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Ahmet Altan: 'In Turkey every writer is at risk'

Ahmet Altan is a Turkish writer, who has spent the last 20 years working in journalism. Until 2012, he was the founding editor in chief and lead columnist of Taraf. In 2008 Ahmet was charged with “denigrating Turkishness”, after he dedicated an article to the victims of the Armenian genocide.

My father used a typewriter to write his articles every morning. As a child, I loved that sound. I remember thinking, "I am going to earn my living with a typewriter." I loved what my father did. I don’t know if I’d become a writer or a journalist if my father hadn't been one.

I hope that Turkey will stop [President] Erdogan. He pushed the country to the edge. He wants to be a dictator and if the country cannot stop him we will have bloodshed.

I once overheard my father talking to my mother. He was out of work and I heard him say, "We only have two lire." I saw someone come and offer him a job with a newspaper but he didn't like the politics of the paper so he refused.

In Turkey every writer is at risk. You can be sentenced or shot. They put you in jail. Up to that point, you write.

When I was young I was scared of death. But when I was 45 I wrote a novel called Like a Sword Wound. I don't know why, but I lost my fear: I’m not scared of death anymore. My book saved me.

Journalism is a kind of marriage: you’re used to it, you like it. Literature is love; it's agony.

I can easily engage in a fight. I can get angry easily if I believe someone is using his or her power to oppress the people who have no power. I don’t care; it’s part of my personality and I accept this.

In Turkey, writers are as important as the writing itself. If they don't like your politics, they say, "He can’t write."

I learned life by literature. You cannot learn life by living.

It's very safe to believe in god. If an atheist has a problem, if someone hurts him, he will take the pain by himself; there's no one to help him, he's alone. But if you believe in God you can say, "Help me, give me some strength" and you believe He will fix the situation for you.

Christians have musicals about Christ. Muslims cannot do that. Why are they so insecure? Their religion is 500 years younger than Christianity. It's a kind of adolescence. They will settle the problem but we will have bloody wars and we are living them.

It's very hard to be an outsider. I know that feeling: you feel weakness, fear, the fear of being a victim of something, not loved, not welcomed. In your society [Britain], if you're an outsider you can't find supporters easily. In countries like Turkey, if you are against the establishment, still you have your supporters, friends, community. To be an outsider in England must be harsh.

Human beings try to find someone who resembles them. If you don't, you feel threatened.

I was sentenced for obscenity. My novel was burned.

Writing novels is not a choice. No one chooses to sit down for 15 hours a day for months. It is not an option: you are forced.

Good writing starts by sitting on a chair. You have to sit for hours a day, every day, every week, every month. You must have the willpower to stay in the room, away from the crowds and the life until you have finished your work. Find the chair, find the room, sit there and start.

When you have written a book it doesn't belong to you anymore, it belongs to the one who reads it. I don't care; I have nothing to do with it. On the contrary, I like to let them interpret the book in their own way.

You cannot know a woman – it's impossible. Women change so rapidly, they cannot even catch their own changing. Sometimes the changes are so small, they do not even have names.

You must be transformed into your character to understand how she feels. I transform to a child, to a woman, to a religious guy, to an officer, otherwise I can't write them. I want to capture those tiny, unknown, unnamed emotions.

Alex Masters is the founding editor of BookSmoke ( has written reviews, articles and author interviews for a range of publications, including The Guardian, Observer, newbooks and English PEN and she was a judge for The Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize 2015.

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