Interview with shortlisted author Saad Mohammed Raheem
Where were you at the time of the shortlist announcement? What was your reaction?
I was going through the recovery period following surgery. At the time of the announcement, I received several calls from my publisher, the owner of Dar Sutur, as well as from friends who are writers, telling me the news. Before that I was anxious, and my children were kind of stressed, I could see it in their eyes. But when they were reassured that my novel made it to the shortlist, they became happy. As for me, I was overcome with relief and serenity, and I think this gave me additional energy for recovery.
What does it mean to you to be shortlisted?
It means to continue my writing efforts more seriously, the prize is not the end of the line. I’ve previously been awarded the Iraqi Creativity Award for Fiction twice and the 2016 Katara Prize for the Arabic novel and I felt that with every award I was at a new turning point, a new beginning. I have to prove to myself first of all that I am capable of developing my writing tools, language, style and plot techniques with every new work. This is an enormous responsibility.
Some people become arrogant after winning a prize. But I will live in worry over the question of whether my next book will be better.
What are you reading now? Which writers have influenced you as a novelist?
A few days ago I finished reading Chalk Door by my friend Ahmed Saadawi and now I’ve started reading the shortlisted novels that I could get my hands on. Right now, it’s Children of the Ghetto by the prominent novelist Elias Khoury, which is a brilliant and fun novel. At the same time, I’m reading The Leaderless Revolution by Carne Ross from the Kuwaiti World of Knowledge series, in addition to Historical Imagining by Dr. Abdullah Ibrahim.
As for the writers who have influenced my fiction, they are countless. A writer learns even from bad books and every book you read leaves a mark on your mind and soul. But a writer should avoid imitation and should find his own individual voice. I think the writers who influenced me the most are Kafka, William Faulkner, Calvino, Herman Hesse, Naguib Mahfouz, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and Marquez.
Is Mahmoud El-Marzouq based on a real person?
Not exactly, he might have some aspects in common with many people I’ve met in my life, but ultimately he is a fictitious, built-up character. What makes him seem real is the novel’s style in creating him and giving him freedom of mobility to the backdrop of real events witnessed by Iraq in the last 50 years. Mahmoud El-Marzouq comes from a generation whose grand patriotic dreams were shattered. So he suffered tribulations and hardships, and endured tyranny and exile, only to end up frustrated and torn by disappointment, cynicism and nihilism just before his death.
Some critics have categorized The Bookseller’s Murder as an investigative novel, a genre which is becoming popular in Iraq recently. Would you agree?
Yes, to a certain extent. The Bookseller’s Murder is a novel of research and investigation and more. Research here is not limited to the perpetrator of Mahmoud El-Marzouq’s death, but also, and more importantly, it includes the details and secrets of Marzouq’s life and the most interesting and dangerous experiences he had. There is investigation in the novel, and digging deep in an attempt to discover why we have got to this point, and the ailment behind our misfortunes.
The novel can do things that other sciences, knowledge and arts cannot do. And it often constitutes a narrative that can counter that of the authorities which dominates society.
You write critical studies and articles in addition to fiction. How do you manage these different types of writing in terms of time and frame of mind?
With practice, and having multiple interests and readings. Most of the time I read more than one book at a time. Sometimes I write an article when I am in the middle of writing a novel. The changes in our reality make it imperative for us to express our opinions directly, to analyze a certain phenomenon or event, or to take a stance. When I have something to say I resort to the article or study. Also, some books that I read provoke me to write about them, and I take time out to finish a study when I am invited to a conference or seminar to speak or present a paper. Looking at the biographies of famous writers and their work since the 19th century, we find that they wrote in different fields. The human mind has the flexibility and capacity to go down more than one path.
Personally, I don’t like repetition and I consider Facebook a place of meaningless chitchat that takes up energy and time with little benefit. And I give the necessary attention and effort to my writings equally, whether stories, novels, articles or newspaper columns.
Read an extract from The Bookseller’s Murder below:
“You’re like the sleepers of Ephesus when they woke up in another age,” I said. “You’ll find that your old currency is now worthless. The book trade is dead. It’s wonderful of you to open a bookshop here but don’t expect to make a profit.”
He wasn’t convinced. He didn’t believe that after all the wars had worn them down people had given up reading, and then that sanctions would come and people would no longer go to theatres, cinemas or art exhibitions. One day I said to him: “Take bread and theatre. Bread is now so rare that people can hardly find any, so who would think about theatre or art?” I suggested he go into seclusion and take up drawing again. No harm in having a small bookshop to pass the time. “All a writer needs is a pen and some paper and that doesn’t cost much,” I said. “But painting needs money, to buy paint, brushes, canvas, frames and other equipment. And you invest some of the money you have in your artistic production.” “If people no longer need books,” he said: “why would they need my paintings?” I explained that there was a wealthy class that bought paintings and hung them in their fancy living rooms, as well as foreigners who went to the galleries in Baghdad and bought good paintings at reasonable prices.
“I’ll think about it,” he said, but he didn’t do it. He opened a large bookshop and lost money. He closed it down and moved his books to the basement of the building that his uncle owned. I think you know the rest of the story.
Read this interview in Arabic here