the mutt

Nadeem Aslam – A writer every writer should know.

Posted in Writing by grx20 on November 4, 2008

(Caution: Long Post)

I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a coincidence.

aslamSo when the name Nadeem Aslam cropped up twice in a week, I understood the signals. I googled up his name and came across some book reviews, biographies and an odd interview or two. After reading through all of them, I am left staggering. I’ve never come across a writer like him, and I haven’t read a single word of his work yet.

I have pulled out bits from each of these articles and interviews. These are parts, sentences and quotes that left me with the effect of being struck between the eyes with a wet fish. If you have the time, I strongly recommend you read the entire article.

When surfing channels a few days back, I chanced upon an interview with Aslam. He was incredibly articulate, spoke in a quiet and collected manner and wore an air of intensity that was overpowering. In a word, deep.

Let’s get ‘Who’ out of the way.
Nadeem Aslam was born in Pakistan and later moved to the UK with is family when he was 14. He quit studying biochemistry at Manchester University in his third year to write. His first novel, Season of the Rainbirds was published in 1993. This was followed by Maps for lost lovers in 2004 and his latest offering is the Wasted Vigil. Yes, he’s won a lot of awards, and was shortlisted for the Booker in 2004. The complete list is available at any of the links I’ve provided in this article.

Here we go …

(From: The Telegraph UK)

seasons of rainbirdsThe first page of the first book, which he started at 23, was the first creative writing he had done in English. He had no idea that literary agents even existed, and simply found the address of John Updike’s British publisher from a copy of one of his novels and sent off the manuscript. They got in touch within weeks, and he promptly started Maps for Lost Lovers.

At a time of whopping advances, world tours, glitzy launches, sudden Bookers, instant celebritification, Aslam reminds me of a boy who didn’t land up for the party. Instead, he shut himself in his room and wrote. He writes, slowly in long hand.


There is a sense of craftsmanship about his writing, and a time-consuming attention to detail that is rare in a recent fiction. As Aslam has put it of his second novel:
I wanted every chapter of Maps for Lost Lovers to be like a Persian miniature. In these miniatures, a small piece of paper – no bigger than a sheet of A4 – holds an immense wealth of beauty, colour and detail. Trees have leaves each perfectly rendered. Flowers are moments old and the tilework of the palaces and mosques is lovingly detailed. That was the aim in Maps…”

Complaining of long working hours?
Aslam’s working style is the most extreme I’ve come across. He writes in complete isolation, shutting himself off from people by drawing black curtains across his windows, for as long as it takes – which is usually years.  

(From: The Independent UK)

mapsA few minutes into our conversation, Nadeem Aslam looks startled and asks, “Is it OK if I switch my mobile off?” He stares at it as if he’s never seen one before. For the last 11 years, Aslam has lived untroubled by must-have gadgetry. “I basically removed myself from the world,” he explains quietly. “My life has been so reduced. I didn’t have a mobile phone until I’d finished my book and could afford one, and until there was any need. Now I am trying to engage with the world – things like e-mail and the internet. I feel like Rip Van Winkle.”

For a while, he was also feeling bereft. Aslam was 26 when he embarked on his second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers (Faber & Faber, £16.99), thinking it might take two years to complete. “The only time I’m ever fully alive is when I’m writing. When I’d finished this book, I felt like a cage from which the songbird is being removed. For a month I just didn’t know what to do.”
But seclusion was essential. “I always think of the silence and the darkness of a root that enables the flower to grow.”

The joys of rewriting and editing … and rewriting and editing… and rewriting and editing
Over the 11 years of writing, the emotional content of the novel did not alter, although Aslam says his technical skills improved. He writes longhand, which may explain why Maps for Lost Lovers has a meditative feel. “Sometimes a sentence would take a whole page of crossing out.” He stringently revised, taking five years or so to get the opening chapter right and following a story about Kaukab for seven months, which he then rejected. Out of those 70 pages, he kept one sentence.

After the first two years, Aslam stopped working on the forward momentum of the novel altogether and spent four years producing 100-page biographies of the main characters. After that, “I fully understood what this family was. Then I was six years into the writing and in deep financial trouble.” He laughs: “But it had to be done.”

(From The Telegraph UK)

The author disappeared so utterly into his own world that he only found out about September 11 on September 20.

Did he not get lonely in his 11-year sequestration? “Yes, but there’s that wonderful line from Czeslaw Milosz. ‘Those greater than you suffered. Why not you?’ It just had to be done.” In effect, it took him six years to get to page one. Was there frustration that it took quite so long to finish? Didn’t he want to just wrap it up a bit more quickly? There follows a pause of about half a minute. Plainly, Aslam is used to such silences.

Finally, he breaks it. “It wouldn’t have been any good if I had let it go.” Then he adds: “People say that they like it and it’s good. My writing is so much a part of what I am that it’s like being praised for having a hand or for having blood. Does that make sense?”

The Vigil of Aslam’s family



Aslam’s latest novel, The Wasted Vigil, was written in seven months. During the time in which he was writing, he saw no one. His family brought him food while he was sleeping. In appreciation, he dedicated the novel to his sister and brother-in-law for their support. The title of the novel is derived from a painting by Pakistani artist Abdur Rahman Chugtai (1894-1975) with the same name. Aslam remarks on the connection between his novel and the painting, in which a well-dressed, smiling, hopeful woman sits waiting, saying “the artist and God knows that it ain’t gonna happen. So once you look at the title, it’s quite a chilling picture.”

And finally …
Maps for lost lovers is dedicated to Aslam’s father, “who advised me at the outset, all those years ago, to always write about love”.

I have rarely read about an author and then decided to pick up his book. Even in the case of some of my favourite authors – Orhan Pamuk (after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006), I read My name is Red, first and then discovered the man behind the book. Same with Rohinton Mistry.

But never has a writer’s working style, passion and obsession with the craft filled me with so much awe. I have to discover the book behind this man.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: