Louise Brown is an academic at Birmingham University in England and the author of several books on Asia. She frequently returns to Lahore, Pakistan.
Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.
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In our interview, Brown shared some fun facts about herself with us:
"I have red hair, and I like it. In England red hair is seen like an affliction or a disability. Any redhead who is anyone dyes their hair blonde. I like Bree on Desperate Housewives because I see her as a mascot for all us redheaded women. A couple of years ago a girl on the supermarket checkout said I was lucky that none of my children had red hair. I was stunned because I'd always been a little disappointed that I'd given birth to blondes and brunettes. Here redheads are seen as mad, ugly, or alien."
"I got my first job when I was 14. I was a petrol pump attendant and car valet during the school holidays, and the money was good. I was the best-dressed car valet in town. After that I worked during weekends in a camping shop and then later in a greengrocers for a couple of years. Even now the smell of rotten potatoes makes me gag. Whenever I see a blush of white mould on oranges in the fruit bowl I remember how the boss made us slip bad, overripe oranges into old ladies' bags, hiding them under the plump, firm, shiny ones: cheap produce for the poorer consumer. We girls on the till disliked him and left at night, silently removing our aprons while thinking of the old ladies at home with their moldy oranges. I used to wish that I could be back vacuuming and polishing cars."
"Exercise is the best way to unwind. I know this because I've done it for years and it works -- except that I have neglected my regime of late and now I look, feel and am middle aged. I haven't been to the gym for months and it really shows. Soon, very soon, however I will be back on the rower and plowing up and down the swimming pool. I will be a better person and nicer to know. I might even be a more attractive person to look at. I'd send photos as proof but I have no faith in the accuracy of photography: the camera all too frequently lies."
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In the winter of 2006, Louise Brown took time out time to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
This is such a difficult question. I can't pick out one single book that had such a profound personal impact. The importance and influence of books on me has been cumulative: the result of hearing and reading lots of stories about interesting people and places. In particular, I remember the excitement of story time at primary school, our teachers Mr. Williams and Mrs. MacLellan reading Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. I've never forgotten the thrill of being transported into a magical, mythical world by those stories -- nor the fear.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
When I was a child and teenager I read whenever I had the opportunity, but since then I've found it hard to read as much as I'd like, children, work, and pets all providing powerful incentives to escape into a book and a practical reason why I rarely do so. Reading is my greatest luxury. I have a large pile of novels on my bedside table, and I look at them frequently, promising myself that I will find the time to read them.
On the top of the pile is Louis de Bernieres's Captain Corelli's Mandolin. I've started reading it several times. It is beautifully evocative: I can almost smell the Greek islands, see the quality of the light, and feel the sun on my face when I turn the pages. Next time I'm on a long-haul flight, this will be the book I read.
I can't think of a more moving testament to the human spirit and a more profound answer to all those who complain of writer's block than Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly. Bauby, who was paralyzed by a stroke, wrote this book by flickering his eyelid. His ability to create something beautiful in the midst of so much personal trauma is humbling.
I enjoyed and admired The Reader by Bernhard Schlink for its sensitive retelling of the Holocaust, made all the more accessible to readers of today by its nuanced, intelligent take on the multiple faces of atrocity.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood should be required reading for its imaginative scope and feminist sensibility. I wish I could write a book like this.
I have a good collection of cookery books. This is not so much because I like cooking, but because I like eating. My well-loved copy of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking was gnawed by the dog when she was a puppy but it is still serviceable. The book is a gastronomic tour through France, a good read, and contains delicious recipes. It instructs the reader on the preparation of the kind of food I remember from my school exchange visit to France, a program in which we British children went to stay with French families to experience real French life. It was a revelation. I stayed with a family of hospitable connoisseurs, the mother's work revolving around the production of fabulous meals: hours spent in the kitchen, filleting fish, skinning rabbits, making pate, preparing stocks. It was loving work and worth all the effort when we sat down to relaxed, leisurely lunches and beautiful wine. Elizabeth David's book gives me a reminder of that life. Although my lunches may not be as leisurely the food tastes almost as good, and after the stress of cooking, the wine tastes even better.
My other favorite cookery book is Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery, a BBC book from the 1980s that accompanied a television series. I have some of her other books but I like this one most, so much so that it has curled up edges, a sticky cover, and is stained yellow with a combination of age and spilled turmeric. What I love about Madhur Jaffrey's recipes is her ability to instruct willing but clueless novices in the art of creating the authentic taste of north Indian food: lavish dinner party dishes; picnic food; light and fragrant lunches; the long-labored-over meals that are given with such generosity when you are invited to an Indian family's home; the smell and taste of spicy street snacks. I think Madhur Jaffrey's dining room must be a very good place to be.
Every year I teach dozens of students at the University of Birmingham. Most of the students on the gender and sexuality courses are women. I guess this is because the boys don't think that gender applies to them: that it's a subject for girls. The young women in my classes are feisty and clever and believe, often with the passion of youthful optimism, that feminism is a battle already won. I worry for them -- and for my daughters, too. So I'd suggest that everyone read Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth and Susan Faludi's Backlash -- well-argued reminders that women have difficult times ahead in Western societies and that the oppression of women is not something found only outside the West, in places like Heera Mandi, but is woven, subtly and often just as powerfully into the fabric of the societies we live in.
Much of my reading time over the last decade and a half has been spent reading aloud to my children. Those children's bedtime rituals of supper, bath, stories, and sleep have been a staple of my life and some of the best, most special times I can remember. We looked over old, familiar picture books when they were little and later, when they were older, I read the next chapter of our latest book as two eyes at first wide with excitement, and then half closed with sleep, peeped over the duvet.
I was sorry when I stopped reading to my youngest child a year or so ago. It felt like the sad end of an era. Our favorites in the early years were story and picture books by Dick King-Smith: Dodo the Naughty Dog and I'm the Greatest, a simple tale about an even naughtier cockerel. And then when they were older we liked King-Smith's series about an unusual, high-spirited little girl called Sophie, and Joan G. Robinson's series about a adorable, clever toy bear called Teddy Robinson. We also loved E. B. White's Charlotte's Web -- a story about a spider. I have an inordinate fondness for these books and have not sent them to the charity shops with the rest of the old books but am saving them for my grandchildren who will no doubt wonder why Grandma Louise reads them stories from another time.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I liked Gladiator, partly because of its epic dimensions but mostly because of Russell Crowe as the strong but sensitive hero. I don't imagine there were many men like him in ancient Rome, but if there were I wish I could have met them.
Recently I watched Downfall, the German film about Hitler's last days in the Berlin bunker. It reveals Hitler in all his monstrous, crazed, yet believable humanity. Like Schlink's book on the Holocaust, it shows us that the potential for terrible deeds is within us all.
I like lots of Bollywood films and especially Pakheeza because I think I know what oft-told stories like this mean to the women of Heera Mandi. The film is a glamorization of an ancient trade but it contains an element of truth -- and hope.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like many types of music and probably too many to mention here. I listen to music when I write, cook, drive, clean, eat, put on makeup. It is indispensable when I am writing, and I like to play
music that helps conjure up the place I'm writing about. I have a taste for ghazals, particularly by Gulam Ali and Noor Jehan, and qawwali music by the brilliant Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Rajasthan has some of the finest, haunting folk songs, and recordings of Hari Prasad Chaurasia, India's master of the flute, are inspirational. I am in awe of Kayhan Kalhor on the kamancheh and I'd recommend Ghazal's album The Rain to anyone with the vaguest interest in non-Western music. It's an exhilarating introduction to Persian and Indian improvisations.
When I'm not writing, and even when I am, I like listening to Aimee Mann, Sarah McLachlan, Coldplay, Stereophonics, Richard Ashcroft, Radiohead, and lots of Motown, soul, and 1970s dance music. Sometimes I like to play the soundtracks to famous musicals so we can all sing along. South Pacific is one of my favorites. Our neighbors must hate us.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to get and give cookery books -- books to whet the taste buds and encourage me and (hopefully) my hosts. Books on travel are also good: the best being the kind of writing and pictures to inspire an escape or, at the very least, a flight of fancy.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Most of my writing has been done amid chaos: piles of essays; lecture notes; utility bills; memos from school; old crisp packets; children's homework. The paper chase of life. Or it has been done in Heera Mandi, sitting on an old mattress, scribbling in a big notebook, surrounded by yet more children. The same stuff of life, but in a different, poorer setting. Sometimes I have had the best of places in which to write: a chair on the roof of Iqbal Hussain's home in Heera Mandi; or leaning on the wall of Maha's roof terrace overlooking the Badshahi Masjid. But, in truth, the only things I really need in order to write are a good fountain pen with a broad, smooth nib, and heavy, lined writing paper, like velum. And then, what I really, really need is a computer that works.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a nonfiction book on Nepal and a novel about diasporas.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdote?
I could write an entertaining novel about rejection slips, but I fear it would be overly long. As a penniless student, burdened by debt, I set about crafting something I thought would sell. I bought a selection of short, romantic fiction novels, studied them, decided that I had found a formula and then wrote a book that I figured was the perfect story. Thank goodness it was rejected. Twenty years later, and 19 years after abandoning the formula approach (if not the debt) my work was still being rejected despite being anything but formula. The Dancing Girls of Lahore was offered to dozens of British publishers and was turned down by everyone. It is still on offer in the U.K., but I'm not confident there will be any takers. I'm lucky to have a wonderful, persistent agent but even he couldn't work miracles. It took a brave editor in the U.S. to sign a contract for Dancing Girls, and without her belief in the book, I'm not sure it would ever have found its way into print.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Never give up. And most importantly, be true to yourself. Write from your heart, in your own voice, and about what you believe in. Don't write the book you think publishers want to commission. Plenty of other writers will be doing the same thing. Remember that what you have is unique because it's your own special way of looking at the world. The richest most meaningful stories are found in small places: made, carried, crafted, told, and retold by apparently unimportant people.
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