Mina Nagy: Interview with Promising Young Writer

Roger Ballen, from "Shadow Chamber". Source: lannassignment2.wordpress.com/

Roger Ballen, from “Shadow Chamber”. Source: lannassignment2.wordpress.com

Literary Magazine Interviewer: First question. Do you see yourself as a “promising young writer”?

Promising Young Writer: That depends. Do you mean “promising” or “young”? You can easily apply both to me, or dismiss them. It’s a matter of perspective.

LMI: Let’s see, then. How old are you and what have you written that’s promising?

PYW: Well, I’m 28. So far I’ve written two books of poetry and one of short stories. I don’t like to evaluate my own work. It depresses me. And you can’t be objective about it. But it’s easy to say that I like only two poems in my first book, the rest belonging to the realm of lame beginnings. Maybe I will have a view of my two later books after some time. I guess it takes time to see your own writings as external objects so you can evaluate them as you evaluate other things. Actually, I admire and hate my own work with equal force, and that applies to everything related to myself. I also finished my first novel, the first part of a trilogy. I’m in the process of publishing it now.

LMI: Okay, but what about the third term, “writer”. Do you see yourself as writer or, to put it in a smarter way, do you believe the term “writer” is an identity?

PYW: When you get confused about this, you can always go back to basics. I mean, a writer is someone who writes, right? Things only start to get complicated when you realise how this basic definition applies to a wide variety of unrelated professions that involve that activity. But what about other activities in the writer’s own life. Are you still a writer while you’re taking a shit, for example? While you’re having sex or coming up with the answers during a quiz show? To me, an individual identity along the lines of “writer” is a political move. Sometimes you need it and sometimes it makes a fool of you. One of my greatest personal fears is to be ridiculous.

I like to think of being a writer as an ethical obligation. I mean, dedicating myself to writing. I know a lot of people who have a talent for expressing themselves through the medium of words, but what distinguishes the real writers among them, if real writers is what you want to call it, is dedication. To dedicate your vital life force to forming and enhancing your own writing. But at the same time I see the title “writer” as a persona, a mask that you can put on which encourages you to kept going. Suddenly, at the age of 26, I stopped seeing myself as poet. I made a conscious decision to stop writing poems, because as time went on, the question of whether I was a poet or not had become more and more irrelevant. It almost annoys me now when someone presents me as a poet. I’m wearing the mask of the novelist right now, writing novels, but at some point I know I will take it off and wear some other mask.

Now if you asked me why a person should wear masks, I would say that life is unbearable in itself, it needs masks, and these masks reflect the possibilities that spring out of experiencing the unbearable. These possibilities, we like to call hope. Maybe one day I will be the most prominent writer of my generation. Maybe I will be world famous. Maybe I will feel free and unburdened. Maybe I will meet the love of my life and live happily ever after, and so on… Without these possibilities, humanity, as a self-aware race, would annihilate itself. Not that it isn’t doing it anyway.

Another personal reason is that I want to live many lives. I always feel that I’m missing out, one life can never be enough, my own real life in particular is not enough. So the masks are there to make up for that. Each mask can be a whole life if you wear it with enough conviction. But the trick is to remember that it’s still just a mask. It’s like children playing and taking their play very seriously.

LMI: So what is it about the persona of the writer that drives you to take on that “ethical obligation”?

PYW: I first developed this fascination when I was young, really young, like 9 or 10. I was fascinated by the idea of complete control over fictional characters. You are like god to them. You can kill or keep whoever you want. You can make them handsome, ugly, smart, stupid, strong, weak. This feeling of mastery and limitless power fascinated me.

A few years later, I was struck by the by how the world in a film or a book could be complete and closed off. I remember the kick I got from the Goosebumps series. It wasn’t the moments of horror that attracted me but presence of an 11-year-old kid at the start of summer hanging out with friends eating icecream and going to the movies, falling in love with his slightly older and beautiful friend. In a sense these moments in themselves are dull and unattractive, they need the supernatural cast them in a compelling light. I remember writing my first novel at this time, with a pencil in a Disney notebook, imitating the worlds of Goosebumps. I was devastated when I found out my mother threw it out in the garbage. Maybe this was my first conscious experience of a deep loss.

A few years later, the same fascination resurfaced during my religious phase, in the desire to find out the secret of life. I remember I had this idea to write an extremely long novel in the form of the diaries of a series of persons from consecutive generations, starting with a young girl living in the 16th century in England. I never got past 20 pages as far as I can remember.

Another few years later, I fell under the influence of the Young Adult writers Ahmed Khalid Tawfik and Nabil Farouk. I had a miserable adolescence, and I wanted to compensate for my screwed-up using the power of the imagination, to experience all that I longed to do and couldn’t.

I guess my fascination now consists of all these stages combined.

LMI: Was there a specific moment when you made a conscious decision to be a writer?

PYW: As I said, recently I’ve seen it as a question of personas. Life circumstances – and surprises – as well subjective inclinations tell you which mask to wear. When I was 18 I wanted to write poems, stories and novels besides becoming a Communication Engineer, among other things. I had this idea for a novel about a teenager going through a lot of different experiences, but I knew that trying to write it would be biting off more than I could chew. So I concentrated on poetry and published my first poetry book after 6 years. They were poems trying to grasp personal sensations, tiny and inexpressible, which I later saw judged to be naively metaphysical. I still felt I was unable to write a novel, and I had different ideas for writing, then through a writing workshop with the writer and poet Youssef Rakha, I managed to write the stories. I saw the process as a way to both use the ideas I had and train for the novel.

After that I decided to dedicate time to poetry again, to write my magnum opus, a great work equivalent in some sense to The Divine Comedy, but in a contemporary and negative register. I was to wait a long time before I wrote it. But then I fell into a deep depression and couldn’t manage to get out of it except by writing my second collection of poems, my darkest work to date. It was made up of bits and pieces I’d written along the way, a total of 75,000 words, finally whittled down to the 7000 words of Passion Week. The moment I was done with Passion Week I felt I was finished with poetry. I wanted to write the novel, but I had to finish my neverending college education first. A year later I finally graduated and started the novel, almost 10 years after it first came to me. Through these 10 years it expanded to a trilogy, and went through many radical changes. But I think it still has the same core as the book conceived of by the 18-year-old:

To do things I couldn’t do, to compensate.

LMI: Can you give us a hint of this trilogy or at least the first part?

PYW: Oh, yes. The first part is called Wingless. It’s a series of letters from an unnamed protagonist to his ex-lover re-telling her what happened between them from his point of view, but the letters interweaved with another dramatic line: a couple from Paris, a painter and theatrical and contemporary dance director. It deals with the subjects of love, failed relationships and psychological illness.

LMI: Are we to see it in bookstores soon?

PYW: I don’t know yet, cross your fingers.

LMI: Do you have anything to add?

PYW: Yes, fuck you.

LMI: Why?

PYW: I always wanted to end an interview with a “fuck you”, and what better opportunity to do it than an imaginary interview? I’m also going to make you thank me.

LMI: Thank you very much indeed, Promising Young Writer.