“I’m not a writer,” says Sathnam Sanghera, novelist, author of the best-selling memoir The Boy with the Top Knot, and weekly Times columnist. “I’m a rewriter. I think it was Hemingway who said that the first draft is always shit. With me, the 80th draft is always shit, too. I rewrote my first book 120 times. All I do is write nonsense and keep rewriting till it gets good. It’s an idiotic way of writing.”
Sathnam was born in Wolverhampton in 1976, the fourth child of a couple who had emigrated from the Punjab – separately – in the 60s. The first book he’s referring to, The Boy with the Topknot, is a look at his (largely) traditional Sikh childhood in the Black Country; the narrative is framed by a visit home (from a Western-style existence in London) in his 20s, during which he accidentally discovered his father was long-term schizophrenic, and that his elder sister, too, had suffered from the condition.
“It was very, very, very, very, very painful,” he says, of the experience of researching and writing the book. “My memory isn’t actually very good, so in journalistic fashion I interviewed a lot of people who were there at the time.” This included his parents, siblings and 54 first cousins. “If you patch a lot of other people’s memories together, you can actually paint quite a detailed picture.”
A lot of what he wrote was then edited out. “I was really worried about losing my family, and made the decision not to publish anything they weren’t happy with. They all read a draft. There was one particular chapter I had to get rid of. At the time it killed me, but now I’m really grateful [to his elder sister] because we’ve got something in our family which is still private.”
The book was made into a film, for BBC2, in 2017. “That was agony,” says Sathnam. “You have a stranger reinterpreting the worst things that ever happened to you, for TV.” But he’s happy it reached a wider audience. “Schizophrenia is never, ever on TV. It’s led to people having conversations they wouldn’t normally have. That’s a very rewarding thing, as a writer.”
Sathnam doesn’t do things by halves. His 2013 novel A Material Marriage was an adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s 1908 novel The Old Wives’ Tale, set in a contemporary (2011) corner shop; to research it he worked ‘for a few months’ behind the counter of a number of Black Country convenience stores. “There,” he says, “you see a microcosm of the world.”
He gave up his day job at the Times while he was researching his last two books. During the preparation of his soon-to-be-finished third, ‘a popular history about the British Empire’, he has continued to work for the newspaper, which he finds difficult. “Moving between journalism and writing books is knackering; it’s like flicking between the 100 metres and the long jump. Journalism is about answering questions, and literature is about asking them.”
The Lewes Lit, 11th February, All Saints Centre, 7.30pm. lewesliterarysociety.co.uk