We find out more about the acclaimed writer behind this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction winner – Kamila Shamsie…
It was a tough year for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. “In the end we chose the book which we felt spoke for our times,” explained the judges – and that was Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. As a feminist book subscription, we couldn’t not include Shamsie’s award-winner in our boxes – it’s one of the most exciting novels we’ve featured since we launched! Exploring faith, society, family and relationships, the modern retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone has garnered prizes aplenty since publication; Home Fire is a novel which seems to really speak to people. So we couldn’t be more delighted to find out a little more about the rather brilliant Kamila Shamsie…
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I started writing fiction at the age of 11, and haven’t ever stopped.
Tell us about the process of writing Home Fire?
I read several different translations of Antigone, and as I was doing that was making mental notes about how that ancient story could be adapted to a contemporary story. Then I put Antigone away, and thought about how I wanted to tell the story. The key really was working out the structure – five sections told from five different points of view. Then I started writing, and it’s in the writing itself that I developed the characters, and the subplots.
Are the Greek myths something you know well? Why Antigone?
I’ve always loved Greek mythology, but it was always the Iliad and the Odyssey and the stories of the gods and heroes that I paid most attention to. So although I had read Antigone at university, I had also since forgotten it. But the director Jatindar Verma suggested that I might want to write an updated version of it for the theatre, which made me go back to it. And the contemporary echoes immediately became clear. For a while I pretended to myself that I was going to try and write it as a play, but I’m a novelist, not a playwright.
Did you think Home Fire would be a prize-winner when you were writing it?
God, no. I was filled with doubt and uncertainty about it.
How did your background and experiences inform your writing?
I’m interested in writing fiction as a way of moving beyond my own personal experiences. So, although some people have noted that like the characters I’m British-Muslim, the truth is that it’s only in the widest sense that my background and experiences overlap with the characters. They’re all born and raised in London – I only moved here in my mid-30’s, and became a citizen when I was 40. Their family lives, relationship to Britain, to Islam etc are all different to mine. So really what I was interested in was using the novel to enter the lives of people with very different experiences to mine.
Which writers inspire you?
There are plenty of writers and novels I love, but I don’t know if inspiration is quite the right word for my relationship with them. The best writers teach me things about writing, and raise the bar in terms of what’s possible in fiction – Ali Smith, Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison are some of those that come to mind – but inspiration is a different kind of beast altogether.
Tell us about your favourite books…
At the moment I think the most exciting thing happening in fiction is Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet – I loved ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’ and am waiting for ‘Spring’ to arrive later this year. She’s that rare writer who can do humour and playfulness so seriously – and the immediacy of these particular novels, set in the very year in which they’re published, is really thrilling.
How do you feel about feminism today?
The greatest success of patriarchy has been to obscure for many women and even more men the absolute necessity of feminism in the world. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s absolutely necessary. The greatest problem it faces, of course, is that it’s so hard to imagine a world without patriarchy that it makes us unsure what the best version of feminism is – and too often you end up with internal fights between feminists that distracts from the real work of leading us away from gender injustice.
How have you felt about the reception to Home Fire?
Surprised, but in the nicest possible way.
What would you say to anyone thinking of writing their first book?
Don’t wait for the right moment to start. That moment will never come. Just start.
What’s next for you?
Good question. I have no idea what the next thing will be. So I suppose I’ll sit around reading and observing the world, and hope for an idea to land from somewhere….