The author of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, our Monthly Spotlight title for July, talks about the authors who have inspired her, making the invisible visible, and her ‘slightly insane’ writing routine

Publication date and time: Published

Tell us about a book that you loved as a child. What was it about it that captured your imagination, and has it stayed with you? 

A Tale of Two Cities. It was the summer that my maternal grandmother took me to Izmir and left me at my paternal grandmother’s house so that I could see my father for the first time in years. A strange, sad, lonely summer. I remember vividly the book had just been published in Turkish as a graphic novel. It was the first book by Charles Dickens that I read. It blew my mind. That whole summer, I read it multiple times, coloured in all the pictures – the bonnets, the houses, the cask of wine, the guillotine. Dickens became my friend.  

Tell us about a book that made you want to become a writer. How did it inspire you to embark on your own creative journey, and how did it influence your writing style or aspirations as an author? 

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. It shook, inspired and completely changed me. I was a teenager when I read for the first time in Madrid. I had grown up with oral tales of the Middle East, the Balkans, Asia Minor… Stories flowing in concentric circles. What I found in Don Quixote, for the first time, was the ingenious and inclusive canvas of the novel as a form. An inventive structure of multiple layers and emotions, from humour to sorrow. A way of storytelling that weaved imagination, courage, knowledge and intuition. A book about the love of books! A book about reading and daring. I have reread Don Quixote at different stages of my life and each time it is a different experience. It changed me as a writer, but primarily, it changed me as a reader.  

What would you consider your all-time favourite work of fiction? How has it left a lasting impression on you and have you revisited it recently? 

I think I need to mention two novels simultaneously. One is Orlando by Virginia Woolf. It has a very special place in my heart. Until I read Orlando for the first time, I did not know you could take this much risk as a writer, daring to imagine a story that transcends all conventional borders – time, geography, culture, identity, memory. The whole book is water-like – shifting, searching, flowing. It is a novel that I associate with a strong sense of freedom. The other novel that shaped me profoundly was Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It is both passionate and philosophical. Emotional and intellectual. It is a book that connects the mind and the heart, exploring really difficult themes, then and now, such as faith, doubt, morality, free will, history, family, individual identity versus collective identity… I love the fact that both his characters and literary structures are multi-faceted and interconnected, refusing to be reduced to a single, simple thread.  

Portrait of Virginia Woolf.

At the heart of literature there is a desire to debunk dualities, transcend numbness and apathy, cultivate understanding and empathy, and build connections that honour complexity and nuance

Your novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019, was inspired by the real-life death of a sex worker in Istanbul. What was it about this story that compelled you to write a novel, and why do you often choose to write about individuals on the fringes of society?  

As a writer I am not only interested in stories and storytelling, I am also drawn to silences – and the silenced. There is a part of me that wants to understand where are the silences in my society and who are the silenced. There is a cemetery I used to visit in Istanbul, it is known as The Cemetery of the Companionless. It has grown so fast over the years. It is massive. This is where people who have been ‘othered’ by the society are buried without a proper funeral –prostitutes, people who have died of HIV-related diseases, suicides, migrants who have lost their lives as they were trying to reach Europe… They are all buried there, side by side. There are no names or surnames on their tombstones, only numbers. It is a place where human beings are turned into numbers, and stories into silences. In my novel I wanted to flip this over. Just turn it upside down. I wanted to pick one of those numbers on the graves and give it a name, a story, friends or companions, reversing the process of dehumanisation.  

10 Minutes… touches on various social issues, including human rights, gender, sexuality and marginalisation. What do you believe is fiction’s role in addressing such topics? 

The art of storytelling can bring the periphery to the centre and make the invisible a bit more visible, the unheard just a bit better heard. I come from a country that is to a large extent shaped by collective amnesia. Turkey has a long and rich history but that does not translate into strong memory. Just the opposite, history, the way it is taught and canonised, is almost always his-story. Never her-story. And not the stories of men from poorer backgrounds or minority cultures and so on, but the stories of men in positions of power and authority. The moment you ask, who is telling this narrative, and who was not allowed to tell it, everything shifts. As a novelist I am interested in untold stories – the stories of women, the stories of minorities, the stories that have been conveniently erased, forgotten. These are not easy subjects to explore and when you do that you get a lot of attacks, but the novel, as a literary form of nuance, pluralism, complexity and empathy, is home in exile, a most needed sanctuary.  

Location plays a large role in 10 Minutes…, with Istanbul providing the backdrop, along with its vivid sights, sounds and smells. How important is it for you to imbue your work with such a strong sense of place? 

Place is very important to me. As an immigrant author I think a lot about questions of belonging and non-belonging. What does it mean to be uprooted or deracinated, rootless, re-rooted…. Can we have multiple homes, multiple belongings in a world that tries to narrow us down to a single box. All these questions matter to me. Life has also taught me that just because you are physically far away from your motherland it does not mean you are disconnected from it emotionally. We carry our motherlands with us wherever we go. There is a certain melancholy to that, a feeling of loss. At the same time the UK has become my home. And the English language too. I write fiction in a language other than my native tongue. So it is very complicated, my relationship with place and belonging and roots.

Critics and readers have observed that elements of magical realism appear in several of your works. What draws you to that style of fiction, and which other writers and works of magical realism have influenced you?  

I have a lot of respect for authors who have been associated with ‘magical realism’, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison or Jorge Luis Borges. They have each left a profound impact on me. On the other hand, I sincerely think we should question this literary denomination, especially in a world that is profoundly interconnected. In the culture where I come from, or at least, in the house of my Grandma, the woman who raised me until I was ten years old, there were elements of spirituality and magic woven into every moment of daily life and political reality. My point is, these were not separate categories. For instance, when you live in a city like Istanbul for so long, you start to see how everything is constantly mixed with everything else. Sorrow with humour, actuality with surreal, in general, the absurd with the political… So, my understanding is that life itself does not keep ‘magic’ and ‘realism’ in two separate categories, but constantly and surprisingly blends them anyway. Maybe we need another term, a new concept altogether and literary critics can help us with. As an author, all I know is, I would like my fiction to bridge oral culture and written culture, the East and the West, the spiritual and the material, the surreal and the political, humour and melancholy, joining seemingly different entities of identity, time and place, showing how, in truth, everything and everyone is connected.  

Skyline of Istanbul.

I love the art of storytelling. I love the novel as a form. It is the only place where I can be plural, where I am completely myself and where I feel free

How long did it take to write 10 Minutes…, and what does your writing process look like? Do you write multiple drafts or finesse as you go? Do you have a strict writing routine or do you write as and when inspiration strikes? Is there a lot of meticulous plotting before you begin writing or do you let things emerge naturally? 

I never know exactly how long it takes me to finish a novel because I don’t exactly know when they start. I can always tell you when I finished, but at what stage did I start writing it inside my mind? I had been interested in The Cemetery of the Companionless for a long time, collecting local newspaper cuttings to try to understand the people buried in his sad graveyard. I had also been reading about studies of neuroscience, how the human brain can keep working for another few minutes even after the heart has stopped beating. This gave me the structure of the novel. It is an unusual structure in the sense that it begins with an end. Right away we know the main character is dead, dumped in a garbage bin, on the outskirts of Istanbul. But her mind is still functioning, for 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds. What do the dead remember in that limited amount of time? The good? The bad? These were the questions that motivated and guided me. My writing routine is slightly insane. I fill in dozens of notebooks, do a crazy amount of research, my feelings go up and down as I tumble into valleys of doubt and anxiety, climb mountains of depression, but underneath everything there is pure love. I love the art of storytelling. I love the novel as a form. It is the only place where I can be plural, where I am completely myself and where I feel free.  

At the Booker Prize ceremony in 2022, you spoke powerfully, in reference to the attack on Salman Rushdie in New York earlier that year, about how ‘the literary imagination is one of our last remaining democratic spaces’. What more can readers and writers – and others – do to protect those spaces and ensure that freedom of speech survives?  

Literature is a gentle antidote to our badly divided and broken world. For fiction writers there is no such thing as ‘us versus them’. There is no ‘Other’. Through the eyes of a novelist or a poet, actually, the Other is my brother, my sister, I am the Other. At the heart of literature there is a desire to debunk dualities, transcend numbness and apathy, cultivate understanding and empathy, and build connections that honour complexity and nuances. In a world shaped by short attention span, fast consumption and hyper materialism, the long form of the novel helps us to slow down and pay attention to knowledge rather than snippets of information and misinformation. It is not a coincidence that all around the world, wherever and whenever democracy is attacked, writers and poets have been among the first to be censored, prosecuted, exiled or imprisoned. As we are speaking libraries are under enormous pressure in the US with book bans and book removals rising at an alarming rate. In the past, many experts assumed that one should worry about human rights, women’s rights and freedom of speech in those ‘liquid lands’ but not so much in the ‘solid lands’ of the West, where democracy had been achieved. But the truth is there is no such thing as ‘liquid lands versus solid lands’. In the words of the Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman we are all living through ‘liquid times’. We need to cultivate global solidarity and global sisterhood. We need to protect literary spaces, support libraries and literary festivals and put more pressure on people in positions of power and authority to definitely invest in culture and the arts.  

Lastly, is there a hidden gem from the Booker Library – a lesser-known, underappreciated title from among the 600+ books that have been nominated for the Booker and International Booker Prizes over the past half-century – that you would recommend to others, and if so why? 

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. It is a remarkable literary achievement, but sadly it has been patronised by some reviewers and I honestly think if it had been written by a man, it would have been reviewed very differently and much more positively. It is a novel that has stayed with me. I recently had the privilege of writing an introduction to the new edition of Moon Tiger and so I read it again after many years, admiring not only the depth of the storytelling and its characters but also the exquisite craftsmanship behind the novel.