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An Exclusive Q&A with Hisham Matar on My Friends

Posted on 4th January 2024 by Mark Skinner

Following three friends Khaled, Mustafa and Hosam who are bound together by their shared history and experience as political exiles in Britain, My Friends is the new novel from the author of In the Country of Men, A Month in Siena and award-winning autobiography The Return. In this exclusive Q&A Hisham Matar discusses the inspiration behind My Friends.

What was the inspiration for My Friends

I wrote a paragraph and, a decade and two books later—I wrote The Return and A Month in Siena during that time—I couldn’t stop thinking about it: the voice of the narrator, the sentences… That paragraph now forms the opening page of My Friends

My Friends is told over the course of one day yet spans decades. How did you decide how to structure the novel? 

Those first lines, and part of why I couldn’t get them out of my head, take place in one of those moments when time seems to open, or become porous, or less certain somehow. A farewell at St Pancras between two dear friends, and the one left behind, our narrator, decides that instead of taking the bus back home to Shepherd’s Bush, he would walk across town. Everything that he feels at that moment finds expression across that journey. 

My Friends follows three friends living in political exile. Why did you want to write a novel about friendship? What does friendship mean to you?  

Well, it’s as important as love and family, and yet there’s less written on it, and less still on male friendships. 

A key event in My Friends is the real-life shooting at the Libyan Embassy in London in 1984, at which two friends in the novel are wounded. What research did you undertake during the writing process? 

I did some research on various details surrounding that event, and was lucky to have a couple of excellent assistants who helped with that, but what I could never have learnt through research was the sort of things I gleaned from old friends who were present at the demonstration that day. 

London is at the heart of My Friends; your previous book, A Month in Siena, saw you exploring art and grief in that Italian town. What interests you about the relationship between cities and literature? 

I think each city has its own mentality and temperament, which inhabit us as much as we inhabit the city. Cities are also works in progress. Always changing. And yet it takes a lifetime to understand such a place. Perhaps as long as it takes to understand oneself. All this business is just as easy to exaggerate as it is to dismiss. 

Which novels, artworks or pieces of music inspired My Friends?

In the three years I was writing the book, I reread much of Joseph Conrad and Jean Rhys. The structure of Chopin’s Etudes was also useful: the short ‘chapters’, the call and answer between them, and how each is a miniature, but their accumulative effect is both intimate and also hard to measure. I wanted the intimacy of human life captured against the scale of history. Also, and this might sound a little odd, Titian’s paintings were very useful to me. Two things in particular about them: one narrative; the other visual or sensory. The narrative one is to do with his strange ambivalence, the way that, even in his most passionate works, there is a suspended reluctance. And Khaled, my protagonist, is, as his friends tease him, reluctant. And the sensory one is to do with the surface of things. Books, sentences, prose is, as well as everything else that it is, a surface. And I wanted its ‘material’ to have that vivid ambiguity of a late Titian painting—to be emerging and receding at once, and constantly contingent. This remains very much an abbreviated and incomplete list. I am indebted to so many artists and, particularly with this book, many friends too.

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