Elif Shafak and Cheltenham Lit Fest

Literary giant Elif Shafak relishes the opportunity to be one of the curators at this year’s Cheltenham Festival which opens this week. She loves this, the world’s oldest literary festival, and thinks it as relevant and important as ever with ‘much-needed opportunities for slow discussions that are both nuanced and thoughtful’. Following her recent move to London, we talk to Elif about what inspires her.

After your incredibly innovative 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World are you writing another book? Might it be set in the UK?

I am currently at a drunken stage with my new novel in that I am not sure yet where it will take me. But, yes, it will be set in part in London. Nature also plays a big part. This year, with the climate change emergency and spending more time in nature, it seems to be where I am going.

What impact has this strange year had on you?

I miss cultural events but when you stop travelling and go within you you appreciate all the small things: sitting under a tree, reading a book. The only silver lining of this year is that it has made us rethink our values and priorities.

Where do you find your inspiration for your books?
I am a visual person – images of a scene come to me, not the characters at first. I am always chasing the story.

Which of your books are you most proud of?

That’s very difficult to say because books change us – with each book something shifts inside your soul – that’s the same for a writer and hopefully the reader. By the time I have finished a book, I am not the same person.

Which book would you most liked to be made into a film?

I would love one of them to be made into a film. Fortunes of Love I can see on the Big Screen, whilst Leila’s story in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World would be a good made by a small independant.

We know you love to listen to music as you write? What type of music do you like?

Your readers are going to be surprised by this answer. I love to listen to really loud heavy metal. I find fire really helps me write.

What is on your current reading list?

I read both non-fiction and fiction at the same time. This year I judged the non-fiction George Orwell prize and the winner was Kate Clanchy; her work is a delight. Novels I have read are The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by  Ocean Vuong.

Which city have you most enjoyed living in?

I love cities that is for sure. I love people co-existing and mingling in London – that’s precious. I love Edinburgh and how it pays attention to art. I love Istanbul – full of untold stories but it is not an easy place for author. But actually in my heart I am a nomad.

You write and talk in your lectures about the fragility of democracy and also the liberties of women? What is the most important thing we can do today?

I think the most important thing is to be aware of the danger of numbness. If you stop caring and disconnect that’s dangerous. Don’t take liberties for granted. The Western world has taken human rights and freedom of speech as a given but they are not. I care about diversity; inclusion is so important.

You write in both Turkish and English. What is your favourite English word?

There isn’t one particular word but the evolution of the English language. In Turkey we took out so many words that came from Arabic, Persian and Greek origins and that is sad the loss of words. In English the language is constantly expanding to include words from all backgrounds.

What other forms of art do you like? 

I love galleries, plays and concerts. It breaks my heart that in economic crises art and culture are always the first to be hit. Politics sees art as a luxury but it is as essential as water and it’s vital for mental health.

What is your favourite clothes shop? 

I am not good at shopping; I mostly wear black. But I love shopping for colourful accessories in Portobello – I can spend hours there.

How do you think things will change once things have settled after the pandemic? 

Conscious optimism is needed but also creative pessimism. For hope and optimism to flourish we need to connect and understand each other’s stories. Hope comes from empathy.

How to you control anxieties? 

It is a deeply anxious time. I find reading is a ritual. If I am worried I read poetry. If not philosophy or cookbooks. I walk a lot with my dog.

Who are you most excited about welcoming to the Cheltenham Festival?

The festival is close to my heart and I am honoured to be guest curator. Especially this year as there is such an urgency to talk about things: the flaws in our political system, what isn’t working, people’s fears and anxieties. What is going to be remarkable is that that there are many different views, backgrounds and styles and to bring them together to have a vivid slow discussion is very important.

Elif’s latest book, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division is a powerful essay about the current uneasy times.

Award-winning British-Turkish novelist and storyteller Elif Shafak is a Guest Curator for this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival, 2 – 11 October 2020. Programme and ticket information can be found at: www.cheltenhamfestivals.com

Cheltenham Literature Festival
2 - 11 October 2020
— Annie Reid
1st October 2020