Follow The Pleasure: An Interview With Hanif Kureishi

In an extensive #longread interview, Lisa Jenkins talks to Hanif Kureishi, author of The Buddha of Suburbia, Intimacy, and the films My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, about Trump, Brexit, David Bowie, and his new book The Nothing

Photo credit: Kier Kureishi

“One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don’t need things to get worse, I hear the noises again.”

So begins Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel, The Nothing. Kureishi has always been one for hard hitting (sometimes provocative) first sentences – and this particular line is emblazoned on the dust cover for the hardback, which makes for some interesting looks on a crowded train. The Nothing is Kureishi’s eighth novel, and it brings him back to the wickedness and dark humour that he has long been known for.

Down a quiet, leafy street in West London, Kureishi opens his front door wearing a jumper, tracksuit bottoms and slippers. “Hello darling!” He looks like a favourite university professor that has been caught mid-scribe, which is probably not far from the truth, as he still teaches creative writing at Kingston University. Warm and effusive, he ushers me into the kitchen. There are stacks of books lined up against the walls – neatly, but ten or so to a stack. The kitchen table is also covered in books and papers, recently moved aside to make space. In the living room there are two immaculate acoustic guitars sitting on stands (I assume his sons must play).

“Tea, coffee, a beer?” He offers. I take a tea and ask how he has been.

He muses, “I’ve just come out of hospital, actually.”

I tease him gently, “Are you OK? Back to your old grumpy self?”

“Who says I’m grumpy?” he quips, with just a hint of a smile.

Kureishi’s dry sense of humour is often lost in print and makes him seem harsher in comments than he actually is. This is the first time I’ve met him in person, though we’ve been in correspondence for many years. What strikes me is his energy. It’s infectious and playful, and it’s obvious that he is still incredibly interested in life and the people that inhabit it. Still handsome at sixty-three (despite the tracksuit bottoms), it seems that trips to the hospital and surviving on only three hours of sleep has not slowed him down (“I do that intermittent sleeping, you know? Works quite well, but you don’t really sleep when you get older. I could never sleep all the way through now”).

“Are you writing a novel? No… Why not?” As he asks me more questions about my own life, I feel, disconcertingly, as if I’ve told him my life story. But as the interview unfolds, it’s clear that he finds other people much more interesting than himself – and we discuss far more than just his four decades of work.

The Nothing, the story of an aging famous film director called Waldo, convinced that his much younger wife Zee is cheating on him with his ‘friend’ and all-round rogue Eddie, is darkly delicious in its delivery. One is never really sure who is perpetrator or victim, as the personalities of each character shift and change throughout the story. Much like the Noir films of the 1930s.

Hanif Kureshi: I was just working on an essay on George Simenon. I’m a big fan. I’m writing a foreword to one of his books called The Train, and I love the noirs. Me and my missus started watching all the noirs again. Also, a lot of the contemporary crime dramas, which I also watch, are like noirs: deceit, betrayal. That form is perfect for contemporary capitalism. It’s just very competitive. How do you get by in the world in the world today? A bit of nicking, a bit of hustling. Everybody’s skint and hard-up and hustling. And hustling is a capitalistic virtue, you might say. I like the noir atmosphere, I like the form. In the world of noir, everybody is deceiving everybody else. There’s no security, you never know where you are. I like that idea.

In 2014 Kureishi was a victim of embezzlement. His then accountant stole £120,000 of his life savings. Kureishi was not the only one, and the thief was eventually caught and sentenced to eight years in prison (The account was told is his short book A Theft – My Con Man in 2014). The character Eddie in The Nothing, forever the chancer, always skint, but immensely charming seems to run along the lines of Kureishi’s own experience.

HK: It was partly based on what happened, rather than him personally. He’s now in prison. I hope he’s still there. But it was really based on the feeling. The terrible rage of being ripped off. And the feeling that people who are victims of crime, you always feel like you’ve been an arse. It was your fault. Somehow you did it. You allowed it to happen. What a fool you were, if only you’d done this, that, or the other. Anybody who’s had their phone nicked thinks, “Why did I put it in that pocket?” Also I got to know him quite well. I spent some time with him. I wanted to kill him. Other times I was desperate for him to phone me up, you know. They just get inside your head and twist you around and around. It was really that that I wanted to write about, that this old man, Waldo, has got this other guy, not only in his mind but in his flat, fucking his wife right in front of him, and it’s a torment, and he loves his wife as well. There was something about that situation that appealed to me.

Waldo, an old man and a self-proclaimed “Penis in a wheelchair” is in a body that is no longer working. The only pleasure he can now get now is through his camera and recording. As Kureishi once said, “All forms of creativity are sublimated sexuality.”

HK: I was talking to one of my sons the other day who’s just had an operation. He’s twenty-four and he’s done his cruciate [ligament] playing football. He’s on crutches. He was quite an active boy, so he’s in the house and he was saying to me, “It’s terrible. I don’t have any experience. All I do is lie on the sofa waiting to get better.” I said, “That is an experience. Something is happening to you. I mean, you see your mother, you see your brother, you see me, people coming in and out, and you’re seeing quite a lot of the world – but it’s happening right in front of you.” So as a writer – and he wants to be a writer – you use whatever is there in front of you to try and make a story. Waldo is still creative. He can still cast all this material into some form or another. Which is what people like you and I do all day, trying to make – probably too much – sense of things.

The relationship between Zee and Waldo is summed up by my favourite lines in the book: “You need a rest baby, all this killing me is wearing you out”. It is reminiscent of Kerouac and sixties beat poetry. Kureishi’s eyes light up just slightly when I mention this. The relationship is complex, but it is not without humour and tenderness at times that would actually play out very well on screen.

HK: It’s partly to do with the awfulness of having to look after somebody else for a very, very long time. You really like them and you really love them, but in the end… My sister, for instance, looks after my mum, who’s ninety-one, and it’s really hard work. That person exhausts you, they say, “Can you do this? Can you do that?” And it wears you out and frays your nerves. This poor woman, Zee, has been looking after this old man for a long time. Then she finds another man who’s really charming and nice to her. From her point of view, it’s not such a bad idea that she would want to be caressed or understood or known or whatever. So it makes sense from everyone’s point of view, this relationship. But we see it from his point of view, and you can see it’s really, really painful. You can see that she wants to suffocate this old bastard at the same time, which is what she tries to do. If only he would die. Now I can be free of him. And at the same time, she would suffer the most incredible guilt.

One possible criticisms of the novel is that the characters have no redeeming qualities, but in a novel like this, are they actually necessary? The complexity of human nature is rarely saccharin sweet after all.

HK: I love the characters being demonic. I don’t want redeeming qualities. When I read a Simenon novel, they’re serial killers. You don’t say, “Shame he wasn’t nicer to his mum”. I connect to the characters when they don’t have any redeeming qualities. I think that’s a horrible idea. I don’t think they’re evil either, actually. They like each other. My students often say that. They ask me whether they should be writing characters that you like, but when you think of the movies you like and the noirs you watch, you don’t particularly like the characters. You don’t like Macbeth or you don’t like Othello, and I certainly don’t like Hamlet. I find him extremely irritating. I don’t think it’s a literary quality, that you like the characters.

Kureishi still teaches a creative writing course at Kingston University where he was quoted as controversially saying “A lot of them don’t have a lot of talent [at first].” Of course, this was the headline used – but he then went on to say that it takes at least five years to hone a writing talent.

HK: You go on a writing course for a weekend, what the hell is that about? You can’t be a writer after one weekend. Everyone always focuses on the prose too. Fuck the prose, think about the story. I had a student round here the other day and she said she wanted to write a novel. I said, well, “If you really want to write a novel, and you’re not just mucking about, you really have to give up three years of your life because it’s a lot of words. It’s a long way. You’ve got to probably write 50,000 words and you’ve got to give up most of your evenings to it. It’s like if you wanted to run a marathon, you know, you would really have to give up a lot of things. If you explain the conditions and then they say they still want to do it, then you can help them. The difference with my writing process is I write movies at the same time. I write TV shows, write essays. I’m always working on loads of different things. I do a week on this and a week on that. But I like to do lots of other things. I just suddenly think, “I’m going to do that this week.”

After four decades of prolific work, does Kureishi ever gets frustrated by the writing process?

HK: Quite a lot. Particularly as I got older. I think it would be really nice just to go out for a walk or go to a bookshop and sit in a coffee shop. That’s much nicer than sweating away at the typewriter. I’ve been writing since I was twenty, I’ve been writing for forty years. Fuck it, I can do what I like now. I don’t really care. After this interview, I’m going to do that, go for a walk. I don’t think you have to strap yourself to the wheel, if you don’t want to do it. I mean, my rule is follow the pleasure. Always follow the pleasure. And actually, pleasure is a creative force. If I say “Follow the pleasure”, it doesn’t necessarily mean sit down in a pub all day, which would bore me. So follow the pleasure, that’s for me.

Kureishi has dealt with aging and sexuality in his writing. For instance in Venus and The Mother. The Mother in particular, was incredibly thought-provoking, as an older woman had not been portrayed in such a way before (Bar Mrs Robinson in The Graduate perhaps). The incredibly talented Anne Reid played the lead role with Daniel Craig (pre James Bond fame), playing her younger lover who was also her daughter’s boyfriend. Taboos have always been Kureishi’s forte. As Kureishi’s writing has evolved over the years, so has dealing with these topics.

HK: After a certain point I couldn’t write about young people anymore. I just couldn’t write from their point of view. I mean, I could write about my kids from my point of view, but I can’t write as a twenty-four-year-old or the thirty-year-old or a forty-year-old. Most of my friends are older than me and many of my friends are in their eighties or seventies.

It’s always seemed natural to me to write about what I see, what’s going on around me, who I know and what they do. You know, one of my mates is seventy-five. Recently, he and his wife split up and he took up with another bird who is around the same age and they’re living together and travel around in a van. Why not write about that? Because when I was a kid, being seventy-five was like being 200 years-old. People were old when they were forty. By that I mean, they all wore the same clothes, they lived in a certain routine in the suburbs, you know, habit ruled.

So it’s quite a breakthrough, that two people at seventy-five just shack up together and start a new life and that’s quite an interesting thing. Sociologically and now at this time in history, has that ever happened? So you think, “That’s a great thing to write about. It’s like constantly reinventing yourself as well and not allowing yourself to be stuck in that kind of nine-to-five, do a job, get your pension, retire.

That’s all over now. My kids will never do that. My youngest is ninteen years-old. He’s got about four jobs. And I thought, “Why would I think you would have to have one job? How stupid of me”. Maybe he’ll spend his whole life doing five jobs. He teaches the ukulele, then he teaches tennis, then he does this and does that, and then he works in a bar, and you think, “Could he do that this whole life?” Why not?

I suddenly thought, “I’ve been thinking about this wrong.” I kept thinking, “When is he going to get a career?” But that’s his life. You can live like that. I was just thinking about it wrong. I needed to open up my head about the new world people are living in, where you don’t necessarily have to have jobs in the way I was expected to.

It’s not about getting a house anymore. Because no one can afford to own your own house anymore. The dream of owning your own home is pretty much gone. This country was really fucked by Thatcher. We really are living now in the excrement of Thatcher. Finally, the penny has dropped.

On the day of the interview it had been deemed ‘Punish A Muslim Day’ Flyers were being sent around to homes and hospitals around London. It seems unthinkable that in 2018 we are still dealing with this level of racism. (Kureishi is shocked “No really? Seriously… really? I hadn’t heard about that – I’ll look it up after you leave.”) Although looking at media and the culture that is encouraging it – perhaps not. Post Brexit though, it really does feel as if we are going back to a much more hateful time. Racism has never gone anywhere, but now, it has become very obvious and vocal again.

HK: What is much worse in a way is that the racism is much more nationalistic. It’s really tied to politics in a way that it wasn’t in the same way then. An idea of Britain that is completely out of date and a sort of empire view of Britain, or a colonial view of Britain.

To me Brexit was really about what kind of country you want. It’s not even about economics or anything else. It’s about how you like your countries. It’s an ideal of Britain which is based on white supremacy. That seems to me to be of no use to anybody. In London it’s so international. London exists because of immigration. Everywhere you go. If not for immigration, the whole system would collapse.

When I was in hospital, the staff that looked after me were all immigrants. There were no white working class people, middle class people. All the doctors were Indian etc. I can’t think they [the government] would ever take that risk. The whole wealth of this country, of the Empire, is based on immigration, the whole post-war wealth is based on immigration. Who ran the health service? And the fucking transport system?

Kureishi grew up in Bromley in the 70s (he went to the same school as David Bowie, ten years apart) and as you might expect, encountered horrendous racism – particularly in the heat of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. As the only South Asian in his school, daily occurrences of being beaten up, spat on and every racial slur under the sun influenced his identity and future work. Alongside this, however, creativity and art were bubbling away under the surface of suburbia.

HK: Bromley was very creative. My whole generation of mates knew a lot about music, and once punk had come to South London, then all my mates in the Bromley contingent liked Siouxsie and the Banshees, and all that stuff was happening. So it WAS really dull and really racist, but on the other hand people lived in quite big houses down there, and had garages. Everybody had a band, and people had records and we also had great clothes because you could get the train up to London, to the King’s Road.

Everyone dressed up, people listened to music. They went to each other’s houses. They got stoned. So it was really awful but actually, now looking back, it was quite creative too. Also, we had the radio so you could hear new music. You could buy things like Rolling Stone magazine, you could read Alan Ginsberg. There was a route out through culture.

Kureishi decided to be a writer at age fourteen. One day, bored and looking out of the window in school, the thought grabbed him, and never let go. Was there any one book that made him think, this is what I’ve got to do for the rest of my life?

HK: I was reading a lot of French literature, PG Wodehouse, and then I was reading American books like Philip Roth, Mailer, Joan Didion, all that stuff. But the book that really influenced me was To Sir, With Love By E. R. Braithwaite. It’s an incredible book.

It’s set in 1958 and it’s about a black teacher. I’ve just redone the film. Because actually the book is set earlier. The film is set in the 60s. But it’s actually ’58. I read that and I thought “It’s possible to write about race.” That really excited me because I’d never read a book about what it was like to be a person of colour in London.

For me, the idea of being a writer was about identity. I thought, if I’m a writer, then I’m not just a ‘Paki’. If I’m a writer, I can say I’m a writer. And being a writer sounds good. That sounds like a serious thing. It was like a counter identity for me because everybody had an idea of who you were as a ‘Paki’. I thought, “I’ll be this other thing. Sounds like good idea.” That really helped me get through those years until I went to the Royal Court and I was eighteen.

In the introduction to Dreaming and Scheming, Kureishi wrote about The Royal Court contacting him about a piece of work he had sent them, but Kureishi had done nothing about it, until his father found the letter and insisted that he go and see them.

HK: My dad used to read all my letters. I used to find him in my bedroom reading things, holding things up. So when he found the letter from The Royal Court he said “Oh this is interesting, go and do it.” So I did it, I went in and they gave me a job, and that’s when the door opened. That’s when it really happened.

I was in a new place and it was fantastic. At first I was selling programmes. Then I worked at the box office. I sold ice creams. I worked round the back and did the ironing. I had a play produced at the same time, a very short play called Soaking Up the Heat, which was given on a Sunday night. Then I went to university and after that, I started writing again. I did a lunchtime play at the Soho Playhouse. I wrote for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then I did another play at the Royal Court. It was a hustle on a hustle. It took ages.

I mean, two of my kids, they’re twins, they want to be writers. I said, “I left university in 1977 and I didn’t really make any money until ’85.” We were squatting, we were bumming, we were on the dole and all that. My kids are huffing and puffing and moaning because they haven’t got any money, and they’re not making a living as writers, and I said, “Listen, it might take you ten years”. They were horrified by that, but, I’m helping them stick at it, through the despair. The despair of sitting there thinking, “What am I writing? Why am I doing this? Am I ever going to make a living at this?” It takes ages. My plays were produced though. Even though they weren’t making any money, they were done at the theatre and it was work.

Kureishi once said “that a person fundamentally changes every ten years.” And you can gauge this change in all his work. He is continually influenced by the people and experiences that shift in and out of his life, and that have molded not only his characters, but himself

I would say, certainly in terms of my life, it’s to do with meeting somebody else. Other people changing you. You change in relation to them. If I could see a film myself ten years ago, when I was not with the woman I am now with, she’s influenced me in all sorts of ways. The things that we like, that I enjoy, the way we talk, the places we go are as much defined by her as they are by me.

I was watching a programme the other day about Brian Eno. You can see that Brian Eno is a brilliant collaborator. He just works really well with other people, and that idea of collaboration, being changed by the people you work with. I wouldn’t say this is a deliberate, self-initiated thing. You just find other people to play with. And their ideas are really exciting and interesting to you and it makes you different. You learn a new way of being, with regard to them, actually. I find that exciting.

For me, you’re different because your children are at a different age. If you’re looking after five year-olds, you are going to be a different person to who you are when they’re fifteen or as my kids are now twenty-four, nineteen. So I’m a much more relaxed person now that I don’t have to tell them to put shoes on. I’m don’t have to tell them to do their homework. I do ring them up every day and tell them to get on with their writing, but I’m not in charge of them so I’m not stressed out in the same way. You’re in a different stage of life.

But for me the most important thing is the other people who change you. Who allow you to find new things about yourself. They guide you. It’s a development.

If you are a fan of Kureishi’s work and of a certain age, then one cannot fail to discuss The Buddha of Suburbia. Published in 1990 and winner of The Whitbread Award for first novel, it was then made into a TV series in 1993. On at 9.35pm on BBC2, the British public were given a glimpse into suburban life, but not as we knew it. Queer love, full frontal male nudity, and to top it off, an orgy scene, rolled off our TV screens and upset our parents. As a teenage girl who had first read the book, then studied it at college, it was a sexual awakening that sat along the lines of discovering Prince’s work for the first time. “Glad I could keep you happy Lisa” Kureishi says cheekily when I mention this.

As a pure moment of serendipity, David Bowie ended up doing the entire soundtrack for The Buddha of Suburbia and set the tone for the TV series – a situation at the time Kureishi himself was completely stunned by. Over the years, himself and Bowie became good friends.

HK: I wanted to ask him and his record company if they would give us permission to use some of his songs, for instance ‘Changes’ on the show. I said I should talk to Bowie, because going through his record company was going to be a nightmare and they’re going to say no. Alan Yentob then organised for us to meet.

I said to David, “Can you do some music for us?”

And he said, “I thought you’d never ask”.

He thought I was asking him to produce the soundtrack. It was a misunderstanding. He said to me he’d never done a soundtrack before. This was the first soundtrack he wanted to do. So I said casually, “Yeah, why not?” Then we started working together and became mates. He was charming, absolutely charming.

I remember Bowie saying to me that he couldn’t understand how Prince could work so much. He thought Prince must be on something because he produced so much music and worked for so long in the studio and played so many gigs. I went to see Prince. He would play the gig and then he’d go do another gig at four in the morning! Bowie said he must be fucked doing all that. I don’t know anything about Prince, but Bowie was amazed by how much Prince worked. And Bowie worked really hard.

I remember when we were doing the Buddha, and we went to a studio in Switzerland. When some of the music wasn’t right for this cue or that cue, he would just stay up all night doing it again. Stayed up all fucking night! I would never do that. But all this new music he was creating, it was incredible. By then, he was quite straight, a really hard-working guy. They worked so hard, those guys. They knew they had to diversify to survive. Now the music industry is so manufactured.

How does he think the internet and technology has changed how we communicate about sexuality? Does he think it has changed how we interact with desire and our own pleasures?

HK: I grew up in a time of prohibition and now we live in a time of compulsory excitement. Everybody’s anxious about whether they’re having enough of a good time. Most of the time you’re stressed out about how stressed you are. How much pressure there is to make money, to have sex, to have a good time, to go to the gym. All that competitive stuff which I’m completely against. I’m still in favour of pleasure but not compulsory pleasure.

In a another classic Kureishi line from The Nothing, Waldo muses, “Narcissism is our religion. The selfie stick is our cross, and we must carry it everywhere.” 

HK: For me, the most interesting thing is other people. The whole point of existence is to live outwardly with other people. To look at other people. When I’m with my girlfriend, I feel much better. I can talk to her. I’m interested in her and what she’s doing. I don’t want to get lost in my own head. I’m the least interesting person to myself. It’s the kids and what they’re doing in the world and on the street, how they are living, that interests me. And that’s more than one’s own self.

Your relationships with other people are the main things, for me. I just write what excites me. I just sit down to write and hope for the best, that something good will turn up. It’s always experimental. Like Simenon says, it has to be a risk. I’m interested in what other people are doing. Other artists, filmmakers or telly. I love telly. That’s new. I didn’t used to watch telly, because it was always bad, but since 2000, it’s become really really good. I love Transparent, Mad Men, I Love Dick, Gomorrah, Breaking Bad

As we continue to chat about TV shows, Kureishi mentions Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country, which reminds him of visiting the ashram of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, leader of the Rajneesh movement, in India in the 1980s – a figure Kureishi claims was “just like Trump, really. Rather a dim-witted non-entity.” On the mention of Trump, the conversation moves back to politics, a topic Kureishi loves – and partly what keeps him on Twitter rather than any other type of social media platform.

HK: Who’s standing against him? Nobody and nothing has emerged yet. What we have to hope, as with Brexit, is that you get somebody who’s really unpleasant and this galvanises everybody else to oppose them. That’s my dream.

I mean, I’m a big fan of Corbyn. I had gone off him because I didn’t think he was going to win. But now I really like him. This anti-semitism stuff worries me though – I will read more on it. I don’t really understand how much of it is real and how much of it is smear. I have no way of knowing because I’m not in the Labour Party anymore. But I knew Labour Party people for years and they were all anti-racist, so I’m rather surprised to hear it, mystified by it actually.

Our hour has passed too quickly and he says “Right, I’m off to give my sons a bollocking about their writing”. After asking many more questions regarding my life – and expressing a genuine delight that I am a much-maligned Manchester United fan, as is he – I leave. He paces outside in his front garden, hands in pockets “You can write whatever you like, I don’t mind” he says affably. And why should he mind? The Enfant Terrible of theatre, film, and literature may be a little bit older now, but he still refuses to compromise, still has no fear in being outspoken, and frankly, long may that last.

The Nothing by Hanif Kureishi is published by Faber

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