“I Don’t Write My Books to Explain My Country to Others”

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk on why he doesn’t want his work to be described as bridging East and West.

Turkish Nobel laureate author Orhan Pamuk poses during an interview at his house in Istanbul on February 2, 2015.
Author Orhan Pamuk poses during an interview at his house in Istanbul on Feb. 2, 2015.

Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize–winning author of numerous of novels such as My Name Is Red and Snow. He is also the writer of numerous nonfiction books and essays, often appearing in the New Yorker, about his native Turkey. Pamuk has been criticized and even prosecuted by the Turkish government for speaking out in favor of freedom of expression and calling attention to the Armenian genocide and the Turkish treatment of the Kurds.


Pamuk, now 65, released his tenth novel, The Red-Haired Woman, this month. It is about a well-digger and his protégé in a Turkish town outside Istanbul whose close relationship is broken apart. It displays his enduring interest in many of the themes that make up his earlier work, including Turkey’s fraught history, the divisions between urban and rural Turkish society, and gender relations.


Below is an edited transcript of part of the show. In it, we discuss the current political purge going on in his country, how his writing project has changed over the years, and his work routine.

You can find links to every episode here, and the entire audio interview with Pamuk is also below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.


Orhan Pamuk: OK, hello. I’m in an island one hour away from Istanbul. In the mornings, I swim. Then all day, it’s a summer house, I work that late. After this interview I’m gonna swim again, at the end of today. This is at the end of today here.

Isaac Chotiner: I read an interview with you where you said you work up to 10 hours a day. Is that still true?

Yeah, sure. I’m happy working. I don’t see writing fiction as work because I feel like a boy who is playing with his toys all the time.

Do you feel like writing nonfiction is work?

No. I am now writing fiction. Most of the time my mind is busy inventing things rather than pinning down reality in nonfiction.


Right, but when you are doing nonfiction, does that feel like work?

It feels more journalistic. Now, at this age, I only write things that I want to write about, and it always feels like game, invention, fun. I am definitely a happy writer.

How is the process of writing your 10th novel different from when you started?

At the beginning, when I started almost 40 years ago, I was more epic, more panoramic, and perhaps more experimental too. But this time, I wanted to write a short novel with metaphysics and philosophy in it. I almost wanted to tell a realistic story about a master well-digger and his apprentice. These people I observed in the land next to where I lived in the summer of 1988. It was, again, in an island, and I was writing one of my books. They were the last old-fashion well-diggers, and they were still in business in the peripheries of Istanbul. Because there is not enough government water, especially in the ’70s and ’80s, everyone dug a well and found his water in his own garden. I observed as they dug a well the father-and-son relationship between the old master well-digger and his teenage disciple. The old master was both teaching and shouting at the boy and, very tenderly, protecting and caring about him. This I saw every day as I went at night downtown. Their relationship moved me, perhaps because I was raised by a father who was not around too much and who never tried to control me. In fact, that’s how my father was—did not know much about me.


Is your father still alive? Did he pass away?

No, he passed away.

When did he pass away?

Twelve years ago.

Did he ever read your fiction?

Yes, he backed me so much. I wrote my Nobel Prize acceptance speech text about my father’s suitcase. He also wanted to be a poet. He wrote poetry. He was not successful, but he did not run after success either. So, before he died, he gave me a collection of his writings, and I wrote an essay about it. It is also a poetic essay.

Do you remember the feeling that you got when he read the first thing that you wrote?

He was very kind, very respectful. I was moved by the fact that he didn’t criticize me. He treated me, and my brothers too, as if we were geniuses, and my relationship with my father set the tone of this book. Besides being—this novel, The Red-Haired Woman—as sentimental and personal roots, it’s also fictional comparison of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which is about killing of the father by the son, as sort of a parasite, and the Persian poet Ferdowsi’s classical tale Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, the story of Rostam and Sohrab, which is also a counterpart to Oedipus because this time the father kills the son. It’s a filicide. These are canonical texts of Western and Islamic civilizations.


You know each year, one semester, I teach at Columbia University, and at the top of Columbia University’s Butler Library, in big capital letters, is Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare. Columbia is good at teaching classics. I ask myself, “What about Eastern classics? What about something to compare Oedipus Rex with?”

We tend to associate Oedipus with individualism because he kills his father, and they still respect him. We tend to associate Rostam, the father who kills his son, with authoritarianism. Why? Because the whole text in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh about Rostam and Sohrab is about legitimization of the father killing the son. I think, we moderns, the way we read it, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is also a sort of legitimization of the son killing the father. We respect Oedipus, we understand his pain with our compassion. When we understand him, we also respect his transgression. So, I wanted to write about these things—fathers, sons; lack of fathers, individuality of the son.


How much do you see your work as consciously as, I don’t want to say necessarily a bridging of East and West, bu—

Yeah, I understand your question.


I don’t want to be self-conscious about it. The same goes when my books begin to get translated internationally after mid-1990s, especially in early 2000s, everyone began to call me, “Oh, a bridge between East and West.” I didn’t like it. Why? Because I don’t write my books to explain my country to others. I write—perhaps I’m deceiving myself as naïve—for more deeper reasons. The same I’ve heard about being a writer of Istanbul. Yes, of course, I’m writing about Istanbul. All my life I’ve lived in Istanbul. I’m 65; I live here in this town almost 65 years. It’s inevitable that my stories will be about Istanbul, but it was not a self-imposed program, “Oh, let me be an Istanbul writer.” No, I was writing about people I know, like all the authors, but then yes, I was writing about humanity, but yes I came across humanity in Istanbul and indirectly I’m an Istanbul writer. Around the early 2000s, I discovered that true international critics who called me first a bridge, let’s skip that. Then, a writer of Istanbul. Again, it is not my program, but I’ve learned from these. For being a bridge, explaining my part of the world to the rest of the world, well, I’m writing stories. In the end, when they are successful, it explains something, but that’s not the motivation. My motivation is not to be a bridge.


Do you consider yourself a European?

Yeah. Well, like all Turks, I’m both a European and also belong to Turkey. I’m a secular but also a sort of modern continuation of Islamic culture. I’m not a religious person, but yes, I’m a secular person, but I belong to that civilization. Yes, I am also proudly European in the sense that I was spending—wasting, perhaps—time in the early 2000s politically defending Turkey’s entry into the European Union. These were good times; things went to worse direction, and now Turkey’s not really a serious candidate, and Turkey is picking up fights with Europe. I’m very sorry about that.

What was your first emotional reaction that there had been a coup, or that there was an ongoing coup against the current government?


I did not learn about it. I watched it as it happened really. At 9:20 when it started, I was already getting news from media, from internet, mostly from TV, and I watched it with amazement, horror. I continued to watch until 3 in the morning, realizing that the military coupists would not be successful, and I took a sleeping pill. I was so manic, so tense, that I realized that I cannot sleep. I was extremely happy that it failed, and I was also grateful for those brave people who went out to the streets and stopped the tanks. These people were not liberals like you and I in the Western European sense, but they were people who were defending [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, or their party or their democracy. They were not defending my liberal values, but in an indirect way they defended Turkish democracy.


Do you feel the same way now a year later?

No, I don’t feel the same way now. I’m grateful to those people, but the government used the military coup to purge most of the liberals. Most of the people who criticized the government are pushed out of the government offices. There are now 40,000 people in jail and 140 journalists who are imprisoned. Writing fiction books is no problem in Turkey, but if you venture into politics like journalists, political commentators, you are in trouble or—

That’s how you got in trouble as well, talking about politics and history.

Yes. I had many troubles with the government, not because of my novels, but because interviews and things that I said. My political commentary, they always ask that. You know, the old-fashioned stereotype and cliché about repressive problems writers have mostly are based on the Soviet Union or Germany of the ’30s, where they could not even write, like Kafka. You can write like a Kafka novel, and no one would bother you, as long as you don’t criticize government. But if you criticize government—I have friends in jail just because they criticized the government. There are many brave people here in Turkey. Turkey is not only the ruling party or Erdogan or also the AKP. There are also brave liberals, people who are fighting back. In the last election, the government camp got 51 percent and the opposition got 49 percent. It’s even; it’s interesting. That’s why I am here, and of course, it’s my country.


Does Erdogan interest you as kind of a novelistic figure, or a figure—

No, no, no. I don’t want to go into that direction. Yes, let’s talk about the book.

OK, can I ask you about a previous book, which is—

Yeah, whatever you want. Yes.

I read an old quote of yours in Snow, your novel. This is what one character says: “No one who’s even slightly Westernized can breathe free in this country unless they have a secular army protecting them, and no one needs this protection more than the intellectuals who think they’re better than everyone else and look down on other people.”

[Laughs] Yeah.

“If it weren’t for the army, the fanatics would be turning their rusty knives on the lot of them and their painted women and chopping them all into little pieces.” What do you think when you hear that now?


OK, first of all, that in the book is told by sort of an FBI agent kind of person.

Yeah, it’s a character.

This is a person who is telling to young lefties, “Don’t criticize the government because they are treating the political Islamists so bad.” They are doing that so that the country will not be like Iran, the guy is saying. But don’t forget, that guy is a right-wing sort of FBI guy who is one by one following all the opposition guys and telling them not to oppose the government.


You see, things are very complex and not easy. It’s not easy to know which side is right. For me, my instinct is, “Write your books, mind your books, be busy with your books, and defend yours and your friends’—or everyone’s—free speech.” This is my utopia; this is my lifestyle. I don’t demand more than this. You know, don’t ask me political analysis. My analysis is keeping writing my books and defending free speech and defending my friends’ free speech, other people’s free speech, and of course, my free speech.


I read an old interview with you where you said culture in Turkey is still represented by secularists. Has that changed at all?

Yes, because Kemal Atatürk’s project of secularization, modernization left such a big and rich and complex legacy of journalism, advertisement, modern communications, and they are controlled and run by the Westernized secularists in Turkey. In fact, even the ruling party needs their help and assistance. That’s what I meant with that.

Has your project, as sort of a writer, changed in some way as the country has changed through the time that you’ve been—

Good question!


Oh, thank you. Finally.

As a writer, I am definitely changing, but my determination to write—or my love of writing, or my infatuation with everything related to the art of fiction—is still around. In early years, I was writing fiction more like poetry, thinking that every line, every word, every sentence will be the final sentence. I was also trying to be very experimental, postmodern, modern, whatever experimental. Also, in my early novels I was writing more about my culture, my people, middle class, upper-middle-class, secular, Westernized, European, Turks of Istanbul. This is where I was raised, and this is what I wrote about. Even this book, The Red-Haired Woman, is partly about them and partly not about them—the bigger circle, the whole Turkey. I began to write more and more about that second circle. Not only my secular and bourgeois Istanbul, but the bigger, popular, more bigger Istanbul that I wrote in a strangeness in my mind, which is an epic about 40 years of development of Istanbul. This new one, a short novel, but again about a change, a poetic change and also about generations, fathers and sons. In fact, this book, in 200 pages, comes to terms with three generations.


You did a fact-finding mission for PEN once with Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter. Is that right? In the ’80s?

Yes. In 1985, there was this time a successful military coup, and a lot of writers, human rights people, lefties were put into prison. International PEN, American PEN, and Helsinki Watch, international free speech monitoring organizations, sent Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter to Turkey. Since I had some fluent English, and I am a young and upcoming writer, they made me their guide. It was such a joy to be their friend for four days. I remember those days, a great joy, while so many people were, again, in prison.

Does it feel the same now?

Same now, but even worse. Why? Because at that time there was a light at the end of the tunnel. We were used to military coups, but this time we had more freedoms, and we went back. This never happened in my life. Five years ago, eight years ago, Turkey had the best free speech in its history, and I was happy about that. Although, I had troubles with the government, I didn’t care. I was optimistic because I looked at the future, but I still cannot see the future now, and that’s what I’m sad about. But don’t worry about me too much; I’m writing my books. Don’t worry about me.


Believe me, I’m not worried about you. When you come to the United States or Europe and teach or do whatever it is you’re doing, do you feel that the way the West views Turkey has changed in some way? Do people respond to you differently or talk about Turkey differently in ways that—

Well, it’s very complex. When I came to the United States in 1985 for the first time, when my ex-wife was doing her Ph.D., when we were in New York in 1985, when there was some little news in, say, the New York Times, about an earthquake in Turkey, some little, little small news on the 12th page, Turks of New York would call each other, “Did you see the news about Turkey in the New York Times?” And they would be very proud. Today, or in the last three years, every day there is something about Turkey. First, Turkey’s visibility went up, but that was also a change. At the beginning, it was interesting because it’s both Islam and democracy and modern and seemed to go toward Europe, which was nice. But in the last three years, it’s going in the opposite way, going toward authoritarianism. Journalists, writers are put into jail, democracy is getting narrow and narrow and limited and limited. And liberals—educated, Westernized people—are really unhappy, and we are thinking, “What will happen next?” This is the mood. In fact, because of all that, I’m working and writing more than ever because it’s really depressive to be left alone with the news.


So then, just to end where we started, when you’re working now in your office, or wherever it is in this beach house that you’re in, are you not checking the internet? Are you surrounded by fiction? What’s your process?

I am in a summer house, where of course there is internet, the delight. I also came to this summer house with a lot of DVDs and books that I want to read. So, I am really very privileged and unique and happy with books, films, work all the time, and of course I’m doing this all the time. As I tell my girlfriend, all the time one feels guilty when one is just happy with books and films and when one’s writing when so much horror is happening in one’s country. So many guiltless people put into prison in an arbitrary way. It’s impossible not to feel guilty, and my solution is to work all the time and try to help others. There’s no way out.


Tell our listeners what books and DVDs you’ve been consuming. I’m sure they’d be interested.

[Laughs]. Oh. You know, Mike Leigh’s Naked. I haven’t watched it for so many years. I went, “Oh, you haven’t seen this? I want to see that.” Also, many years ago, Luchino Visconti, this great Italian director made a film called Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) based on—

Lampedusa, right?

Based on the novel of Lampedusa. Now, they are going to give me the Lampedusa Prize in a week in Sicily, and we are going to Palermo next week, so we are watching the film again. It’s a great movie based on a great novel. Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, and Alain Delon also plays, but don’t forget that novels are better than films. Just don’t get me wrong.

There’s no counter-example? No movie that’s better than the novel it’s based on?

[Laughs.] There are some.

The Godfather.

It’s nice to talk to you.

It’s good to talk to you too. Enjoy your swim.

Oh, OK. Thank you so much. Bye bye.


Oh, and I’m gonna swim now. Thank you so much. Bye bye.