T J Gorton, where did you grow up, and what sorts of books were in your family home?
I was born in Texas to a military family, beginning an itinerant life which went on to include spells in Turkey, Japan, Argentina, Turkey again, Beirut, Paris, Oklahoma, and Oxford. Growing up, there were not a lot of books around, though my mother subscribed to the Reader’s Digest so I would read that and anything else I could scrounge.
What books had the greatest impact on you?
One seminal one (early teens) was The Wisdom of the West by Bertrand Russell, who explained the mysteries of Greek philosophy in brilliant graphics and exquisitely clear prose; I still rummage through it from time to time. But the one book that blew my mind at about age 18 was Joyce’s Ulysses. Coupled with a superb English teacher, it opened my mind to the infinite possibilities of literature for remaking the world.
You translate and write on Middle East themes, how come you chose to read Arabic Studies at Oxford and in Beirut?
I finished high school in Ankara, Turkey, where my parents were living; Beirut was “next door”. But it was not coincidental as I had, for some weird reason, an irrepressible urge to learn languages, especially hard ones. Oxford came about through a “Marshall” Scholarship and my initial studies in mediaeval Romance literature led me into Hispano-Arabic studies, where I could use my Arabic as well as Provençal and early Portuguese and Spanish to explore the relationships among all those poetic traditions.
Tell us how your career as a lecturer and translator came about? To what extent has it been essential training for a would-be writer?
I had always thought I would end up in academia, and my new doctorate in Arabic did help get a first junior lectureship at St Andrews. However, by then I was married with two small children who insisted on being fed, so I accepted a six-month sabbatical with Shell (that lasted twenty five years or so). At first, I was in charge of translation between Arabic and English at the large oil company in the Sultanate of Oman, which was not terribly stimulating once I had got the hang of the jargon. So I militated to move into the business of oil and became a concession negotiator. None of this was great training for writing (though drafting contracts is wonderful discipline for achieving a lean style with only the necessary — and carefully-chosen) words); but I never stopped reading widely and thinking about writing. I retired at the age of sixty and have been writing pretty much full time ever since.
What inspired you to write the historical biography, Renaissance Emir: a Druze Warlord at the Court of the Medici?
The subject, Fakhr ad-Din Ma’n, was en enigmatic figure. He managed to rule over very restive subjects while resisting attempts by the sprawling and powerful Ottoman Empire to control him. When things got out of hand he took refuge in Florence, at the court of the Medici, where his doings were recorded by a scribe he brought with him, as well as the Medici secretaries; parallel reading of both sources is fascinating. He is often cited as “Father of the Lebanese Nation” (by Lebanese with an axe to grind, notably). I wanted to find out for myself to what extent that is true. It is in fact meaningless; but his life was a fascinating study and he did set an example of religious tolerance, one that has been rarely followed in his homeland.
You turned to fiction for your next book, Only the Dead: A Levantine Tragedy, which is shortlisted for this year’s First Novel Book Award. The narrative moves back and forth between civil war in Beirut and the Levant of 1915-18, as Vartan Nakashian, an Armenian from Aleppo, looks back over his tumultuous life, involving espionage, betrayal and revenge at a time of war and genocide. To what extent is his story inspired by your experiences of living in the Middle East?
To a very great degree. In Beirut, we lived for over three years at the home of a great-uncle of my wife, an elderly Armenian with a wealth of stories of his own and other adventures during the Armenian Genocide. This led me to read widely about the history and society of the area, but one thing is certain: several years of living in a city being torn apart by civil war provided more anecdotal and emotional material than one would reasonably want.
The beautiful city of Aleppo features extensively in your narrative, why was the place such a safe haven for Armenians until the recent war in Syria?
The Ottoman policy was to deport and foment the massacre of the sizeable Armenian population of Cilicia (Eastern Turkey), where they had been living for centuries, as well as much of the rest of Anatolia. Cities outside that area, such as Aleppo in Syria with its majority Arab population, were generally not bothered unless the local Armenians were caught aiding and abetting the deportees or resistance fighters. Described as the “oldest continuously inhabited city,” it is (or was) indeed a beautiful and fascinating place and one can only hope against hope that it comes back to something like its former state.
Did you do any research for your novel? What resources did you use?
I did what I think was a monumental amount of research. I read every relevant history book and memoir I could find, buying many but making extensive use of the wonderful resources of the British Library.
What lessons does your novel hold about the power wielded by absolute monarchs, tyrannical regimes and military occupiers — and the people?
A big question. I would hope that the reader, whatever his or her background, would come away shaken by the ability of human beings to decree (in the case of empires etc.) or inflict indescribable suffering on the weak and defenceless, especially when the victims are of a different ethnic origin. All it seems to take is an “order” from authority, and you have people torturing and murdering their neighbours with whom they had long and cordial relations. I also hope my protagonist is an example of resistance to tyranny and injustice — even though he also gets carried away and ends up with a burden of guilt that pursues him to the end of his long life.
How have common experiences of violence and repression created new collective identities in your view?
A good example of this is Lebanon, which has for generations been organized and governed on the basis of power-sharing among religious-ethnic groups. The chaos, death and destruction that has resulted over the last 40 or so years has led a sizeable section of the population to reject the old system and militate for a new one where religion is not relevant. This goes against the interests of some of the groups monopolising the power and money of the country, and one has to be pessimistic about the reformers’ chances of success.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Writing is too personal! I have always resisted the idea of being involved in any sort of group (Creative Writing courses or seminars), for a not-very-avowable reason: I have an idea, a prejudice, that everyone who wants to write should let their natural, personal voice be heard and not distort it according to other people’s ideas, no matter how eminent or eloquent they are; or especially, not according to a perception of “what the market wants”.
Your views on success and failure, and how important it is for an author to experience both?
I cannot imagine any aspiring author who has not experienced failure in the form of rejection by agents, publishers or critics; part of the job. I have a collection of rejection notices (most lately for an “espionage thriller” set in the Middle East and which has not achieved traction, at least in the form of an agent willing to take it on). Disappointing and humbling but ultimately positive: next time I will polish, polish, polish a lot more until I am really satisfied (I think I cut a few corners with this latest one). So one learns from rejection for sure. And yes, success is better; but for me there is only one definition: reaching, touching people, helping to impart a feeling for even a small corner of the human condition that they might have overlooked. The bits of feedback along those lines that I have received are very precious to me.
Five indispensable books on the Middle East of 2020?
Black Wave by Kim Ghattas ; Assad or We Burn the Country by Sam Dagher ; My House in Damascus by Diana Darke ; Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernières ; Berlin to Baghdad Express by Sean McMeekin ; The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić (not recent but still relevant),
Literary journals: do you have favourites?
London Review of Books ; Paris Review ; Granta.
Five favourite feature films?
Le Grand Meaulnes ; The Seventh Seal ; Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) ; The Black Book (Dutch) ; Pan’s Labyrinth . . . (Not a lot of Hollywood).
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Fakhr ad-Din Ma’n, Bertrand Russell, Samuel Beckett, William Dalrymple, Ivo Andrić.
Your current bedside reading?
The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
Your chief fault?
Arrogance (according to my wife of almost fifty years, who ought to know. Arrogant people of course never notice).
Your chief characteristic?
Cultural adaptability (other side of the coin from rootlessness, “citizen of nowhere”)
Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner (To understand all is to forgive all; but sometimes one just can’t understand it all).
TJ Gorton lives between London and SW France, when not locked down. Author of seven books — from translations of Classical Arabic Poetry to anthologies of travel writing about Lebanon, Beirut and Jerusalem — his debut novel, Only the Dead: A Levantine Tragedy, was shortlisted for the Best First Novel Award.
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