This week, we present an exclusive interview with Sarvat Hasin – recent graduate of the MSt in Creative Writing at Oxford University – whose debut novel, This Wide Night, has just been published by Penguin India. You can read more about the novel here, or hear what Kiran Millwood Hargrave (former President of the Oxford University Poetry Society, and bestselling author of The Girl of Ink and Stars) has to say about it on her blog. – Theophilus Kwek, Publications Director
There’s a kind of dance that goes between writing a book and having it published.
Congratulations on your forthcoming novel! Tell us a little about the run-up to publication – how long has this book been in the making?
I finished writing the book a year and a bit before it got published. The time in the middle was spent editing, writing other projects, sending this out to publishers and wondering if I was trying to write the wrong book. There’s a kind of dance that goes between writing a book and having it published. You and your manuscript separate from each other and then come back together again and again.
The synopsis suggests that this is a well-travelled novel, taking us from Karachi to Manora via London. Did writing about each geographical setting call for a different idiom, or a different way of working with language?
Yes, I was always very aware of the locations as I wrote and this awareness crept into the writing.
The second section, which follows Jimmy to London and then to Paris, is written in the third person while the rest of the book is in first person. The tone of the second section felt different: as Jimmy left Pakistan and the Malik sisters, I needed to mark that distance. So, the London sections to me had a quietness to them that was very different from the clamour of Karachi, of the family and the city crowding around him.
I also wrote most of the book while living in Oxford. Both London and Karachi have been home to me and there was a wonderful clarity in writing about those cities without being in them. Karachi, especially – you can see home so much more clearly from a distance. I would go back for the holidays and absorb the feeling of it, of being there. Then I’d come back and try to work that into the book.
There was a wonderful clarity in writing about those cities without being in them. Karachi, especially – you can see home so much more clearly from a distance.
The primary setting of this novel, Karachi in the 1970s, also suggests that this is – perhaps inevitably – a political story. Did you find yourself having to struggle with the boundary between private and public, personal and political?
The political in the novel influences the personal. I studied the period, a little, and the '71 war at university but I didn’t want to write a story that was dominated by that. The war is happening in the background, even when it isn’t on the page. It is the thing that shakes these lives up, separating them from their loves and wants.
You've mentioned that this novel grew out of your Masters in Creative Writing here at Oxford. How did that experience help to seed or grow the manuscript?
I wrote the first third at Oxford. That experience changed how I wrote a lot. I’d never been much of a planner before but here I planned religiously, drafting synopses and chapter breakdowns. When every section is going to be looked at by a tutor and put under the spotlight at a writing workshop, it helps to know a little of what is coming next. Since then, I’ve gone back to following the line of writing more. I wake up and chase the beast without any real idea of where it’s going but I still do a quick outline at the start of a project just to have in my back pocket.
I wake up and chase the beast without any real idea of where it’s going but I still do a quick outline at the start of a project just to have in my back pocket.
Fewer people seem to have the patience to read novels these days. How would you persuade someone who doesn't usually read, or has come fresh to the genre?
Literary fiction has to be the hardest genre to sell to anyone because it encompasses so much. If I was trying to get someone to read this particular book, I would tell them to read it if they liked Sofia Coppola’s 2000 adaptation of The Virgin Suicides. Is that cheating because it’s also a book? Or Mustang. Mustang was probably one of the best movies I saw last year, it’s set in Anatolia and the house in that movie, the five sisters with their lives piled so close together – it accomplishes many of the things I set out to do with this story.
Finally, what advice would you give to another young writer who's just started writing a novel?
Writing can feel like shouting into the void and it’s a lot more fun if you enjoy what you’re screaming out.
It’s a long slog and even if you’re lucky enough to have people supporting your writing, it’s also important to have a certain level of faith in it yourself. I definitely underestimated how crucial it is to like what you’re writing, at least some of the time. Writing can feel like shouting into the void and it’s a lot more fun if you enjoy what you’re screaming out.