The Albanian novelist, whose new book is The Fall of the Stone City, talks about his choice of weapon in the fight against totalitarianism, and how he came to publish his first book.
Where did you grow up?
In a medieval village in southern Albania.
Where do you live and why?
I divide my life between Tirana and Paris.
You won the inaugural Man Booker Prize, in 2005. How did winning that prize affect your career? Was it particularly meaningful to win the inaugural year of the prize?
That was one of the most important prizes in my life as a writer.
You have been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Very few writers will ever have that experience. What has your reaction been to these nominations?
Yes, it’s true that I was nominated several times for this prize, and each time I considered it an honor. However, the fact that I never won it does not distress me, although sometimes those who criticize me like to think that it would. There are always several candidates and only one winner. That’s why whenever one is nominated for a prize, the chances are greater that one won’t win than the opposite.
You have stood up for the creative rights of artists and against dictatorship. What are some great works of literature that you admire for their ability to combat dictatorship and absolutism?
In general, literature is a natural adversary of totalitarianism. Tyrannical governments all view literature in the same way: as their enemy. I lived for a long time in a totalitarian state, and I know firsthand that horror. That’s why I have the greatest esteem for literary works by those who have struggled against tyranny (from Bulgakov and Mandelstam to Solzhenitsyn).
Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers.
This is a hard question, because it is difficult to choose just three. Nevertheless, I will try to give you an answer: Macbeth, Don Quixote, Kafka’s The Trial.
What is a place that inspires you?
If I manage to write something that I consider good and valuable in a particular place, that spot automatically has a special aura for me. In Albania, there are two cities where I have written the majority of my work: Gjirokastër, my home city, and Tirana. In the rest of the world, there are three cities I can mention. The most important is Paris. After that come Moscow and New York. In each of these, I have written a short novel.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time or just let it flow?
Your question concerns that part of the writing life that is perhaps the hardest to explain. I can only admit to this: as much as advance planning seems necessary, it can also be harmful. Spontaneity should, like a sort of fog, already envelop those pages that you will write the next day.
Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.
I work only in the morning from 10 to noon. I still write by hand. I interrupt my writing when I feel that I’ve discovered something beautiful or, on the contrary, when I feel discontent.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
The recent situation in my country [Albania], its problems, its grotesque aspects, its misunderstandings.
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
The same thing.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, whom would it be and why?
I am relieved that such a thing is impossible. If not, I would suffer greatly from what’s called “having an embarrassment of riches,” too many people to choose from.
What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
It was produced in 1955. I was still a high school student in my native city of Gjirokastër. It was a collection of poems that suddenly made me well known in my town. I had sent the manuscript by mail to the main publishing house in Tirana. I was 16 years old in 1953, when I sent it. After three months, I received a telegram from the publisher: “We are considering publishing your book of poetry. Come right away to Tirana.” The distance from my home to Tirana by bus takes 10 hours. My father, who generally was indifferent toward what I wrote, all of a sudden became interested in it. He told me that I had to make the trip by taxicab!
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
It’s precisely the trip I mentioned above—the one that I made by taxi. At the time, it was a very rare thing for a student of my age to take a cab to the capital. The news spread quickly in my town, due to its novelty. Many people imagined that that was the way such things happened: that when one sends out a manuscript, he has to take a taxi in order to find out whether it will be accepted for publication.
What do you need to have produced or completed to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
I consider I’ve had a good day when, among the lines I’ve written, I’ve produced from my innermost core what I call “the appearance of the pearl.” That could refer to a discovery, a sense of harmonious cohesiveness, or something like that.
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
Maybe I should have told you something more about my first book. More precisely, something about my arrival in Tirana and that meeting at the publishing house. There, I met with a somewhat elderly editor, who looked at me with great curiosity. After several grunts—hmm, hmm—that he did for himself, he looked me in the eye and asked the question: Here you have a little poem about Paris. How did this idea come to you? I shrugged my shoulders, as if to say “I don’t know.” Indeed, in my manuscript I did have a little Paris poem. About my desire to see it one day. The editor shook his head, “Listen, young man, I’m not obligating you to take it out of your book, but I must ask you: couldn’t you do a Moscow poem? For a young Muscovite girl, for example, with whom you schoolkids have been exchanging letters of friendship. You don’t have one of those?” In fact, there was a girl by the name of Ljudmila with whom I had been corresponding: “Daragoja Ljudmila, spring has arrived. The weather is very nice here.” And her answers? “Daragoj Ismail. Here in Moscow the first snow has fallen. Oh, how beautiful it is!” I answered that, yes, I could write a poem about Moscow, which I actually did.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
If you would have asked me that question a few months ago, perhaps I would have been able to give you an answer. However, my wife, Helena Kadare, has published her book of the memories of our life. In her book, Le Temps qui Manque, she said nearly everything there is to say, and I’m thinking that nothing much is left unwritten for me to tell you.