Johannesburg — Hanif Kureishi is a playwright, novelist and film-maker. He talks to Robert McCrum about death, his father and the suburbs of Bromley
Hanif Kureishi started out as a playwright, with his first play, Soaking the Heat, staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 1976. He wrote the script for the acclaimed Stephen Frears film My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), as well as several subsequent scripts; he directed his 1991 script London Kills Me himself. His first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, was published in 1990 and won the Whitbread Award for best first novel. It was followed by The Black Album (1995), Intimacy (1998) and two collections of stories. One story, My Son the Fanatic, Kureishi made into a movie in 1998. His new book, Gabriel's Gift (Faber & Faber), looks at a young Londoner's coming-of-age.
Q: What's Gabriel's Gift about?
A: The story concerns a 15-year-old boy-man called Gabriel. At the beginning of the book his parents have split up and his father's gone to live in a rather crummy, run-down house in Earls Court. The boy is caught between the two parents and moves between them trying to resolve their conflict, get them back together again and return to the paradise of his childhood.
Q: Was there a specific moment when you were inspired to write the book?
A: David Bowie asked me to write a book for him to illustrate and we both assumed that this would be a kid's book. But as the book developed it became more of an adult book. And then the Bowie figure crept in and became part of the story.
Q: How do you think the book relates to your earlier work?
A: Well, it's about fathers and sons, which is something that's always interested me, and also about sons being perhaps more talented than their fathers. It's about separation between mothers and fathers, which is always traumatic. It's about people being able to change their lives.
Q: It's much less polemical than Intimacy.
A: I wanted to write a sweeter book. I enjoyed writing The Buddha of Suburbia.
The funny ones are always the most fun to do. Books like Love in a Blue Time, Intimacy and Midnight All Day had been rather dark and melancholic. So I thought it was time to do something else.
Q: You've written plays, stories, films and novels. Are you first and foremost a novelist?
A: When I was a young man I thought I'd give it all a go and see which one I liked the best, and then after a time I'd settle down and do any one of those things. But actually I enjoy working in all the forms. I enjoy doing films because I enjoy working with the directors. I like novels because it's so private and you can do anything, and I like writing short stories because you can do them in a week.
It's not unprecedented. Someone like Graham Greene always wrote in a number of forms. For me, now, writing is not only a kind of dreaming, but also a profession. In the morning you're dreaming, in the afternoon you're doing your VAT. When you get to middle age and you have three kids, you also think about how you can support yourself and your family for 30 years. So I'm interested in those two sides of my profession " the practical and the dreaming.
Q: How old are you?
A: [Pause] Forty-six.
Q: Did you always want to be a writer?
A: I discovered that I wanted to be a writer when I was 14. It cheered me up because it gave me a great sense of purpose. I knew then where I was going.
I was heading out of Bromley.
Q: Was it your father who encouraged you to write?
A: He wanted to be a writer " and in a way he was. He wrote two books, which were published, about the history and formation of Pakistan, but he also wrote novels that were not published. He was in love with writing and with the idea of being a writer. It was also the 1960s. One left the suburbs for London, which in those days was swinging.
Q: Do you think you've managed to get out of the suburbs?
A: Whether the suburbs are out of me is another matter. I certainly wanted to come to London to be with people who I thought were cultured. Culture is rather sneered upon in the suburbs. You're considered to be getting above yourself or it's seen as pretentious or financially not viable. So, yeah, I got out.
Q: So there was never any question of you being anything other than a writer?
A: When you leave university, everybody you meet wants to be a writer. And then after a bit you have to decide whether you're really going to do this or whether you're going to be an academic. In 1979 I had a play done at the Soho Poly called The King and Me and then I had a play done at Riverside and I worked at the Royal Court with Max [Stafford-Clark] and so my career started, so far as I ever had one.
Q: Did your dad want his son to go up a meritocratic ladder in English society?
A: Well, that certainly happened to my cousins. The men wanted the boys to be doctors, lawyers or engineers, and not mess around writing stories.
We didn't come to England to mess around, you know. My father came from a literary family. My uncles had film magazines and one of my uncles is a columnist for Pakistan's daily paper. So I did come from a literary background. Being a writer wasn't so unusual.
Q: What was your father's job?
A: He worked in the Pakistan embassy. He was a clerk. He left college without taking his exams, got a job and lived a life of frustration, but always with the hope that one day he'd become a writer.
Q: Do you think you've fulfilled his dreams?
A: I've lived the life that he wished he could have, but I think on the whole he would have preferred it for himself rather than for me.
Q: Do you think that your relationship with your father is the central drama of your creative life?
A: My father's story was particularly interesting to me as a writer because he was an immigrant " the experience of coming to England and seeing English society. To be involved in racism is to be involved in the history of your time and post-colonialism. So around the time I wrote My Beautiful Laundrette and then The Buddha of Suburbia I was aware that these were subjects that hadn't been touched much by British novelists.
Q: Is it a burden or a pleasure to be an unofficial representative for a generation of British Asian writers?
A: Well at the beginning I was the only one and then later on there was Salman Rushdie, and now there's Zadie Smith and many other writers from different ethnic backgrounds. There are very few British writers with English names now. They're all called Ishiguro or they're Australian. But at the beginning there was pressure on you to speak for what's seen as your community and of course every writer has to write in freedom and be independent of any kind of orthodoxy.
Q: What does your community think of you?
A: I think the young people think of me as an example, sometimes. This bloke, you know, went his own way, wrote these stories and did well. Others think that this bloke is showing us in a bad light, letting the side down.
And why doesn't he write stories like Passage to India, as they used to say to me, as if Passage to India was a nice story. But I've always resisted that. I think it could be very damaging to think of yourself as being a representative as a writer.
Q: Who were the writers that you read when you were growing up?
A: I liked mostly American writers I think. They seemed sexier than British writers.
Q: And who do you read now?
A: I'm much more likely to read writers from the old days, that I was brought up on. I don't want to spend the morning reading someone else's novel and then sit down and write my own because I know their voice will be in my head. So I'm much more likely to read poetry.
Q: What do you think the writer's job is?
A: I think the writer's job is to tell stories that worry about how we live, that worry about the kind of people we are, the kind of values we have and what we might do. Human life has to be thought of and contemplated and worried about over and over again. It's not as if Shakespeare has the final say. We have to think seriously about the fundamental questions of our existence, which is something that other forms, say journalism, television, movies, mostly can't deal with. It seems to me that the novel still is the greatest form of considering the human condition that is available to us.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've got lots of ideas. There's a novel that I've nearly finished and another one I want to write after that, which will be an overview of race since the 1950s to the present day. With three children it's harder for me to find the time to write.
Q: Intimacy gave you quite a bit of trouble, didn't it?
A: The book worked because people got furious, because it seemed as if it was me speaking. It was about something very serious " what happens when marriages go wrong. So I felt that I had written a book that was, on its own terms, successful.
Q: Why do you think they were furious?
A: I think they were furious because the subject is infuriating. I might be being disingenuous about that, but I do think the subject of leaving someone or of being left, of being abandoned and the cruelty and your dislike of them, is very painful for everybody. I wrote a book that was intentionally horrible. I didn't want to write a book that smooths things over, or that was written about something that happened five years ago. I wanted to write about an event as it happened.
Q: And you were accused of cruelty?
A: The central character of the book certainly feels cruel and behaves cruelly and couples do certainly behave very cruelly towards one another when they are in that position. I wanted to write a book that seemed to reproduce that.
In your previous books, the boys and their fathers have been co-conspirators, but in Gabriel's Gift the boy breaks free at the end.
Q: Have you broken free of this psychodrama of your relationship with your father?
A: I don't think you ever stop thinking about your parents and your relationship with them. You think about your parents a lot when you have children. When I look at my two-year-old I think what was it like for my mother and father when I was two.
When you're ageing you think what was it like for your dad when he was nearly 50 and working in a job he didn't like. You always think about them in different ways over and over again, you know, like a painter painting the same face over a period of 25 years.
Q: Do you think about death?
A: Yes, I think about it a lot now. The thing about being in the middle is you can see the end and the beginning and think about what you'll leave behind.