Interview: Toby Litt

Toby Litt is a writer. His résumé is extensive – novels to songwriting, opera collaborations and poetry collections … And creating a comic book character, Crystal Palace, who will feature in the live-action series Dead Boy Detectives on HBO Max. Toby’s story ‘The Retreat’ won the 2020 University of Essex Short Fiction Prize. His latest novel, Patience, was published by Galley Beggar Press in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Toby is also a Reader in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University. His latest work is A Writer’s Diary, sharing a page every day from a year in his life via Substack. (Substack, in case, like myself, you’d never heard of it, is a web platform pushing an alternative to literary boundaries of the last century; its aim is to “allow writers and creators to run their own media empire.”) I’ve read an entry a day of A Writer’s Diary, (Strapline: ‘A year in my life and my life in a year – birth, death and commas.’) since its launch January 1st this year, and each entry has captivated me for different reasons. Each page is so unique in its tone, content, purpose, yet each one retains the familiarity of being in the company of a bloody good writer. His style challenges the reader to think deeply into the everyday and reflect on our emotions. It’s personal for the reader, addictive and impressive.

Hi Toby. Thank you for being here for me to find out more behind A Writer’s Diary. 

What’s your synopsis of this work? The inspiration behind this diary?

Thanks for being interested. When I finished Patience, I felt I’d done something unexpected – for myself. I’d written something I didn’t think I was capable of writing. This partly came out of the voice of the narrator, Elliott, who is very free in his word-choices and associations, and partly out of Elliott’s situation, which is that he is paralysed. He lives in a Catholic home for children whose parents – for one reason or another – can’t care for them. He sits all day in his wheelchair. The Sisters either put him facing a window down into a courtyard or facing a white wall. He can only see what’s in front of him. But he finds it fascinating. He sees everything in what might seem like nothing. In a way, A Writer’s Diary is me trying to continue that generous way of looking at the world – Elliott’s way – and what is in front of me, most of the time, is this desk I’m at right now and these pens, pots, notebooks, this hardboard work surface, these conditions. It may seem like very little, but I find it opens into greatly curious things.

It seems budding authors will have to embrace learning how to publish online, using platforms like Substack. Tell me about your experience of web publishing, your thoughts on writers building and running their own “media empire”? 

My experience on Substack, so far, has been very positive. Most published writers experience a delay of a year or two between finishing a piece of prose and sharing it with non-professional readers. Usually, by the time a novel came out, I was far more into the next novel. I had to fake myself, the writer who wrote the previous book, in order to speak about it. With online publishing, there’s no time-lag, and less of that kind of fakery. I’m talking to you about what I’m writing.

As for the “media empire” thing – I’ve been very aware, since leaving a big publisher, that lots of those jobs (marketing, publicity) were done for me by really good people with great contacts. I’m not them. But even big publishers now expect their writers to self-promote, to have marketing ideas. You see debut novelists creeping onto Twitter six months in advance of their launch date, because they’ve just been told what the total marketing budget is (isn’t). I think it’s better to try to feel at home in those online spaces, and see what’s sustaining in them, rather than to try to pimp off them or add them to any imagined empire. Neil Gaiman may have an empire, I have something more like a shed.

The diary form is personal, exposing. Many writers can fall away from plot into the splurge confessional. What are your tips here to confess in a controlled engaging manner?

This question really is a great chance for me to make an arse of myself, isn’t it? I’d say that, like lots of forms of writing, a diary becomes interesting when you’re not writing something for the first time. You can keep a note of the events of each day, and that can be wonderful to look back on. But the best short stories I’ve written have, I think, been attempts to get a story right that I’ve previously failed at. If you’re splurging a confession, then it’s a first go at a new story. But if you’re looking back at failed confessions, and picking out your own dishonesties, that’s when it’s a rewriting, and I think that’s when it can become more than this happened and then this happened

All the diary entries already exist, but you’ve, to use your words, written, rewritten, moved around, and plotted. The entries vary from a single word to a page… I sense each entry gets edited by your mood each day. Are you editing the entries again daily? Can you tell me more about your process here?

 It’s one of the excitements and weirdnesses of this form – a new publication every afternoon. I’m still nervous about each one. Right now, I’m nervous about today’s. Most entries get a few small changes, but one or two have been completely rewritten. That’s come out of me feeling something was lacking in what was in there already, rather than me importing something from real life. I’ve got a developing sense of real-time pacing. A page-turn is twenty-four hours, not just half a second. A single word entry can have far a greater moment. It’s not just clocked and then flicked away from. I think, in future, I’ll be cutting more.

What are hopes for A Writer’s Diary upon its completion? 

I’m very glad to say that Galley Beggar Press are going to publish it on January 1st 2023. When it’s out, I’d like people to read it as an attempt to do something new in writing – although I know books like The Luminous Novel by Mario Levrero exist, and behind them Virginia Woolf’s diary. Part of that new thing I’m trying can only happen this year, before the entries become static, and can no longer be anticipated as taking place tomorrow or in two week’s time.

Lastly, is anything else you would like to give to the MIR readers and budding writers?

Along with Liz Jensen, Chloe Aridjis, Monique Roffey and others, I’m one of the organizers of Writers Rebel, part of Extinction Rebellion. We’re committed to bringing up the Climate and Ecological Emergency whenever we have a public platform (such as this one). That awareness is the basis of all we do, write, contribute. I’d like to give MIR readers a chance to get involved with Writers Rebel. You can contact us at xrwritersrebel@gmail.com. We’re looking for volunteers, blogs for the website, but mostly for people to join the protests that will be happening in September 2022. We – all of us – have to give ourselves a liveable future.

Thank you so much for your time, Toby. 

Sign up to A Writer’s Diary for free.

 

Alice has lived and worked with an invisible disability for 20 years. Her writing draws on this experience alongside humour. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She loves horses, dogs, lols and libations. And she hopes you enjoy reading her work!

 

Interview: KASIM ALI

I’m interviewing Kasim Ali the day after his debut novel, Good Intentions, is published. Having just finished reading the book, I’m keen to discuss its wide ranging themes with Kasim. It’s principally a story about first love, from the perspective of Nur, a young British Muslim man, but takes on urgent topics from racism to anxiety to the importance of family and trust.  

We speak via Zoom, where Kasim’s a friendly, energetic and enthusiastic conversationalist. He’s so easy to talk to and generous with his thoughts that we speak for well over our allotted hour – roving beyond the scope of my questions to the gift he bought for himself to celebrate the publication Good Intentions (“I kid you not, the biggest fucking desk I could buy!”) to representation in publishing, contemporary Muslim identity, the way writing is perceived as a career choice in the UK, to his publication day treat (an afternoon off to see the new Batman film).

Published by 4th Estate, Good Intentions is out now. 

***


SD: I want to say straight off how much I enjoyed Good Intentions – it was really thought provoking on a whole range of themes. Could you talk a bit about the book’s evolution?

 

KA: Thank you… I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I had the idea of exploring anti-Blackness in mind for a really long time. The community I come from in Birmingham is very South Asian, majority Pakistani, all Muslim, so I grew up surrounded by people who looked like me. I never felt that alienation that I know a lot of people who are not white specifically do feel when they’re growing up. But [when] I got to secondary school, there was an influx of Somali families – and they were also Muslim, so they went to the mosque with us, prayed with us, partook in Ramadan and Eid – but they were not South Asian, they were Black. And that’s when I started seeing a lot of anti-Black sentiments from my community. And when I was a kid – it’s hard for me to say – but I never really thought anything of it. It just happened around me. [As] a kid, you’re not really questioning a lot. I had this friend, she and I were very close, and one day I was walking her to her bus stop after school. And my mum drove past and I recognized her license plate and I thought Oh shit, she’s seen me with the girl. She’s gonna think we’re dating. So I get home and my mum inevitably asked the question, who was that? So I say she’s my friend, don’t worry about it, we’re just friends. She’s silent for a second, and then – I remember this so vividly – she says You shouldn’t hang out with girls like that. At the time, I was maybe twelve or thirteen, I thought she meant girls outside my family – I’d been told Muslims don’t date. It was only years later, when I was at university retelling the story, a friend said, she was being racist – it’s because she was a Black girl. It destroyed me a little bit to think it was true, but at the same time, it was a sort of epiphany. I started thinking about all the other stuff that people in my community were saying about Black people, and the way we discuss them, talk to them, treat them. So the idea of anti-Blackness in South Asian communities has been on my mind for about ten years. I always thought I would explore it, or at least I thought it should be explored in, like, a really academic way that can look at colonialism and the Empire and trace the narrative of where this is coming from, and what we should be doing. I never thought I was smart enough for something like that, so I was just waiting for somebody a lot smarter than me, more academic than me, to write this kind of book. 

And then two things happened. Number one, I watched Master of None on Netflix, [with Aziz Ansari]… and I got really annoyed, because Netflix is huge. [Ansari is] a huge comedian. And he had an opportunity to portray Muslims as being varied, nuanced, complex. But actually, what he did was portray Muslims as people who don’t really like their religion. [Ansari’s protagonist] spends a lot of time in the first season, you know, drinking alcohol and eating bacon, and he doesn’t really pray, and he has sex with white women. This is the same old stuff that we’ve been fed all this time – that in order to assimilate, you have to abandon your religion and your culture. And that’s just never been true for me. [For] my family, and the people that I surround myself with, we are Muslim and we are British – and those two identities coexist. 

And then I watched The Big Sick [written by Pakistani-American comedian and writer Kumail Ali Nanjiani]. And objectively, it might be a good film, but I was really frustrated with the way that Kumail portrayed his family, and brown women specifically. Why does every interracial relationship have to be a white person plus a non-white person?  I’ve seen interracial relationships of black and brown, or a brown person and an East Asian person, or a black person plus an Asian person – I’ve seen so many of those iterations and they’re so much more interesting to me. 

So in March 2019, I said fuck it, I’m going to write this, and I’m going to write the version of this story that I want to see. So I’m going to write about Muslims who find a space for themselves within Islam. [When] I look back now, I was really grappling with a lot.

SD: What was your ultimate aim in telling the story ‘warts and all’ – with all its aspects of shame and awkwardness and taboo?

KA: Authenticity is something I was striving for, throughout the entire process. It was the thing I felt was missing from Master of None and The Big Sick – they weren’t authentic, to me… they didn’t feel like my kind of story. I wanted to write a book that felt sincere and genuine to the world that I come from, and the life that I’ve lived – messy and complicated. Sometimes, when we talk about representation, we talk about wanting the most positive iteration of representation. But while I understand that there is a need to portray Muslims as being good, wholesome people, that’s not actually what we all are. There are lots of Muslims who are incredibly strong in their faith, living their lives according to Islam, and they’re really happy doing that. [But] there are loads of Muslims like me – I don’t pray, I can’t remember the last time I touched the Quran – you know, I fast and I celebrate Eid, but it’s a balance. It’s true of me right now that I am not a “good Muslim”. So I really wanted to write about a flawed Muslim, someone not the perfect iteration of themselves. And that’s the whole point of the book – while Nur has these good intentions, he’s not perfect. I really wanted to present that idea of a complex Muslim character: you may not agree with the decisions that he makes, but you can appreciate this is what he would do in those moments.

SD: Yes, he’s very believable. Nur has to face some really difficult facts about his own prejudice in the story. I thought your depiction of relationships, especially as they live and breathe through dialogue, was really authentic – your characters come alive on the page. Are any of them based on real people?

 

KA: I’ve never dated a Black girl. That relationship is pure imagination. The other relationships… there’s some wish fulfillment: I [wrote] about the kind of male friendship I wish I’d had – as intimate and vulnerable and open and honest as my female friendships. I wanted to write about male friendship because I find it really interesting, and I think it’s something we don’t often read about. Saara is based on me at university. I was that person who gave big speeches at parties about, like, the Palestine-Israel conflict. People would be like, whoa, it’s 10pm, everyone’s chillin, don’t do this. But that was me. Me and my really good friend, she would talk about feminism, I’d talk about Islam. I’m almost mocking myself… I was so serious [at university]. Saara is very cool, and she knows everyone, and she demands respect and attention wherever she goes… that was not me [laughs]. 

SD: I saw on Twitter recently that you were highlighting the work of non-white male writers – do you worry that male writers of colour are missing out in favour of women at the moment?

KA: It’s an interesting conversation because I also work in publishing. So I’m coming at it from both ends. This is my perspective: there are lots of older white male writers who are doing splendidly, earning lots of money and selling lots of books. But where are the younger male writers? And more specifically, where are those younger male writers who are writing literary fiction in the vein of Sally Rooney, or Candice Carty Williams, Megan Nolan, and so on? And then to drill down even more, where are the young, non-white male writers who are writing in that space? Candice Carty Williams has done incredibly well with Queenie, and deservedly so – but it’s fascinating to me that we don’t have a non-white male equivalent writing in that kind of space. So when I wrote the list for Bad Form, I was coming at it from a selfish perspective, because I was looking at all these [new publications for] 2022 lists, and wondering, why is my book not appearing on this list, and that list? As I was perusing these lists, I realised there’s lots of women – where are the men? But also, non-white men? Do we not exist? At first, [the Bad Form piece] was just an elevation, it was just me wanting to find these writers, and make lists that anybody could access and go and buy their book if it interests them. But now it’s become a broader part of my work – let’s have a discussion; is publishing doing enough to bring those writers in? Clearly, it’s not, but how do you bring those writers in? Who is gatekeeping? 

SD: Talking of Sally Rooney… how do you feel about being described as her male equivalent [in a Times headline in February]?

KA: Terrified! I haven’t processed it. It’s fascinating and terrifying and exciting and joyous… all the emotions! I don’t know – it’s such a big compliment. I’m so glad that the reviews are good. Obviously, you worry as an author that people might not like your work. And I am so grateful for the team I have, the editors and the publicists, for doing all that they’ve done for this book. I’m immensely grateful to be in this position, because I know it doesn’t happen to everybody. 

SD: I’m keen to talk to you about regional representation. As a northerner myself, it was a real pleasure to read a book about urban people that doesn’t even mention London – I don’t think London comes up even once. Was that deliberate?

KA: Absolutely. Here’s the thing. London is not the UK. London is not the UK! It’s as simple as that. When I was writing this, I said, I’m not touching London – not going to go there, not going to talk about it, it’s not going to be one of my characters’ aspiration to move to London. I come from Birmingham and I have family who live in Bradford and Nottingham and Sheffield and Derby and Leicester and Liverpool – all over the place. And it just baffles me: why are we so hyper-focused on London, when there’s so much more happening across the whole country? To be very simplistic about it, it’s just stupid. We’re not all people in London. We exist all across the country. I know what it feels like to be from Birmingham… people always talk about how Birmingham is like, the shittest city in England, with the worst accent. I’m like, Have you ever been to Birmingham? It’s filled with so much beauty and art and creative talent, and there’s so many interesting things happening there all the time. So when I was writing, my attitude was very much fuck London, as a place of importance. 

SD: Right on! Being from Liverpool, I really relate. Can we talk about mental illness? I think the book contributes in a really positive way to the cultural conversation about mental health. It was really interesting to read about a central male protagonist with mental health issues, because we don’t read so much about male mental health. Was it important to you to break down some of those barriers? 

KA: Yeah, a hundred percent. When I wrote the book, I actually worked for an independent publisher, Trigger, who publish mental health non-fiction, so I learned a lot about mental health there. I’ve dealt with stress and anxiety and a little bit of depression, nothing to the level of Nur, but it’s been a factor in my life. And as I’ve learned about it, as I’ve grown up and learned the language in which to talk about my own mental health, I realised that there are many people in my family, both men and women, who have gone through the same things, but they don’t talk about it. So I wanted to talk about it from a South Asian perspective, but also from a male perspective. It was really important to me to have specifically a South Asian man talk about this thing that affects so many people – so many people, I think nearly everyone in the whole world – and yet, bizarrely, we just don’t want to talk about it.  

SD: On the question of selfhood in the 21st century: one thing I took from the book is how much more complicated it can be for the children of immigrants – this dual identity. To what extent do you think Nur’s experiences is universal, within the male Muslim context? 

KA: He does have a universal experience in terms of parents, and their expectations. Specifically for South Asians. When I talk to white British friends of mine, their parents are quite relaxed – they’re involved in their children’s lives, and they care about their children, but they’re a little bit detached. When I talk to my non-white friends who are children of immigrants, their parents are intimate, close, they’re asking questions all the time… some of my friends are 28, 29, and still live at home with their parents because they haven’t got married yet. So it’s interesting to see that divide. It’s very specific to immigrant experience. There’s a point where Nur is talking about his dad: the fact that his dad came over to England when he was just a kid, and he didn’t know the language – and how hard it is for [Nur] to relate to that. There’s that sense of owing something to the people who came before you.. that you should be grateful, and you owe them your whole life. It messes with your mind, because quite often you’re thinking about the decisions you’re making in your life not as your decisions but as their decisions. [But] I do think people who don’t come from Nur’s background, whether they are white British, or different kinds of non-white person, I think they can relate to him. Because we’ve all had those conversations with our parents, we’ve all been in situations where we’re hiding something from them, or disappointing them. It’s interesting, because [when] I wrote this I was writing it just for myself. But in reading it back, I’m like, this book is kind of for everyone, everyone can see something in it that they can relate to. 

SD: What’s your next book about?

KA: I actually wrote book two before we sold book one, which is such a great thing that I did for myself, because now I don’t need to think about writing it! It’s about friendship. I wanted specifically to write about the breakup of a friendship and how that can really impact your life. I think that friendships are really, really important. I often feel we give romantic breakups this huge space in society and culture. We’re constantly talking about them, and every song is about love and breaking up with the person you love, and all that kind of stuff. When I’ve been through a friendship breakup, it’s kind of devastated me and broken me for a little while – those are things that I’ve had to work on to get past – so I wanted to write about that, because it’s really important to me to portray something like that. And once again, it uses a non-linear timeline. I guess I have a thing!

 
Sarah Davies is a London-based writer from Liverpool, currently studying for her Masters in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, while also working as a freelance arts and culture specialist.  Her fiction often explores invisible power dynamics and the unsaid.  Her short story The 662 was published by Five on the Fifth, which you can read here, and she tweets as @DesiaVarsha.