Hisham Matar: ‘We all go through a lot. I’m wary of having “material”’
Isham Matar, age 53, was born in New York to parents from Libya and grew up in Tripoli, Cairo, and London, where he has resided since his teenage years. His previous works, In the Country of Men (a finalist for the 2006 Booker Prize) and Anatomy of a Disappearance, are both told from the perspective of young boys whose father has been taken away – an event that serves as the inspiration for Matar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, The Return (2016), which chronicles the political imprisonment and likely death of his own father, a critic of Muammar Gaddafi. In Matar’s latest book, My Friends, a Libyan exile wanders through London while reflecting on his past and present, from his college days in the 1980s to Gaddafi’s downfall in 2011. Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez describes it as Matar’s “most politically charged novel, yet also a personal contemplation on friendship, love, and everything in between.”
When did My Friends start?
Unusually slow. Years ago, while I was in Paris working on In the Country of Men, I jotted down a simple two-line concept for a book about three male friends who end up in different places. The idea continued to brew in my mind in 2011 and 2012, as I was surrounded by friends heavily involved in the Arab Spring, not only in Libya but also in Egypt and Tunisia. I was struck by how our behavior in such situations may be influenced more by our personal temperament rather than our political beliefs. I wanted to explore this idea in a novel, but I needed time and distance from those events. At that time, I wouldn’t have been able to write a scene like the one in the book depicting Gaddafi’s death.
Did you plan on writing a longer novel than usual?
I have always attempted to write concise books because I dislike lengthy ones. However, this particular book was on a larger scale as it spanned over 30 years and was told within the span of a two-hour walk. It presented significant challenges, but my background as an architect taught me to hang up my drawings when I encountered roadblocks. I still utilize this method in my writing process, usually in the early stages, but in this case, I had already written 250 pages and had them displayed all around my workspace, even extending into the bathroom.