Before her first book was even released, Monica Ali was the talk of the town. On the basis of only a few chapters, she was offered a generous publishing contract. Then, while her novel was still in manuscript form, she was named to Granta's once-a-decade list of Best Young British Novelists. With all the advance hype, readers and reviewers were skeptical. Could a debut novel really be worth all this hubbub? In 2003, the question was laid to rest, when Brick Lane was published to rapturous acclaim and almost instant bestsellerdom.
The daughter of English and Bangladeshi parents, Ali came to England when she was three years old. She studied at Oxford, graduating with honors in 1989, and worked in publishing and design before settling down to raise a family. After her children were born, she wrote a few short stories -- more to sharpen her skills than to satisfy any real creative impulse. In truth, she found the format of short fiction a bit constraining and longed for something more challenging. Finally, she summoned the courage to attempt a novel. A few chapters in, she succumbed to the urge for constructive feedback and showed what she had written to a friend in publishing. Within a week, she was offered a two-book deal.
Focused on a young Muslim housewife living in a small, almost invisible Bangladeshi community in London, Brick Lane offers a bird's-eye view of the immigrant experience in all its cross-cultural confusion. London's Observer had this to say: "Brick Lane has everything: richly complex characters, a gripping story and an exploration of a community that is so quintessentially British that it has given us our national dish, but of which most of us are entirely ignorant." And the New York Times praised Ali's eloquent, restrained style: "[T]he language of Brick Lane seems both deliberately unflamboyant and metaphorically precise."
In 2006, Ali delivered her long-awaited sophomore effort, the melancholy mood piece Alentejo Blue. A work of episodic fiction midway between a novel and a series of linked stories, the book was well reviewed, although it never achieved the acclaim of Brick Lane. Generally viewed as one of our best contemporary writers, Ali continues to produce fiction in both its long and short forms.
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In our interview, Ali shared some fascinating facts about herself:
"I started writing short stories when my eldest child was about a year old. I'd go onto the Internet late at night and swap ‘crits' with other aspiring writers."
"I started writing Brick Lane when my children were two years and five months old. We were on holiday in the north of England when I was overtaken by a compulsion to start writing. My husband was kind enough to take the children outside while I drew the curtains against the sun and sat there in my pajamas with a pen and paper."
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In the summer of 2003, Monica Ali took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
The Bell by Iris Murdoch. I was ten years old, I think, when my mother took me to our local town library and, instead of leading me as usual to the children's or "young adults" sections, headed for the main fiction department and selected this for me. I felt as if I had been initiated. I remember being riveted by this book. It invited me to engage with it in new and different ways to anything I had read before. I was delighted to have to wrestle with it. For the first time, I was aware of being asked to consider what lay behind the surface of the characters and their dialogues. Some of that dialogue would perhaps make me wince a little now. But as a young girl it excited me a great deal, and I kept on going back to those library shelves.
What are your ten favorite books -- and what makes them special to you?
These are in no particular order, and the list would probably change a bit depending on which day you ask me. But today's top ten is as below.
Emma by Jane Austen -- A favorite from my school days, and it would always hold its place my heart. Austen's characters are always devastatingly good, and Emma is, for me, her best creation.
A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul -- His masterpiece. I love the blend of comedy and tragedy, and every time I read it, I ache afresh for Biswas.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole -- The author committed suicide after failing to find a publisher for this book, which went on to win the Pulitzer after his mother persevered in getting the book into print. It is the funniest book I have ever read.
A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee -- I picked this up from a bookshop display, knowing nothing about it, and bought it on a whim. I started it on the train on the way home and then read it through the night. Lee's beautiful, understated prose is so finely controlled it makes me want to cry with envy.
Wittgenstein by Ray Monk -- I first read this on holiday sitting on a Portuguese cliff top overlooking the Atlantic. What I love about this book is how clever it makes me feel. Of course, it is Monk who is the clever one, allowing his readers to approach Wittgenstein's work without the onset of a calamitous headache.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- Scarcely need to explain this one.
A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge -- Technically perhaps not her best book (I'd go for Every Man for Himself or Master Georgie) but a personal favorite. Bainbridge draws heavily on her own difficult childhood here and re-creates beautifully the tensions of an ordinary unhappy home.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- I first read this in my early teens, dangling upside-down off the end of my bed. My mother used to come in and warn about the perils of all the blood rushing to my head, but I ignored her. I think I was trying to create a physical intensity to match the emotional intensity of that first reading.
Swami and Friends by R. K. Narayan -- My father introduced me to Narayan, and I'm still in love with his audaciously simple prose.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene -- I could have gone for a number of other Greene titles. Perhaps my fondness for this one derives from having read it in Mexico, where the novel is set.
Favorite films?Pather Panchali
The Big Sleep
You Can Count On Me
Anything by John Sayles
I'm very eclectic in my music tastes -- anything from Nina Simone to Beethoven to Talvin Singh. At the moment I'm playing Norah Jones.
What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I get really excited if I think I'm going to introduce somebody to a writer they haven't found before and I think they'll love. My favorite books to get as gifts are any that the giver is messianic about.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
I go through crushes. I'm a big Updike fan. He has a special gift of making the ordinary extraordinary. I was blown away by Annie Proulx when I first discovered her. I'd been reading Hemingway and Carver immediately beforehand and then gorged myself her luscious texts. But I come back to Carver again and again. I like Beryl Bainbridge a great deal, and she is a writer who absolutely demands to be read a second, third, and fourth time. I admire her great courage in leaving so much unsaid and asking the reader to really engage her brain.
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