I made a film with Sathnam about his first book, ‘The boy with the top knot’. It’s a deeply moving brilliant memoir about his childhood in Wolverhampton and his relationships with different members of his family – but most of all his mother. It deals with the strange dual life of being a successful metropolitan journalist and feeling the pull of family back home in Wolverhampton. It deals with many things but mostly it’s funny, moving and honest. You should read it, not because it won tons of awards or that all of the London literati think it’s fab – you should read it because it might help you see things more clearly. Right, let’s move on.
Fast forward a few years later and Sathnam starts writing his first novel buried away in the British Library. It’s a family saga set in Wolverhampton and it’s epic and ambitious. It also takes place in a corner shop and focuses on different generations as they struggle to keep their lives and the family business going. We’re making a short film about the book and a Costcutter corner shop run by the Virdee brothers in Stourbridge just outside Wolverhampton. In the meantime, I conducted a brief interview with the Hampstead living and working Times Columnist via the internet. Watch out for our new short film in the Spring.
Why write a novel after your critically acclaimed memoir ‘The boy with the topknot’?
The problem with writing a memoir like my last book, quite an intimate one in my case, is that you end up invading your own privacy. I was very careful about what I said about my family – nothing appeared without their permission. But I didn’t think enough about what I revealed about myself. And I probably revealed too much. In a way, writing this new book, a piece of fiction, was a way of changing the subject, to stop people asking me personal questions. But there was also a lot of research I did into life in the Midlands in the 60s and 70s for the first book, which I didn’t use, and which in part inspired this book.
What were you most surprised by when doing your research shifts in a corner shop?
As a customer, the thing that used to mystify me most about corner shops was why the person behind the counter was always on the phone. Whether it was in London, or in the countryside, an establishment run by Asians or Kurds, the scene was always the same: a monosyllabic shop assistant lurking behind the counter, barely breaking off from the handset against their ear to offer change from a fiver. But I managed to solved the mystery after a few shop shifts. Basically, the phone is the corner shop worker’s means of escape. Literally: with some shops opening 24 hours a day, and many being run by families, more often than not the person is simply calling their brother/mother/father/sister to beg them to take over. But also psychologically.
You see, such is the torture of dealing with customers who insist on patronising you (“Bet you’d be a surgeon back in India”), mutilating your name (“Satnav, is it?”), turning up half naked (slippers and pyjamas are common, but I recently worked in a Costcutter where a lady basically turned up in her lingerie), assuming you are related to every other Asian in a radius of 20 miles (“surprised you’re not at the wedding down the road”), and engaging you in tedious small talk (the weather and the price of beans is all customers over a certain age want to talk about), that anything, up to and including being on hold to a call centre, is preferable to engaging with them…
Who if anyone are you influenced by?
Jonathan Coe, Nick Hornby, David Nicholls, David Lodge…
Any rituals as a novelist? Special pen, special time of day you work?
God, millions of rituals, so many that I can’t confess them at risk of coming across as totally insane. But one thing is my laptop. I have a theory that the more swish your computer, the worse your writing. Based entirely on the fact that the students in the British Library doing the least work are always on wonderful brand new Apples. I have been using the same old battered Dell for more than five years now.
Do you have a favourite novel or writer?
It changes. But The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles is pretty perfect.
Are any of the characters based on real people and can you talk about it?
I think the legal position is: no. And I’m sticking to that line.
Favourite restaurant in Wolverhampton?
You know Jeremy, because I took you there. The Bilash is a great Indian restaurant.
You missed out on the Costa. Are you gutted?
Missed out for a second time too! I know from experience that books can make it without prizes.
Favourite food item you’ve bought from a corner shop?
I’m a big fan of the Drifter bar, the king of chocolate snacks. But the all-in-one breakfast in a can is a kind of miracle.