The American Century as Seen Through a Brick (extract)

American Century

The American Century As Seen Through A Brick: A sequence of poetry based on ‘Academy Award Winner for Best Picture’ winners. The remaining poems can be found here.


Cimarron_(1931_film)_posterCimarron 1930/31

Isaiah fans white folk from the ceiling,

One nation indivisible –

An empire pillared by pioneers

Counting notches on their pistol grips…


Time will mellow hearts

Say: America

Hide me in your love.




Casablanca 1943Casablanca.jpg

The speech of the refugee is the living breath.

Let them speak of their roads:

… Through Europe we have travelled

Fleeing tyranny and vultures,


The devil has us by our throats,

The ghettos burn and displace our children,

You must remember us…





Ben-Hur 1959

This country was built by slaves

– It still is –

There are no guilty faces

Just    conquered people


Oar weary on the galleys

Air wary on the gallows

Fire       environs       us       all




In the Heat of the Night 1967Heart of the night

– No Vietcong ever called me a Nigger –

For Virgil, hell is in police officers,

The detail in the dead and suffer;

Tweezers, toothpicks, thermometers.


Just what they know about the King’s insomnia,

The wet cemeteries in the state of Louisiana,

The struggle when fear is attached to color?




70_pattonPatton 1970

If it takes a bloodbath

Our blood, his guts

Blood in Chicago

Dams of blood ready to flood


Foreign blood stung in battle

The prayer’s spittle, blood pour.

Enlightened absolutism – War





Out of Africa 1985Out_of_africa_poster

Alleles of eloquence

Cradled at this rock

Bear the scorn/pity of aids

And are nothing more


To marionettes

Than the withering victory of:





SchlindlersSchindler’s List 1993

Show/er of darkness

Give me strength

For I am lost in the weakness of others

Their cracked house cruelty.


… Light dimmed in interrogation,

Held hopeful, eternal,

The fractal lobe.





No Country For Old Men 2007No_Country_for_Old_Men_poster.jpg

There is no greater me than you;

The birds will die, the trees too.

The flesh of fish will foul

And the song will lose its soul.


I will be hot, you will be cold;

The sea’s of what’s coming,

The intensity of the plunge.




Birdman poster.jpgBirdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) 2014

I don’t exist

, This representation is an act

– An intervention. A medium

Of absence, contradiction, negation


. When I am killed again with impunity

, My autopsy transfigured as found poetry

, again I will’ve been defenseless/muffling… I can’t breathe


About the poet

Asim Khan is from Birmingham, England. His work has appeared and is forthcoming in various print and online journals. He blogs on He Tweets at @photoetric


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Why do we read? From Galileo to Umberto Eco, mankind’s greatest thinkers consider humanity’s relationship with books and literature


Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

We’ve looked before at the reasons great writers choose to sit down and begin writing. These reasons include wanting to discover the answer to some mystery, simple fun, the pursuit of happiness, personal discovery and self-exploration, and because the thought of not writing simply hurt too much. But why are we, as a species, so drawn to the stories these writers write? Why do homo sapiens so desire books and literature?

In rebuttal to those who might contend that we somehow do not need books, there have been wonderful arguments made in favour of literature, explaining what it does for the human mind and the human spirit. Yet this does not quite answer the question of what it is that draws human beings to books and to literature. It doesn’t answer why we have, for centuries, even erected great buildings in which we can store our texts and stories.

Scientists, artists, politicians and explorers have explained, sometimes beautifully, why books are essential. They are, for instance, “fundamental to all human achievement and progress”, according to Astronaut Neil Armstrong. But is logical reasoning like this the true reason we are drawn to books, why we worship them? Is there more to it, something spiritual, perhaps?

Nearly half a millennium ago, the answers to such questions were pondered by Galileo Galilei, one of humanity’s greatest science-crusaders and seekers of knowledge and understanding.


Galileo Galilei

In Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican, Gelileo observes that books have an uncanny power to transport us, across time and space, into the mind of another person. And suggests that we are drawn to books, and derive such pleasure from reading, because literature is a means of connecting human beings and human ideas across boundaries – and is, in this way, a means of both time travel and telepathy.

He writes:

“With what admiration the reading of excellent poets fills anyone who attentively studies the invention and interpretation of concepts! And what shall I say of architecture? What of the art of navigation?

But surpassing all stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time! Of talking with those who are in India; of speaking to those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years; and with what facility, by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page!

Let this be the seal of all the admirable inventions of mankind.”

Several hundred years later, and the same thought processes continue to abide as the world’s greatest thinkers ponder the book as one of these most “admirable inventions of mankind”.

Indeed, the late, great Italian novelist, essayist and philosopher Umberto Eco, peers back half a millennia to Galileo’s time, and discusses the perennial rewards of the book as a medium or irreplaceable humanity:

“Alterations of the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon. When designers try to improve something like the corkscrew, their success is very limited; most of their “improvements” don’t even work. Philippe Starck attempted an innovative lemon-squeezer; his version was very handsome, but it lets the pits through. The book has been thoroughly tested, and it’s very hard to see how it could be improved on for its current purposes. Perhaps it will evolve in terms of components; perhaps the pages will no longer be made of paper. But it will still be the same thing.”

It is the abiding qualities of books – of writing, stories and literature – that make them so entwined with human culture. In the same essay, Eco considers just this, positing that reading is almost a biological or natural reflex of humanity:

“We can think of writing as an extension of the hand, and therefore as almost biological. It is the communication tool most closely linked to the body. Once invented, it could never be given up… Our modern inventions — cinema, radio, Internet — are not biological.”

If, after reading this, you have that need to scratch your natural instinct therefore and pick up a book, why not try one of those books everyone says they’ve read (even if they actually haven’t). Perhaps you could also consider what the new digital world means for books and literature. Whatever you do, make sure you sign up for our newsletter – a free, regular digest of everything interesting.



Writing as autobiography – is there no difference between fiction and non fiction?


Dickens’ Dream, by Robert William Buss.

The line between fact and fiction has always been fuzzier than most people find it convenient to admit. It is a common line to argue that the work of the novelist is engaged with the creative imagination, while the memoirist is engaged with some accountable “truth” or “reality”, and is trying to tell us – the reader – what really, actually happened.

It is a distinction that is easy to voice but perhaps harder to sustain in logic, for there is a good argument to be made that any account of a person’s real, lived experiences can never be “true” in the sense that any such account would be verifiable if it were recorded on CCTV cameras. Equally, fiction – and ultimately all art – comes from within the writer or artist’s own mind and own heart, and their choice of words and the way they use language is designed by their own personal experiences of the world. The writer of a fantasy novel exposes their true selves to the same extent that a memoirist does.

Consider the words of J.M. Coetzee – recipient of the Novel Prize for Literature – here:

“In a larger sense, all writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it.”

Or else, of Jorge Luis Borges:

“I wrote a story once about a man who began a very large picture, and therein was a kind of map – for example, hills, horses, streams, fishes, and woods and towers and men and all sorts of things. When the day of his death came, he found he had been making a picture of himself. That is the case with most writers.”

The idea that writing is about self-exploration and self-discovery is not new. Harper Lee said, for instance, that writing “is a self-exploratory operation that is endless”. Emerson said there was neither fiction nor history: “only biography”. Samuel Butler wrote that “Every man’s work – whether it be literature or music or architecture or anything else – is always a portrait of himself.”

Something that may therefore be inferred from this idea then is that all stories – whether they concern goblins or spaceships or Russian princesses or Greek warriors or a middle aged man from Croydon (or all the above) – are, indeed, true. On some level, there exists within every work of fiction an element of reality – an ultimate truth perceived perhaps only in glimpses; that truth being the human being, their feelings and thoughts, behind the words on the page, behind the typewriter (minimalist or otherwise).

Writing in the Guardian, the writer Belinda McKeon clarified this position: “Writing cannot be anything but autobiographical. To try for distance, for the narrative which is somehow purely imagined, would be the most nakedly autobiographical effort of all. […] Writing, all writing, comes from the well of the self. From the way the mind works; from the places to which the mind goes.”

If fiction, then, is autobiographical, what does this mean for those works that actually attempt to be autobiography? What does this mean for memoir?

There are plenty of examples of fiction – and of imagined or perceived truths instead of actual happening truths – in memoirs and autobiographies. Some of these are blatant. Consider, for instance, the “choose your own autobiography” memoir of actor Neil Patrick Harris, who, having not actually lived “a miserable childhood that later in life you can claim to heroically overcome”, simply invents one.

Then there are those autobiographies in which the fictions are hidden more deeply. Lance Armstrong’s memoirs, for instance, in which he supposedly overcame testicular cancer to win the Tour de France repeatedly without the aid of performance enhancing drugs, are now revealed to be largely self-congratulatory fabrication.

The outrage surrounding Armstrong’s supposed “memoirs” reached a nadir when people who had bought his book demanded refunds from the publisher. In a similar reaction to how readers responded to the revelation that James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, actually hadn’t done very much of anything he claimed to have done in his “autobiography”.

But perhaps the “untruths” or what we might call fictitious elements that are contained within memoirs and autobiographies may be expected. As David Shields suggests in Reality Hunger, “A lot of nonfiction is highly imagined. We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day. “Fiction/nonfiction” is an utterly useless distinction”.

This is a position suggested by memoirists themselves. For instance, Mary Gaitskill said, “My books tend not to have the narrative and story you associate with fiction, but at the same time they are arranged and structured, to put it pompously, as works of art rather than accumulations of information. To that extent, I like to think they’re more novel than many novels.”

Perhaps a reason for this is the inherent, slippery nature of language, and the act of writing. Jonathan Raban, for instance, posits that “the moment you start to arrange the world in words, you alter its nature. The words themselves begin to suggest patterns and connections that seemed at the time to be absent from the events the words describe. Then the story takes hold. It begins to determine what goes in and what’s left out. It has its own logic and it carries the writer along with it. […] that is fiction making.”

This idea suggests that the moment you begin to write a narrative account of anything, be it a real ‘lived’ event or something from your imagination, you immediately stray from the real actual happening truth. It is an idea also proposed by Sebald, quoted in The Emergence of Memory: “You adulterate the truth as you write. There isn’t any pretence that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at poetic truth, which can be reached only through fabrication, imagination, stylisation. What I’m striving for is authenticity; none of it is real.”

There may seem to be a paradox here: that to create something that is “real”, one must fabricate and imagine. One must invent; one must write fictions; one must lie. Yet it is the inverse of the paradox encountered in writing and reading supposed fiction: that what may set out to be an entirely imagined story contains within it more reality and truth than supposed fact-based narratives.

Ultimately, perhaps, the gap between fiction and autobiography is entirely artificial. Perhaps it always has been. This may, at its heart, point to some ultimate, universal truth. As David Shields writes: “to be alive is to travel ceaselessly between the real and the imaginary.” Writing and literature, then, are the craft upon which we travel this journey. Writers, in that context, may then be seen as the pilots.


A bestseller: War and Peace enters top 50 bestselling books list

Waterstones war and peace

Although War and Peace may be one of the novels most of us have lied about reading, it seems this is set to change, as the book has entered the UK’s bestselling book charts for the first time.

According to the Bookseller, the BBC edition of the novel sold over 3500 copies last week, putting it in 50th place in the charts – the first time the novel has made the top 50 since Nielsen BookScan’s records began in 1998.

Although only 4% of Britons have actually read War and Peace, according to YouGov, the BBC’s recent televised adaptation of Tolstoy’s 1300 page epic seems to have captured the public’s interest, and encouraged thousands of Britons to pick up the original text.

Waterstones buyer Joseph Knobbs said that it wasn’t just the BBC’s edition of the novel that was flying off the shelves: “Judging by our recent sales … an awful lot of people have finally crossed this classic off their must-read list. Four different editions of the book have hit our bestseller list, shifting an almost equal number of copies each.”

Book publisher Wordsworth Editions also reported an increase in sales of its edition following the airing of the BBC’s TV series. The publisher said it had sold over 3000 copies since the first episode of the television adaptation – putting its edition into the top 20 of the Bookseller’s small publisher charts.

As well as attracting praise from critics and viewers for its fast pace, heaving bosoms, flashing sabres, and pouty attractive actors, (as well as having a decent script and solid direction), the BBC’s adaptation seems to have been successful for another key reason: Paul Dano.

Social media – especially Twitter – erupted with praise for Dano, with Fearne Cotton (among countless others) calling him “completely captivating” in his role as Pierre Bezukhov. It is perhaps in part down to Dano’s success here that Tolstoy’s epic has finally made it onto the bestselling book charts. Indeed, as Dano’s Pierre took his delicate time savouring a potato, you could almost hear the sound of people rushing to bookstores to buy their own copy of War and Peace.

In looking to answer that age old question of whether Paul Dano is better or worse than 1300 Russians, it seems on the basis of this evidence that an early victory lies with Dano.

The agony of the untold story: why do writers write?

Stephen King

The question of what motivates great writers to write has been discussed by writers and critics for decades. Italo Calvino said that he wrote “to give vent to my feelings and because I like it”, and that “one writes most of all in order to take part in a collective enterprise.” Meanwhile, George Orwell suggested the motivation for writing came from “a mystery” that the writer was trying to uncover. David Foster Wallace simply said it was “about fun”.

As readers, we often wonder what it was that compelled writers we admire to tell their stories. According to some studies, 30% of writers “write to educate, influence and help others”; 2% did it for “exposure and fame”, 2% did it for “curiosity” and 13% did it simply because they “had to” – as though there were no other option for it.

The statistics, of course, will only get you so far. What is interesting is to see how they correlate with some of the well-known thoughts and musings on this topic from famous authors. Here, we might begin to understand why some authors feel as though there is no other choice open to them but to write and to tell their stories.

Think of the words of the magnificent Maya Angelou, for instance, when she says that “there is no greater agony than bearing some untold story inside you.”

Here, we can begin to explore that central conceit, that the supreme animating force of the writer may be the irrepressible impossibility of not writing.

This is something picked upon by James Baldwin, who described the need and urgency of writing as “Something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die.”

This, at first, seems to bear so much similarity to Angelou’s quote that a common concept of the pain of not writing seems to be developing. Yet Baldwin also notes – in an interview with George Plimpton, founding editor of the Paris Review – how writing is also about clarifying one’s own thoughts and consciousness:

“When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.”

This bears more correlation with the idea of uncovering the “mystery” George Orwell spoke of; yet it also falls into the categories of “curiosity” and a desire “to educate” (even if the only person being educated in this instance is the writer, the idea of self-discovery and self-education through writing still therefore plays a vital motivating role for authors).

For further evidence that the desire for self-discovery is a powerful motivating force for writers, think of the NaNoWriMo competition, which challenges writers to start and complete a 50,000 word novel during the month of November.

Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, has said that many entrants to the contest never intend to publish their books. Instead, they write for the creative experience “of discovering the novel within them”.

Just as great literature explores new worlds, new ideas, new feelings; and ultimately the depth of what it is to be human, so too, it seems, does writing provide a tool for exploration. As Harper Lee said: writing “is a self-exploratory operation that is endless.”

Putting the ‘U’ in autobiography: Neil Patrick Harris memoir is a ‘Choose your own adventure’ book


In the days where it seems you get your own memoir for being even slightly famous, or if you have ever been raised on the planet earth, actor Neil Patrick Harris has attempted to subvert the memoir model with his own memoir – written in the form of a ‘Choose your own adventure’ book.

That’s right. In some sort of meta-statement about the uselessness of writing a memoir at all, Harris lets you, the reader, choose which path you want him to follow. The book mixes in stories from the actor’s early days in Los Angeles, life on the How I Met Your Mother set, secrets from backstage at award shows, and family life with David, Harper, and Gideon. And it combines these tales with the gloriously pulpy prose and branching paths of a CYOA book.

For example, early on we read a description of Harris’s life growing up in Ruidoso, New Mexico, and at the end get the choice to either experience a happy childhood on page 8, or a (fictitious) “miserable childhood that later in life you can claim to heroically overcome” on page 5.

As Harris points out in an interview with the LA Times, “If you only want to read hard-core, frat guy stories, you can take that path. If you’d rather learn about my interests growing up and how I came to be, you can follow that path. If you’d really just rather learn how to make pasta and Bolognese sauce and a nice cocktail and have a lovely evening by yourself, you can do that too.”

You can check out an excerpt from this ‘Choose your own autobiography’ memoir, and buy a copy for yourself, over here.

Remember: Neil Patrick Harris’s life is in your hands.

Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Breakfast of Champions’ read aloud by John Malkovich


Malkovich? Malkovich Malkovich. Malkovich! Malkovich. No, this isn’t that scene from Being John Malkovich; but it’s still pretty good. You see, Audible has released a John Malkovich-narrated audio book of the Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.

It seems this was a project Malkovich was pretty keen to work on. The acclaimed actor said: “Breakfast of Champions is just about the best script an actor could wish for, and it was a real treat to perform. I hope Vonnegut fans have as much fun listening to this challenging and funny American classic as I had recording it, and I believe those new to the book will discover it’s just as fresh and relevant as it was forty years ago.”

In the meta-fiction novel, which Vonnegut published four years after he released perhaps his most famous work, Slaughterhouse Five, readers once again encounter sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout, a reoccurring character in Vonnegut’s novels. Trout meets with car salesman Dwayne Hoover, who believes one of Trout’s science fiction books is, in fact, non-fiction.


The book is full of Vonnegut’s signature writing style, simple in sentence structure and syntax and rich in irony, sentimentality and didacticism. Dealing with suicide, free will, mental illness and social and economic cruelty, the novel received critical acclaim among reviewers and spent 56 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list. However, Vonnegut himself was unhappy with the novel, and gave it a C grade on a report card of his published work.

You can listen to a sample of Malkovich’s narration here, and watch behind-the-scenes-footage of the recording below:

If you’re still in the mood for more Vonnegut, why not check out this mini-compendium of Vonnegut’s timeless wisdom on writing, reading, and semi-colons?

The Inevitable Gift Shop – A memoir by other means


The Inevitable Gift Shop, the latest book from Will Eaves, is now available, and we here at Nothing in the Rulebook are already excited about it.

Subtitled ‘A memoir by other means’, The Inevitable Gift Shop lassoes consciousness, memory, desire, literature, illness, flora and fauna, problems with tortoises and cable ties, and brings them back home in double file, as prose and poetry.

Sri Lankan-born Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser has described the book as being “like a conversation with an extraordinarily wise friend: surprising, tender, funny and profound”.

Irish poet Ian Duhig has also praised Eaves’s latest offering, saying “It takes itself apart and puts itself back together again as it goes along like a literary Transformer, morphing from prose to poetry, literary criticism to history, every new shape a brilliant incarnation … this is an odd book, no question, one I back to last.”

The Inevitable Gift Shop is the second book Eaves has published with CB Editions – the imprint of publisher-poet Charles Boyle which has, as The Guardian points out, produced “some truly dazzling books”. CB Editions publishes short fiction, poetry, translations and other work which, “might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers”.

Will Eaves is the author of four novels and a collection of poems (Sound Houses, Carcanet, 2011). He was Arts Editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 1995 to 2011, and now teaches at Warwick University.

His previous novel (perhaps better described as a collection of mini-narratives), The Absent Therapist, was shortlisted for the Goldsmith’s Prize 2014. Since this book also made it onto both our essential summer reading list of 2015, and also our recommended list of literary stocking fillers, we’re already looking forward to reading The Inevitable Gift Shop. You should be, too.

You can order your copy of The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves here –

Adapting Tolstoy: Paul Dano vs 1300 Russians

War and Peace

War? Check. Peace? Check. What more could you ask of any adaptation of Tolstoy’s seminal, 1200-odd page novel, War and Peace? Well, on these counts the BBC’s recent television miniseries has hit the mark, helped in part by the use of flashing sabres, corsets, Paul Dano, heaving bosoms, Paul Dano, men in uniform, Paul Dano, funny-looking Russian hats, Paul Dano, breathless kisses, Paul Dano, and a cheeky touch of incest (which seems to be all the rage in TV book adaptations since Game of Thrones).

Reviews of the BBC series have been, on the whole, positive, with critics and viewers describing it as both captivating and riveting. Yet the fast pace of the series, and the decision of director Andrew Davies to be rather liberal when it comes to cutting out chapters and events contained in the novel, has not gone unnoticed – with Mark Lawson in The Guardian pointing to the revered 1972 BBC series, which had a running time of 15 hours, as perhaps being a more faithful adaptation (albeit with less Paul Dano).

Is it possible to retain an absolute faithfulness to a text in any adaptation, and also create something that is riveting and captivating? Or are the two mutually exclusive? The 1972 series, it is worth pointing out, played at such a relaxed pace that the series began with servants laying a long banquet table “more or less in real time”, as Lawson notes. Perhaps audiences in the 1970s found the laying of tables more riveting than our modern sensibilities might permit us to think.

Is absolute faithfulness even possible? These are all questions to consider. And how else better to consider all these while watching thirteen hundred Russians recite the entirety of War and Peace over a period of sixty hours? We certainly can’t think of a better way. But we’ll leave that for you to decide!

Creatives in profile: Interview with Paul M.M. Cooper

Paul Cooper

Paul M.M Cooper was born in South London and grew up in Cardiff, Wales, in what he has described as a “house full of books”. He is a graduate of the acclaimed creative writing courses at both the University of Warwick and the University of East Anglia.

His book, River of Ink, was one of the biggest literary deals at the London Book Fair in 2014 and tells the story of Asanka – a 13th Century Sri Lankan poet forced to translate a piece of mythology for a tyrannical king. The book (you can read our review here) is set around historical events, and is based on years of research Cooper conducted during the time he spent living and working in Sri Lanka.

He has written for magazines and websites, and has also worked as an archivist, editor and journalist.

It’s an honour to introduce this detailed interview.


Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.


I’m a novelist and language enthusiast from Cardiff. I write books about art and history and the heroism that comes from ordinary people.


What was your childhood like?


It was good! I grew up in Cardiff since I was 6, which has left me with an affinity for rain and a distrust of places with flat countryside.


Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to be besides a writer?


I wanted to be a nature photographer at one point. I think being a writer is similar to that in a lot of ways, but you don’t have to go outside if you don’t want to, which makes it superior.


Who inspires you?


The likely people are authors like Orhan Pamuk, Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, Teju Cole and Roberto Bolaño.


Your debut novel, River of Ink, was famously the subject of a multiple-publisher auction in 2014 – could you tell us a little more about your journey from writing the first words of the book down through to getting that book deal?


It took about 5 years between those two points. I lived in Sri Lanka for some time, I did two degrees and nearly lost my marbles. There were quite a few points when I wanted to give up, but the story really demanded that I finish it. I met my agent at an event showcasing some of the work by UEA graduates, and spent a few months frantically editing and re-editing the book to send to them. Once they offered me representation, we took the book to the London Book Fair. I was working as a reporter at the time, and managed to convince my employers that there were some stories that needed writing there – so I got to go there and meet the editor from Bloomsbury, who went on to bid against another publisher. I started fielding a lot of calls, and most of the deal was hashed out in the stairwell of the office I was working at, near Southwark Bridge.


And what about afterwards – is it strange handing over your book to the editors and waiting for it to be published? What’s it like seeing your name on the shelves of bookstores?


It is strange to have something that is a very private project suddenly pored over by scores of others. Publishing is quite a slow industry, though – so I’ve had some time to get used to the idea. It’s great to see the book on the shelves. I’ve only had one weird moment so far: while I was standing in a shop I saw someone pick up River of Ink, and my heartbeat shot up suddenly. I’m not usually prone to things like that, but I had to leave the shop because it freaked me out.


Who are (and who have been) your most important teachers?


I’ve had some great teachers over the years. Definitely Amit Chaudhuri and Rebecca Stott, who took me under their wing a little at the UEA, and Maureen Freely and George Ttoouli at Warwick. I also had a couple of teachers who really encouraged me to write in secondary school. I think behind every writer is a person who once said ‘that could be you’ – for me it was some great English teachers.


You’ve studied writing at both Warwick and UEA – what is your view on the value of creative writing courses?


They are what you make of them. Like a music school or dance school, they can initiate you into a craft, but they can’t give you the final spark that makes you really great. For me it was good to spend time around people who took the craft of writing utterly seriously, and focus all my time on getting better at writing. Ultimately you have to do most of the ‘teaching’ yourself, but it’s a great place to do it. I think there’s a lot of valid concern going around about the idea of certain people being priced out of becoming writers, though – and it’s important that voices from outside the academies are getting the same opportunities as those within.


You spent a year after graduating from the University of Warwick living in Sri Lanka – where River of Ink is set (albeit some 700 years earlier). How big a part did that year play in helping you craft the novel? And what was it like to come back to England and write and edit the novel with the inevitable distance away from a place that is so vividly brought to life in your book?


A lot of the book was actually written in Sri Lanka, and especially in the Polonnaruwa Library, which is in view of the old citadel wall and the palace across the canal. As well as the story, I’d also filled notebooks with notes and sketches, and I took photos and videos constantly, so I had a lot of raw material to work from whenever my memory failed me back in the UK. I couldn’t have written this book without spending large amounts of time wandering the ruins of Polonnaruwa and imagining how it once might have looked, the noise and colour in its streets – so it was very important for me. Part of Asanka’s struggle in the book is also about trying to write about a place distant and unfamiliar to him, so the distance fed a little into my character’s frustrations also.


Do you have a specific ‘writing process’? What do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?


Just getting words onto the page is important. I heard someone describe this recently as ‘piling sand into the sandbox to build things out of it later’ – this is usually how my first drafts work. I write a lot, fill scenes with everything I can, and then winnow things down later so it is light and strong in the final draft.


Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind as you write?


I have lots of readers in mind: they all sit on my shoulder in a little chorus. My favourite reader is the enthusiastic lover of stories, who likes things to be exciting and page-turning. My least favourite reader is the pedantic historian of thirteenth-century Sri Lankan history and culture, who caused me no end of headaches. I believe I’ve written a book both these readers can enjoy, however.


Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?


Yes – especially when depicting another culture and time. I have a horror of embodying the classic leering orientalist gaze, so I found a lot of tension between accurately depicting the time and place, the sensibilities of the characters, and avoiding the kind of otherising that often takes place in books written in South Asian settings. The book is rabidly anti-imperialist as I see it, and my villain Magha embodies a lot of what I see to be poisonous in the colonial and neo-colonial projects. I was determined that modern Sri Lankan people should be able to recognise their country in the pages of River of Ink, but also that the book should embody certain universal ideals.


River of Ink explicitly deals with the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword” – and with the incredibly important role writers and artists play in holding leaders – and indeed society as a whole – to account. And yet we live in a world where writing freedom is increasingly restricted; not only through restrictive laws in countries where writers can actually be imprisoned, but also in supposedly democratic countries where writers like James Kelman and Julian Barnes have pointed out that it’s harder and harder to get novels published that are different or challenging to the establishment. Kelman even said the UK media establishment “colludes in censorship and suppression” – a view Noam Chomsky would probably sympathise with. What’s your take on writing and creative freedom?


I think there’s a will to liberation that inheres in all writing and art, no matter what uses it’s put to, which is a big part of River of Ink. Artist around the world are currently struggling beneath autocratic regimes, and their art is often the mode they use to express their dissent. However even in democratic countries there’s a lot of implicit suppression involved in the publishing industry. This isn’t conscious I think, but more systematic by virtue of it still being a very white industry. That’s only now really beginning to change, and it’s great to see writers of all backgrounds beginning to get to speak. Even generally liberal institutions like the creative arts and publishing are necessarily self-perpetuating entities, and are therefore reactionary to some degree – so it can really be about the market forcing them to change. Go buy books from people whose voices aren’t being heard, in other words!


Where does the power of literature come from?


I’d say the way it allows us to imagine ourselves into situations wholly different to our own. People who don’t read novels miss out on some of the most profound acts of imaginative empathy, and I can’t help but think it makes you a more inflexible and dogmatic person – which is bad for the soul I believe.


What is a writer for?


Telling stories!


The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?


The novel has been on the verge of death for 100 years, and presumably will be for another 100. People in publishing can be pretty pessimistic, but I don’t see anything to be gloomy about. People are now consuming literature in more different forms, from a wider variety of sources, and countries of origin, than ever before. I think narrative television has replaced cinema as the dominant storytelling form at least in the North Atlantic – but the novel is still intricately bound to people’s desires to enter other lives and experience beauty.


Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?


It’s a little too early to talk too much about it, but people who enjoyed River of Ink will get a lot out of the next book too. I’m writing about a different setting, and even adding in a modern element to the historical story. But I hope to strike the same balance between storytelling and artistry that I think has struck a chord with readers of the first book.


How would you define creativity?


The desire to make things no one else thought could exist.


Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?


  1. Read everything, and not just the things you like
  2. Stay playful, and write the books you want to write, not what you think people expect or would respect you for writing
  3. Stay humble and learn your craft: read about writing
  4. Learn about good stories, not just about good prose
  5. Stay in for the long haul. It takes most people (myself included) at least 10 years to go from beginning writing seriously to getting published
  6. Almost all who try disqualify themselves by giving up
  7. Show your writing to people and develop a thick skin as soon as possible. people will help you if you’re not sensitive about it
  8. If you get bored with a project, it’s probably because you wandered away from what you loved about it in the first place. it happens a lot
  9. Lots of people will tell you it will never happen
  10. Whatever project you eventually want to write, start right now!