To be a better writer, read your words aloud, says Mohsin Hamid
Mohsin Hamid's novel "Exit West," is our March pick for the new PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, "Now Read This." Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
Staring into the tiny, black void of his cellphone screen, Mohsin Hamid was struck by inspiration. Drawn by the idea of portals, travel and magic, Hamid wrote his latest novel, "Exit West," which combines the real and the surreal as it follows two young refugees who escape the violence of their collapsing city.
Below, he shares more about his inspiration, including his daily writing routine, favorite books and the best bit of writer's advice he's ever received. Here are five questions with Hamid, in his words:
1. What is your daily writing routine?
My writing routine has varied quite a bit from when I began my first novel 25 years ago. In my early twenties, I often wrote at night, sometimes from midnight until dawn. These days, with two small children, I write when they are in school, which means I do most of my writing between 9am and 1pm. The Israeli writer Amos Oz describes his practice of writing as opening a shop each day, whether customers come or not. I tend to agree. My shop is open in the mornings and closes around lunch, although there are many days when no customers come and I lower my shutters with no more — or even fewer — words than I began.
2. What is your favorite childhood book? Or one book you think everyone should read?
Picking my favorite childhood book is very difficult. If I had to suggest only one, it would probably be "Charlotte's Web." That novel is not not only a wonderful yarn, an adventure story, a coming-of-age tale, full of humor and wisdom and poignancy. It is also an incredible introduction to mortality. It is a book about death, as something sad and yet inevitable, like the passing of the seasons, and it manages to remove some of the terror from the notion that everything and everyone has an ending, and to find in impermanence the possibility for connection and optimism and beauty.
3. What is something you've seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?
The song "Taj Mahal" by Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben is, while not exactly overlooked, certainly less well-known around the world than I think it should be. Here we have two Brazilian greats giving us not only the musical (ahem) inspiration for Rod Stewart's "[Do Ya] Think I'm Sexy" but an extended riff on the Mughal love story that resulted in the creation of the Taj Mahal. When a Brazilian roommate played it for me twenty-some years ago, I experienced the immediacy of an unexpected and electric South-South cultural connection. The intensifying of such connections is, I think, one of the most fertile and exciting aspects of our present century. Brazil and the South Asian subcontinent are linked (as are so many other once supposedly peripheral lands), not as spokes off of hubs in New York, London, and Paris, but directly, to each other. This has always been the case. Rediscovering it for oneself, though, is a revelation. Places thought of as spokes are becoming central. Each spoke has the right to think of itself as being as central as any other, indeed as central as any hub, and this track opened my mind to a coming world of direct flights, culturally speaking. It is also insanely fun, literally, which is to say insane and also fun.
4. What is the best piece of writer's advice you've received?
Toni Morrison often told those of us in her long-fiction workshop to read our stuff aloud. She reads more powerfully than anyone else I have met; she could have read the back of a cereal box and made it sound superb. To this day, I spend much of my writing time pacing around my study with printed manuscript pages in my hands, reading my words out loud. I probably spend about as much time reading my words aloud as I do typing them into my computer. We may think we read books only with our eyes, but the mental circuitry of language connects to our ears. The ancient Sufi poets sometimes spoke of sifting the sands of a beach with one's eyelashes to remove the pebbles of imperfection. That's what reading aloud lets a writer do. It takes a lot of work and you can never remove all the pebbles, but it's still the best way of gauging writing-in-progress that I know.
5. Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? Or when you knew it was over?
I think it was a moment like this, when I was doing an interview with someone far away, but in that case we were speaking over some Internet video call service, and I was looking at my phone or my computer and seeing this person half-way around the world as though they were my neighbor, speaking through a window, an actual physical window, and I started to think of the black rectangle I always carry with me, the screen of my mobile phone, a kind of magical portal that my consciousness is drawn to, and passes through, incessantly, and I wondered what would happen if we could physically pass through black rectangles like that, not just with our consciousness but with our body, and then the idea took hold of me and wouldn't let go until the novel was done.
[READ MORE: Discussion question for "Exit West"]