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All your books are so different. What led you to this particular story?
It's difficult to say. I've always had a preoccupation with storytelling. In the earlier novels I explore stories through two very different people and worlds. So it was a logical move to turn now to a storyteller - and Scherezade is the mother of storytellers.
But your story is as much about Dunyazad, her sister...
Yes, that's true but...the only way I could've written about Scherezade was as a younger sister, as Dunyazad. I could only pay tribute to her as a silent accomplice, someone who followed, but of course had a less prodigious, less fulfilled life. And then, once you are Scherezade's sister, she can no longer be a myth. She has to be flesh and blood.
But what drew you to her? After all no matter how much you try to turn Scherezade into a flesh-and-blood woman, she is a creature of dreams.
Since I wrote The Thousand Faces of Night I've been concerned about women's dreams and desires. As a woman Scherezade uses her words and her body, not only to save her own life, but to gain a little more. In my earlier book, the desires were more limited, more modest. Between then and now I've travelled many leagues...
In many ways the beginning of this book is actually the end of another...
I wrote this book because I'm interested not in the story of how the 1001 nights began or happened, but where that tale ends. What happens in stories after the moment when people live happily ever after. That's when the real story begins. In this context the question for me was what did Scherezade do when she was not telling stories? I imagined her with the sultan in bed. Where was the sister waiting? The brother? So the room grew. Other characters made their entry. The tale began to grow.
The book has tremendous clarity of structure and language...
I work hard. I have editoritis. I threw out a lot but Ive also written this novel with a great deal of confidence. The structure is built around numbers and couples'couples of people and things. The whole thing was rather like a tightrope walk. And I've tried to use passion in less obvious ways. For example the relationship between Shahrzad and Dunyazad is as important as the Sultan's blood-thirsty passion, or the middle-aged Dunyazad's poignant physical hunger. I'm rather happy with the structure: to me its a bit like Chinese boxes - you keep making smaller and smaller boxes and even that does not lead you to the heart of things.
The voices here are very different...
I feel both lucky and cursed to have a particular kind of voice - I can look at the contemporary world in an invented landscape. The advantage is that I'm in control although I've to be very careful with the craft. That's why I've polished the language till it's completely diaphanous. But I also wanted it to be incantatory, have the resonance of a dream. My first book deals with the lives of three women. The limited space of their lives is enlarged with myths, some twisted in the retelling, some remaining the same, but still all retellings. In Vasu the fables the old man tells the child are completely invented. Later, I realised their ancestor could be the jataka tales. In the new book, there are many storytelling voices. I had this building hovering somewhere at the back of my mind: the Taj. I remember wandering around it and seeing that it had two symmetrical structures on either side, one called the jawab. This gave me the idea of Dunyazad and Dilshad telling two sorts of stories in two different voices, the second one responding to the first.
What was fun to do in the book?
The design, language and some bits which combine the cerebral with the erotic. I had great fun with these.