February 24, 2012 10:54 pm

Small talk: Hisham Matar

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave me? My mother: ‘Listen to your heart.’ My father: ‘The best thing about time is its length’

Born in New York in 1970, Hisham Matar spent his childhood in the Libyan capital Tripoli and then Cairo, after his family fled Muammer Gaddafi’s regime. Matar’s dissident father was later kidnapped in the city and his whereabouts remain unknown. In 1986, Matar moved to London, where he studied architecture and began to write. His first novel, In the Country of Men , was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. His second, Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011), draws on Matar’s experience of the loss of his father.

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Who is your perfect reader?

I never think of it this way. I ultimately write for myself, and the people I love.

What books are currently on your bedside table?

Emmanuel Bove’s My Friends, Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium and Kjell Askildsen’s A Sudden Liberating Thought.

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What book changed your life?

Every book that has ever mattered to me. One of the earliest was The Arabian Nights .

What is your writing routine?

I wake up, shower, shave, get dressed and head for the café on the other side of the park. When I return I don’t stop till it’s time to eat. If I have nothing to write, I copy out what I’ve written the day before.

Where do you write best?

At home, facing the window.

When were you happiest?

When I was a boy in Tripoli: the sea; music; countless cousins; a pretty girl next door; my dad deciding when I turned eight that it was time I learnt to drive; the day I discovered islands weren’t floating, like a biscuit in a teacup, but the tops of submerged mountains.

Which literary character most resembles you?

Nezhdanov in Turgenev’s Virgin Soil, caught between his romantic temperament and the radical urgency of his time.

Who are your literary influences?

I admire Turgenev, Camus, Proust and Shakespeare, but I’ve also learnt a lot about writing from composers and artists.

What do you snack on while you write?

Coffee and cigarettes. But I’ve given up the latter, which has ruined the former. Deep crisis.

Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with?

Greta Garbo.

What are you scared of?

Lifts.

What keeps you awake at night?

Being far away from some of the people dearest to me.

When do you feel most free?

Swimming with my wife in the Mediterranean.

How do you relax?

Watching old Italian films.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?

My mother: “Listen to your heart.” My father: “The best thing about time is its length.”

If you could own any painting, what would it be?

“A Young Woman seated at a Virginal” and “A Young Woman standing at a Virginal” by Vermeer. I would have them both, hanging on the wall opposite my bed.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

A good seat in a concert hall when the orchestra is on fire.

Hisham Matar’s ‘Anatomy of a Disappearance’ is published in paperback by Penguin

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