Most authors can hold forth on their approach to ‘the craft’ for hours. They spend many a ponderous moment ruminating on what makes a novel (at EAFL, Martin Amis told us it’s a matter of ‘time, action, place, metaphor, symmetry and echelon’), while some prefer to reflect on the process of writing (see Alexander McCall Smith, over the page). Not so with Mohammed Hanif, author of 2008’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes. ‘I wish I had a process,’ he confesses to Time Out over a coffee and several cigarettes at the Novotel by Dubai World Trade Centre. ‘I’ve tried, but I’m very chaotic. Everybody says that you should write every day, and that’s what I tell myself every day, but I don’t. I work mostly in very short bursts. Fifteen minutes here, 20 minutes there, on trains, in airport lounges.
Wherever there’s a window.’ The author of one of the most widely celebrated first novels of recent years, a deep satire that adds several conspiracy theories to those already surrounding the death of former Pakistani dictator General Zia in a plane crash, is similarly haphazard regarding the subject of his second book, of which he’s written ‘a few chapters’. We’d heard it’s a straight civilian love story. ‘Yes, last I heard that was the case,’ he laughs. ‘I don’t really know if I can tell you because it’s a work in progress and I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ Where is it set? ‘Somewhere in Pakistan – I don’t quite know where!’ He laughs again. ‘It’s set in a hospital and I haven’t left the hospital yet so I don’t know which city it’s in. But it’s about love that goes wrong.’
It might be that this somewhat slack approach results from the way Hanif first got into writing. He didn’t grow up dreaming of his name on bestseller lists or endlessly dissecting the art form he hoped to master. Instead, he ‘drifted’ into journalism after a spell in Pakistan’s air force. ‘When I joined the air force I was practically a kid,’ he tells us. ‘I was 15, 16, and I didn’t know anything about anything. When you’re young, flying planes and wearing uniforms seems very glamorous. Then you join and it’s as dull as can be.’ He’d always liked reading and writing, so he gave it a try and it stuck. ‘I had this vague notion that I wanted to write,’ he muses, ‘but it wasn’t clear what I would write.’
It’s almost a wonder Hanif managed to write Mangoes, then, which he reveals was largely composed in a London pub. Considering his laissez-faire attitude, and looking at Hanif today – wild-haired and dressed down in jeans and a T-shirt, perennially crouched over his coffee cup and chain-smoking – you might wonder if he is some chancer who had one great idea for a book and got lucky. But Hanif has mastered more than the novel, having headed-up the BBC’s Urdu service in London, written plays for the stage and screen (including The Dictator’sWife, in Dubai at Ductac last week), and even a film, The Long Night. He makes light of all this, too – ‘I have a wife who’s an actress so we have peace at home if I occasionally write a script,’ he jokes – which makes us think this is more a case of modesty than luck.
One thing Hanif doesn’t joke about is his journalism, much of which eloquently argues that Pakistan is anti-Taliban and won’t surrender to it. But while Mangoes did well in his home country, his journalism has not proved so popular. We’re surprised, because it appears to us to defend Pakistan. ‘I agree with you, but lots of people wouldn’t,’ he says. ‘I write journalism because we live in troubled times and I get angry and
I want to relay the story that no one’s telling. But in Pakistan, any attitude that you question, people want to label you a traitor.’
There’s a serious man behind this self-confessed drifter. When we ask what he’ll do next, he semi-shrugs and says off-handedly: ‘I just hope I’ll write a couple more novels, I have some vague ideas for non-fiction, I might end up writing another film script, and at some point I’d like to write a song or two.’ Mohammed Hanif might just be the most ambitious slacker we’ve ever met.
Hanif is published by Random House