As if Harvard didn’t already have enough rockstar professors, we just managed to snag F. Orhan Pamuk, the famed Turkish novelist and Nobel Laureate, as Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton Lecturer of the semester. The English Department’s new kid on the block will be giving guest talks on the art of the novel, which will be open to all at Sanders Theater. The Columbia professor, who splits his time between New York and Istanbul, sits down with FM to chat about Harvard, freedom of speech, and why winning isn’t everything.
1. Fifteen Minutes: You are currently delivering a series of talks titled, “The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist.” What is the main focus of your lectures?
Orhan Pamuk: My lectures are focused on the art of the novel. They are from the point of view of the practitioner, not of the scholar or the historian.
2. FM: What do you hope to achieve during your time as Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton Lecture this fall?
OP: First, as a professor, it is a joy to be here meeting students in various classes and looking at the interested audiences as they listen during my lectures. Next, as a writer, this is the best opportunity that I have to focus on my craft and write a book about the craft as I see it and as I practice it. Third, as a human being, what I want to achieve is to enjoy Harvard and be happy here.
3. FM: You’ve lectured at schools like Columbia University and Bard College. How do you think Harvard compares to other places that you’ve taught?
OP: At Harvard, there is more university self-consciousness. Everyone is proud to be at Harvard, especially young students, new faculty and new fellows. Me too, of course. I am new here as well!
4.FM: “My Name is Red” is possibly your most acclaimed novel. What do you think makes this book special?
OP: This book is about a painter’s dilemmas in Islam, and I actually painted until the age of 23. I knew how it felt to be a painter, when your hand does one thing, while your mind and your eye watch with amazement, as if someone else is drawing. I wanted to pass this experience to the reader.
5.FM: Which one of your characters are you most like and why?
OP: [Laughs] I distribute my feelings and my perceptions of the world through all of my characters. I don’t want any of them to look too similar or different from me. In “My Name is Red”, I appear as a small boy. I am also close to the protagonists in “Snow” and “The Black Book”.
6. FM: Which of your books are you most proud of?
OP: I can’t say I’m most proud of any of them, because the relationship is more complicated than that. I am very deeply involved with my books, I wrote them. They’re like a part of my body.
7. FM: These books have won you countless awards, including the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. What’s the best part about winning the Nobel?
OP: It’s a lot of joy and makes life easier. Doors open by themselves. You have more strength to address readers. It brings you a lot of prestige, which makes life easy.
8. FM: Speaking of having a large readership, do you receive any crazy fan mail?
OP: I receive lots of mail from readers—I wouldn’t call it fan mail—and I can’t answer all of it. What about when someone in Argentina, who had written poetry all his life but nobody understood him, puts all his poems in a box and sends it to you? [Laughs] What do I do with that now?
9. FM: Not only are you an accomplished novelist, you’re also a bit of a rebel. In 2005, after calling attention to the Turkish massacres of Armenians and Kurds, you were prosecuted by the Turkish state for violating Article 301, which condemns anyone who “explicitly insults the Republic.” How did it feel to be arraigned by your home country?
OP: You have to see the whole thing as a general picture. There are so many Turkish writers who have suffered so much, and still continue to be afflicted by the same issues of free speech. Because I was internationally famous, my problem was visible, but what I suffered was nothing.
10. FM: You are the first Nobel Prize winner from Turkey! Has the government offered to name a holiday after you yet?
OP: Nothing! But I’m not interested in whether they do anything or not. My standards are lower. I’ll be happy if they don’t put me in jail.
11. FM: In an interview with BBC, you’ve said that in books, characters are “instruments for you to see the city,” and the “inner depths of the characters are also deduced from the city.” How have you and Istanbul impacted each other?
OP: If you live in one place all your life, then that city makes you. I’m a writer of Istanbul, because it is where I have lived for almost all my life. I look out my window, and I see humanity in Istanbul. I write about humane characters, and I also write about Istanbul. It made me.
12. FM: You are also a Professor of Comparative Literature and Writing at Columbia. How do you feel about the translated versions of your books?
OP: I focus on the English translations. I read them very carefully and discuss them with the translators, who are my friends. This takes a lot of time, and I always say, “Wow, I gave all my time!” I hope there won’t be any problems with the next book. [Pause] There are always problems.
13.FM: You’re here in Cambridge for another few months. What do you miss most about Istanbul and New York?
OP: [Laughs] I’m happy just being here! Why should I be worrying about nostalgia? I’m enjoying Cambridge. I’ll be going back to New York and Istanbul, anyway. I’m more concerned with the wonder and fun in Cambridge rather than what I left behind.
14. FM: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
OP: That they should not pay attention to any writer’s advice, including this one. [Laughs] They should pay attention to their professors, though.
15. FM: You have already been awarded the Nobel Prize. What’s next?
OP: [Laughs] I don’t know! I don’t write for the prizes. I’m happy about the Nobel Prize, but that’s not the only agenda in one’s life. I’m writing books. I plan many books and I’m working very hard. Heaven for me is achieving and finishing these novels, executing them with all the details I imagined.