Though he’s still happily employed as a barrister too, Imran Mahmood made the transition to writing novels easily: his 2017 debut novel You Don’t Know Me, about an unnamed defendant up against insurmountable evidence whose fate lies in readers’ very hands (you the reader, it happens, are a member of the jury), was hailed by critics and promptly garnered nominations for the Glass Bell Award, the CWA Gold Dagger and Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year.
No wonder, then, that the BBC jumped on the chance to turn Mahmood’s book into a four-part mini-series, now airing on BBC One and iPlayer – it’s a terrific and gripping tale that raises questions of justice and our pre-conceived notions about identity. With his second novel I Know What I Saw out this year as well, it felt like the right moment to reach out to Mahmood with our 21 Questions about life and literature. Below, he talks about the formative literature of his youth, the “melodic” beauty of the Qu’ran, and asking George Michael what he does for a living.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
For me there is no one writer because books are like pieces of music – it all depends on your mood and what you’re looking for. And then some writers are different creatures even across their own work (like Donna Tartt or Kazuo Ishiguro). But if I have to pick one, I would go with Harper Lee. The sheer prodigious skill it takes to narrate in the voice of a child is one thing, but the effect is mind-blowing when you pair the innocence of the voice with the horrors that it describes. It’s warm, clever, sad, moving, beautiful storytelling at its finest. Lee only really wrote one book, but To Kill a Mockingbird is so good that no body of work by any relatively modern author can touch it in my opinion.
What was the first book you remember loving as a child?
The very first books were the Enid Blyton ones. The Wishing Chair and The Magic Faraway Tree – I loved the worlds that she was able to conjure up in a few strokes, worlds although light years away from my own were so filled with wonder and light that it felt like a doorway to a safe haven. And when I was older, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?
I loved the French ones, L’Étranger by Camus or Le noeud de vipères by Mauriac and all the others in between. I was studying French at the time, and I loved the way that the French novels captured time and place and mood so well. The books always felt accessible because of the relatively spare prose, but the impact was in many ways all the greater for the economy.
Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path
The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. This was a way for me to not just connect to a spiritual world which I always felt existed, but to connect in a way that stretched across time. He wrote almost 1000 years ago, and yet the love he wrote about has remained unchanged across all of that time. It makes me see in a tangible way not just how connected we are to our forebears and to ancient history, but to one another. We still hold the same things as important. We still yearn for something greater than ourselves.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
I once worked in a leather warehouse selling skin to the fashion industry. By the end of my time there I could identify the origins, the tanning, and the quality of the leather on your handbag at 100 paces!
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
When I showed my wife the first full-length manuscript of the first thing I ever wrote, she said, “Try and write similar to that but less boring!”
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)
I avoid re-reading books. I know this is not at all what most people want to hear or do – but there are so many millions of books out there that I am itching to read that I never get round to re-reading. I once saved a book I thought was the best book I had ever read – for 20 years – savouring the idea of re-reading it once I had totally forgotten it.
But when I re-read it, I didn’t like it anymore. I’d grown out of it, I guess, and I wonder whether where you are in your life is such a big influence on how you receive a book that re-creating that feeling is impossible. I get an inkling of it when I read To Kill a Mockingbird or Lolita or Frankenstein but it’s never the same as the first time.
What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?
If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______
A barrister, which I am!
What makes you happiest?
I love writing and I love being in court defending. But the happiest I am is when I am home with my family. No, scrap that – on holiday with my family.
What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?
I love painting – though it’s hard to find the time these days. I also love woodwork. When my elder daughter was born I spent weekends making things for her, including a chair and a desk with a chalkboard top! We still have it, and when I look at the things I made it transports me back to that time when she was new and I was a new parent.
What is your ideal writing scenario?
With the day job (and now with screenwriting), I have to take the time wherever I can find it. I will write in the robing room at court or on the train back from court, at the weekends and in the middle of the night when I can't sleep. Literally every spare moment is an opportunity. (I'm writing these answers on the bus on my way to Court!)
What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?
When I was 21 I was somehow invited to the party to celebrate Neneh Cherry’s wedding. I turned up to the venue about an hour early, and it was deserted – the only other person in there was at the bar. So, I went over to say hi and was shocked to see it was George Michael. He nodded politely at me as I introduced myself.
Then, finding myself lost for words I asked, “So what do you do for a living?” He told me he was a musician, and I felt I had to keep up the pretence, so I asked him what instrument he played. I think he must have known that I had painted myself into a corner!
If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?
I would have Jalaluddin Rumi. More mystic than writer, but nonetheless an absolutely astonishing Sufi poet. I would order in something that he would never have experienced before. Maybe a Nando’s!
What’s your biggest fear?
I think all parents fear the same thing – that something awful might happen to them or their families. But if we can sweep away that obvious (and morbid) answer, currently my biggest fear is that we have caused irreparable damage to our planet for the sake of the wealth of a handful of industrialists and political leaders. Everyone is telling us that disaster is coming for us, but we are ignoring it. It feels like being in a waking nightmare.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
The power of clairvoyance!
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?
I read a book called Hell of a Book by Jason Mott. As soon as I finished it I said, “This is going to win all the prizes” – and it has. It’s a beautiful and moving story dealing with huge themes but centrally the absurdity of a world that defines itself and divides itself along racial lines.
Reading in the bath: yes or no?
Who has time for a bath?! (And reading in the shower is tricky.) But yes, I used to pre-kids.
Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?
What is the best book you’ve ever read?
The Qu’ran. It’s cheating, I know, but for me and millions of Muslims around the world it is the most beautiful book: melodic when recited out loud and profound when read to oneself. Every sura is a universe unto itself.
What inspired you to write your book?
I Know What I Saw is about a middle-aged man who witnesses a murder. When he reports it to police, he isn’t believed because the murder he describes is impossible. But alongside that, his credibility is under question because he is homeless.
But he never started out that way: he started life in what was ostensibly a position of privilege – as an Oxbridge graduate, no less. Xander, the protagonist, is based on someone I met as a teenager in Liverpool. He would come to the local library (I thought to get warm) but in fact he was there to read. He read everything from Proust to New Scientist. I later found out he had been to Oxford. He was an incredibly bright and cultured man, and I never stopped wondering what had brought to him where I found him.
You Don't Know Me is out now.
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