Writer’s den: Ben Okri Advertisement

Writer’s den: Ben Okri

The Booker Prize winner’s latest novel reclaims the lost magic of life

By Vatsala Chhibber  November 15th, 2014

“A short book with a big spirit” is how Ben Okri describes his latest novel, The Age Of Magic, in which a group of documentary film-makers, burdened by the weariness of life, stumble upon meaning through other-worldly encounters in a little Swiss village. We caught up with the essayist, poet and Booker Prize-winning author at the 2014 Tata Literature Live! festival to discuss his life as a reader, his lessons as a writer and the importance of that ever-elusive sense of wonder. 

On The Age Of Magic

“This is the book I am most proud of. It is about the lost magic of life. We think of the great things in life as being the big things — getting married, having kids. But inside those big things are the smaller, invisible things. That’s where the real magic lies — between things. And I’m interested in revealing, through a very curious story, the magic in between.”

On his earliest encounter with literature

The Arabian Nights was the first book that was a real discovery to me. Acts of the imagination are truer than acts of reality for a child, and, to me, it made much more sense to get onto a carpet and say, “To Baghdad, please”, than to get into an aeroplane. That seemed an incompetent act of imagination. I do like things with a little touch of wonder, where the world just opens up and stretches a little. Because in our daily lives, there’s not much wonder — there are too many books that reinforce its absence in our lives.” 

On the book that changed his life

“I remember reading Don Quixote at the age of 24. I read it over a month and a half, every time I travelled on the Tube. By the time I finished it, I was not the same person — the structure of the world had changed for me. I don’t know if there’s a greater lesson, really, than to wake up to your own life — to pick up the sword of your being and go forth into life with it. After that, I lived with more freedom. I allowed myself the risk of being foolish. One of the reasons we don’t do half of the things we can is because we’re afraid of being fools. To do anything brave, to do anything great, is to stick your head out, and take a really big risk.”

On the difference between writing stories and poetry

“Our reality is amorphous till imagination comes and gives it shape, and then we tell a story. Language is one of the greatest bridges between the inward and the outward — it helps us mould the world, gives it contours. A poem is a feeling, sometimes a throb, or a sickness. You don’t feel well. You take a tablet, go for a walk, nothing works. Then you write a poem, and suddenly you’re feeling better. A novel can start very small, with one person in a room, but there’s something endless about it. You get to that room… and suddenly you see a cliff. And there’s a big drop. That’s a novel.”

On finding your rhythm as a writer

“The thing about really good writers is that they have earned their voice. They have paid for it with experience, with pain, with suffering, with thought. You can be kicked in the head and awoken by another writer’s voice — but it cannot help you find your own. You just discover it; sometimes by accident, sometimes through failure, sometimes through resignation. And when you do, it’s like discovering how you dance, the rhythm of your spirit, and you say, “Oh, okay that’s my beat.” When you write in the truest, clearest, briefest way that you can – there’s your beat.”  

On giving up midway

“When I was much younger I’ve abandoned one or two things, but when I began writing very seriously — no. You get to the end. Because once you start abandoning things, you leave a very serious message to your subconscious. Start again from the beginning, and search for the right path.”

The Age Of Magic (Penguin Random House) is out this month