What do you think is the reason behind the success of “Aşk”? Were you expecting such wide appreciation?
I wasn't expecting this. I had a good feeling about it, that's all. “The Forty Rules of Love” became a big best-seller in Turkey. But to me what is more important than the number of copies sold is how widely and lovingly the novel was received. I get amazing positive feedback from readers. I find this very moving, and I am very grateful.
What makes “Aşk” different from your other novels?
It is my ninth book. When I look at my books in retrospect, I realize each and every one of them is different. They are different in style and content because they were written at different moments in my personal and literary journey. While I was writing each I was a different person. I am not interested in reaching somewhere. I am interested in the journey itself, in the process of becoming. “The Forty Rules of Love” revolves around a simple but essential concept: love. It is a novel that draws deeply upon Sufi thought and combines the Western novel writing techniques with the Eastern traditions of storytelling.
Could you talk about writing process of “Aşk” or “The Forty Rules of Love”? Was the preparation period and the writing simultaneous, or was there a separate preparation period?
This novel was written in 15 plus one-and-a-half years. What I mean by this is my interest in Sufism started more than 15 years ago, when I was a college student. I wrote my thesis on Sufism, and my first novel “Pinhan” [The Sufi] was deeply woven with Sufi culture. Ever since then I have kept reading on this subject. In time my interest became less intellectual and more emotional. More than your mind, your heart becomes your guide. I accumulated many things inside, and there came a point in my life when the doors opened up and I just started writing this novel. I couldn't have written it earlier. I wouldn't have written it later. This was the right time in my personal journey.
How did you develop the 40 rules of Şems? Are they the rules of Elif Şafak as well?
In the novel there are 40 spiritual rules. I developed these as I wrote the story. In a way they came to me. I was deeply inspired by the teachings of Şems and the poetry of Rumi as I developed these rules. I was also inspired by universal Sufism and universal mysticism. But the rest is the work of my imagination.
What kind of a reader profile do you encounter when you think of the feedback you receive? Who is reading “Aşk”?
The profile of this novel's readers is very wide and very mixed. People of different backgrounds and worldviews read the book with similar attention and love. Leftists, secularists, feminists, liberals, conservatives, agnostics, religious people. Perhaps people who do not easily come together are reading the same book. This I find fascinating.
What does the fact that the novel has been read by Turks from almost all segments of society make you think regarding readers of novels in Turkey?
I think there is a very good readership in Turkey. We are always complaining that people do not read enough. This is only partly true. There is at the same time an amazing readership in Turkey, and we never know the real numbers because there are also lots of pirated books. Those who do read in Turkey do it with love and attachment. If a reader loves a book, she shares it with her mother, aunt, grandmother. Generations of women in the same family read the same novel. Most fiction readers in this country are women, and they are fabulous.
I have always believed there is a vivid, dynamic literary scene in Turkey, and my readers are very mixed. They come from all backgrounds, culturally and socially. I do not favor the tradition of “Father Novelists” in which a novelist is expected to know more than his readers and to teach them. I write with my intuition. When I am writing a novel I do not know where I am going with the story. The story flows.
In one of your interviews you say, “After the writing process of a novel is completed, it belongs to the reader rather than to the writer.” From this perspective, what kind of a perception of “Aşk” do you see in the feedback you receive from your readers?
I receive so many emails, letters, postcards… People share with me not only what they think about my novel, but also how the novel has touched their life. This is very moving and inspiring. I see my novels as buildings with multiple doors and corridors. Every reader enters from a different door. Sometimes two readers can read the same book, they can be inside the same building without ever running into each other. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, my novels are multilayered. Secondly, I believe, the reader of literature is not a passive being. Being a reader is an active process. The reader contributes to creating the meaning. That is why even when thousands of people read the same book, each reading is unique.
Do you expect the same success from its English version as well?
I cannot know that beforehand, I can only be hopeful. I am assuming the subject of the novel could be of interest to many people all around the world. We all are looking for love, and we all feel incomplete without it. The story of Rumi and Şems strongly resonates with our needs and longings in the modern world. I think my fiction is both local and universal. I see myself as a commuter between cultures and languages. I am a nomad in spirit. And I believe stories belong to all humanity. They have no visas. They need no passports. They travel across frontiers, geographical and mental boundaries.
You say, “Both the English and the Turkish versions of this book are original,” in one of your interviews. What do you mean by that?
Well, for the last five years I have been writing fiction in both English and Turkish. Several of my novels were originally written in English, then translated into Turkish. Several others were written in Turkish, then translated into English. So I am a writer who enjoys commuting between languages. In “The Forty Rules of Love” I tried a completely new technique. I wrote the novel in English first. Then it was translated into Turkish by an excellent translator. Then I took the translation and I rewrote it. When the Turkish version was ripe and ready, I went back to the English version and rewrote it with a new spirit. In a way I have built two parallel books in the same span of time. It is a bit insane, I have to admit. It is a crazy amount of work. I do this because language is my passion.
In one of your interviews you say, “I am among those who keep learning.” What was the most important thing you learned while writing “The Forty Rules of Love”?
Rather than being one of the learned, I am interested in the process of learning. I am a student of life. I learn from my readers. I learn from life. Art requires taking a closer look at things. Artists and writers cannot be content with surfaces. They need to go deeper. I do not believe in heroes. In my novels you cannot find characters that are absolutely good or absolutely bad. I believe in each of us there is good and bad. Every person is a tapestry of conflicting voices. I like to explore the dialectics of life.
We know of your deep attachment to Sufism. It is not difficult to notice traces of this attachment in your books. What do you think about the idea that being engaged in Sufism has been a kind of fashion recently?
I guess in all my books, Sufism was like a shadow that kept coming with me. It was an undercurrent, sometimes more visible, sometimes less, but it was always there. This time it became the core, the very center of my writing. There are people who criticize me for “making Sufism popular” or “making Rumi a fashion.” I don't understand this. Let's say 500 people read a book because it is popular and out of that 500, let's say five become genuinely interested in Sufism. Isn't this a good thing? Sufism is an ocean without a shore. If I draw from it a bucketful of water, will that lessen the water in the ocean?
In addition to a deep appreciation of “The Forty Rules of Love,” there are also criticisms, as you know. These criticisms mostly center around the fact that “there are some inconsistencies and anachronisms stemming from lack of information and being inattentive in the book” as they argue that you misinterpreted some words of Şems or, for example, you used an expression as if it was a verse from the Quran although it was not. How would you comment on these criticisms?
In Turkey we often confuse criticism with rejection. To criticize someone doesn't have to mean to reject someone. You criticize the people you value, in fact. We easily forget this. Some of the criticisms are well based, and I listen to them and I learn from them and I am thankful to my critics. Some other criticisms, however, are raised just for the sake of criticizing and, frankly, those I disregard. There were some minute errors in the first edition, for instance, instead of the word “hadith” it was printed as “verse.” Instead of “game of shadows.” it was printed as “shadow theater,” which didn't exist at the time. All of these typing errors were corrected in the next editions. If there is good, constructive energy behind a criticism, I will always appreciate it.
You have two children. What kind of a feeling is it to be a novelist mother? Are your children aware of your love for writing?
To be a woman novelist and a mother is like juggling many balls in the air, trying not to lose the balance. When I am writing a novel I work intensely, so it was difficult for me to learn this balance. After the birth of my first child, I suffered from a long depression. I didn't know how to harmonize motherhood and writing. In time, I learned better. I wrote about that experience in my previous book “Black Milk,” which is my only autobiographical work.