Authors Nadifa Mohamed and David Szalay talk about their inspirations and nuances of good writing

We’re crowded around Nadifa Mohamed, a Granta author, who was in the city recently to conduct a creative writing workshop. The three-hour workshop, not just gave an insight into the kind of writing that Nadifa is familiar and has worked with but also interesting tips that the participants could take back.

Nadifa’s first novel Black Mamba Boy was the story of her father and the hardships he went through, fictionalised and retold through her words. Therefore, the workshop primarily dealt with biographical writing and weaving fiction into true stories. After an introduction to her writing, the participants were asked to write, in 20 minutes, a true incident that interested or affected them. The stories that emerged were from their memories or those told by their fathers, uncles, friends and grandmothers. And at the end of each one, Nadifa gave them feedback and asked questions about their writing preferences. “I find that in India, fiction always ends with a moral. That a person is a better person at the end of the story. It’s not like that in the U.K. Don’t you think it will get repetitive if you already know that the ending will hold a message?” she wonders out loud.

The discussions at the workshop included children’s literature, how corruption is portrayed in fiction, how men struggle to write as women and vice versa and so on.

Contributing authors of Granta — Best of Young British Novelists 4, which was released in April this year, Nadifa Mohamed and David Szalay write on completely different things. While a lot of Nadifa’s fiction is on Somalia or has elements of it in some form, David’s novels are high on humour and he says, inspired by many popular television series in the U.K.

How it began

Born in Somalia, Nadifa moved to England when she was quite young and is now an author and works on films as well, as a screenplay writer. Her first novel Black Mamba Boy, which was published in 2010, was long listed for the Orange Prize; shortlisted for theGuardianFirst Book Award, Dylan Thomas Award, John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and PEN/Open Book Award. The book won the Betty Trask Award. “ The book grew out of the conversations with my father. I found the story incredible and decided to write about it,” she says. The story is about her father’s life in Yemen and his journey through Sudan, Egypt, Palestine and the Mediterranean before reaching the U.K. “It’s largely about writing something that hadn’t been written. The story also attracted a lot of attention because it was real.”

Nadifa’s idea of writing is to push against clichés. “I knew what kind of writer I didn’t want to be before I knew what I want to write. A lot of authors who write about Africa write about mercenaries who cut their way through the jungle and so on. I’m writing against that view,” she says.

And how was the experience of writing a book through the eyes of a male character in Black Mamba Boy? “It was easier to write about my father because I’m quite similar to him. So, there was a certain personality type that I could write about. What was perhaps challenging while writing my first novel was writing about sexual matters — to be frank about your father like that.”

Her second novel Orchard of Lost Souls is set in Somalia and tells the story of the civil war through the lives of three women. “I was in Somalia for the first four years of my life. This has helped me in writing since I remember the streets, sights and sounds,” she says. And what does she remember? “I travelled to Somalia when I was writing my first novel and I recognised the neighbourhood I lived in as soon as I got there and everything fell in place. I even saw a tree my mother had planted so many years ago. The only thing different was the scale of things; everything seemed so huge when you were a child.”

Nadifa is now working on her third novel which is set in London. “It is about a woman who is born in Somalia but later comes to London. Only those aspects of the book are autobiographical though,” she smiles.

Comic element

David, born in Canada and settled in the U.K., was working on radio dramas for the BBC before he began writing novels. “Radio is completely unburdened by practical considerations. It costs the same to do any drama,” says David, “All you need are people talking and the sound effects. In that way, it is freer than TV and film. And in the same way, it is less free than a novel.”

A novelist needs the bare minimum, he says after a moment’s pause. “Well, to write a novel, you need a notebook, pen and an umbrella (a roof would be too luxurious, I’d think),” he laughs. David has written three novels so far — London and the Southeast, The Innocent and Spring and won the Betty Trask Prize and Geoffrey Faber in 2009.

A humour novelist, David stresses that humour writing doesn’t strive to be funny. “It’s often the little things I find funny (sometimes I laugh about things that nobody else finds funny) that becomes a part of the book. My first book was regarded as a comic but it’s a comedy of horror, I think. The book was heavily influenced by British TV and that sort of humour is very grounded. It is woven into the story but not very apparent,” he says.

David, who says he liked Arundati Roy’s The God of Small Things, says that people are often surprised how high profile Indian fiction is in Britain. “But I guess the books that will travel will not be pop fiction — because that would be too local. It’s the novels with literary qualities that will be known in other countries. Like Roy or Rohinton Mistry.” David is currently working on a book with seven separate narrations. “Each narration is about 50 pages long. It is a work in progress,” he says.