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Hisham Matar interview

Hisham Matar interview

The Baillie Gifford Prize 2016 longlist

Hisham Matar tells us what triggered the writing of The Return was a trip he made back to Libya after 33 years of not being able to go there and that he thinks in books rather than authors.

This is part of our series of longlisted author interviews. 

What does it feel like to be longlisted? 

I am amazed by how books, these creatures that arise from the depths, through silence and solitude, and that can neither be suppressed nor hurried, leave the men and women who write them and chart, as though independently, paths to individual readers. That this ever happens, that books are written and read at all, is itself a wonder. And if that book is yours and furthermore acknowledged by a prize as reputable as this, and placed amongst such excellent company, it increases the magic. But, I must say, it also adds to it an anxious humility that is, perhaps, the silent acknowledgement of the simple fact that it is impossible to ever know the true measure of one’s own work. 

How did you research for your book?  

The Return has for a long time been in my veins. But what triggered it was a trip I made back to my old country, Libya, after 33 years of not being able to go there. Returning to the place of my forefathers and foremothers, searching for old and new connections, searching for my disappeared father, destabilised me deeply. It pressed upon me urgent questions concerning what it means to return to anything or anyone, how to live, and the nature of grief and remembrance. It also became, I discovered, about the present, the life I have made for myself in London, my relationships to certain books and paintings. So although The Return was written out of a writer’s passion and curiosity, it was also written out of a reader’s enthusiasm and gratitude for literature and art. 

Which non-fiction authors do you admire?   

I think in books rather than authors, and some of those that I returned to in the early days when I was embarking on this project were Jean Rhys’s unfinished and broken autobiography, Smile Please, which contains that unique honesty that is unaware and unsatisfied and all the more searing for that; Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, which cannot be more different from Rhys’s autobiography, and is poignant for what it conceals as much as what it reveals; Primo Levi’s The Truce, a book about a return and how, given how much one is forever changing and changed, every return is also a departure; W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, in which the German author excavates from the Suffolk coast such rare and precious responses that are made more luminous by the displaced sensibility of our observer, his passions and patience, and gentle intelligence; and Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, which although is not non-fiction, hovered around me then for, amongst other things, the example it offered of how an independent and yet implicated sensibility sustains its contradictions in a changing world.

What are you working on next?   

A novel. And the wonderful thing is, I still know almost nothing about how to write a book. 

You are known for writing two autobiographical novels (In the Country of Men in 2006 and Anatomy of a Disappearance in 2011). How did writing your memoir The Return compare to the process for your novels?   

It was hard to write directly about my life, to be so naked (for notwithstanding the evidence, I am a private man), but any feelings of discomfort or anxiety were eventually replaced by the everyday demands of the book, which were at once urgent and thrilling, for the paradox here is that even though The Return was difficult for the man, it was exhilarating for the artist. It often felt as though I were riding a horse whose appetites and abilities exceeded my own. But I don’t think I am alone in this; every writer’s secret prayer must be to write a book that is better than him or her. Who amongst us wants to get just what they deserve? 


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