The Three Rs: Simon Okotie

March 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

This week’s interviewee, Simon Okotie, has Master’s degrees in philosophy and transport planning. He has worked as a consultant on all of the major rail schemes from and through London in the last twenty years. Simon’s first novel, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, is a detective story set on a Routemaster bus. It was published by Salt in the UK in October, and will be available electronically in April. Simon is currently working as a consultant on the UK’s High Speed 2 rail project – the largest infrastructure project in Europe – and writing his second novel.
When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I loved reading and writing as a child, but went through a long phase, through high school and university, of seeing myself as a scientific rather than a literary being. Music became a passion, and I studied acoustics in a failed attempt to reconcile my artistic and scientific interests. A friend who was studying English Literature recommended The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird to me in my final year at university and my love of literature was rekindled. I started writing creatively, albeit tentatively, in Copenhagen, Denmark, whilst working as a technical author for an acoustics company there. But my writing life really started in the mid-nineties from the ruins of a failed relationship.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?
It’s all about setting up conditions so that I can become absorbed in the writing. I write in the morning, two days a week, in local cafes. I find it helpful to be around others when I’m writing…as long as nobody tries to talk to me! I have a number of rituals and routines on my writing days – drinking coffee, listening to white noise to mask others’ conversations, writing down whatever is in my mind as a way into the work, gently but persistently turning away from self-criticism – all of which are designed to get myself out of the way sufficiently to enable the writing to flow.
Do you type or write?
I usually type. I bought an Olivetti manual typewriter on the Plaza de Santa Domingo (known as ‘the square of the scribes’) in Mexico City in 1998. I loved using it; a typewriter is conducive, I think, because it helps separate writing and editing, which can interfere with each other.  Word processors work less well because they come attached to an infinity of potential distractions. These days, though, I turn off the internet and type into my laptop without revising, which comes later.
What do you read while you’re writing?
Reading others’ words when I write infects me with others’ voices. I engage, instead, with film, landscape, visual arts or music, finding inspiration that can be transmuted into my own work.
What have you read recently that you really loved?
I am currently in India reading, and loving, Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s memoir of the fatwa, which I am finding fascinating – a real inspiration. Recent novelistic loves include Infinity by Gabriel Josipovici, L’Amante Anglaise by Marguerite Duras, which Josipovici referred to in his wonderful What Ever Happened to Modernism?, The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (a Salt publishing stable mate) and Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.
What are your all-time favourites?
Don Quixote has everything. I go back to it again and again in different translations, and always find something new to admire and amuse. It is, I think, a book of great insight and wisdom.
You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?
I would write in the hope that, like Borges’ ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, I could re-create that novel, word for word, in the original seventeenth-century Spanish.
What’s your third R, and why?
Railways: the ideal place to read, write and reflect.

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