Karim Miské is a documentary-maker, restaurateur and television script-writer who lives and works in Paris. Arab Jazz is his first novel.
Thank you, Karim, for taking the time to chat with us.
The title of your novel is a riff on James Ellroy’s White Jazz. Are you a fan of Ellroy’s work and, if so, to what extent has he influenced the direction of your own writing?
In my opinion, James Ellroy is one of the best writers of our time, in terms of stories, style, rhythm, characters. If you want to understand something of contemporary American history, the L.A. Quartet and Underworld U.S.A. are must-reads. Ellroy’s work has inspired me because, one way or another, it’s always about race and war. That’s what I wanted to talk about too. For a long time, I didn’t really know why I was so keen to name my book Arab Jazz. Then one day I thought: “Well, Ellroy is an White American who wrote a brilliant novel named White Jazz. I’m a French Arab who wrote a hopefully brilliant novel named Arab Jazz.” And the idea made me laugh.
The English publication of Arab Jazz is very timely, following the tragic events that overtook Paris early in January. In the novel, you examine the religious tensions and present a background, of sorts, as to what could have led to those events. When you were writing the novel, was there ever a feeling that you might be hitting a little bit close to home or was there a sense of inevitability that the melting pot might produce something?
Actually the melting pot had already produced many things when I was writing Arab Jazz. In terms of terrorism, we had Khaled Kelkal in the nineties, an Algerian-born kid raised in France, who had conducted several terrorist attacks before being killed. And after him, there was the group of the Buttes-Chaumont, in the 19th arrondissement, the very territory of Arab Jazz. Some youngsters attracted by a self-proclaimed Imam were sent to Iraq. Most of them died there in suicide attacks or in the battle of Fallujah. I had been reading about the trial of the survivors of this jihadi group in 2008, while writing Arab Jazz, and the self-proclaimed imam of that group inspired one of the characters of the book. It was this imam who recruited one of the Kouachi brothers. When the Charlie Hebdo attack happened, I was, like everybody, horrified by the murders but also really disturbed by the way reality had re-entered my novel.
The pair of detectives at the centre of the novel – Rachel Kupferstein, an Ashkenazi Jew, and Jean Hamelot, a Breton from a communist family – are, to say the least, somewhat unconventional. Can you talk a bit about the origins of the characters, of the partnership, and of the challenges you faced when writing these two very different (from each other and from any of their contemporaries) individuals?
Rachel and Jean really popped up in front of my surprised eyes a few moments after Ahmed did, at the very beginning at the writing process. Suddenly they were there, teasing each other in front of a dead body, like typical cops. But the dialogue was not that classical. Jean was quoting Goebbels’ famous sentence: “The bigger the lie, the more it’ll be believed”, and Rachel answered him in a way that implied she was Jewish, but a Jew who did not care that much about identity. At that moment, I knew them, I knew they were unconventional cops. I knew that Jean was attracted to his colleague but that nothing more than a kiss could happen between them. The challenge was to listen carefully to their voice, and follow them.
And can we expect to see more of Kupferstein and Hamelot in the future?
Arab Jazz is going to be a trilogy, so, yes, we’ll see more of them. And of Ahmed too. Some of the bad guys will also be there, so that we can have a really nice murder party with lots of Godzwill.
One of the central “characters” in the novel is the unique and captivating nineteenth arrondissement of Paris itself. How did you go about setting the scene and capturing the atmosphere to give the reader the sense of place required to understand the complex relationships between the different communities who share this small piece of the city?
I was living in the 19th when I began writing Arab Jazz. In a way, I just had to walk the streets, look at the people and let my imagination do the rest. One day, I was having a hair cut at a Moroccan Jewish hairdresser close to my place. While waiting for my turn, I heard him speak Arabic with the Moroccan Muslim mother of the kid whose hair he was cutting. The image and the words remained there, in my head. A few days later, I created the character of Sam, the dangerous hairdresser. Without knowing it, the real hairdresser had given birth to his literary double. He was an observant Jew, at the same time culturally Arab and politically anti-Arab. He embodied the contradictions of the nineteenth where Arabs and Jews are caught in a love-hate relationship. Upon these contradictions, I built my story.
What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
Balzac, Brett Easton-Ellis, Marcel Proust, Marguerite Yourcenar, Hanif Kureishi, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes and Horace McCoy, Jean-Patrick Manchette (the guy who re-invented French noir in the seventies). George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, Frantz Fanon, Marguerite Duras. So many others…
And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?
Black Skin, White Masks (Fanon), 1984 (Orwell), A Harlot High and Low (Balzac), The Abyss (Yourcenar)
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Karim Miské look like?
When I’m in Paris, I cannot come to understand what happens during the day: I spend hours in front of my computer without managing to write a single word. Then, late at night, when everybody sleeps, sometimes, I finally end up writing a few paragraphs. After a few weeks like this, I freak out and decide to bury myself somewhere in the countryside. There, I write.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
I don’t really see fiction-writing as a career because most writers can’t make a living out of it. Hence my first advice: don’t leave your job if you have one. Then, read a lot, write a lot. When you think you’ve got something worth showing, find a good reader, someone you trust i.e. not your mother or your lover. Ask your reader to give you deadlines and stick to it until you have written a first version. Then re-write it from the beginning, then look for an agent and/or a publisher.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
I am reading lots of crime and scifi novels, looking for new ideas for a TV channel. The last book I read for pleasure is Savages by Don Winslow and I really enjoyed it!
If Arab Jazz should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
As I am primarily a film maker, I’d love to direct it myself, but if a director I admire wants to do it, I can reconsider my position. In terms of casts, I actually have no idea for the moment, but once it’s getting serious, I’ll be watching tons of films to find the perfect actors.
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
Let’s begin with the beverage. Sorry for the noir cliché, but it’s going to be a bottle of Jack Daniels, because it’s nice, from time to time, to empty one with friends, talking about live, death, love and stuff. I’d like to share it with James Baldwin. We’d talk about literature, race and gender until the bottle is emptied and the dawn is rising.
Thank you once again, Karim, for taking time out to share your thoughts.
Karim will be in the UK to celebrate the launch of Arab Jazz. If you’re close to any of the events below, I’d recommend trying to catch him.
7pm, 9 February 2015 Karim Miské will be talking to Tariq Ali at Blackwell’s Oxford – tickets £3 from Blackwell’s, Broad Street, Oxford or 01865 333623/http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/stores/oxford-bookshop/2015/01/15/tariq-ali-launches-karim-miskes-debut-novel-arab-jazz/
7pm, 10 February 2015 ‘Spectrum of Radicalism – Fact and Fiction’ Karim Miské, Suzanne Moore, Kenan Malik and Ben Faccini will be discussing multiculturalism and fundamentalism at the French Institute on 10 February at 7pm. Tickets £8 http://www.institut-francais.org.uk/events-calendar/whats-on/talks/writing-the-story-of-urban-multiculturalism-arab-jazz-by-karim-miske/
7pm, 11 February 2015 Elif Shafak in conversation with Karim Miské and Sarah Lotz, at Waterstones Piccadilly talking about ‘Colliding Faiths – religious fundamentalism in global fiction’. Tickets free, but email email@example.com