Mirza Waheed discusses his novel Tell Her Everything and love for writing
By: ASJAD NAZIR
ACCLAIMED British author Mirza Waheed has followed up his first two books The Collaborator, and The Book of Gold Leaves with his newly published novel Tell Her Everything.
He tells a compelling story of a remorseful father getting ready to confess something to his estranged daughter and recalling the long journey that has led him to where he is now. The powerful work of moral investigation marked by its narrator’s unmistakable voice is thought provoking story and glides across a range of relatable emotions, including guilt, trauma, and regret.
Eastern Eye caught up with the skilled storyteller to discuss his compelling new book and close connection to writing.
What connected you to writing?
Like many young people I secretly wrote little stories, sketches, and terrible poems, and thought one day I’d turn them into books.
In my childhood I also forced my siblings and cousins to stage plays with me, which I was told were not bad. Clearly, they were all great actors. We have a rich tradition of oral storytelling and poetry in Kashmir; I heard Kashmiri stories not just from my mother and grandmother but also on radio.
At school I read three languages – English, Urdu, and Hindi. Later, I studied English literature at university. Then I drifted into journalism and worked at the BBC for a decade.
I suppose all these encounters with language somehow led to writing.
What led you towards writing your new novel?
A conversation with a doctor friend in which he talked about the difficult situations medical doctors might have to deal with during emergencies. It made me wonder what if there’s a perfectly ordinary, nice doctor who slowly becomes part of a penal system. How will this man behave at home? How will his work affect his relationships, his family life?
Tell us a little about the story?
Dr Kaiser, a retired surgeon who lives alone in a plush flat in London, rehearses conversations he wants to have with his estranged daughter, Sara, when she visits.
They haven’t met in many years. He is desperate to tell her the story of his life in the hope that she might judge him fairly. He wants to tell her about what happened, he wants to come clean.
Tell us a little more…
He recalls his life and work in a prosperous oil monarchy. His brief early stint in London as a young doctor, time in India before then, and why he left home. He remembers his wife Atiya, parents, hard work, and path to material prosperity.
As he polishes his confession, he talks about his rise to a prominent position in the hospital where he worked and the fate of his closest friend Biju. I shouldn’t reveal more.
Is any of the story based on real occurrences or people?
Tell Her Everything is completely invented but the world it portrays is real. Everywhere in the world we have devised penal systems where we administer justice, but we sometimes forget these involve ordinary people. One of the questions the novel asks is: what happens to the souls of those people? Aren’t they people like us?
What was the biggest challenge of writing this book?
To be able to think like a retired surgeon who’s estranged from the one person he loves most. Since the book is told in first person, I had to wait for a while before I could hear his voice. To get into the head of someone living with long suppressed guilt, and trauma was both challenging and fascinating.
Who are you hoping connects with this story?
Anyone who reads fiction, really. Those who might be interested in stories about fathers and daughters but also those who might want to read the story of a successful man who’s perhaps lost too much in the pursuit of happiness. I think Tell Her Everything is a story of migration. It should appeal to all those who are interested in the stories and nature of migration.
What is your own favourite portion of the book?
The beginning, the middle, and the end.
Did you learn anything new when writing Tell Her Everything?
Not much. I found the form of this book quite exciting. It allowed me to explore the possibilities of the first-person narrative as well as see its limitations. I began to think about empathy – what is the nature of empathy, how far can it extend?
In the spirit of the Tell Her Everything title, tell us something about you not many people know?
When I was a teenager, I once travelled to South India all the way from Kashmir to learn morse code.
What kind of books do you enjoy reading?
In the last two years or so, I’ve read quite omnivorously. I’ve enjoyed reading Kazuo Ishiguro, Sarah Moss, Aamer Hussein, Mick Herron, Orhan Pamuk, John Le Carre, Anuradha Roy, Joan Didion, Alice Albinia, Jamal Mahjoub, Farah Bashir, Sonia Faleiro, and Colm Toibin.
What can we expect next from you?
A novel about a British-Indian dinner lady from East London, her son, and a ‘posh’ white man.
What inspires you?
I feel inspired when I see words become stories.
Why should we pick up your novel?
Some people think it’s a beautiful and heart-breaking book.
Why do you love writing?
Someone once mentioned a character from my second novel The Book of Gold Leaves as if they were talking about a real person. It reminded me why I write. I think I’m happiest when I’m writing fiction. Let me rephrase that: I’m happiest when I’ve toiled through a few drafts and think I’ve finished a story.
Tell Her Everything is available now via Melville House Publishing