Orhan Pamuk Laughing


(These, are all great interviews and well worth your time. A bit longish perhaps, but you can read it in parts, for convenience. My main motive was to put such quotes in one place. Hopefully, I will do this with other writers, also. )

I make it clear when I say creative thinking requires a sort of irresponsibility. By that I mean the seriousness and responsibility that society demands, which you impose on yourself and others, will vanish once you find yourself in a political situation. However, creativity also requires the kind of freedom of a child who does not consider the political consequences or any other consequences of his playfulness. In fact, new ideas come to us when we pay attention to this playful aspect, which is in some ways contradictory to politics.


As you know, the question we writers are asked most often, the favorite question, is: Why do you write? Here’s an answer: I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can’t do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but—just as in a dream—I can’t quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.


NL: It seems that The Museum of Innocence is your favourite book – at least your current favourite book – and a lot of people are reading it here in India.

Pamuk: Yes, yes, I know [smiles]. When I was writing it I used to say to my friends, ‘I will be remembered by this book.’ It is my favourite in the sense I’ve been thinking of writing this book so joyfully and also of making the museum. But I also wrote this book in bad times, when there was political pressure, then there was the Nobel Prize and so much happening, changing cities, airplanes, but it was such happiness. If I wrote one page of this book, I was a happy person that day. It is also one of my favourite books in the sense that it’s based on first-hand experience. I’ve been to the clubs and the places that Kemal had been to, the restaurants and movie houses and so many weddings and engagement parties at the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul. It’s all based on my life.


“I’m not saying there is truth in everything but it is the novel’s job to understand points of view. A novelist’s job is not to find political or diplomatic solutions to conflicting desires and pressures….I just want to see the arena of politics through the participant’s point of view, not necessarily agreeing with any of them…. But my job as a novelist is to make him convincing and try to see the world through his point of view.”
“I write slowly, I plan my books. It took me 11 years to develop – I explore – plan the details and write The Museum of Innocence. I’m a slow worker, a hard worker. As such a novel can never come to you like ‘this.’ It’s a step-by-step, painstaking organisation, taking notes, preparing scenes, it never comes to you in one light. So a novel develops — of course I plan ahead – but it also develops as you write it. New ideas come, you read books, you talk to people, you revise, you talk to your friends. It’s an immense labour which I love.”
I have been writing for 30 years. I have been reciting these words for some time now. I’ve been reciting them for so long, in fact, that they have ceased to be true: for now I am in my 31st year as a writer. I do still like saying that I’ve been writing novels for 30 years. Though this is a bit of an exaggeration. From time to time, I do other sorts of writing – essays, criticism, reflections on Istanbul or politics. But my true vocation, the thing that binds me to life, is writing novels. There are plenty of brilliant writers who’ve been writing much longer than I, who’ve been writing for half a century without paying this much attention. There are also the great writers to whom I return again and again, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann, whose careers spanned more than 50 years. So why do I make so much of my own 30th anniversary as a writer?
In order to be happy, I must have my daily dose of literature. In this I am no different from the patient who must take a spoonful of medicine each day. When I learned, as a child, that diabetics needed an injection every day, like most people, I felt bad for them; I may even have thought of them as half dead. My dependence on literature must make me “half dead” in the same way. When I was a young writer, especially, I sensed that others saw me as “cut off from the real world” and so doomed to be “half dead”. Or perhaps the right expression is “half ghost”. I have sometimes even entertained the thought that I was fully dead and trying to breathe life back into my corpse with literature. For me, literature is medicine. Like the medications that others take by spoon or injection, my daily dose of literature – my daily fix, if you will – must meet certain standards.

First, the medicine must be good. Its goodness is what tells me how true and strong it is. To read a dense, deep passage in a novel, to enter into that world and believe it to be true – nothing makes me happier, nothing binds me more to life. I also prefer it if the writer is dead, because then there is no little cloud of jealousy to darken my admiration. The older I get, the more convinced I am that the best books are by dead writers. Even if they are not yet deceased, to sense their presence is to sense a ghost. This is why, when we see great writers in the street, we treat them like ghosts, not quite believing our eyes as we marvel from afar. A few brave souls approach the ghosts for autographs. Sometimes I remind myself that these writers will die soon, and that once they are dead, the books that are their legacy will occupy an even higher place in our hearts. Though of course this is not always the case.

If my daily dose of literature is something I myself am writing, it’s all very different. Because for those who share my affliction, the best cure of all, and the greatest source of happiness, is to write a good half page every day. For 30 years I’ve spent an average of 10 hours a day alone in a room, sitting at my desk. If you count only the work that is good enough to be published, my daily average is a good deal less than half a page a day. Most of what I write does not meet my own standards of “goodness”. These are two large sources of misery.

But please don’t misunderstand me: a writer who is as dependent on literature as I am can never be the sort of superficial person who will find happiness in the beauty of the books he has already written, nor can he congratulate himself on how many books he has written or what these books achieved. Literature does not allow such a writer to pretend to save the world; rather, it gives him the chance to save the day. And all days are difficult. Days are difficult when you don’t do any writing. They’re difficult when you cannot do any writing. The point is to find enough hope to get through the day and, if the book or the page you are reading is good, to find joy in it, and happiness, if only for a day.

Let me explain what I feel on a day when I’ve not written well, if I’m not lost in a book. First, the world changes before my eyes: it becomes unbearable, abominable; those who know me can see it happening to me, too, for I myself come to resemble the world I see around me. For example, my daughter can tell that I have not written well that day from the abject hopelessness on my face in the evening. I would like to be able to hide this from her, but I cannot. During these dark moments, I feel as if there is no line between life and death. I don’t want to speak to anyone, and anyone seeing me in this state has no desire to speak to me either. A milder version of this despair descends on me every afternoon, in fact, between one and three, but I have learned how to treat it by reading and writing: if I act promptly, I can save myself from a full retreat to my corpse.

If I’ve had to go a long stretch without my paper-and-ink cure, be it due to travel, an unpaid gas bill, military service (as was once the case), political affairs (as has been the case more recently) or any number of other obstacles, I can feel my misery setting inside me like cement. My body has difficulty moving through space, my joints get stiff, my head turns to stone, my perspiration even seems to have another smell. This misery can only grow, for life is full of punishments that distance a person from literature. I can be sitting in a crowded political meeting, or chatting with my classmates in a school corridor, or eating a holiday meal with my relatives, struggling to converse with a good-hearted person whose mind is worlds away or else occupied by whatever is happening on the TV screen; I can be at an important “business meeting”, making an ordinary purchase, making my way to the notary, or having my picture taken for a visa – suddenly my eyelids will grow heavy, and though it is the middle of the day, I’ll fall asleep. When I am far away from home, and therefore unable to return to my room to spend time alone, my only consolation is a nap in the middle of the day.

So yes, the real hunger here is not for literature, but for a room where I can be alone and dream. If I can do this, I can invent beautiful dreams about those same crowded places, those family gatherings, school reunions, festival meals and all the people who attend them. I enrich the crowded holiday meals with invented details and make the people themselves even more amusing. In dreams, of course, everything and everyone is interesting, captivating and real. I make the new world from the stuff of the known world. Here we come to the heart of the matter. To write well, I must first be bored to distraction; to be bored to distraction, I must enter into life. It is when I am bombarded with noise, sitting in an office full of ringing phones, surrounded by friends and loved ones on a sunny seashore or at a rainy funeral – in other words, at the very moment when I begin to sense the heart of the scene unfolding around me – that I will suddenly feel as if I’m no longer really there, but watching from the sidelines. I’ll begin to daydream. If I’m feeling pessimistic, I can think about how bored I am. Either way, there will be a voice inside me, urging me to “go back to the room and sit down at the table”. I have no idea what most people do in such circumstances, but it is this that turns people like me into writers. My guess is that it leads not to poetry but to prose and fiction. This sheds a bit more light on the properties of the medicine I must be sure to take every day. We can see now that its ingredients are boredom, real life and the life of the imagination.

I would like to propose a simple theory that begins with the idea that writing is a solace, even a remedy, at least for novelists like me: we choose our subjects, and shape our novels, to suit our daily daydream requirements. A novel is inspired by ideas, passions, furies and desires – this we all know. To please our lovers, to belittle our enemies, to speak of something we adore, to delight in speaking knowledgeably of something about which we know nothing, to take pleasure in times lost and remembered, to dream of making love, or reading, or engaging with politics, to indulge in one’s particular worries, one’s personal habits – these and any number of other obscure or even nonsensical desires are what shape us, in ways both clear and mysterious. These same desires drive the daydreams of which we speak. We may not understand where they come from, and we may not understand what our daydreams signify, but when we sit down to write, it is our daydreams that breathe life into us like a wind from an unknown quarter. One might even say that we surrender to this mysterious wind like a captain who has no idea where he’s bound.

But at the same time, in one part of our minds, we can pinpoint our location on the map exactly, just as we can remember the point towards which we are travelling. Even at those times when I surrender unconditionally to the wind, I am able, at least according to some other writers I know and admire, to retain my general sense of direction. Before I set out, I will have made plans, divided the story I wish to tell into sections, determined what ports my ship will visit, what loads it will carry and drop off along the way, estimated the time of my journey and charted its course on the map. But if the wind, having blown in from unknown quarters and filled my sails, decides to change the course of my story, I will not fight it. For what the ship with full sails seeks is a feeling of wholeness and perfection. It is as if I am looking for that special place and time in which everything flows into everything else, everything is linked, and everything is aware of everything else. All at once, the wind will die away and I will find myself becalmed in a place where nothing moves. I’ll sense that there are things in these calm and misty waters that will, if I am patient, move the novel forward.

What I most long for is the sort of spiritual inspiration I described in my novel Snow. It is not dissimilar to the sort of inspiration Coleridge described in his poem “Kubla Khan”. I also long for inspiration to come to me (as poems do to Coleridge and to Ka, Snow’s hero) in dramatic ways, preferably in scenes and situations that might sit well in a novel. If I wait patiently and attentively, my dream comes true. To write a novel is to be open to these desires, winds and inspirations, to the dark recesses of our minds and their moments of mist and stillness.

For what is a novel but a story that fills its sails with these winds, that answers and builds upon inspirations that blow in from unknown quarters and seizes upon all the daydreams we’ve invented for our diversion, bringing them together into a meaningful whole? Above all, a novel is a basket that carries inside it a dreamworld we wish to keep forever alive, and forever ready. Novels are held together by the little pieces of daydreams that help us, from the moment we enter them, forget the tedious world we long to escape. The more we write, the richer these dreams become; and the more we write, that second world inside the basket becomes broader, more detailed, more complete. We come to know this world through writing, and the better we know it, the easier it is to carry it around in our heads. If I am in the middle of a novel and writing well, I can enter easily into its dreams. For novels are new worlds into which we enter happily through reading, or even more by writing: novelists shape them in such a way that they can carry the dreams they wish to elaborate, and with great ease. Just as they offer happiness to the good reader, so, too, do they offer the good writer a solid and sound new world in which he can lose himself and seek happiness at any hour of the day. If I’ve been able to create even a tiny part of this miraculous world, I feel happy the moment I reach my desk, my pen and my paper. In no time at all I can leave behind the familiar, boring world of the everyday and step into this other, bigger place to wander freely, and most of the time I have no desire to return to real life or to reach the end of the novel. This feeling is, I think, related to the good reader’s response upon hearing that I am writing a new novel: “Please make your novel really long!” I am proud to boast that I hear this a thousand times more often than the bad publisher’s entreaty: “Make it short!”

How is it that a habit made from a single person’s joys and pleasures can produce a work that interests so many others? Readers of My Name Is Red like to recall Seküre’s remarks to the effect that trying to explain everything is a sort of idiocy. My own sympathies in this scene are not with Orhan, my little hero and namesake, but the mother who is gently poking fun at him. But if you will permit me to commit another idiocy, and act like Orhan, I’d like to try to explain why dreams that work as medicine for the writer can serve the same purpose for the reader: because if I am entirely inside the novel and writing well – if I have distanced myself from the ringing phone, from all the troubles and demands and tedium of everyday life – the rules by which my free-floating heaven operates recall the games I played as a child. It is as if everything has become simpler, as if I am in a simpler world where I can see into every house, car, ship and building because they are all made of glass, because they have begun to tell me their secrets. My job is to divine the rules and listen: to watch with pleasure the goings-on in each interior, to step into cars and buses with my heroes and to travel about Istanbul, visiting places that have come to bore me to tears and seeing them with new eyes, and in so doing, transforming them; my job is to have fun, be irresponsible, because while I’m amusing myself (as we like to say of children), I might just learn something.

An imaginative novelist’s greatest virtue is his ability to forget the world in the way a child does, to be irresponsible and delight in it, to play around with the rules of the known world – but at the same time to see through his freewheeling flights of fancy to the deep responsibility that will later allow readers to lose themselves entirely in his novel. He might be spending the whole day playing, but at the same time he carries the deepest conviction that he is more serious than others. This is because he can be looking directly into the centre of things the way that only children can. Having found the courage to set rules for the games he once played freely, he senses that his readers will also allow themselves to be drawn into the same rules, the same language, the same sentences, and therefore the story. To write well is to allow the reader to say, “I was going to say the same thing myself, but I couldn’t allow myself to be that childish.”

This world I explore and create and enlarge, making up the rules as I go, waiting for my sails to fill with a wind from an unknown quarter and poring over my map – it is born of childlike innocence that is at times closed to me. This happens to all writers. A point arrives when I get stuck, or I will go back to the point in the novel where I’ve left off some time before and find that I am unable to pick it up again. Such afflictions are commonplace, and I may suffer from them less than other writers: if I can’t pick up where I left off, I can always turn instead to another gap in the novel; because I’ve studied my map very carefully, I can begin writing in another section of the novel. This is not so important. But last autumn, while I was grappling with various political matters and running into the same problem, I felt as if I’d discovered something that also casts light on novel-writing.

The case that was brought against me, and the political quandaries in which I then found myself, turned me into a far more “political”, “serious” and “responsible” person than I wanted to be. A sad state of affairs, and an even sadder state of mind – let me say it with a smile. This was why I was unable to enter into that childlike innocence without which no novel is possible . . . but this was easy to understand, it didn’t surprise me. As the events slowly unfolded, I would tell myself that my fast-vanishing “spirit of irresponsibility”, my childish sense of play and childish sense of humour, would one day return, and that I would then be able to finish the novel I’d been working on for three years. Nevertheless, I would still get up every morning, long before Istanbul’s other 10 million inhabitants, and try to enter into the novel that was sitting unfinished in the silence of midnight. I was exerting myself because I so longed to get back into my beloved second world. After exerting myself greatly, I’d begin to pull bits of the novel I wished to write from my head, and I’d see them playing themselves out before me. But these were not from the novel I was writing – they were scenes from an entirely different novel. On those tedious, joyless mornings, what passed before my eyes was not the novel on which I’d been working for three years, but an ever-growing body of scenes, sentences, characters and strange details from some other novel. After a while, I began to set down the fragments of this other novel in a notebook, and I noted down thoughts that I had never before entertained. This other novel would be about the paintings of a deceased contemporary artist. As I conjured up this painter, however, I found myself thinking just as much about his paintings. After a while longer, I understood why I’d been unable to recapture the child’s spirit of irresponsibility during those tedious days. I could no longer return to childishness, I could only return to my childhood, to the days when (as I described in Istanbul) I dreamed of becoming an artist and spent my days doing one painting after another.

Later on, the case against me was dropped, and I returned to The Museum of Innocence, the novel on which I had already spent three years. Today I am planning this other novel that came to me scene by scene during those days when, unable to return to childishness, I returned instead to the passions of my childhood. But this experience taught me something important about the mysterious art of writing novels.

I can explain this by taking “the implied reader” – a principle put forward by the great literary critic and theorist Wolfgang Iser – and twisting it to my own ends. Iser created a brilliant reader-oriented literary theory. He said that a novel’s meaning resides not in the text, nor in its context, but somewhere between the two. He argues that a novel’s meaning emerges only as it is read, and so when he speaks of the implied reader, he is assigning him or her a special role.

When I was dreaming up the scenes, sentences and details of another book, instead of continuing the novel I was already writing, it was this theory that came back into my mind, and what it suggested to me was this: for every unwritten but dreamed and planned novel (in other words, my own unfinished novel), there must be an implied author. So I would only be able to finish that book when I’d become that book’s implied author. But when I was immersed in political affairs, or – as happens so often in the course of normal life – my thoughts were interrupted by unpaid gas bills, ringing telephones and family gatherings, I was unable to become the author implied by the book in my dreams. During those long and tedious days of politicking, I could not become the implied author of the marvellous book I longed to write. Then those days passed, and I returned to my novel, just as I had so longed to do, and whenever I think how close I am to finishing it, I feel happy, too (the novel is a love story that takes place between 1975 and the present, among the rich of Istanbul or, as the papers like to call it, “Istanbul society”). But having come through this experience, I have understood why, for 30 years, I have devoted all my strength to becoming the implied author of the books I long to write. This may be important to me because I only want to write big, thick, ambitious novels, and because I write so very slowly. It is not difficult to dream a book. I do this a lot, just as I spend a great deal of time imagining myself as someone else. The difficult thing is to be your dream book’s implied author.

But let’s not complain. Having published seven novels, I can safely say that, even if it takes some effort, I am able to become the author who can write the books in my dreams. Just as I’ve written books and left them behind me, so, too, have I left behind me the ghosts of the writers who could write those books. All seven of these implied authors resemble me, and over the past 30 years they have come to know life and the world as seen from Istanbul, as seen from a window like mine, and because they know this world inside out and are convinced by it, they can describe it with all the seriousness and responsibility of a child at play.

My greatest hope is to be able to write novels for another 30 years, and to use this excuse to wrap myself up in other new personas.



1. Brooklyn Rail

2. The Hindu

3.  Shells News

4. Nobel Lecture

5. Pamuk- Implied Author