1. You were born in Ghana and lived there and in Nigeria for many years. How did that experience influence your work?
I think it has had a huge effect on my work but I’m reluctant to analyse that effect too closely. Because I was born in Africa and grew up there I think my imaginative horizons were greatly expanded from an incredibly early age. I am, to put it simply, more interested in ‘abroad’ than ‘home’, more interested in ‘over there’ than ‘here’. It’s only very recently that I’ve become intrigued by my own country and the city – London – that I live in. On another level I think my African childhood and youth has made me fascinated by questions of identity. I was a white child in a black African country – a country that I called my ‘home’. And yet, of course, it wasn’t my home. But when I went back to Britain I felt something of a stranger there. I feel I am deracinated in a very real sense: always something of an outsider, always on the outside looking in. This may be a very useful state-of-affairs for a novelist, of course.
2. Do you visit Africa regularly? What are your best and worst memories from the time you spent there?
I spent the first ten years of my life living in West Africa and then I visited it regularly until my early twenties – so you could say that for the first half of my life I regarded Ghana and Nigeria as my ‘home’. Since then I haven’t been back to West Africa but I have visited other parts of the continent – most recently South Africa, a place I found fascinating but completely unlike the Africa I knew.
The most extraordinary thing that happened to me was to live in Nigeria during that country’s bitter and violent civil war — the ‘Biafran War’ of 1968-70. It had a profound effect on me (I was in my late-teens) and it completely changed the way I thought about human conflict. You can still see the influence of that experience in many of my novels (An Ice Cream War, Brazzaville Beach, Any Human Heart for example). As for the good experiences – they are innumerable. To be a child and a young person in Africa at that time was, for me, a kind of physical paradise – the light, the sun, the beaches, the jungle. It was an incredibly exotic place to grow up.
3. Is there any difference between writing novels and writing screenplays? If so can you tell us about it ?
A huge difference – vast. In the novel you have a world of perfect freedom and limitless generosity. In a screenplay you occupy a world of constraints, barriers, compromises. Writing a novel, someone has said, is like swimming in the sea – writing a film is like swimming in a bath. In a novel you can do anything – absolutely anything. In a film you are immediately hampered by the technical constraints of the art form. Length, for example, and – most importantly in my opinion – by the fact that there is really only one point of view in a film: the camera lens. Film is an overwhelmingly OBJECTIVE way of telling a story – it is photography, after all. Subjectivity is hard to achieve (it is effortlessly achieved in a novel) because you are always looking through a camera.
4. Which do you prefer: to write novels, write film screenplays, teach or produce wines?
I am a novelist, first and foremost, that is where my heart and my imagination lie. I love movies but I am drawn to them, in a working sense, by the pleasures of collaboration. After the lonely business of writing a novel it is very agreeable to work together with other people – to experience a collegiate endeavour. Then after a while you long to return to your solitary study again. And wine? I love drinking it – I probably drink too much of it – but it is an unexpected pleasure to be able to open a bottle of wine that has your name on the label.
5. In 1998, you published Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960 and spoofed many art critics. What do you think about critics? How do you react to criticism of your novels?
I have been and still am a critic myself – so I can hardly attack the profession. Criticism is basically the expression of an opinion and as long as there are readers opinions will be expressed. How you react to criticism depends, I think, on your personality. I have had very good reviews and very bad reviews – I don’t over-react either way: neither elated nor cast down. When it comes to bad critical responses to my work I try to cultivate the response that Vladimir Nabokov recommended: “Yawn – and forget”.
6. Talking about Restless, we can say that espionage is something frequently found in British literature. What made you write a novel of this genre?
I think it was inevitable that one day I would write a spy novel. I can look back at my work and see how the theme of identity has been dominating my last three novels, at least. I see that I return again and again to the same questions: Who are we? Are we always the same person? Can we become another person? Can we reinvent ourselves? What price do we pay by losing our identity? And so on. The spy is the paradigm example of someone who wants to become someone else and if you wish to analyse questions of change of identity, of loss of identity, then the spy is the perfect metaphor.
7. Does your novel have any political message or is it just entertainment? Do writers have the obligation to be concerned about political issues?
I don’t believe the novel is the best medium for the expression of political opinions. If you want to express a political opinion then write a manifesto. The novel, as D.H.Lawrence defined it, is ‘The bright book of life’. Better than any other art form, it explores every nuance of the human condition, good and bad, with great subtlety, sensitivity and power. And, of course, that novel is the product of one person’s imagination and it is inevitable that the view of the human condition expressed will, in some sense, be that writer’s philosophy of life. But it should be implicit, not explicit. I believe that when the novel takes on a political agenda it changes, it becomes something else and it loses some of its power.
8. In most of your books, you write from a woman’s point of view. Why?
Well, not in ‘most’ – in three, to be precise: Brazzaville Beach, The Blue Afternoon and now Restless. The reason I do it is that, for me, writing a novel is above all a liberation of my imagination – and there are few more liberating things you can do than change sex and see the world from the other side of the sexual divide.
9. Who is your favourite writer? And your favourite movie director?
Currently, my favourite writer is Anton Chekhov – for his short stories, not his plays. As for movie directors, there are several I admire. I do not believe in the ‘auteur’ theory of cinema – too many talents contribute to the overall success of a film — but there are certain directors I admire for their technical skills. To name a few: Michael Mann, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Mike Leigh, Bertrand Tavernier, Martin Scorcese, the Cohen brothers.
10. Are you already writing your next novel? What will it be about?
I have just started my next novel and it is about – surprise, surprise – loss of identity. The story is set in London today and ranges through society from the very top to the very bottom, told in many voices, but essentially it is the story of a young man who loses everything (through no fault of his own) that makes up his social identity. He loses his home, his job, his friends, family, credit cards, mobile phone, money. How do you live in a huge modern city in this state? What do you become? Some sort of urban wild beast? More importantly, how do you escape? We will follow this young man as he tries to climb out of the hell he finds himself in.
This interview appeared in O Globo magazine in Brazil in June 2007