Big Think Interview With Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish novelist who in 2006 won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is the author of novels including The White Castle, The Black Book, The New Life, My Name Is Red, Snow, The Museum of Innocence, and A Strangeness in My Mind.\r\n
He is the Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches writing and comparative literature. Pamuk holds honorary doctorates from the Free University of Berlin, Tilburg University, Boğaziçi University, and Georgetown, and his books have been translated into more than fifty languages.\r\n
Question: How do you plan out your novel?
Orhan Pamuk: Okay. Novel -- I -- compared to other novelists I know as friends, or I know because of autobiographies or biographies of them, I am a relatively -- I make plans. I'm a relatively disciplined writer who composes the whole book before beginning to execute and write it. Of course you can't hold -- you cannot imagine a whole novel before you write it; there are limits to human memory and imagination. Lots of things come to your mind as you write a book, but again, I make a plan, chapter, know the plot. Characters never take over. I am controlling everything. And when I'm stuck at some chapter, I skip to a chapter that I want to write. I know what will be the thirteenth chapter or seventeenth chapter. Sometimes chapters get longer, sometimes digressions. But I try to control and enjoy writing like that. I am a sailor who knows where he's sailing, rather than lost in some fog, but it's so much fun -- and some authors are also like that. Then they don't know what the book is about.
Question: Do you write these plans out?
Orhan Pamuk: Yes, I put down in writing, a chapter, in fact. I also then write chapter headings: this will happen, that will happen, some details, some lines, some things; take notes as the novel progresses about the future chapters, about what I will write. Yes. And of course, if there's some research to be made, I do that research.
Question: What is your writing schedule?
Orhan Pamuk: I'm a disciplined writer. I think novelists should be disciplined and self-imposedworking hours. I work a lot, but I don't feel that I'm working. I always feel that there is a child in me, healthy, and I'm playing. So when I say I work a lot, I don't say it in a negative sense; in fact, I say it stressing that I enjoy life a lot when I write, and I like it. So till the age of late thirties, when my daughter was born, I worked till 4 a.m. in the morning and woke up noontime, more or less like Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Then when she was five I began to take my daughter to school early in the morning and switched almost around. Now I was waking up at 5 a.m., working for two hours, waking up my daughter and taking to her school. And then I work and work, go to the office -- I have an office; I need a separate place between the family or the crowd -- and I write and write and write and write, very disciplined.
Question: Is the pleasure of writing different from that of painting?
Orhan Pamuk: Yes, I'm distinctly aware of it. Perhaps because I am raised, almost brainwashed, in that way, I have a strong opinion that I have real talent for painting, while for writing I'm troubled that I use my intellect. When I paint, I feel that I'm painting with talent. When I write, I feel that I'm writing with my intellect. When I paint, I think it's some other force making me paint. I -- as I wrote in my novel My Name is Red -- watch with amazement what my hand is doing on the paper, what kind of line, what kind of strange, beautiful thing it's doing in spite of my will, so to speak. I look at my hand as if it's some other person's hand, while as I write, I know that I'm writing. I'm thinking this and executing this on the paper. There is a difference. But then it's that when I paint I'm naïve, but when I write, I'm contrived, I'm calculating. But on the other hand, its -- well, of course, you can't write a novel without inspiration, those moments when you think someone else is whispering you what you write. I also have these moments when I write novels. But then I revisit those sections, organize, plan, see the text through the eyes of the reader, calculate its effect. Writing a novel is a combination of both inspiration and composition, a heartfelt feeling that, oh, I have talent; something is coming to me, and then calculating what will be the whole effect; being an editor of yourself, perhaps
Question: What is your advice to aspiring novelists?
Orhan Pamuk: The strongest advice would be, don't ever listen to either my advice or anyone else's advice. You find your own -- follow your own humors, you will find them. Just work hard and read hard.
Question: What insights into love does “The Museum of Innocence” draw upon?
Orhan Pamuk: See the visible that I -- and make people identify with the lovers' point of view. That my aim in this novel was not to put love on a pedestal and say, what a sweet thing it is; what a great thing it is. On the other hand, I look at it as almost a bad thing -- or not bad thing -- something that happens to us, to all of us. Then let's try to analyze it, see through it, and see how human mind and hearts -- if you make a distinction between them -- reacts to life. My -- I can also simplify my point of view is that lots of things are operating in our minds, in our spirit, in our blood, so to speak, when we are in love. And one thing that is important is that one part of our mind is seeing things clearly, knows that we are in love, that what we are doing in fact will not serve our love, but it will be in fact not good for getting or impressing the beloved. But we do those things. And when we are in love -- and this is the essential point about my novel too -- that we do things; one part of our minds observes with a bit of sadness and melancholy, thinking that this will not make us happy. This is one thing. The second thing that I focus on in the novel is to see analytically all the things that lovers do; that is, waiting for the phone to ring, resentment and anger, jealousy, finding yourself stupid or over-anxiety, angers, expectations, and a lot of illusions, delusions, and how we cheat or how we misguide ourselves when we are in love. My character Kamal in “Museum of Innocence” thinks that actually he is going to win over his beloved in two weeks, at most in two months, while he spends eight years running after her.
Question: How is love connected to the objects of everyday life?
Orhan Pamuk: The book -- at one point in the book, when my character is infatuated by love and feels what we popularly call love pain, he realizes that objects, things that are associated with his beloved -- objects that they shared together in their happy times -- have the power of consoling him, perhaps because they bring back the memories, the joyful memories they shared together. This we all know, more or less, from Proust's Madeleine. Or I'll give you an example of a movie ticket. Let's imagine that we have found a movie ticket in an old jacket pocket. We have already forgotten that we've been to that movie; we don't even remember we've been seeing that. But as soon as we have the ticket, we begin thinking, well, not only that we've seen the movie, but we remember scenes from the movie, because we have an object associated with those sensations and memories. All objects have that power, and when my character is badly in love and is not happy with his unrequited love, he begins to collect, or gather around, the objects that he had shared with his beloved. Later, after some time, he makes a museum of these objects. And my novel is in a way an annotated museum catalog. If you put the objects together and tell the story of each object, we have a novel. That was more or less the idea, how I composed this book. Then I'm also doing that; I'm also doing the museum. Maybe I should talk about it later more when I -- my museum is also about objects that these lover share, but also it's a city museum because they share the culture of Istanbul between 1975 until the end of the 20th century. It has also qualities of a city museum.
Question: Are museums a Western concept?
Orhan Pamuk: I argue that collecting things is related to -getting attached to things is a universal human reaction to some trouble, trauma, whatever you may call it. In my novel it is of course love, and my infatuated lover is so troubled that he gets attached to things for various reasons. This is more or less the common passion in all collectors. But it is only the Western civilization that put a collector's mania onto a pedestal, because museums were invented in the West.
First there were in the seventh and eighteenth centuries what they called Wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosities to exhibit the power and taste of the princes or the elites or the rich people. Then when the Louvre was converted from a royal palace to a public sphere, a museum, then again it was a place for showing the power and sophistication of the ruling elites. But museums are also places for learning: you put together things, then you categorize and you produce information. Human information is in fact contained in things and the theory about their relationships. Once you put two or three, five objects in an exhibit in a museum, these objects tell a story. You ask yourself if you visit it, what's the relationship between them? And that's a story; that's a theory.
Museums put collectors on pedestal, and making collections, getting attached to things, is not an embarrassing thing once museums legitimize your habit of collecting. But if there are no museums, then your habit of collecting, and also your collections, exhibits only your personal wounds. So I made this distinction towards the end of my "Museum of Innocence," when my character -- after my character decides to exhibits his immense collections that are related to his love. And my character also visits small museums of the world, five thousand of them, perhaps because he likes them. He like the empty, melancholic old museums where no one goes. And I've been to so many of them all over the world just because I like the atmosphere inside, the melancholy atmosphere, the **** of the parquet floor, the museum guides **** how sleepy; even they're also impressed that you're here and looking at these objects no one comes for. There you feel the venture of a prince, a rich guy, a sad guy, a poor collector who thought that he would transcend history by his collection, by his objects. But then it's how successful -- no one comes.
You feel that outside there is a time, modern times, that's going on, while inside the museum it's timelessness. These sensations I like. In fact, in the end we write novels because we just like these sensations; we want to immerse ourselves in these images. I like to -- in fact, a part of the novel, or one part of the novel, is that I like, I very much like, to go out to forgotten, neglected museums of the world. And one of the reasons I wrote this novel was just to revisit them, to see them, to talk about them.
Question: What are some of the world’s most neglected museums?
Orhan Pamuk: Okay, I'll mention them. For example, Bagatti Valsecchi in Milano, one of the sources of my museum. In fact, when the book was published in Italy, I went there, had a reading there, trying to highlight the museum because this was a museum done in the mid-19th century by two Italian aristocrats to represent fifteen-and-fourteenth-century Renaissance life in Italy. They had bought all the things, Renaissance things, from flea markets because they were cheap and available at that time, and converted their own homes into a museum. But then they were using these museum objects, old objects, real objects from the Renaissance, as their daily life objects. And I like museums where people think about their life after death, and slowly and slowly, before they ****, convert their homes into museums. There are places like that -- for example Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris. Gustave Moreau, I think, is a classicistic, a bit kitschy painter, but a great painter. But an interesting figure. Proust mentioned so many writers. André Malraux -- surrealists were influenced by him. Why? Not because of the quality of his paintings, I think, but because of the idea of his museums. He comes from a well-to-do family, and towards the end of his life he converted his studio, the house his family lived in all along for years, into a museum, calculating that after his death his studio and house will be a museum. And he was successful in that. Just because his museum was successful, we still know the name Gustave Moreau.
Question: Can you sense a culture clash in everyday life in Istanbul?
Orhan Pamuk: It plays out most in cultural politics and politics in general. There have always been conservative parties in Turkey who stress their Islamic identity, and there have always been secularist parties who stress occidentalist aspirations of the nation. These clash. First, they are more visible in the political, public sphere than in daily life. In daily life I live in Istanbul, which is based -- has space both in Asia and Europe. Then you can cross every day from Asia. All the tourists pay attention to -- it's like going from Manhattan to Brooklyn. And now no one says I'm going from Asia to Europe; it's just everyday life. People do not pay attention, really, in their daily lives to where things come from. In fact, I argue in all my books -- yes, I dramatize East-West -- you may call it clash, or I will say a harmony -- you don’t pay attention; it's just there. And things come from different sources to form a new thing. That is Istanbul; that is my culture. I don't underline the clash part of East-West; I underline how harmoniously, with a lack of self-consciousness, things come together. It's the politicians or journalists who impose East-West and say clash. Not necessary; civilizations don't necessarily clash; most of the time they come together, and people who promote the idea of clash then pave the way for real clash and human suffering.
Question: As a now American-based author, what do you miss most about Istanbul?
Orhan Pamuk: Probably I -- it's a feeling of being at the periphery, not under Western eyes in our own way of life. But that is also changing. When I started writing thirty years ago, no one cared about Turkish culture or Turkish writers. But now Turkey is getting on the agenda. I like being out of the scene; the feeling of not living at the center of the world is a nice feeling. I perhaps complaint about Turkey's being provincial, but I also, I confess, like being provincial, enjoy being out of the drama, enjoy being non-Western, et cetera.
Question: Is there any tension in your writing about Istanbul from the U.S.?
Orhan Pamuk: No. And in fact, there is joy about that. Don't forget that the greatest book about any city -- a novel, “Ulysses” -- was written by James Joyce in Trieste. In fact, you love it. You like that there is a sweet taste of longing when you write when you're away. And my Black Book, which is the book that I found my voice, I wrote more than half of it in New York, dreaming of Istanbul, just like I've always identified with James Joyce living in Trieste, dreaming of Dublin. That's no problem.
Question: Is it possible to be a global writer?
Orhan Pamuk: Well, it may be. Maybe I am like that, perhaps, but I don't identify myself with that concept. That we should address all humanity, that writers should transcend their national audience, I agree with. In fact, it is a moral obligation not to write for the national audience, and it also makes you shift your point of view. But on the other hand, global writer is not, you know, esthetically something I like, and I don't want to refer to myself as such
Question: Has the relationship between Turkey and the West been in decline?
Orhan Pamuk: I think you're correct when you say that it's declining after 2005. The reasons for this are various, but if you want to blame parties, you have to blame conservatives of Europe and conservatives and nations of Turkey, that these parties didn't want to see Turkey in the European Union, especially in France and Germany conservatives. And in Turkey secularist conservatives and some Islamists did not want to see Turkey join Europe, and they tried to block it and successfully blocked it. The situation is not as sunny as it was in 2005. In fact, at that time some optimistic Turkish newspapers predicted that Turkey would be joining Europe in ten years. Nothing of the sort happened; in fact, there was no development, and the idea faded away. I'm sad away about it, but I'm not going to cry about it either. In the end, I'm a novelist; I continue writing my novels.
Question: What are conditions like in Turkey today for a novelist?
Orhan Pamuk: Good. The Turkish book industry is booming. No one -- you would not be intimidated by free speech problems if you write a novel. Don't forget that Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy wrote their novels when government was reading and censoring. Most of the time you won't get in trouble for writing a novel. But political commentary, journalistic writing, outspoken Kurds, radicals, they're always in trouble. But what -- free speech is -- novels will not put you in trouble of free speech. But yes, political commentary criticizing radically army, criticizing religion -- so many things will still put you in trouble in Turkey. Sometimes legal trouble; sometimes maybe a campaigns, death threats kind of trouble
Question: Who are your heroes?
Orhan Pamuk: Look, I don’t want to see heroes around. I believe in a world where there are no heroes, and I've read and know humanity a lot. There are moments that I admire in a person courage, intellect, hard work. These are the qualities I admire in an intellectual, in a writer, and there are so many people who have these things. Say I admire Noam Chomsky, or say I used to admire, when I was a teenager, Jean-Paul Sartre. I like outspoken public intellectuals, but on the other hand, then I also see their failures, their vanities. They're all human beings. My policy of looking at intellectuals -- and they are most of the time people I admire -- is to pay attention to what they did best and ignore their failures, because they all fail. We are -- intellectuals, writers, in the end say something interesting. And pay attention to what they say. Then there are also uninteresting things they say, or just their failures. I don't care about that.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Orhan Pamuk: That -- is it beautiful? Is it good enough? Is that chapter good? Now, unfortunately, will the museum be good enough? Is it good? It's always the idea that -- it's self-criticism worries me. Most of the time, and I mean... is it good enough? Is it interesting enough? Am I addressing -- am I telling the truth? Am I authentic, or am I posing? This kind of thing upsets me. I'm very worried about being pretentious or inauthentic, or just writing for the sake of writing. So I am also a dreadful maniac; I write all the time. Whenever I have a nervousness or tension, I pull out a notebook and write some things in it. I like that, and it calms me down. Sometimes I draw, sometimes I write, and that makes me happy.
Recorded on: November 11, 2009
A conversation with the Nobel Prize-winning author of "The Museum of Innocence."
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