Irfan Master worked at the National Literacy Trust for over three years as a project manager. He worked alongside football clubs to inspire children and adults to engage with reading and writing, using their enthusiasm for the sport as a catalyst. He has just published his first book, A Beautiful Lie, which has just been shortlisted for Waterstone's Children's Book Prize 2011. In this interview Irfan talks more about his writing and the impact his upbringing had on his work.
Have you always wanted to be an author?
Yes, ever since I was about 11 years old. I convinced myself at quite a young age that no matter what anybody said or whether my work was published or not, I would be a writer. The funny thing is from about the age of 11 to 30 I kept the fact that I was a writer completely secret. I never spoke about it, I just did it.
In the world I came from it wasn’t cool to say that you wanted to be a writer or read books. I always wanted to be a writer but I just kept it hidden for 20 odd years which was a strange state of mind to be in.
It’s quite impressive you managed to keep it secret for so long!
Yes kind of, I was a little bit embarrassed. I thought to myself, “What makes me a writer? What is special about my writing?”. My confidence wasn’t there and I didn’t really have teachers that encouraged me into thinking that I was going to do well. I was average. Not because I wasn’t intelligent or couldn’t achieve but it was just the world I came from. I was the first to go to university in my family and the attainment I was gearing towards was to get a good degree and a job. And there’s nobody more surprised than me about where I am now.
Do you think academic ability is a prerequisite for being a good writer?
Not necessarily, I would say that I learnt how to write by osmosis. I know lots of people want to write but I read first and then I wrote. This two pronged approach to writing worked for me. I also studied Literature at university and took some creative writing courses and plugged away at it for years. So I would say a combination of both academic ability and determination. Although, I would never say to a budding author that university is the only path to becoming a successful writer.
Where did you find the original impulse to write A Beautiful Lie?
My family background I guess, my mother comes from Pakistan and my father’s from India which renders them culturally different. I was very curious about what this cultural difference really meant when I was a teenager and found it especially odd because they [Pakistan and India] used to be one country. I researched the Indian partition and discovered it was a brutal and painful time in their shared history. It was the sundering of an ancient culture with a line drawn through a map which divided it into two.
As I got older, I began to think about writing something about partition specifically aimed at educating younger people. I started asking younger people what they knew about partition and discovered that some hadn’t even heard of it. Those that did had a very vague knowledge base. I also discovered that partition wasn’t talked about among the adult community. So when writing A Beautiful Lie I wanted to address the Indian partition period in a story that would really connect with people and that’s what I set out to do, and in a slightly ambitious way I tried to tie it all together.
What was it like trying to capture the voices of your characters, especially the younger characters, and are any of these characters only be found in India?
People that have read the book have said that the story is transferable across the borders. In essence, the story is about a boy and his relationship with his father. I would say it’s a love story but not in the conventional sense. It’s not a romance: it is the absolute love of a boy for his father. The setting of India and partition as a backdrop just makes it that little bit more intriguing because it’s a controversial event that’s happened in our history and our lifetime.
Did you have a readership in mind when you were putting the story together?
Not so much initially, once I had the story idea in my head I just started writing. I wanted it to be simple and effective in terms of language and style. I didn’t want it to be densely packed with lots of historical information and I didn’t want it to be politically obtuse either. I wanted it to be a story about people on the ground. I wanted this to be accessible to everyone from teenagers to 70 year-olds who lived through partition and the feedback I’ve had is that anyone can pick this book up, find it a great story and enjoy it.
I am really keen that my book is used to educate children and young people and I am available for school visits should any teachers or librarians want me to come and talk to their pupils. Visit irfanmaster.com for more information.
It’s been traditionally said that girls enjoy reading more than boys. Why do you think this might be?
I think boys assimilate and absorb information in a different way to girls. Boys are good readers who read a lot but it’s just not the type of reading that’s qualified as “valid” reading. If a boy is reading the sports pages in the newspaper then he’s reading, he’s just not reading literary fiction. This doesn’t make it less valuable because he is probably assimilating information about what’s happening politically, socially and economically. Since the National Year of Reading 2008, we [at the National Literacy Trust] have tried to expel the myth if you’re not reading fiction you’re not reading at all.
The advantage of reading literary fiction is that it allows readers to have a more rounded view about a subject and the opportunity to humanise a story and interact with the characters which they might not get from reading news articles. Books just need to be accessible, if it means boys are reading more graphic novels I’m all for that. I used to love reading graphic novels, as long as the story is there that’s the key.
Do you think TV and computers are a distraction from reading?
This might be an odd answer but no. I think video games are becoming more complex if anything. In fact game developers employ writers to write plot lines because young people no longer want one dimensional characters blowing things to pieces they want a plot backdrop with characters, relationships and interactions.
I think the same goes for television. One of the greatest influences for my work and a valuable cultural reference is film. It’s fine if children watch TV, it’s a way for them to become savvier about the world. But moderation is always a good thing. So if children come home from school at 4pm and spend four hours in front of the television, I don’t think that’s good for anybody, everything in some kind of balance makes a lot of sense.
Are there any authors living or dead that you would name as your influences?
I grew up reading different types of fiction and poetry, it’s just so difficult to choose! I’d say Charles Dickens, and I also like David Almond’s work, I like Michael Rosen and Benjamin Zephaniah for their poetry. I like all kinds of different authors; I could name a hundred different authors in different categories from poetry to adult fiction and teen fiction, I like the work of so many.