Q&A | Aamer Hussein

Aamer HusseinAAMER HUSSEIN LIVES IN LONDON. He was born in Karachi and moved to London in 1970. His stories have since been widely anthologised and translated into Italian, French, Arabic and Japanese. He has published five collections of short fiction, including Insomnia (2007), and two novels, Another Gulmohar Tree and The Cloud Messenger. He will be reading from his story ‘The Tree At the Limit’ at the Still launch event on 26 September at Foyles.

What made you want to become a writer?
I realised it was the only thing I was really good at when I was thirty. Before that I sang, but hated to perfom in public, which was a bad attitude for a singer in the 1980s.

Are visuals part of your writing practice?
Yes, very often; but never to the extent I did here within so short a space. My novella Another Gulmohar Tree was about an illustrator of children’s books who wants to paint more ‘serious’ pictures, and a part of the book is about her journey. I pored over monographs of paintings for both.

Why did you pick this photograph?
I love windows and I love trees. An element of mystery pervades the photograph I chose. I originally thought I’d write a ghost story, but the story I eventually wrote kept encroaching.

Assembly Hall Staircase (Window)
Assembly Hall Staircase (Window)
© 2012 Roelof Bakker

What’s ‘The Tree At the Limit’ about?
The germ of the story had been with me for twelve years; it was inspired by seeing an autumn leaf whirl by me on a railway platform, and the mental image of a woman watching it. As I began to work work on it, I realised I wanted to let the story emerge entirely through painted images, and texts and photographs that contextualised those images from the point of view of art critics and historians. A parallel theme of faith and doubt revealed itself as I wrote.

Do you prefer to write short stories or novels?
I like to follow a sequence of ideas and work on books of stories! I definitely prefer the short story form, and all the longer fiction I’ve published  has started as something shorter. On the other hand, as a novice I often started something I thought would be longer – a novel – and found I’d said it all in about twenty to thirty pages.

Where do you write?
I draft in the sitting room where I can see branches pressing against my third floor window, and revise in the study-cum-dining room where I see rooftops and sky. Windows don’t distract me; quite the opposite.

Have you collaborated with artists before?
No, but I’ve always wanted to and would like to, again.

What are you working on at the moment?
Two collections of stories, quite unintentionally; the second one is in my mother tongue, Urdu, and though there are slight overlaps of subject matter it is quite a different book from the English one.

The Cloud Messenger by Aamer Hussein