“Writers should never forget why they are writing”
Interview with Joanne Leedom-Ackerman and Eugene Schoulgin
By Ginevra Avalle
Oxford, 19th March 2019
Joanne Leedom-Ackerman is an American novelist, short story writer and journalist whose fiction includes the regional bestseller The Dark Path to the River, and the short story collection No Marble Angels. She is a Vice President Emeritus of PEN International and has served as the International Secretary of PEN International and chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. She is the author of PEN Journey: Memoir of Literature on the Line.
Eugene Schoulgin is a Norwegian writer and scholar. He is the son of the painter Alexander Schultz, and grew up in Norway, Italy and France. He has studied Classical Archaeology and History of Art at the Universities of Uppsala and Stockholm. He has long been working actively for PEN International for the release of imprisoned writers all over the world. He became a member of Swedish PEN in 1992. Since 1994, Eugene has divided his time between writing and working for the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International which he chaired from 2000 to 2004. From 2004 until 2006, he was a member of the Board of PEN International, and between 2006 and 2010 he served as International Secretary. In 2010 he became a Vice-President.
G.A. What is your role in PEN International?
J.L I am Joanne Leedom-Ackerman. I am a Vice-President Emeritus of PEN International. I have been the Writers in Prison Chair and the International Secretary of PEN International, and the President of PEN Centre USA West. I have been involved in PEN for over 30 years. Eugene and I sort of followed doing the same jobs at different times.
E.S. My name is Eugene Schoulgin. I am also Vice-President today, just as Joanne. I had the same positions as Joanne, just following her. I am a member of the Norwegian and Swedish PEN Centres, the Turkish PEN and the Afghan PEN. I’ve been in PEN since 1994, so today I think we both are the old couple of PEN.
J.L Yes, we are. And I have been involved even longer than that. I’ve been a member of PEN USA West, American PEN and English PEN. I usually vote where I live, which right now is with PEN America.
G.A. What can you tell us about your experience in Turkey? What happened, why and when did you go there, and what was the result?
J.L. I can start. My first visit was in 1997. The Turkish government brought charges against one of their most eminent writers, Yaşar Kemal. A man in Turkey who was a very active defender of Freedom of Expression, Sanar Yurdatapan, was gathering up the artists, the actors, the intellectuals in Turkey to be publishers of a book that included the essay Kemal had published in Der Speigel and for which charges were being brought against him. Sanar asked everyone to be publishers of the book, and then he asked PEN members if we would also sign on to be publishers of the book in a request he sent to our first global Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) conference in Elsinore, Denmark. Many of us agreed to be publishers as well. That would put pressure on the Turkish Government because it meant they should press charges against all the publishers, over a thousand by then. So we all singed up. And then Sanar Yurdapatan called for a conference in Istanbul. Many of us went. Because I chaired the WiPC I was on all the platforms and stages. We went to the courts to listen to cases; we stood outside the gates of the Justice Ministry. The only way we could gather legally and publicly in Turkey at the time was to hold a press conference so they couldn’t arrest us. So, we held press conferences all over the place. Sanar and our delegation demanded that they had to press charges against all of us. No one wanted to go to prison. The point was to demonstrate that there was large international support. We went to visit writers and publishers in prisons in Turkey.
G.A. What can you tell us about visiting writers in prison?
J.L. We visited the Bursa prison. I remember I was with Sanar, and they didn’t let us in, but we were there, and it was recorded that we were there. They knew it, and they knew there were writers in that prison. The day after we visited and helped pay a fine, partly with the donations from PEN members, one publisher, Ünsal Öztürk, got out; he was Ismail Beşikçi’s publisher.
The next day we were to hold a Freedom of Expression conference at a university in Istanbul, but when when we arrived, the plaza was filled with students and police with clubs and helmets. One by one, the writers said, “We’re not talking,” and so only two of us addressed the conference– me and Sascha (Alexander Tkachenko) from Russian PEN. Along with Sanar, we addressed the student body. I was aware that it was a precarious situation. We were on the news later that evening
The next morning, I talked to my husband and he told me everybody [at the embassy] had seen me, and the American Consulate was saying “please, stay in, don’t go anywhere; this is dangerous.” But I couldn’t stay in. I was heading the delegation. That was a time when Turkey was a much more controlled and problematic space. The good news is that Turkey then slowly began to open up. In 2005 we held a conference in Diyarbakir, a difficult place in the past with attacks and many PEN cases because it is a Kurdish region. At the conference for the first time, Kurdish PEN and Turkish PEN were on the same stage together and were listening and translating each other. It was really a time when it did seem that Turkey was opening up and there could be dialogue and conversation. It is very sad to see it reverting back today. I have been to Turkey many times since, because of PEN work, because of family and other reasons. But I will let Eugene, who lived there, continue.
E.S. Well I would say that my engagement in Turkey started in 1994. We were at a delegation from Norwegian Writers Union to see the dissident İsmail Beşikçi, who at that time had 104 years imprisonment in front of him. At that time, it was allowed for prisoners to write in prison. From the start he had approximately 15 years. Then he wrote a new book, and that book was published, then sanctioned, and he got a new trial against him. He got another 15 years. And that went on until he had collected 104 years in prison. I spent one day in his cell in the prison, talking with him. And when I left, I said to myself I couldn’t live like before. I have to engage more. I was so angry.
I got to know so many fantastic people in Turkey, who had spent half their life in prison. The first thing they did after being released, was to do something that would give them another sentence. All this stubbornness and braveness really engaged me. And I got so many personal friends… you mentioned Sanar Yurdapatan. He had to leave the country, and when he came back after 12 years, he said to me, “I can’t go and live there as it is”. So we started this organisation called Antenna. He has given his life to this fight.
J.L. Every two years he holds a conference, so many of us would return. In 2017 PEN had a large mission and delegation Eugene and I were on, and we went to support the writers. This was a time when many journalists had been arrested; over a hundred were in prison. We went to see the prisoners, but we were not allowed in. The guards were told to guard our buses. These young guards had no idea what to do with us; we were this large delegation of PEN. Again, it was about making a statement, saying “we are here” and publicising the cases, trying to get the writing of these writers out, and then just being there.
I had also been in Turkey the year before, in 2016 when Human Rights Watch released its World Report in Istanbul and Sanar was among the audience. Turkey is an important crossroad between East and West.
G.A. Is there hope?
E.S Yes and no. In the short run I am very pessimistic. The only thing that can save Turkey is a total financial breakdown; that is the sad fact. The only way to get rid of Erdogan is that Turkey gets to such a severe financial situation that it reduces the support of the majority. Since he is totally ruthless, he uses everything that comes up to support his campaign; as President he shouldn’t do this. For the local elections, he travels the whole country and campaigns. He forbids everybody else from other countries to have any campaigns. This is not a PEN thing, but after many years I realised it was expensive and time-consuming to travel back and forth to Norway, so I decided to stay in Istanbul. I stayed there for eight years. I saw that from 2003-2004 things started to reverse and get worse and worse. Today I would say the situation in Turkey, as far back as I can remember, has never been worse.
J.L. For example, charges were brought against the writer Orhan Pamuk in 2005.
We learned about the possibility of these charges very early. I was the International Secretary then. The director of the Writers in Prison Committee and I contacted Pamuk and met with him in London. Because PEN has centres in over a hundred countries, PEN could mobilise globally when the charges were finally brought and prison threatened.
E.S. I was present at the trial, and they changed the room all the time to confuse us. In the end we were pushed into a small room filled up with six prosecutors and three judges. And the prosecutors were screaming. It was unbelievable. Sitting next to me was the renowned but elderly writer Yasar Kemal, whose physical status was so bad he had to remain seated. But he got so angry during that trial that he stood up and was waving his stick, wanting to attack the prosecutors. Then Ohran Pamuk came in, and he was the only calm person in the room. I think it was mainly because of the international pressure that he was acquitted.
J.L He was acquitted yes, and then he left Turkey for a while. One of the reasons there is hope, I think, is that in Turkey you have this very large courageous and educated and empathetic group of people that know what a free society can be. They have seen it and they are willing to take their stand for that. I have been recently reading the statement that the moral arc of the universe eventually bends towards justice. I think in PEN we all take some faith in that. You don’t know how wide and long that arc will be, but we believe in that.
G.A. What took you to PEN?
J.L. I grew up in the American South in a time of segregation. From a very young age I saw the injustice, and I began arguing with friends and family against it. Then, as I grew older, I began to see the ceiling that was on women. It wasn’t until I went to university and began to read history that I saw how the two—civil rights and women’s rights–came together. I can’t tell you initially why, but that sense of injustice steered me from a young age. And so, it was very natural when I was living in Los Angeles and I saw this meeting of PEN that I went to it. We wrote postcards for a writer in China, Wei Jingsheng. I was working on issues I cared about; I was working on behalf of writers, and I was meeting other writers, and there was just a natural affinity to the organisation. Then when I moved to London I was at the home of where International PEN was located. I got to know this wonderful community all over the world.
E.S. I think the reason why I joined PEN was partly because I am half Russian and I have always travelled. When I was a little child, I stayed many years in Italy, in Florence. And after that I have lived abroad. I like to stay in a country and get to know for real the situation, the culture. I have always been interested in all the writing. That was the bottom-line. I was attracted to PEN because it represented the literary world. On top of that, of course, it was because of the human rights and the freedom of expression issues which are close to my heart. I think actually that is the reason why PEN is my home.
J.L. It is your family.
E.S. It is my family, yes.
G.A How would you describe PEN in three words?
J.L. Friendship, freedom, and imagination.
E.S. Imagination of course, also curiosity, and tolerance.
G.A. I imagine there have been cases in which you couldn’t help. What was the feeling?
J.L. The case that instantly comes to mind happened when I was chairing the Writers in Prison Committee, the case of the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa from Nigeria. PEN mobilised globally for his case. Sani Abacha was the president of Nigeria, and he’d arrested Ken and wanted to execute him. Globally we protested. We went to the London Parliament. All around the world PEN Centres were working on his behalf. I moved to Washington during this time and managed to get an appointment at the Nigerian Embassy. We presented our case, and I came back a few days later, and that was the day they hung Ken Saro-Wiwa. There are three cases for which all PEN members can tell you where we were. When the fatwa was issued against Rushdie, when Ken Saro-Wiwa was hung, and when Anna Politkovskaya was killed.
E.S. I agree with what Joanne says. I was a close friend of Anna Politkovskaya and remember the shock when I read the news. I would say that one of the hardest moments at PEN is every time I visited a prison, when we leave and cross the door. We want to say goodbye to the person we’ve visited, but they turn around without looking at us and go back into the prison. I realised that that’s the hardest moment. It takes a day or two before you get back to yourself after these experiences. It is hard, but it is worth it.
J.L. We also have the stories of writers who have gotten out of prison. Some prisons had received all these letters from all around the world. I particularly remember Jack Mapanje from Malawi saying the prison authorities asked him, “Who are you? We are receiving all these bags of mail!”. He had no idea what was going on, that Harold Pinter was outside the Malawian Embassy and that there were all these pictures from English PEN. In those cases where the writer gets released, there is a wonderful feeling. Those people outside keep them going. There is a community. So, you are balanced, because there is good news alongside the bad news.
E.S. We mentioned one case that is very special. We defended Mexican General Gallardo. The reason he was in prison was that he had written a book about the mistreatment of soldiers in his own army. He was at the same time a hero since he had been awarded a gold medal, but he had been sent to prison. We were one of those who helped him out. He came to one of our Writers in Prison Committee Conferences in San Miguel, Mexico, and brought with him huge boxes filled up with letters and books. He threw it on the floor and then he made the speech. It is not so often that we defend generals.
J.L. If a writer is threatened, attacked, or imprisoned, PEN will be there for the entirety of the case until they are released. We sometimes have campaigns for 20 years. We now have one of our wonderful cases, Ma Thida from Burma. She was Aung San Suu Kyi’s secretary as well as a writer and was sent to jail in Myanmar. She managed to get released after six years. I remember meeting her in London; it was wonderful. And then I was able to be part of getting her a fellowship to Brown University, where she wrote a book, and then to Harvard. And now she is on the PEN International Board, and she started a PEN Centre in Myanmar. She really knew what PEN meant. That is a wonderful case, a sort of circle of PEN. [Ma Thida was elected Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee at the recent 2021 International Congress.]
G.A. Where does the idea of sending letters to imprisoned writers come from?
E.S. It was the policy of PEN, and I thought it was a good idea. We were always sending cards for New Year. I would say two things that always bothered me. One is the status of the prisoners and how to make them understand that they’re not forgotten. The second thing is the family of those who are in prison; they are far too often forgotten. And very often, these families are in horrible conditions since the imprisoned person cannot contribute to their needs anymore. One thing we can do is give them financial support, but the other one is moral support. Meeting with them and talking about their beloved who is in prison.
J.L. I remember one of the first families I met. PEN had a Congress in South Korea in 1988. That was a time where many writers were imprisoned in South Korea. The Writers in Prison Chair went to the prison. I was President of my Centre at the time. I did not get to go to the prisons, but I got to meet the family of the publisher and writer who we were working for, Lee Tae-Bok. I still remember that just a few weeks after the Congress was over, he was let out of prison. I don’t know what happened, but I do remember the exalted feeling and remember thinking, “Something worked!”
E.S. Another story is when I went with a small delegation from Norwegian PEN to South Korea to try to have a meeting with Hwang Sok-yong, who had 10 years in prison before him. We came there and everything was locked; we couldn’t have discussions with people from the Ministries. But then we had dinner at the Norwegian Embassy with a Norwegian female ambassador who said she would try to help us. She sent an invitation and we managed to get a meeting in the Secretary of Justice. She said she would come with us, that we would use her limousine because in Korea everything is about what it looks like. Before that, we had been to bookstores in Seoul and we found something very peculiar. All around the walls there were photos of the Nobel prize laureates. We saw there was one opening, not yet filled with a picture. We asked why. He told us “This is for the first South Korean Nobel Prize Winner.” And we could see that they were very sore because they found it extremely unfair that Japan had three Nobel Prizes and they had none.
And then we came up to this man and started to argue. It was absolutely impossible. Before leaving, just before crossing the door, I whispered to him: “You see, I am a member of the Norwegian delegation, but I am actually Swedish, living in Stockholm, and I have very close friends among the Swedish. I have to tell you that Hwang Sok-yong is a very strong candidate for this year’s Nobel Prize. How would it look if you had to take him out of prison to get to Stockholm?”. I turned around and left. They got him out.
J.L. I will give you a counter-story for that. I was in China in 2010. PEN has an Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC), which started in the early 2000’s. One of the founding members was Liu Xiaobo. Xiaobo was also very instrumental in drafting and helping to get signatures for this document called Charter 08. It was a vision for a democratic China. He was arrested and given an 11-year sentence in 2009. He won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2010. We were in China, in Beijing in 2010. Earlier my term as International Secretary had overlapped the years that Xiaobo was President of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC), but Liu Xiaobo was not allowed to leave mainland China, and I only got to Hong Kong so we never actually met in person, but we knew the same people. When I finally got to Beijing in 2010 right after he won the Nobel Prize, we were followed and taped, but we talked to many of the guards and people who were watching us. We said, “We are here and want to congratulate Liu Xiaobo who just won the Nobel Prize.” The PEN members that were there told what they did when he won. They had this big celebration. Many of them had minders from the government, so the police minders came into the room and pulled down the picture of Xiaobo from the wall and asked what they were doing. The PEN members answered that Liu Xiaobo had won the Nobel Peace Prize. “Who is he? Why did he win the Nobel prize? Why don’t we know about him?” the police asked. Nobody knew about him. The ICPC of course celebrated the news. Now I am happy to say there is a new book coming out. The Chinese writers have put together about 80 essays from democracy activists inside and outside China. The book is called The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Prize Laureate. I was asked and had the privilege of editing it in English. [Published now in 2020.]The last chapter is called “Heart to Heart,” and it is Xiaobo’s poetry to his wife, and her poetry to him. China had never had a Nobel Laureate for Peace before, and yet the whole time Liu Xiaobo was in prison, the Chinese regime buried his name and tried to deny his history. PEN will be part of making sure that the memory of this writer doesn’t die. The independent Chinese PEN is very active. PEN keeps alive the word, the writing, and the memories. It is an honour to do that.
G.A. Do you think some regional areas of the world need more PEN work today?
E.S. and J.L. Absolutely.
E.S. First of all, I would say that there are areas that have never been very good and are getting much worse. Russia is one example; Central Asia is another example, the Middle East too; Turkey is a very bad example. What’s really worrying is that even old democracies, like in Europe, and let’s not even mention the US, are falling back. Populism is growing; far-right movements are getting stronger, and it is as if people are forgetting the horrible times they have experienced. Even during the Cold War people were more conscious about keeping human values. Today, to lie is okay. Even politicians don’t respect the truth. It really scares me how easy it is to forget and go back to old, very primitive, reactions.
J.L. A positive side of that is the institutions are strong, and those who defend the concept of human rights defend them more than ever. We had a Congress in South Korea a few years ago and elected our very first North Korean PEN Centre in exile for the writers who had managed to get out. They have contact with those inside. As with the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, we can give a voice in countries like North Korea or China. When a country is in the process of opening up, PEN is often one of the NGOs that can begin to take roots and build a place for civil society to meet. I hope that is what will happen in Cuba so that the writers who subscribe to the PEN Charter, which is essentially a belief in freedom of expression and communication, find a place to congregate. If you can keep that space open, then when the society does begin to be attacked, it can become vigorous and show all the power from the community around it. We often grow stronger when we are attacked because we realise the absolute value of defending our principles. That is the optimism to this very dark view.
E.S. I think that is why PEN is more important than ever. We keep up the fight. And we are supporting all the good voices in the world. Russia is a good example. What happened last year was that we created a new PEN Centre with a fantastic group of people, nearly a hundred writers. They are very active, and their voice is heard. They are working with the only really important opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. They are inventive, active, brave. We are therefore optimistic about the future; I think it is possible to change.
G.A. What makes PEN different from other NGOs?
J.L. PEN is the only organisation that has under its umbrella poets, novelists, dramatists as well as journalists defending writers. The other main element is that we are case-based. There are other organisations that try to change the laws, but PEN essentially works on each writer’s case. Also, PEN was founded as a literary organisation. It is a place where writers meet each other from different cultures and celebrate literature. What it means to be a writer is not only about freedom of expression. It is about celebrating literature and translating it into each other’s languages. Eugene and I have been pretty much engaged in the freedom of expression aspect of PEN, but PEN has many voices, and these are very important as well. You go to a place like Turkey, when I was in that first conference I mentioned, I began my talk about the great literature of Turkey and Yasar Kemal’s wonderful books. The same is true in China and Russia. The citizens value their writers.
E.S. When I am in Saint Petersburg or Moscow with my Russian colleagues and writers, I always have that feeling. They discuss literature. In Norway, first they discuss money and fame, and how many languages they are translated into. But the Russian writers discuss literature, not only their literature. I always have the feeling that if I go to the next room, I will find Dostoyevsky or Lermontov, or whoever. They are discussing them as if they were still alive. What I think is different for PEN is that we are a family. We are more than just advocating for freedom of expression like Amnesty International. We are really a sect; you can say in a way.
J.L. As you imagine for a literary writer, a novelist, a poet, a dramatist, the imagination is hugely important. For some of these writers, like the case of the writers/prisoners in Western Sahara, they had very poor conditions. I still remember a few said: “We lived in Paris in our minds.” They were imprisoned in harsh conditions but could retreat to their imagination. We did a book called This Prison Where I Live. If you read through the stories and poems, the writers often found the little insects, the spiders, and they would become their world; they would just watch that little bit of life. And so, the imagination is where they had to live, because the physical space had been taken from them.
E.S. A story from Afghanistan I love is about a Western journalist who hears rumours that in this little village lives a very good poet. He wants to interview him. He finds him working in the field with his cow. He says “I heard you are a famous poet. Can I interview you?” “Well of course we can have an interview,” the man says. “But I think if you go over there, you’ll find the blacksmith. He is a better poet than me.” He goes to see the blacksmith, and he tells him, “Well yes, but you see the lady over there? She has 14 children but still she is the best poet.” It goes on like that. They say you find a poet in Afghanistan behind every stone. You have a country in such condition as the state of Afghanistan today, and you have a PEN Centre that is as active as they are.
J.L And with people from all the different cultures.
E.S. Exactly, yes. You even have languages and dialects in which there has never been a book. There is a language called Gori, spoken by let’s say 8-10 thousand people. When I was there, they were publishing the first ever book in Gori.
G.A. You helped create the Centre in Kabul.
E.S. We went with a Norwegian journalist. Her name is Elizabeth Eide; she is a specialist in Afghanistan. We went there to see if there were any writers left in Afghanistan. It was, I think, in 2002. The first thing we did was meet our only contact, a female poet. We asked if there were any writers, and she gathered 47 of them to meet us the next day.
And at the end of that meeting we created the Centre. Elizabeth asked the people if they had any questions, and a woman stood up and said: “I have one question. Why didn’t you come earlier?”
G.A. Is this still active today?
E.S. Very active. They have more than 600 members! [Because of the recent upheaval in Afghanistan you may want to omit this question or offer an update in brackets.]
G.A. Where would you like to see PEN in the next 100 years? What is the message you want to send to the new generations of writers?
J.L. I have no idea what a hundred years from now will look like, but I am sure that humanity will continue to imagine and think and write. My one message would be to care about your work, care about yourself and care about your fellow writers. And be there for them. It is a matter of caring and make sure you do your work, your own writing, your own imagination. And whatever the context is, however the world is, all digital or in outer space, whatever it is I am sure writing will still be going on.
E.S. I would say more or less the same. I agree with you completely. I think that that is the most important thing. I just want to add one thing: writers should never forget why they are writing. Their writing is more important than the reaction from the rest of the world. To create something is a gift in itself. The most important thing is the writing itself. To give that to us as a present is important. And PEN should be focused on helping all the writers to get into a position where they are able to write freely, without self-censorship or without any kind of censorship. That is why I hope in 50 years we will have a world in which we are not needed as human rights police.
J.L. Another word that comes to mind is cherish. To cherish your own gift. Cherish this talent you have because it is blessed. It blesses your life to be able to imagine and to write. So cherish your gift as a writer however the world responds to it. I told a young writer recently “I don’t know if you’ll be celebrated or not. But even if you are highly celebrated, the only thing I can assure you is that that will not fill you up. If the writing fills you up, then do it. But the celebration is not going to fill you up.”
E.S. Another thing I can explain is that I happened to become a good friend of Joseph Brodsky. He had a health condition and he went to Stockholm to see a physician. He stayed with me. One day he came to me to ask why I used so much time in PEN. “You are a good writer; you should write instead of all this.” Then he added, “Don’t you realise that most of these writers in prison are very bad writers?” I laughed and said, “Joseph, don’t forget we defended you when you were in prison!” I think that that is very important. We are not looking after the famous writers, but small ones. They are always much worse off. Fame is a kind of protection.
J.L. Also during the Nigerian Civil War General Gowon had taken as a prisoner a man called Wole Soyinka, and he was set up to be executed. Arthur Miller didn’t know Wole Soyinka, but he wrote a letter on his behalf, and a businessman took it to the General to ask him to release him. Soyinka was a young and not a highly celebrated writer. So, he might have been unknown, but he got out. And the legend says that General Gowon read his letter and said “Arthur Miller, is he married to Marilyn Monroe?” They said yes, so he said, “All right, let him out!” Was that the dynamic I cannot tell you, but it is in Miller’s memoirs. You are defending the human being. You are celebrating the fact that they are writers, but fame is not the definition of who we defend or not. When the fatwa came against Rushdie, he was pretty well known, and we defended him.
G.A. Rushdie was a big case.
J.L. What I remember is that I was President of PEN USA West. I was a young mother, and I was taking a vacation for a few days with my husband without my children. When we got to the airport, I opened the newspaper and saw the The Satanic Verses was being burned in Birmingham. We arrived, and the next day the Fatwa was issued. I was literally writing press releases on my hand and calling them in to our new executive director. After two days I told my husband I had to go back. I knew this couldn’t wait. I got the children to come out to be with him, and I went back. Our Centre mobilised. We were all aware of what an extraordinary situation this was, that a world-wide order was given to execute a writer. We held events; we protested; we worked with bookstores that were willing to put the book on the shelves. All over the world PEN Centres were protesting and holding events. It was extraordinary.
E.S. I was in Norway where the book was published by a publisher who declared openly that he was the publisher; that was brilliant. I met him [Rushdie] at a party at William’s [Nygaard, the publisher’s] house. It was the first time he appeared half officially. He was hiding in England. The first problem was finding a company that wanted to fly him; they didn’t want him as a passenger. And when he came to Norway, no one knew where he lived. Only William knew. The Norwegian government sent their foreign minister to meet him, and this was regarded as something dangerous too. Years after, I met him again in Spain, in a conference in Valladolid, and we went out for lunch. He told me he was tired of all this; he couldn’t take any more hiding. He knew that any day a lunatic could come and shoot him, but that is the only way he could live.
J.L. I moved to England in 1990, shortly after the fatwa. Every now and then Rushdie would appear at an event or party. I recall the PEN Congress in Santiago de Compostela in 1993 when I was elected Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee. It was very secret, but Rushdie was going to appear. Only a few of us knew. There was high security, and for the first time at a Congress you had to walk through metal detectors. We were at this big hotel. When Rushdie came, there was a massive crowd outside the place. His arrival was supposed to be a secret. It turned out that José Iglesias was also coming to stay at this hotel. All the crowd was there for him, not for Rushdie. Rushdie was a big case; a government was putting a death threat for a writer world-wide. That had never happened. Hopefully, it would never happen again.
G.A. Could you tell us about a case that is important for PEN International at the moment?
E.S. We have a very good writer and skilled journalist, called Ahmed Altar. I have followed him for many years. He has now a prison sentence for nearly a double lifetime. He has written a book which I am just now reading, and which is touching me deeply, I will never see the world again. He writes from the prison, describing his hopes. The way he tries to manage his fear, his despair. The way he expresses it is absolutely fantastic. And I think that to get him out is my main goal right now. Not only because of him as a person, also for what he represents. And he is such a good example of how bad the Turkish regime is treating people.
J. L. I was thinking because of this book I am doing on Liu Xiaobo, that even when someone is dead, PEN keeps working to give recognition to that writer. My time right now is spent working on this case. Because they [the Chinese government] never apologised for Liu Xiaobo, and they are trying very hard to bury his history and writing.
G.A. What is writing to you?
J.L. It is something almost equivalent to praying. When you are writing you are in touch with something larger than yourself, and you are listening. The ideas are coming, and they are shaping, and you are using language in a way that is revelatory. That doesn’t describe journalism. Journalism is sort of thinking rationally and putting the pieces together. I do that too. But fiction and creative writing is tapping in. With lots of thought and lots of outlining, but once you let go and start writing, you are in the zone of the imagination.
E.S. For me writing is heaven and hell. It can be the worst thing you can ever imagine. But when you have a flow, that comes from nowhere, you are in the middle of something. And you feel how it is growing inside your head and it comes out of your fingers.
J.L. You are tapping into a larger mind. It is from you, but you are tapping into something bigger than your human self.
E.S. Romantic writers used to say that feelings have their own life; you cannot control them, but you have to follow them.
J.L. Many fiction writers will say that the characters started telling them what they were going to do.
E.S. You have the story and what is behind the lines. The latest is the most important thing. You have to make the stories so that it is transparent. But also, sometimes you have to realise the people you are creating are cleverer than you. So, when things start going bad you realise you are forcing a character to do something they were not willing to do.
J.L. Also sometimes, when you are not sure what is next, you go back to your writing and you read where it is going. And your characters will tell you if you listen.
G.A. How many times do you read what you’ve written?
J.L. That is an important question because sometimes it is draft, after draft, after draft, to get it right. But writers like that too, to get a sense that it just sings. It is fun.
E.S. Sometimes people ask me how many pages I write per day, and that is impossible to answer. Some days, I have written one sentence and I am very, very satisfied. Another day, I can write seven pages and I am very dissatisfied. I feel like if I really succeed with one sentence, that makes my day.
J.L. Writers have similar processes but different methods and ways to getting it. Some will say they write a thousand words a day. There are different methodologies but a certain truth that comes through.
G.A. Are you happy when you finish a book?
J.L. Yes and no, because you are letting go of this place that you have inhabited, and you are handing it off to others. But then another book starts. You are off to another rise. My students used to ask me how I know when I’m done. And I used to say: “When I am published.” Because otherwise it goes in a drawer and a year later you pull it out and you are revising it again. It is constantly invading your mind; you can constantly shape it.
G.A. What is your relationship with your publishers?
J.L. The publisher of my last books retired and then passed away, so I don’t have a relationship with my publisher. I hope I will have one with my new agent.
G.A. Is it constructive or do you discuss a lot?
J.L. Well, it’s constructive but it’s about business so unless you are able to make a deal, then each moves on.
E.S. That is why I think I am lucky to be a Norwegian writer. I have a long relationship with my publisher. I have very good help from him when it comes to the literary part. In Norway, a publisher will never mention money or whether something is possible to sell or not. This is not an issue at all. That is because we have a routine where the Ministry of Culture buys 1,300 copies of everything that is published. That means that they can take the risk. That is wonderful. When I was in Italy, some of my Italian friends told me about some writers that have to pay to be published.
J.L. It is everybody’s dream to have a publisher, an agent and an editor who love you and support you. It is wonderful. It is not the norm, but it does happen.