Kashmir | 2011, 2012
Mirza Waheed was born and brought up in Kashmir. His debut novel, The Collaborator, was an international bestseller, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Shakti Bhat Prize, and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. It was also book of the year for New Statesman, Financial Times, Business Standard and the Telegraph (India), among others. Waheed has written for the BBC, Guardian, Granta, Guernica, Al Jazeera English and the New York Times. He lives in London.
During his stay at Santa Maddelena in 2011, Mirza Waheed began work on his new novel, The Book of Gold Leaves, which, at the time of writing (October 2014), is about to be published by Penguin.
I first visited Santa Maddalena at a time of nervous change in my life. I was giving up my job of ten years at the BBC to devote exclusive time to writing that supposedly dreaded second novel, and by the time I was to walk into Beatrice‘s world I was also exhausted from appearances at literary festivals that at first appear charming, especially to a debut novelist, but soon assume a form of tedium that leaves little room for thinking let alone writing. This was also to be the first time I would be away from my family for such a long period. I therefore arrived in a state of anxiety, exhaustion and near-zero expectations. If nothing else I could at least catch up on my sleep, I told myself. Having written some parts of the first novel on the London underground, I knew I could write just about anywhere but would I be able to cope with solitude and unexpected amounts of time on my hands. After all, didn’t someone say that writers are always complaining they don’t have enough time to write but when they have it find newer ways of wasting it?
For the first couple of nights, I was miserable, lonely and cold – the mesmeric tower where I was staying can feel like a freezer if you don’t shut your windows on time. And Beatrice’s beloved pug Alice died only a few hours after I arrived. Surely, not a good omen, a voice started saying while I looked at the Moorish castle from the tower window. The next morning, I heard a voice, an actual one, calling my name. I came down and saw Beatrice, who in her elegant light manner apologised for the difficult circumstances. Here was someone in grief and yet made sure I was comfortable in her home. Over the next few days, Beatrice’s dinnertime conclaves gradually led me in to the quietly magical world of letters that Santa Maddalena is; I also remember the shawl she gave me to cope with the sudden drop in night-time temperature. Very soon then, I began to feel a part of the household and the fascinating group comprising Frank Wyne, whose vast and encyclopaedic knowledge of the world of books and beyond often gave me a fatigued jaw, Alice Albinia who was a comrade in suffering as she too was working on her second novel, and Alex Starritt, without whom, frankly, I may not have coped.
I suppose some truisms are truer than others and reading does beget writing. I read Grisha’s Anecdotage – although Beatrice wanted me to read the Memoirs first – Alice Albinia’s remarkable account of her journeys along the mighty Indus river, some poetry, a thriller set in Sarajevo…while settling down to the rhythms of Santa Maddalena, and at some point found myself writing the first sentence of a new novel, a story that has stayed in my head for nearly fifteen years and a book that I wanted to write before what became my debut novel. Three weeks later, I had written what could possibly be a third of the novel and perhaps the most important one.
My second visit coincided with the arrival of early scents of spring at Santa Maddalena. This time I found myself in the main house, in the “white room” and with that hallowed realm, Grisha’s Study, as my working space. I also found the company of two remarkable writers, the insanely wonderful avant garde poet Tomaz Salamun and the brilliant “travel writer” Michael Jacobs (Michael abhors the categorisation), and of course my erudite friend Alex Starrit who along with the impeccable Brigida keeps Santa Maddalena well sprung and oiled. And who can forget the irrepressibly jovial Max whose hospitality nearly threatened to make things too heady. Writing was slow and measured; a considered saunter through the middle stage, one might say. Mirthful conversations at the dinner table, which I came to love for that particular glow from the fireplace, marked the end of both an ennui-filled day in front of a blank screen or one of those breakthrough moments when you think you’ve just conquered a high summit.
As I left there seemed to be on the horizon a delightful invasion of flowers and with it a season of new words and new stories. The one I left behind will of course be an inspiration – possibly forever.