aka Jamal Mahjoub
author of The Golden Scales: A Makana Mystery
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in London and raised in Khartoum, Sudan. Later I attended college in England. After that I moved on, settling in a number of places and winding up in Spain.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve I wanted to be superhuman. I wanted to wear a cape and climb walls and fly over tall buildings. It just didn’t work out that way. Actually, I really wanted to be a film director. I’ve always loved movies and for a long time I carried that dream. Writing novels is a kind of shorthand version of that. It all happens in your head. You don’t need a budget and all the rest of it. All you need is a piece of paper and a pencil – or nowadays, a laptop.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That you could travel the world and yet always come back to where you started and find your home was still there. Nowadays, home for me is not so much a place as the people I care about.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
American culture is a huge influence, largely because of its concerns about rootlessness and improvisation. Whether it is the music of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong, or the works of Raymond Chandler, or the movies of the 1970s, when the oil crisis and the Vietnam war produced a moment of introspection we haven’t seen recently.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
It was the one that came to me naturally. I didn’t even think consciously about it. I read avidly as a child and began writing sketches, scenes that would later turn into stories, when I was still at school. It was exciting to be able to invent something out of mid-air, a kind of conjouring trick. It still is.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel The Golden Scales.
It tells the story of Makana, a former police detective in his native Sudan who has landed in Cairo and finds himself trying to survive on his skills. He is asked to look for a missing football player and this brings him into contact with the complexities of high society, corruption and terrorism. As the first novel in a series this is an introduction to the main character and the circumstances that led him to his present situation.
(BBGuru: the publisher’s blurb – The launch of a major new detective series set in modern-day Cairo – moving between its labyrinthine back streets, and its shining towerblock – featuring Makana, an exiled Sudanese private investigator, escaping his own troubled past…
A lost child. A missing hero. A bitter rivalry.
In Cairo the ghosts of the past are stirring…
The ancient city of Cairo is a whirling mix of the old and the new, where fates collide and the super rich rub shoulders with the desperate and the dispossessed. It is a place where ambition and corruption go hand in hand, and where people can disappear in the blink of an eye.
Makana is a former police inspector who fled for his life from his native Sudan seven years ago. Down on his luck and haunted by the past, he lives on a rickety Nile houseboat. When the notorious and powerful Saad Hanafi hires him to track down a missing person Makana is in no position to refuse him. Hanafi, whose past is as shady as his fortune is glittering, is the owner of Cairo’s star-studded football team. His most valuable player has just vanished and Adil Romario’s disappearance threatens to bring down not only Hanafi’s private empire, but the entire country. But why should the city’s most powerful man hire its lowliest private detective?
Thrust into a dangerous and glittering world Makana’s investigation leads him into the treacherous underbelly of his adopted country – where he encounters Muslim extremists, Russian gangsters and a desperate mother hunting for her missing daughter – it becomes a trail that stirs up painful memories, leading him back into the sights of an old and dangerous enemy… )
First of all, to be completely absorbed and entertained. It should be a pleasurable experience. Then, I suppose a sense of the complexity of the world, of the Middle East and of Egypt in particular. The planned series should carry us across the past decade to the present day and I’d like the reader to feel like they want to tag along for the rest of the journey.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Writers who surprise me. Not in the gimmicky sense, but those who allow us to see the world in a different way. When you find a really good book you don’t want to let go of it, and when you do you want to give it to your friends. Most of them are dead, I suppose, Faulkner, Greene, Yourcenar – too many to name. Of the living, Michael Ondaatje, Lorrie Moore, Richard Powers, Sebald. I could go on.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Simply to write better than I have done before. I see every novel as a new opportunity, a chance to do something I haven’t achieved before. It’s all about renewal.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
When you think something is finished, think again.
Parker, thank you for playing.
A London-born literary novelist, Parker Bilal (whose real name is Jamal Mahjoub) has also lived in Cairo and Sudan. His prose has a subtlety that is rarely found in crime novels: an old man “screwed up his face so that all the lines drew together, like a net being drawn in”; metal rods on a construction site are scattered like “enormous burned matchsticks”; naked light bulbs on an electrical flex resemble “strange fruits on a vine”.