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Philip Hensher
What gave you the confidence to become a writer?
I don't quite know, really. I think what I wanted to do, always wanted to do was to write the novel which I couldn't quite find on the shelves - the one that didn't exist yet. And on top of that, I was always an observer of people - I always liked to sit and watch how people were, how they projected themselves. I like crowded places, always have. And I always felt that there were ways in which people behaved which you never read about in books, and I'd like to describe those ways. I remember thinking about the way when two people see each other approaching, and they're too far away to greet each other - on a path or down a long corridor - they pretend not to see each other until they're close enough to say hello or wave. You never see that in a novel. I wanted to be the first person to describe that in a book, and lots of other things. (Of course, people have described that - I just didn't know about them then). I don't know that I ever really wanted to become a writer, though. My ambitions were always just to write a particular book. I suppose I'm a writer now, though. I guess one of the things was that I was such a great reader from birth, almost, and I was one of those readers who often felt "No, it ought to go like this" and then thinking about how you might do it if you wrote it now. I used to think that before I was a writer, even.
Who are your literary influences?
They come and go. When I was starting out, I loved English writing from the 30s to the 60s best of all - Henry Green, Waugh, Compton-Burnett, Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Taylor, VSPritchett, Robert Liddell. Then I had a big Russian period - Tolstoy is so great that it's daunting to think of learning from him, but he has such a beautiful technique. Kingsley Amis has become important to me. The books that have gone on being influential are Natalia Ginzburg's Family Sayings, Vanity Fair, Naipaul, and Dickens. I'm sure I'll remember a dozen writers as soon as I stop writing this.
What made you want to write Scenes from an Early Life?
It's a stretch of experience which was just so interesting to me. I married someone who was born just before his country came into being, and grew up in the young years of Bangladesh, in the middle of a large, intelligent, cultured family. I've loved that part of the world for a long time - Calcutta has been one of my favourite cities for years, but I didn't know the heart of Bengali culture, Bangladesh, until I met Zaved a decade ago. Zaved's a really good storyteller about his family, and I wanted to get some of the zest and zing of a good story in conversation between hard covers. There was an American painter who said he wanted to make paintings where the paint looked as good as it did in the tin. I wanted to write a book where the stories were as good as a brilliant conversation with your partner.
On top of that, I did think that the story of the war of independence, which grows in the background of a family story in the book, wasn't known about in Britain. I wanted people to know how horrifying it was, and the ways in which a national culture was oppressed and crushed in the decades before liberation. One of the things which interests me a lot as a novelist, I think, are moments in time where societies are changing enormously, in the background. This was one of those moments, and I wanted to show what family life is like when there is violence happening in the background.
Writing an auto-biography of your loved one seems to have huge potential for pitfalls. What did you find were the main challenges?
It looks like a strange form, but in fact reading it now, it seems inevitable and natural. I didn't want to talk in my own voice, and Zaved's is so familiar to me. I toyed with the idea of having framing chapters and getting him to talk and tell a long story in front of a fireside, as it were, like a story by Henry James. But in the end I thought I didn't need to reach for that sort of picturesque quality. Getting details right was a constant concern, and some things were very difficult - I had a good source, but memory has a tendency to falsify details without knowing it. I hope I got most things right, though - other people who read it who were there have said it's accurate, which is a relief.
There could have been difficulties if Zaved had wanted me to keep private family matters private - I would have respected that if he'd asked anything in particular. But in fact he was very generous and let me write things which weren't at all the way he would have written them.
Have Zavedís family read the novel yet? If so, what have their reactions been?
Some of them have, and they've liked it so far - some of them have very much liked it. I'm sure they'll have things to say to me next time I'm in Bangladesh, though!
Itís interesting that, Hitchcock-like, you give yourself a cameo part in the book. This serves to reinforce the sense that it is non-fiction. Yet you still maintain itís a novel rather than biography?
Oh yes. The novel takes interesting forms these days. People would have been justifiably very concerned if I'd maintained this was non-fiction - all the dialogue is imagined, and two important strands of the book are entirely fictional. In fact, the scenes all unfold in ways in which I imagined them and structured them, even though some of the people in the book are real people appearing under their own names. Tolstoy put Napoleon in a book, after all. I didn't put myself in the book under my own name - the writer in the book has no name. Some of the book really happened like this, other parts happened in general terms rather like this, others probably didn't happen apart from in the version handed down through storytelling, and other parts still didn't happen at all, except in general terms. But it would be difficult, talking about any novel, to say which parts of it happened and which didn't happen - there aren't many novels made up of nothing but pure invention.
I liked the black and white photos embedded in the text. They add to the period feel. What was your intention in adding them?
I love Bangladesh, and I think people in the West don't really know what it looks like. So I thought I'd help the reader out a little bit. The first photograph of the book is of the outside of Nana's house, as it is today, and the last is from inside the gates.
What books would you like to see on the shelf next to it?
Well, I love Bengali literature, and I think not enough of it is known in the West, apart from books written in English by Bengalis. The first I would recommend in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's *Srikanta* - he wrote other, more famous books, but Srikanta is the great romantic novel of the delta, I think. The second is a wonderful novel of Calcutta life after Indian independence, Shankar's The Great Unknown, a novel full of stories, told by the office boy to the last English barrister in Calcutta. The third is a diary of the Bangladesh war of independence, written at the time by the wife of and mother to fighters for independence, published years after the events and rightly a huge bestseller in Bangladesh. Anyone who reads it would be reduced to tears by the end, I think. It's by Jahanara Imam, called Of Blood and Fire.
What are you working on now?
I've just finished a non-fiction book about handwriting, its history and its future, called The Missing Ink, coming out in October from Pan Macmillan, and soon I'm going to start work on a new novel.
Philip Hensher

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