NIGHTS OF PLAGUE. Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish novelist and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University’s School of the Arts in New York. He has sold over thirteen million books in sixty-three languages.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Orhan Pamuk, you just published “Veba Geceleri” in Turkey, the English title will be “Nights of Plague”. How very strange that you published your plague novel during the Covid19 pandemic?
It is a coincidence. I never anticipated or predicted what was coming. There are scenes of plague in “White Castle”, an earlier book, which takes place in 17th century Istanbul, Constantinople. Almost 40 years ago, in 1983, I wrote “Silent House”, in which a historian researches a plague pandemic. Right after I finished my previous novel “The Red Haired Woman” I said to myself that even if my plague historical novel is a very big project, I should write it. When I began four and a half years ago my friends asked me why I was writing a novel about an obscure subject. They thought that nobody would understand my book, and that plague was gone and humanity had left these ugly things behind. I began to believe them, but I was determined to write this novel; I was writing and writing and writing. So no, I did not anticipate this pandemic, but there is no history of humanity without pandemics.
When writing “Nights of Plague” were you inspired by writers like Albert Camus, Alessandro Manzoni, Daniel Defoe and others?
Like everyone else, in my early youth I read Albert Camus’ “The Plague”. I was a young Turkish boy who wanted to be a painter, and I read this book and was moved. I was more influenced by “The Betrothed”, the great national Italian epic by Alessandro Manzoni. My Italian friends tell me that they were made to read it in high school. There are only about thirty-five plague pages but those thirty-five pages are more realistic than Albert Camus and it is a better plague novel. But the greatest book ever written on a pandemic is by Daniel Defoe. Literary historians tell us that the author of “Robinson Crusoe” found his uncle’s diary 70 years after the 1665 Great Plague of London and wrote his “A Journal of the Plague Year”.
Why is Defoe more important for you than Camus?
Defoe focuses on human psychology, and writes about the elderly, fighting, groups panicked by plague and people running around. Albert Camus is more interested in portraying plague as a metaphor for Nazi occupation.
You mention “Robinson Crusoe”, and in your own novel “Nights of Plague” you describe the Island of Minger, a fictional Ottoman island where you put three characters: a doctor, a governor and an army major. Why did you choose the plague subject?
I’ve been composing a plague novel in my mind for 40 years. As I said, I was initially influenced by Albert Camus, and when I read Manzoni’s book in Turkish translation I was also very moved. I like writing historical novels, so I was motivated to set a novel during a plague or a pandemic,but the reasons for writing it changed in these 40 years. At the beginning I was thinking of it as something that triggers existential pathos and our metaphysical worries in the face of death: life, life’s meaning, and people dying. And also God. If there is a God, why is this all happening? How to accept this? If I had written a plague novel thirty years ago, it would have been about how anxiety about death brings about a sort of individuality: some people go inward and write, or react in an irrational way, while other people join the group, the herd, their friends, their families.
“My novel follows the eternal reactions to a pandemic that all countries have had to solve in this last year.”
Orhan Pamuk, how did the focus change for you over time?
When I thought about it 20 years later the novel was not about existential death worries, but about comparing the east and the west. In 17th, 18th, and 19th century European travelers’ books there was the notion that Turks or Muslims are fatalists who believe in God and don’t do anything. For a while I wanted to write and organise my novel against this prejudice, but as the main idea this also began to fade away.
And in the end?
In the end I wanted my novel to be about the problems of imposition of quarantine. It was from Defoe and Manzoni that I learnt to look at this very political thing, because humanity always behaves in the same way. First, the state denies it and acts late; and people don’t want to believe it, especially shopkeepers and business people who don’t want to admit that there is a pandemic and they have to lock down. Rumours also turn out to be part of the problem. My novel follows the eternal reactions to a pandemic that all countries have had to solve in this last year. If the government tightens its lock down, business dies and everybody begins to complain. If the government doesn’t do it and says don’t worry, nothing will happen, then a lot of people die.
Is business more important than health?
No! Of course, human lives are the most important thing. But governments, democratic or not, see that their people want them to realise a miracle: there should be no business interruption and the pandemic should be stopped. How can you do this simultaneously?
Why did you decide to put your three characters on a fictional island?
I like to put the genre in a certain place. It may be an island, or, as in my novel “Snow”, it may be a small town in a snowy distant country, blocked off from the rest of civilisation because it snows so much. Here it’s an island; and there is a pandemic, so they put the whole island in quarantine. I needed a situation where people were cut off from the rest of humanity, because that’s how my imagination works. I also needed people who would be responsible for imposing quarantine on this imaginary Ottoman island. The freedom of having an imaginary place was important for me.
Which character is most responsible: the major, the governor or the doctor?
There is always more than one responsible party. I am not a young guy who’s going to immediately jump and accuse government or certain people for this or that. Some of my characters do not believe in hearsay and gossip and paranoid theories. In fact, my novel is saying please don’t believe in paranoid theories.
Do you feel that the plague was even scarier than the Covid19 pandemic?
It’s ironic and paradoxical that with the plague bacteria one in three people die, whereas with coronavirus virus, one in one hundred dies; especially the elderly. Look at the ratios. One is thirty three percent, and the other is one percent. Compare one per cent to thirty three percent and we shouldn’t be afraid at all. But we are afraid. Today one in a hundred will die. But we are almost as afraid of Covid as of plague.
We know too much. Every night we see people trying to breathe and dying. One year ago horrors were happening in Italy, and we were all glued to the television and seeing hospitals and these cemeteries. Now we see horrible things happening in India; they’re burning people. Governments tell us not to go out, and even if the possibility is one in one hundred we are scared. It is not like when there was no internet, no television, no newspapers, when only five per cent of humanity used to read and write. In poor countries there was no intelligentsia, no information, no connection; it was mostly hearsay. When a horrible plague pandemic began, scared people looked at each other and didn’t understand.
How did you spend this last year and some months?
I usually teach in New York in the Fall season, but last year I was teaching in New York in March. It was already in the news that a pandemic was coming, and one day I went into the library at Columbia. Somebody sneezed, and after that I didn’t want to go to the library. I ran back to Istanbul and considered the horrible situation. What a coincidence that I had been writing a novel about a pandemic for the last three and a half years! Now it was a major responsibility to finish it. I was also very worried that a lot of people would think that I had just cooked up the novel to talk about this topical subject.
Were you very frightened?
I was very much afraid; perhaps because I was over 65, perhaps because at the beginning there was very little information. I really listened to and obeyed all the lockdown regulations. Now the virus is surging in Turkey, but at the beginning the Turkish government was very good and did not behave like an Islamist government. They closed the mosques before they closed the churches in Europe and America, and I was very happy about that, but one year later they began to think more about business and less about human lives, just like in India. Weak governments think that if they lock down business will vanish and they will lose the elections, so they opened up, both in Turkey and India. India is much worse today than Turkey, but Turkey unfortunately made the mistake of opening too early, in March, and it surged. I should be afraid, but since I had my two vaccine shots I am OK, and also there is so much difference in people’s behaviour. One year ago very few people were really scared, and not many were taking precautions. Now everyone understands, and everyone wears masks. Because of the shots and because of everyone wearing masks, I’m less afraid.
“A novel is a composition of moments of inspiration and moments of craft making.”
Orhan Pamuk, was it strange to write an imaginary plague novel while you were at locked down at home and worried about your own health?
When my editors read it, they said it sounds as if reality is imitating my novel. Something like this also happened when I was finishing “Snow”, my novel about political Islam that again took many years to write. Just as I was finishing it 9/11 happened in New York, and there were two mentions of Osama bin Laden in “Snow”, because when I was writing “Snow” a Turkish journalist had told me that Osama bin Laden was planning terror attacks in Turkey. My editors rightfully deleted Osama bin Laden, because people could wrongly have thought that I added him to my novel because of the 9/11 events.
Do you think that literature does anticipate events and writers have an intuition of what is going on?
It’s not an intuition. Read Bill Gates. He was exactly, almost prophetically, warning about this, but my aim was to portray the last days of the Ottoman Empire and the bureaucracy it was trying to impose. Imposition of quarantine is a very interesting subject that I write as a human story rather than as a warning.
Interesting because a pandemic is democratic and death affects everyone?
Death is egalitarian, but cultures are different. When this ruthless death comes towards us, some of us go inward, write notebooks, and think about the meaning of life; while others run to mosques, to the coffee house, to family and friends, and only look for the consolation of the community. Europeans, moderns, go inward more and respect quarantine more, while communal life in my part of the world is stronger and it’s harder to break people’s traditions. There’s a 17th century Ottoman text in which the plague of 1665 is also in Istanbul, and this guy is going from funeral to funeral, crying and crying, but never asking metaphysical questions or questions about quarantine at all. In my part of the world they did not care that it was contagious, but cared more about the consolation of joining the crowd.
They say you are starting to write a new book that is the story of an artist in Istanbul. Is it autobiographical?
Yes. “Nights of Plague” turned out to be a very public thing. Now I want to write more personally. I am a failed artist; I wanted to be a painter, all my life till the age of 22. Something happened in my life, as I wrote in my autobiography “Istanbul”. A screw was loose; and then I stopped painting and began writing novels.
Is a writer not an artist?
There is a lot of craftsmanship in both painting and writing. A novel is a composition of moments of inspiration and moments of craft making.
You teach creative writing at Columbia University. Is it possible to learn how to become a fiction writer?
When I ask this same question of other teaching professors at Columbia University they always say, “Our books are not selling as much as your books, Mr Pamuk, and we have to make a living.” You cannot teach a person to be Michelangelo or Picasso, but you can teach a person how to use a brush, what a composition is, which colours go together. It’s the same in fiction. Perhaps 20 to 30 percent of the people in your class can be a writer, and the rest are learning something else. In comparative literature classes we also educate editors and people who write advertisements, for example. A lot of people join these classes to become Manzoni or Umberto Eco, but they don’t end up being Manzoni or Umberto Eco.
Do you use a pen to write?
I am a handwriter, perhaps one of the last. I am a museum person and have all the habits of it. I have kept every single sheet of paper that I wrote on for the last 45 years. Next year I will be 70 and my publisher is hoping to organise an exhibition about this guy who is handwriting for the last 45 years.
Do you dictate what you wrote or do you type it up on a computer?
There are magical people gifted with mystical powers who can read my handwriting. They transcribe it and send it back to me. After that I hand correct, and make additions, like Marcel Proust. Then it goes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Did you ever try to write using a computer?
Only e-mails. I’m a slow writer and don’t want to look at a computer all day; reading news or sending emails is enough. Some of my writing friends used electric typewriters, but I couldn’t move to the computer, looking at the screens made me cry, and after a while I was famous enough to send my horrible writing to my editor and someone would try to re-write it.
How many hours can you write for with good concentration?
I am such an obsessive person that even if I don’t have good concentration I insist and continue. This book I averaged 10 hours a day. In the early hours of morning I don’t answer the phones and I don’t read email. I just write.
From when to when?
Till my daughter was born I went to sleep at 4am and woke up at noon. Dostoyevsky, who would do exactly the same. He would write the whole night, drinking coffee and tea, and then sleep till twelve o’clock. After my daughter was born, I switched. Now I wake up at 7 o’clock and write till the middle of the day, then I take a break, do emails, do an interview with Alain (laughs)… then it can continue.
The Turkish cover of Orhan Pamuk’s “A Strangeness in My Mind.”
“The point is that I can enjoy the imaginary, whether it’s artistic or literary.”
Orhan Pamuk, do you read a lot?
In my youth I read a lot of classics and novels to make myself. Now I read to write my novels and I was reading plague histories. I don’t read to catch up with young writers unless someone tells me there is an important book with a wow factor. I’m very curious and jealous. I’m competitive. I don’t want to miss what’s happening in the world.
Do you ever worry about losing your capacity to write?
Yes, I am afraid of losing my mind. As I get older my memory gets a bit weak. What happens to everyone is happening to me. To be able to write you should be able to hold six subjects in your mind simultaneously and combine them in artistic acrobatics. Now, if someone calls or says hello, all six disappear! In my youth, they were not disappearing.
You are a Nobel Prize winner, a literature writer who sells millions of copies. Are you lucky?
It is a funny thing about luck. When I announced that I was writing a plague novel and we had the Corona virus pandemic, everyone in Turkey said: Wow! Pamuk is so lucky! They said this for one year, some of them even claiming: He knew it! He knew it! Three hundred thousand copies of my novel were published. Half sold in five weeks. But then there was lockdown. Now I walk the empty streets of Istanbul with a bodyguard behind me, looking into the windows of bookshops where there are piles on piles of my books. But the shops are all closed!
Do you still work with the same feeling that you had when you were unknown?
I’m a slow writer and have so many unrealized projects, other novels that I want to write on other subjects, or to publish the pages of my journals. I keep going because of my projects. In times of fear and frustration and disappointment, I ask myself the meaning of all this and I immediately say: Thank God, I have to finish this book, finish that and prepare this, give this lecture. Then I continue. Thank God the point is not being famous, because I already have fame and if it were I would have stopped. The point is that I can enjoy the imaginary, whether it’s artistic or literary.
Is your best novel the one that you are yet to write?
Well, this one is good and I already wrote 11, and they are very popular and published in so many languages. I don’t want to claim that I will write another better one. We cannot know whether it will be beautiful or popular, but it will definitely be original and different. That’s why I take risks.
James Joyce is known for “Ulysses”, Alberto Moravia for “The Time of Indifference”, Umberto Eco for “The Name of the Rose”. Is there a book that you are known for?
I’m happy to say no. Umberto Eco once said to me when we talked together in Bologna: “Orhan, whenever I write and publish a new novel, The Rose sells more!” (laughs). I don’t have that, and I am proud to say that in each country I am famous for a different book. In China for “My Name is Red”. In America for “Snow”, because Americans are obsessed with political Islam. In Turkey it is “The Black Book” and “A Strangeness in My Mind”. My best-selling books are probably “Snow”, “Museum of Innocence” and my autobiography “Istanbul”. Maybe one day I should write something like “The Name of the Rose”!
Maybe you should write a book about a pandemic?
You cannot organise this! (laughs) Artistic and literary success cannot be manipulated or planned. If you are a real artist and you work enough, something happens. In the end you get famous, but not for the reasons you wanted. When I was young I always wanted to have literary fame. Now lots of people in lots of countries are reading my books, but it has not been peaceful, it was not easy. The drama did not unfold as poetically, as nicely as I imagined. But it’s OK.
Orhan Pamuk, thank you very much for being with us today.
I enjoyed talking to you Alain. Thank you.
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