on the wall. Sometimes the wall looks likes a field of spring flowers, because there are so many ideas stuck up there.

And what works for me is to live with an idea – to see it up there on the wall day after day, and to turn it around my head in idle moments. Sometimes I struggle hard to fill in the gaps, but I find that the more I think about something, the deeper it goes into my head. It whirs away there and then one day – or night – I all the dots join up. It’s a kind of magic of the subconscious.

WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO WRITE?

Whatever works best for you. That’s the right answer. And the thing is that most people remain amateurs because they don’t take it seriously, really seriously. Writing is a craft, one that you have to learn and work away at. I cringe when I see some of the earlier stuff I wrote. But, it was all part of a learning process, and I like to hope that my work is getting better all the time.

As for me, I find that what works best is to plan a book, and then to write 3000 words a day, every day, until it’s done. I write about 500 words an hour, and find that I can sit down easily for six hours a day. I also find that if I’m tired it’s best to go back to bed for half an hour, otherwise complete rot comes out. And the worst thing you can have is complete rot. It’s impossible to edit.

The other thing that I swear by is the idea of writing for oneself. I know I said that I keep my readers in mind, but I also try to write material that pleases me, and sends a shot of electricity down my spine – even when I’ve read it fifty times. Please yourself, and others will be pleased too.

HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE WRITERS IN GENERAL?

Writers are observers of the human condition. They are usually a mixture of genius and sloth, and are the kind of people who can’t hold down a real job. And I see that as a good thing. They are usually neurotic and traumatized by a sense of guilt at not producing as much, or as good, work as they ought to be doing.

I get very very annoyed when I see extremely talented writers who don’t push themselves. In my opinion, everyone could write four or five books a year. After all, if you were a carpenter making tables, you would be expected to make more than one or two tables every couple of years.

I am completely at war with publishing mainstream because I think publishers have shaped authors’ work in the most dreadful ways, and have encouraged them not to produce. The reason’s simple – because publishers are completely crap at doing what they’re supposed to be doing – selling books.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT WRITERS?

I love that they’re always available to meet for a cup of coffee in the middle of the afternoon. And I love that they are dreamers. After all, a world without dreamers would be an odious place.

WHAT DO YOU HATE ABOUT THEM?

There’s one thing that gets me riled up, even more than when I think about publishers… and that’s writers who go about being all self-important. I can’t stand authors who talk down to anyone and imagine that they are somehow superior, and that their work is pure genius. Those are the people who are normally terribly self-conscious and insecure, the ones who put on a façade when out in public.

Sometimes, very rarely now, I go to literary festivals. They tend to make my flesh crawl because writers are trying to impress everyone. When I go to those things I’m just so incredibly grateful that anyone would buy my books at all, and I feel very awkward when people clap at the end.

WHAT ARE YOUR FEELINGS ABOUT EBOOKS?

They are a good thing. It’s that simple. Because anything which gets people reading is a good thing. eBooks remind me of the Tale of the Sands.

In the story, a stream wants to cross the desert. He starts crossing the desert but instantly his water is sucked down into the sand. He cries out:

‘Help! Help! What am I to do, I’m being sucked in?!’

Then he hears a voice, a voice that is the desert speaking to him.

‘Oh little stream, you are young and silly and you don’t realize that in order to cross my great expanse, you are going to have to change your form.’

‘But I’m a stream,’ says the stream, ‘and all I know to do is to trickle forward and so that’s what I’m going to do.’

With that, the stream tried to cross the desert a second time. And, as before, he failed.

Then the desert spoke again.

‘Oh little stream, think back in your memories and try to remember a time when you were different. Try to remember yourself in another form.’

The stream thought and he thought, and he thought and he thought, and suddenly he remembered that long before he was different.

The desert then said: ‘Oh stream, throw yourself into the wind, and become mist, so that you can be carried over my vast expanse on the breeze.’

And that’s what the stream did.

When eventually he reached a cool rock-face on the other side of the desert, he condensed into a stream again, and continued to trickle until he reached the sea.

And that for me is the situation with eBooks. Yes, yes, I love printed books, but in order to reach new people, books have to change their form. The Romans and Greeks never had printed printed books like we do. They had handwritten scrolls. And eBooks and e-readers are just a new extension of the craft.

YOU ARE FROM A FAMILY OF WRITERS. WHAT’S THAT LIKE?

My father was the writer Idries Shah, and my aunt, Amina, has published books, too. Their father was the Afghan savant Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, who wrote numerous books in the ’twenties and ’thirties. And their mother wrote several books under the pen-name Morag Murray Abdullah. My twin sister, Safia, is writing stories and children’s books now. And my elder sister, Saira, has a new book (MOUSEPROOF KITCHEN) which is published next week.

What’s it like?

It’s a great thing. I like to think that my grandfather, my father, and I have all considered some of the same themes – and faced the same problems – but have all been of service to each other as well.

WHY DO YOU HATE THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY SO PASSIONATELY?

Publishing is unlike any other business. My friends who work in publishing will, I hope forgive me for saying this, but it attracts people who have almost no business sense. Some of the nicest people I have ever met are publishers, but they are also the most lackluster bunch of amateurs.

I like to imagine starting a publishing firm and filling it full of hard-nosed businessmen, the kind of sell perfume to the masses or plastic buckets door to door. Publishers print zillions of books and then are amazed when they don’t sell… and, they do next to nothing to sell them.

I am absolutely thrilled to think of all the two-bit second-rate publishers going bankrupt. There are one or two I’m eagerly awaiting at this very moment to go down. One in particular – a firm based in west London with the initials IBT – has just reminded me how totally derelict and forlorn the publishing industry has recently become. For anyone reading this who knows the British sit-com Only Fools and Horses, much of British publishing resembles something worthy only of Delboy Trotter.

WHAT’S THE FUTURE?

The future is a new system in which authors sell their work directly to the public as eBooks and Print On Demand. And there will be high quality limited editions, too. It’s not really a new system (reaching the public directly that is), but rather is one that predates conventional publishing. After all, authors used to go to printers and print up copies of their work, and then sell them through bookshops. The bookshops then got wise and formed themselves into publishing firms. And that’s really where everything went awry.

I want to see a future (and, believe me, it will come soon), in which authors are at the top of the pyramid, and in which all the second-rate college dropouts get kicked out of the equation. Look at almost any mainstream publisher and you’ll find endless losers doing dead-end jobs, all of them fearful that they’re going to get found out and fired. In the brave new world authors will hire editors themselves, and will see the books they want to produce reaching the market – rather than the books that a bunch of monkeys on fence want to see there.

Take my word for it, we’ll never look back.

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