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Author Dinaw Mengestu on his craft: ‘Writing is a source of angst’

Author Dinaw Mengestu

Tonia Cowan/The Globe and Mail

Dinaw Mengestu is the author of three novels, most recently the acclaimed All Our Names. He's been on the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list and currently is the Lannan Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University.

Why did you write your new book?

I don't think I would have written it if I felt like I had a choice. There were characters, ideas, sentences, voices that had been rumbling in my head for too long to ignore, and once I began to set them in motion – once I wrote a few paragraphs, I was obliged to keep returning to the story. As difficult and frustrating as it is to write, it's much worse to have a story and not be able to set it down. Writing is a source of angst, daily disappointments, all of which happens in profound privacy. Not writing – that would probably provoke some form of delusional madness, and I like my sanity, and the bursts of joy that come with it.

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Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

I've always loved Saul Bellow for his over-stuffed, and at times almost incomprehensible, prose. He demands more, and puts more into a sentence than most writers would risk in a paragraph. The effect is disorientating, exciting, and frustrating all at the same time, which means the reader is never bored, never complacent, and has to rise to the occasion, or walk away angry, or perhaps defeated.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

A friend once told me: leave New York. Go away, and the things you care about and need will still be there. Shortly afterwards I began to travel, constantly, for years, and my life is vastly richer for it. There is more than one way of living in this world – more than one culture, regardless of how dominant it may seem, and spending years abroad is the only way to experience that fully, and not just as an idea to accept, or reject.

Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?

None. I'm not very romantic about the past. I like to think we've progressed, gradually, in spurts. We've managed to do away with slavery. We tend to shun overt forms of discrimination and violence based on race, gender, and sexuality. We have soap, and antibiotics, and all sorts of ways of reaching and finding one another. We have nuclear weapons as well, but so far we've managed not to use those.

Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten or legendary after death?

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After death? There's nothing that I can see waiting on the other side, so yes, I'll happily take all I can in this world, but never if it means making some form of aesthetic compromise. If I have to feel cheap about my work, then I'll take death, with or without the fame. At least that way my children will have something to admire, or resent.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

Despise is probably to harsh – but A Tale of Two Cities has never sat well with me, and I doubt it would if I tried again.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

Noah – you get to literally save the world and repopulate it, plus you still have a huge yacht at the end of the flood.

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

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Most fictional characters don't end all that well – at least not the ones that I read. I certainly don't want to be any of mine.

What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

If my readers knew me the way my friends, or family do, I'd be curious how I would answer the question: "How do your novels serve as a sort of map of your life?" In both large and minor ways, my stories return to all the places I've lived in, or was born in, sometimes only briefly, and almost always in radically altered form. I understood only recently that together they form some sort of strange virtual, fictional map – a landscape of small towns, large cities, from Africa to the U.S. with pit stops in Europe. I wonder, if I stopped traveling, if I would run out of things to write about, and I wonder as well how so many wonderful writers are able to mine the depths of a single place. I have a restless streak in me I suppose, and my stories are a reflection of that – a fact that I've come to rather late.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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