Hari Kunzru is Never Going to Read To Kill a Mockingbird
The Author of Red Pill Takes the Lit Hub Questionnaire
Hari Kunzru’s novel, Red Pill, is out now, so we asked him a few questions about writing habits, influences, and the books he wished he had written.
Who do you most wish would read your book?
There are a few people whose posts I see on the internet, people who would hate-read the book if they read it at all, but I’d like them to know that I’d been hate-reading their stuff too.
What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?
There’s usually something I’m obsessed with that is entirely off-topic, and of no interest to the interviewer. The best thing I’ve learned over years of being interviewed is just to answer the question asked, then shut up.
What time of day do you write?
I usually have two sessions—a daytime session, and another after I’ve put my children to bed. My concentration is often best in the evening.
How do you tackle writer’s block?
The thing with writer’s block is that it only exists if you make it a problem. If you want to write something, you write it. If you “can’t,” it’s usually because subconsciously you don’t actually want to. If you need to write something that you don’t want to write, you usually have an external pressure (boss, deadline, debt) that will ensure it gets done. If you don’t actually want to write something, there’s maybe a good reason it ought not to exist, and you should try to discover what it is. No one actually needs your novel, so if you don’t want to write it, then you shouldn’t.
If I sit down at my desk and find I can’t generate new text, I try to do the next most useful thing: revise something, make notes for another section, work on some other piece of writing, write administrative email etc. If I’m really not able to concentrate I go for a bike ride or clean the house. Soon enough I can get back to what I was “supposed” to be doing. I’ve worked as a writer since I was in my early twenties, and I have rarely had any other source of income, so the idea that if I don’t write, I don’t eat is very deeply engrained. It’s a good motivator. In a certain sense, I’ve never really had the luxury of getting blocked.
Which book do you return to again and again?
I’ve only recently discovered the pleasures of re-reading. When I was younger, I was desperate to “have read everything.” That meant I read a lot of good books too quickly, or (effectively) not at all, and never went back to anything. There’s still nothing I’ve read more than two or three times, besides books that I teach to my graduate students at NYU. The writing that is inside me most deeply is the material I studied as a teenager. I’m mainly thinking of TS Eliot and Jacobean Tragedies—Webster, Ford and all that. I remember lines from “The Waste Land” and “The Four Quartets,” and nothing very concrete from the tragedies, just the atmosphere—full of plotting and revenge and absurd melodrama. Tricking people into kissing skulls with poison smeared on them, that kind of thing.
Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?
So many things. I think I probably wouldn’t be the same person if I hadn’t fished a copy of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory out of a discount bin in a record store when I was 12.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
“This feeling, it will pass.”
What was the first book you fell in love with?
It would have been a retelling of Greek myths by Roger Lancelyn Green. He was one of the Inklings, along with Tolkien and CS Lewis. His versions of these stories are told in such beautiful English, and so perfectly structured.
Name a classic you feel guilty about never having read.
There are plenty of “important” books that I haven’t read, but at university I remember that the most imposing volume on a lot of English Literature students’ shelves was Richardson’s Pamela, in a massive Penguin edition the approximate size of a cinder block. I always told myself I’d read that, but somehow I never have. I do want to read all of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, and I am many many volumes away from achieving that. The funniest gap is To Kill A Mockingbird. Somehow I never had to read it at school, and now (just because it’s so ridiculous) I have decided that I never will.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
Many. If I could write something that people still thought was worth reading a hundred years later, then that would be enough.
Red Pill by Hari Kunzru is available now from Knopf.