Selçuk Altun is a writer based in Istanbul. Before starting to write novels he worked as an executive in a bank, taking up writing after retirement. Three of his novels have been translated into English. I sent some questions to him and he answered in his own words.
Luke: Could you tell me a bit about yourself and your background?
Selçuk: I was born in Artvin, on the northeast Black Sea coast in 1950. My father was a governmental official; I spent my childhood and teen years in the modest and remote parts of Anatolia.
I completed my elementary school education at three different schools. Books were my best friends. From Samsun Maarif Koleji, I was accepted by Boğaziçi University, which was Robert College Yüksek Okulu in 1969.
Luke: Why would a banking executive decide to become an author after retirement?
Selçuk: I have always been a bibliophile; reading was and is my passion. The main reason I stayed 18 years at Yapı Kredi Bank, is because I was also the chairman of YKY Publications, which was then the most prestigious and biggest publishing house in Turkey. I retired when I was 54 years old, so I could read more, enrich my book collection (in Turkish and English), and write in the remaining period.
Luke: What were the books and who were the writers that inspired you to become a writer yourself?
Selçuk: Let me answer this question in a different way: Yashar Kemal, Sait Faik, and Anton Chehov were my favorite writers in my youth. I owe my passion for reading to their books. I don’t call myself a “writer”; I am simply “someone who writes.” Writing is only my serious hobby. I am not a professional writer; every penny I collect from book sales goes to a scholarship fund I established for university literature students.
Luke: I wonder if having spent many years not directly involved in the business of writing novels has given you a different perspective on the craft of writing?
Selçuk: This is a very interesting question! In banking, “time” is a precious element. Perhaps this is why I love to read shorter books and write short books and essays.
Luke: Your books have been described as literary thrillers. Is that a fair description of them?
Selçuk: In my books, “places” are important characters. If you do not accept “literary thriller with a touch of travelling” as a sub-category, you are welcome to call them literary thrillers.
Luke: What kind of research do you do before starting a novel? How much has it varied from book to book?
Selçuk: I always visit the towns and cities mentioned in my books. Traveling rewards me with extra inspiration.
Luke: Can you tell me about your writing process?
Selçuk: I comfortably write with a pencil and then my secretary types up my weekly output into the computer. I enjoy writing with a pencil and using a rubber for deletion. Writing with a pen/pencil is like having sex without a condom. My writing quota is one page per day. I live on Asian-side (Üsküdar) and my second library is on the European (Gümüşsuyu) side. In the day time, I write in my office library and at night time, at home, if I've any inspiration left.
Luke: Your books feature similar protagonists; they tend to be male, wealthy, solitary, and bibliophilic. What draws you to these kinds of characters?
Selçuk: This is the department of life I know best and especially the Turkish literature world needs such extra-fueled protagonists.
Luke: You, yourself appear in roles of varying importance in your books. That’s an interesting choice that a lot of writers choose to avoid. Why did you decide to do this?
Selçuk: In my first novel (Loneliness Comes From The Road You Go Down – written in 2001), the narrator was a young banker who becomes a multi-millionaire. I was warned that it could be evaluated as autobiographical. In order to prevent any misjudgments, I granted myself a cameo appearance. Then I decided this approach could be a unique trademark of Selçuk Altun.
Luke: Of all your books that have been translated into English, the one that I enjoyed the most was The Sultan Of Byzantium. It’s always struck me that the last of the Byzantine Emperors is an interesting topic for fiction. What was the inspiration for that book?
Selçuk: The Sultan Of Byzantium was enjoyed internationally. Istanbul (Constantinople) was the capital of the Byzantium; it was a civilization that contributed a lot to the modern world but is unfairly underrated. In a London bookstore in 1996, I saw a thin book called The Immortal Emperor by an eminent historian, Prof. Donald M. Nicol. It was a biography of the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI. This decent book motivated me to write about Byzantium. Secondly, my novel also satirizes long historical thrillers like “Da Vinci Code.”
Luke: Do you think that Turkish authors should do more to explore the Byzantine legacy in Turkey?
Selçuk: In general, Turkish authors should do more to be serious readers of Turkish and world literature.
Luke: Broadly speaking, in what direction do you think Turkish literature is going? Are there any young authors that you are keeping an eye on?
Selçuk: The market is expanding; books for children (this is promising), shallow bestsellers and books exploiting emotions of youth are enjoying the lions’ share. The upcoming young writers lack “style” and I find them unreadable! In Ankara, there is a writer I respect--living like Thomas Pynchon--called Barış Bıçakçı (born 1966). I believe he does not care if he is translated or not into other languages.
Luke: That's interesting. Could you be more specific in your criticism and what could be done to improve them?
Selçuk: Well in general their output is rather shallow. There are so many tiny and adventurous publishers which have not been institutionalized; they are not quality-oriented and they can publish almost any thing since it is not a costly investment. Secondly, as already mentioned, young writer candidates are not good readers and they are not guided by decent editors.
Yes, our literature world also lacks decent editors and book critiques.
Luke: Are you working on any projects now?
Selçuk: I just finished a novel and delivered to my publisher. It is called "Under The Juniper Tree" in English. I enjoyed writing this post-modern piece and it will come out in October. I also keep writing for Cumhuriyet Book Review since 2004.
Luke: What are you reading at the moment?
Selçuk: This was my favorite question! At last I am reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, The Perfect Murder by David Lehman, If You Can Tell, a poetry book by James McMichael and Melih Cevdet Anday’s Selected Poems in English; ably translated by my good friend Sidney Wade and Efe Murad.
I already ordered the two books coming out in September by my favorite writer alive, Patrick Modiano’s Sundays in August and Such Fine Boys.