Books for Keeps praised Irfan Master’s debut novel A Beautiful Lie as a rich and accessible narrative, a beautifully pitched example of post-colonial writing, picking him out as an author to watch. His new book Out of Heart was published earlier this year. Ferelith Hordon caught up with Irfan at the recent Young Adult Literature Weekender at the Southbank Centre to interview him about writing.
‘What made you want to write, and specifically why for a young adult audience’. This was my first question that I put to Irfan Master. He began writing early, but kept this to himself: ‘I went to a tough school’, he explains. ‘I wanted to show my teachers what I had written, but had little encouragement. So I wrote in secret. I would read and read but didn’t like to admit it. I used to sit at the back of the classroom looking surly during English. One day a teacher suddenly asked me “What are you reading?” I was so shocked, I walked out’. However this teacher persevered, gaining Irfan’s trust, lending him books especially the classics. He retired at the same time that Irfan left school. His parting words to Irfan were ‘I expect great things from you’. It was this validation that helped Irfan but it still took him a long time to gain confidence despite going to university (where he was the only Asian boy on his course). He was still writing, but still writing just for himself. Then he met Liz Attenborough, esteemed former publishing director at Puffin, who encouraged, challenged and directed him.
What about support from his family? His grandfather was a voracious reader and both Irfan and his sister were readers, borrowing extensively from their local Carnegie library in Leicester. His father was an engineer working his way up; his mother who came to the UK as a young bride from Pakistan, acquired a diploma in Child Care and is now a Family Support Officer; examples of tenacity and determination. For them though writing was a hobby – not something through which one could earn money.
His first book, A Beautiful Lie, was written very much for his grandfather who had told tales of what Pakistan had been like during Partition. Set in 1947, it describes the efforts of two boys to protect their dying father from the knowledge of what was happening. It is an unusual subject. Irfan points out that there was very little written around the events in Indian apart from Jamila Gavin’s Surya trilogy: ‘I thought it would be really interesting for YA’. However, it proved not to be an easy sell for publishers; even now with the increasing interest in diversity Irfan thinks a book on such a subject would have to a catch the attention of an editor who would champion it. acknowledges that he was fortunate in this respect.
However, this experience of tackling usual subjects has not daunted him. His new novel Out of Heart is just as individual. Another story of family relationships and hidden truths, it tells the story of a boy whose grandfather’s heart has been used as an organ donation, and of the relationship that gorws up between the family and the recipient. Where did the inspiration come from? ‘I wanted to do something totally different from A Beautiful Lie – I wanted to take some more risks.’ As a result he feels the reader may have to work a bit harder to piece together parts of the narrative. He constructs short direct chapters as snapshots, and introduces elements of magic realism. He made a conscious decision to write in the third person: ‘It gave me more opportunities to move around, to play with the form a bit’. The result is that the reader meets different characters: ‘I think more like writer than I did ten years ago. I just wanted to take the reader on a ride with me, to go on a journey.’ It is certainly a very emotive subject. He was interested in how a family might feel presented with the knowledge that a close relative had donated their heart and how they would react to the recipient, especially one from a different culture or religion. It is this aspect he finds most interesting to present to young people when he makes school visits. Boys in particular like the factual background to the story. But the heart is also a very powerful metaphor; he points out how many popular catch phrases involve the heart.
What about his protagonists, especially central character Adam, who spends much of his time alone, drawing and writing? Here is a teenager who is more interested in art than rebellion. Again Irfan wanted to portray someone a bit different. There are teenagers who want to be artists but who may not have access to paints, hence Adam’s interest in graffiti.
So what next? Will he continue to draw on his own multi-cultural background? ‘I’m always keent to try something new, experimental’. He is currently exploring a magical fantastical world for a younger audience. He is also writing a historical novel based during the reign of Victoria again involving a relationship between India and the British Empire. An author who delights in difference, let us hope we do not have to wait too long for him to finish them.
Ferelith Hordon is active member of CILIP YLG and has served as Chair of both YLG London and of the National Committee. She is editor of Books for Keeps and of IBBYLink, the online journal of IBBY UK.
Out of Heart is published by Hot Key Books, £6.99pbk.