The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack – and other stories.
H.M Naqvi talks about his new book The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack.
EBR caught up with H.M Naqvi at the 2019 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. He was a guest speaker at the Location, Location Location sessions. He spoke to EBR about the importance of sense of place in his fiction.
“The great Pakistani city of Karachi, says the titular narrator of H.M. Naqvi’s The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, was once a cultural mecca . . .That boisterous entrepot is long since gone . . . yet it survives in the memory of the novel’s aging hero, and in this delirious love letter to the Karachi that was . . . Thrust into wheezing, hobbling action, Abdullah protects his friends and confronts his adversaries with a boldness and verbosity that is one part Don Quixote and one part Ignatius J. Reilly.”—Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal
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In episode 32 of the eBook Revolution Podcast, H.M Naqvi talks about his new book The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossak, as well as…
- How a 300 word a day deadline can unlock creativty
- The importance of place in creating character
- The difficulty in making a living from literary fiction
- Why the writing process helps you discover your working process
This episode is sponsored by Madhouse Media Publishing. They’ll make your book look great and give you time to concentrate on what you do best – writing. Got a question about self publishing? Contact us here.
H.M Naqvi is the author of Homeboy and The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack
A graduate of Georgetown and the creative writing program at Boston University, H.M Naqvi won the Phelam Prize for poetry and represented Pakistan at the National Poetry Slam in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In recent years, he taught creative writing at B.U., and presently divides his time between Karachi and the U.S. East Coast. (with thanks to Penguin/Random House)
So congratulations on The Selected Works of Abdullah The Cossack. It must be satisfying to no longer be a brand new ‘debut’ novelist.
I was figuring out how to write when I was writing Home Boy, it was my first novel. I studied literature but writing a novel is a completely different mode of being, set of skills. You have to learn how to put words together as if you’re a child, and so mercifully, the second time around, it wasn’t as challenging to negotiate structural issues and problems that you face that ostensibly and especially in retrospect, seem mundane. But when you’re trying to frame a scene or make a character three dimensional, these things in the beginning were very challenging for me.
Is there’s a kind of tyranny that comes with writing the second novel?
You know, we’re all configured differently as human beings and as novelists and I think, as far as I’m concerned, I just felt somewhat empty after Homeboy. It was as if I had nothing more to say and it took me a few years to find my feet, almost literally, because I started during this time walking around the city. It’s my hometown city I’m very familiar with, but it’s a city that keeps changing and these peregrinations informed the location of the frayed mansion that Abdullah The Cossack inhabits. He’s a 72 year old who comes from a very well to do business family that has fallen on hard times, so they don’t have cash to like repair broken mosquito netting and his bathtub is always on the verge of cracking up and so on. So it took me time to figure out what I wanted to do next but once Abdullah’s voice spoke to me, it actually flowed faster than I thought it would.
Is the sense of place, as you just talked about, important in creating a character like that?
Every question that you pose I will footnote or employ the following caveat that we’re all just configured differently. I fundamentally feel that I lack imagination and unless I live it, unless I experience it, unless I research it, I can’t write it. And so since I was in Karachi, Karachi imposed on my consciousness and my creative process. I’m eager now to sort of leave Karachi and draw inspiration from a different topography and a different urban infrastructure. I don’t have the money to travel around, but I have narrowed down in my mind a few cities that I want to set my next novel, and let’s see what my peregrinations take me for my third novel.
Have you begun that third novel?
I have not started it, but it takes me at least a year or so. It’s always in the back of my head and so I don’t consciously work on it, but consciously things are coming together in the back of my head. And I think as soon as I’m done writing these few commission nonfiction pieces, I will put pen to paper and embark on the third journey.
One thing that strikes me about your writer’s voice reading Homeboy is it’s instantly recognizable. Some novelists struggle through the whole career to find a voice that you seem to have found right out of the gate. Is that something you were conscious of or did it just naturally evolve?
The voice for young Chuck in Homeboy sort of was a function of the anxiety of all of us, I think, because I think we’re all fundamentally similar and that we need food, and we need sustenance and we need a roof over our head and we need some love in our lives and we want to love and want to be loved. So these are sort of very basic, human embedded imperatives and in Homeboy I channel the imperatives of young men. Homeboy is fundamentally a Bildungsroman, a coming of age story, not different than say Catcher in the Rye or Bright Lights Big City. Whereas Abdullah the Cossack does also contend with these basic human imperatives, his quest is about finding meaning in his life. Whereas young men are often finding a drink as in the evening and then contending with their hormones. Abdullah is contending with history and his place in it. And so even though Abdullah is a 300 pound diabetic suffering from hemorrhoids and ontological panic, he is in a way no different from you and I, or anybody who wants to live a life that has some meaning in it.
The sense of place you conjure, is mesmerizing, and reading Abdullah I can breathe, smell and taste Karachi even though I’ve never been there. How important is the sense of place to your writing?
I don’t think I can write without a sense of place and again, it’s different for everybody. Graham Greene, for instance. Critics maintain that his novels, whether set in Havana or Vietnam or, Sierra Leone – Heart of the Matter – one of my favorite novels, basically Green inhabits a place called Greenland and they are interchangeable and whether or not I agree with the critics on this particular matter, place is sort of imperative to the way I think about character because even though humans share the same imperatives we’re shaped by different places. Living in rural China is dramatically different than living in Shanghai. Living in Karachi is actually very similar to living in Legos or Rio de Janeiro. In these megalopolises you have to negotiate a certain sensibility and a certain topography and certain infrastructure and these cities are bursting at the seams and so, I cannot fathom character without place.
So, you need to live in a place to let that stew?
We are shaped by the places that we live in. I, for instance require the sea, because Karachi is set on the Arabian Sea. And so the smell of salt in the air in the evening is something that I find myself yearning for when I happen to find myself in a place and in a mountainous region. I had the misfortune of spending a few months in Austria, which is pretty and tidy and organized. And dead. Whereas Karachi is disorganized. There’s air pollution and there’s noise pollution but it’s good because of the smell of salt in the night air, it’s familiar territory and it shapes my sensibility. And I should try to get away from from the sea and in my next, you know, my next journey might take me to the mountains and then let’s see what happens.
See what happens indeed, you of course won the inaugural DSC prize for South Asian literature. How important was that win for your career?
When I was writing, Homeboy, I didn’t think the novel would ever get published. It’s a very difficult industry. And increasingly so where literary fiction doesn’t command the same sway over our collective consciousness as it did maybe half a century ago, when, you know, when there was a time when people read, because there was no television and there was no radio, and then novels were entertainment and literally people read Dickens, everybody read Dickens. It wasn’t considered literary fiction. It was just good, good fiction, character driven fiction. So I didn’t, I didn’t think I would get published and massively, somehow whimsically, I did and it’s always surprising to me that when someone comes up to me and says, ‘Well, I really enjoyed your book’ and because for a moment you like that, you know, that that was something that took place in my head and so it’s surprising when somebody comes up to you and enjoys the book and it’s even more surprising that it was considered for a prize and it went up against sort of very capable books and Homeboy came out swinging and it’s surprising and it’s heartening. I didn’t know what I was doing and it kind of worked.
Going backwards from winning prizes, let’s talk about your pathway to becoming an author. You made the jump from a career in financial services to creative writing classes at Boston University. What drove you to dive into the world of fiction
I have been writing since I was a child. And I think even before I could form words, I would commit doodles to the page and so this imperative is something that I think I was born with. I assembled a short story collection, which I came across in my archives, I think, earlier this year, and collected the short story collection, I had stapled a bunch of short stories together in, I think, fifth grade. And so that was my first self published volume. So I had always aspired to continue writing, but it was practically very difficult. Throughout college, through my first job, I would write at night, and I would write short stories, which is a very different medium, and looking back, it was as if I was actually learning how to write and, and refining my craft. I know that I wasn’t capable of embarking on a novel before I did, and I only had the confidence or I was foolhardy when I was about 30, I think when I started writing, Homeboy, and so, but all those years were devoted to kind of refining the craft and so Homeboy. It’s part of a continuum. It didn’t happen whimsically. It’s part and parcel of who I am.
What’s your writing routine? What do you need to work.
I think that being a writer involves not only the production of prose, but it involves figuring out how you work. And as I wrote Homeboy, I not only learned how to put together words in a sentence and string long sentences into a paragraph in the service of a narrative. I learned how I work. I work till about five in the morning. I would wake up about midday, I would have some lunch after some very, very light aerobic exercise and I would have my first session from about three to six, and I would work at a cafe. And then I would go home and nap. Then I’d have my second session from nine to 11pm. I’d have dinner at midnight, and then work through the night. And so that’s how I wrote Homeboy and that was one part of it. Another part is that I have a daily quota of 300 words a day, and it’s a low bar because 300 words is basically about three paragraphs, about a page. But I always meet my quota, and I usually hit 500 words a day, but I learned that if I get the bar high and not make it, I would always feel like I’m in a hole, and I had to dig myself out of a hole. So these are these, you know, eccentric parts of my regime and it works for me, but I don’t advocate it. Different things work for different people. There are people who write 3000 words of prose a day and then complete a book within two years or a year and novelists who actually can also complete a book every six months. It takes me five years. I’m slow, and maybe I’ll get slower. Before I’m dead, I want to write four more books. I think I’d be content with six books. And I think by the time I hit six books when I’m done, I’m 60. And then the rest will be bonus. That’s the way I think about it.
What advice would you give to anyone that’s listening who feels compelled to take up the life of a writer?
It’s a very tough life. It’s tough because practically speaking, it doesn’t pay and so one is compelled to kind of complement one’s meager earnings with odd jobs and so, you know, depending on the job you know, I read this fantastic memoir by an American author who was known during this time called Jim Harrison. He grew up in between the wars in the Great Depression in the Midwest when he hailed from a Swedish immigrant family and he worked odd jobs all his life. And so you have to be prepared for this kind of thing, if we prepared for the great anxiety that comes with producing something that may or may not ever find an audience. And so you have to be committed in a way that you don’t have to be committed to in other professions. I think if you accept the challenges, then I think my advice would be you can’t call yourself a writer, if you don’t write every day. You have to write every day, whether it’s in the service of a long project or not, you need to exercise your mind every day and you have to get into this habit, this mode of being and and so all you need to do is take out not more than an hour every day and that means you know, watching less television or spending less time surfing the net and so you think about it’s not really asking for too much. It’s something that’s quite manageable. But, again, as far as I’m concerned, you just need to be at it all the time.
Let me flip that question around. What’s the best advice you ever received as a writer?
That’s a tough one. I can’t think back to a eureka moment, when somebody said something and it sort of put everything into place. It was trial and error. It’s like being a carpenter. You have to hammer on every day. Working on a piece of furniture that you that you don’t have a sense of the dimensions, you don’t know whether the legs will sustain the weight of the surface and so you have to keep hammering and then finishing process and, so, yeah, that’s the way that I think about it. I mean, one can use any sort of metaphor. I enjoy eating, I enjoy cooking. And so when I, when I haven’t, you know, I buy some ingredients and I stare at them for a good half an hour before figuring out what goes with what and what I should do. And it’s also analogous to me to do the writing process.
It sounds like a great point to wrap it up. What next for H.M Naqvi?
I hope to write 4 more books before I’m dead (laughs). And, and I don’t know if I die first but it’s important to me to persist because the only thing in life that provides any modicum of self worth is the 300 words of prose I write a day. It’s not so much my relationships or my health or money. It’s actually the 300 words a day and it’s integral to the way I think about myself. It’s integral to my identity.
Thank you for appearing on the podcast. Let’s hope as many more then four books.