Interviews / Journalists

Interview with Carla Power: “Good intentions over the first cup of coffee.”

Carla Power is the author of If the Oceans Were Ink, a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She began her journalistic career at Newsweek in the 1990s.

Her reportage and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Time, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The Guardian. She lives with her family in East Sussex, England.

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Hi Carla! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself? 

I’m a UK-based journalist and author. I’ve covered lots of things in my nearly thirty year career writing. As a correspondent at Newsweek, I had the luxury of working on a huge range of topics: Shakespeare, Buddhism, Osama Bin Laden, European Drugs Policy, Bollywood and the Kosovo War.

Later, as a contributor to Time and other periodicals, I focused more closely on my interest in Islamic societies, which I then delved into more deeply in my first book, If The Oceans Were Ink, a memoir of reading the Quran with a conservative Islamic scholar. My second book, Home, Land, Security: Deradicalization and the Journey Back from Extremism, looks at how terrorists are made, and sometimes, unmade. 

Can you tell us about your background and how it influenced your interest in studying the “construction of the Other” in literature? 

I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, with chunks of my childhood spent living in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. As a kid who had to adapt quickly to a new school year in Kabul, or Delhi, or Cairo, I grew up interested in how different cultures see one another, and how stories can bridge cultural divides, or indeed, make them bigger. What stories do we tell ourselves about people we conceive as foreign or different to ‘Us?’ And what do those stories tell us about ourselves? 

You have had a diverse career, from studying at Yale and Oxford, to working at Newsweek, and writing for various publications. How did these experiences shape your writing and perspective on the world? 

I’ll never forget my first morning at Newsweek. It was 1995, at the tail end of the time when American news magazines had clout. I walked into this corporate conference room, and watched a long table-full of Americans puzzle out how they’d write about the world that week.

Meetings like that always ended with the editor in chief assigning how to divide up the world: “Monica Lewinsky Scandal, 12 columns,” “Bosnia, 2 columns”—or whatever it was that week. It was like watching the lenses of the American Empire being ground before my eyes. Bridging the gap between that Manhattan conference room and the rest of the world was the job of correspondents. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes not. 

If the Oceans Were Ink was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Can you walk us through your creative process in writing that book and what inspired you to tackle such a subject? 

I’d written a lot about Islamophobia, but realized I had only written about Muslim issues as social or political issues, rather than religious ones. I don’t practice a formal faith myself—my mom was Jewish, my dad Quaker, and I was raised secular, but I wanted to try to understand the worldview of someone whose core is shaped by traditional interpretations of Islam.

So I called my old colleague from a project on South Asian Islam at a think-tank in Oxford where I’d worked, who is an eminent Islamic scholar, trained in an Indian madrasa. We could not be more different: I’m an American feminist left-leaning journalist; he’s a village-born Muslim small-c conservative.

I wanted to chart where our worldviews divided, and where they converged. Since the idea of the book was sitting and trying to understand someone with a radically different worldview from my own, I went into it determined to listen and keep an open mind. And when I found myself judging, to listen some more. 

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Can you talk about your experiences living in different parts of the world, specifically in the Middle East and Asia, and how they have influenced your understanding and representation of different cultures in your writing? 

As a child and adolescent, I’ll admit to being more interested in being both of those than in really delving into foreign cultures. I spent lots of time in Kabul thinking about how I could get Bubble Yum and blue jeans, and in Cairo, where to get really cool stickers. But my parents were fairly adventurous types, urging us to go deeper, ask more questions, and unsettle our prejudices.

I think I eventually learned what most responsible journalists—and heck, most people— know: stereotypes are dangerous and lazy, and that any situation is far more complex than meets the eye. To distrust my own view of the world as the right one. To work to see a plurality of views. To try to see the familiar as strange, and the strange as familiar. 

What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

Good intentions over the first cup of coffee and a 10-minute Headspace meditation. What with the internet, a barking and needy cockapoo, a husband working remotely right across from me, and phone calls from my two offspring—it’s downhill from there. The best routine of all is to get out of the house and keep moving, I find a trip, or if that’s not possible, a new cafe or library can do wonders for writers’ block. Stay at home too long, and the wheels stop turning. 

How do you balance your role as a journalist and as an author? How do you approach the two differently? 

Badly. Right now, I’m deep into a draft of a book and haven’t written an article for way too long. Once I get a draft done, I’ll start pitching articles again. I can’t wait. A book is so much more personal, so much more of an investment of self and time. It’s a far lonelier process. 

If you could have a conversation with an author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be? 

My first thought was Virginia Woolf, but promptly realized I’d die of fright if she agreed. So I’m going with Edith Wharton, who’d be more fun anyway. 

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite reads? 

The pile of books on my night-stand proves my promiscuity as a reader: — Looking For Lorraine, a biography of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, partly because my youngest is studying A Raisin in the Sun for her exams, and partly because I’m writing a biography of the Black American theologian Amina Wadud, and am interested in the intellectual currents in 1960s US. —Real Tigers, from the Slow Horses series, because I’m streaming (and loving) the Gary Oldman adaptation. —Nomad Century, about migration and climate breakdown. For 2 am night sweats about What To Do.

Over the past year, I’ve particularly loved Fatimah Asghar’s soul-twisting When We Were Sisters, Joanne Limburg’s memoir about autism, feminism and motherhood, Letters to My Weird Sisters, and Osman Yusufzada’s sensationally beautiful coming of age story, The Go Between

What does your current writing workspace look like? 

Like some pissed-off toddler has had her way with it. My Lumie lamp to cheer me up during the dark British winter. A postcard of a miniature of Emperor Babur directing gardeners to design a walled paradise of a garden in Kabul, my Ipad, and teetering stacks of notebooks.

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