The Way I Work... Elif Shafak
In our series where we look at the things, places and people that inspire a creative’s working life, Marie Claire Chappet meets writer Elif Shafak
Award-winning novelist and activist Elif Shafak is a poignant creator of imaginary worlds, as well as an undaunted advocate for change. The Turkish-British writer, who was born in France, raised in Turkey and lives in London, has written 19 works of fiction and non-fiction, including the recent Women’s Prize shortlisted The Island Of Missing Trees. She is an outspoken critic of Turkey’s current regime and maintains unwavering support for women’s liberation. She talks to Service95 about writing in crowded cafes, superstitions and her love of death metal.
On Working Conditions… I work both at home and in crowded cafes. It is a habit I acquired in Istanbul, where I used to love working in small bakeries with smells of bread and borek wafting in the air. I cannot work in extremely neat, ordered and sterilised spaces where there is total silence, it just makes me nervous. I like to hear the sounds of the city or the sounds of nature. [In London] I love the cafes on Portobello Road and in Borough Market. Everyone should spend more time there; the whole place is divine. [I like the bakeries] Karaway and Bread Ahead, and for olives, Borough Olives.
On Music… When I work, I generally play melodic death metal, industrial metal, Viking metal and metalcore. People find it a bit unexpected that a middle-aged Turkish woman listens to this kind of music! But I have always loved heavy metal: Lorna Shore, Arch Enemy, Nightwish, Opeth, The Halo Effect, Amon Amarth and the Ukrainian metal band Jinjer are particularly fabulous.
On Travel… The beauty of travelling is how it introduces us to cultures and places that are very different to where we come from. It makes us realise how similar we are as human beings, East and West; how similar our joys and sorrows and stories and silences. From San Sebastián to Sicily to Petra to Thessaloniki to Montreal to Arizona to Damascus, I have learned so much from travelling.
On Learning & Listening… I love learning from multiple disciplines: history, archaeology, philosophy and political science, but I also enjoy cookbooks and graphic novels. I do not believe in the distinction between ‘high-brow’ and ‘low-brow’ literature. Who makes that distinction? Maintaining a childish curiosity should always remain at the heart of literature. I also love listening to radio and podcasts; I can listen and walk for hours. Some of my favourite podcasts are Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin?, The Guilty Feminist, How To Fail, The Rest Is Politics and Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time.
On Inspiration… If I need creative motivation, I walk by the river Thames in Oxford or London. We are made of water and nothing speaks to our core like water. I was raised by a very traditional, superstitious ‘Eastern’ grandmother who would talk to water. It stayed with me, watching her conversing with a bowl of water every day.
On Culture… I love films, exhibitions, theatre and musicals. Recently, I went to [see] Orlando at the Garrick Theatre in London, starring Emma Corrin. It was fabulous. I also never stop reading when I work. There are so many books that never leave me, but there will always be room for Rumi’s The Masnavi and Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass.
On Fashion… Some days you just write and read the whole day in your pyjamas. I wear a lot of black, but I love brightly coloured ornaments, turquoise and lapis lazuli. [And] rings, big silver rings! In Istanbul, I would always go to the Grand Bazaar, there were old silversmiths that I knew; I loved chatting with them. I admire the designs of the Armenian-Turkish jewellery designer Sevan Biçakçi. And I like unisex scents connected to trees, water and mountains. Creed has some amazing fragrances that I am very fond of.
On Career Advice… As a woman growing up in a patriarchal culture, you will constantly be given ‘career advice’ by people who look down upon you, belittle you and want to put you in your place. They will start every sentence by explaining what you cannot do and who you cannot be. The wisest thing I learned over the years was not to listen to bad advice.
Marie-Claire Chappet is a London-based arts and culture journalist and contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar