My first novel was published quietly, as most first novels are. It drifted out, was noted in a couple of group reviews and that was that until it won a significant literary prize and I became the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. At this point I found myself the rags to riches hero of several short press stories that run under variations of the headline ‘Forklift Truck Driver Wins Literary Prize’. The articles were more or less following a model prefabricated for them by ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and other TV shows: surprisingly soulful pleb sings his way to triumph. This didn’t seem quite accurate to me. A more representative story might have been ‘Oxford Graduate Wins Literary Prize’ or ‘Published Poet Wins Fiction Prize’ or even the angle that I think the Jewish Chronicle went with, ‘Rabbi’s Son Wins Literary Prize’. Nevertheless, it was true enough. I had driven a forklift when working in a warehouse.

The warehouse was the last in a line of menial jobs, mostly in retail, which had lasted for some years and from which I’d finally emerged blinking into the light when my first novel was picked up by a publisher. That initial dazzlement was literal. I first met my publisher in their confident little skyscraper of a building in the West End after a day of work in the warehouse. There was a receptionist who smiled at me and gave me a laminated pass. I surged upwards in a lift and took a moment to check if I smelled of sweat. When the doors opened I was greeted by smiling strangers who spoke rapidly as they ushered me into a small office with a floor-to-ceiling window facing Writing is not a profession, nor should it be constricted or necessitated by any sense of responsibility. the declining sun. I squinted while they continued saying warm and welcoming things to me. This was the first time I’d met anyone who had read my work without me giving it to them personally. Four or five people seemed to have read the novel and were offering their comments and the sensation this produced was of things suddenly loose and afloat and circulating beyond my control. Control of a kind was one thing I’d always had, control and a stubborn resilient strength. That toughness, the obstinacy and long endurance to write the book, to take the rejections along the way and to bring this hoped-for day about, was now obsolete. The life I’d lived for some years was outmoded; I had to walk away from it. Not infrequently in the months that followed, I wished I was back in the warehouse, among the pallets and towering racks, and regretted that it was impossible. Well, perhaps not impossible but nonsensical. It would have been absurd to return. Keith and Pete would have thought I was mad.

There are two options for the young writer and employment. There is the proper job, whatever it might be – law, advertising, medicine or the default choice for many, academia. Or there’s the menial, rent-paying job. I chose the latter. The advantage of this course is that those jobs don’t require any thought or bear any significant responsibility. My entire mental space was available for writing and my job never came home with me. The disadvantages are obvious: poor pay, low status and dim prospects if writing doesn’t work out. I was annoyed now and again when I noticed that I’d somehow omitted to become a doctor like Chekhov and instead was sailing past my thirtieth birthday wearing a visi-vest in a warehouse in Tufnell Park. My university friends had become lawyers, academics, doctors. Some of them had cars and homes.

Still, when I wasn’t in the grip of these moments of anxiety, I liked being in the warehouse. Working manually, my arms and back getting stronger, was satisfying. I liked being left alone with my thoughts, my inner world intricate and colourful, uninterrupted by the monotonous work. I liked whizzing around in the forklift. I liked the people. There was a different kind of internationalism to the kind I was familiar with from university – Somali delivery men and artic drivers from Moldova and Romania appearing among the white, working class Londoners. I liked the pigeons and clouds, (the pigeons no longer liable to be shot down with the air pistol the previous manager had left in a drawer in the office). I liked the weeds that grew up through cracks in the composite surfacing of the industrial estate. Recalling the place now, I find myself missing it again. It was a healthy place to be a writer, appropriate to the calling. Writing is not a profession, nor should it be constricted or necessitated by any sense of responsibility. Prizes and public positions can confer a false monumentality to the image of writing, making it seem solid, respectable, almost institutional. It isn’t. It’s a marginal activity, poorly paid. It exists for its own sake because it is determined to, the lovely weeds flowering in the cracks of the working world.

 

Photograph © Mark Eslick 

Salman Rushdie on Sunjeev Sahota
Turkish Granta | Interview