What is it about the story of Antigone that fascinates you?
It’s such a powerful story about different kinds of loyalty — to the state, to family, to justice, to religious laws, to the dictates of your own heart. And Antigone herself is a fascinating character because it’s possible to interpret her in very different ways — some see her as an extremist, others as a hero committed to justice at any cost. But the more I read the play the more I saw her within the context of her relationship to her brother, her sister and her fiancé. And there seemed so much potential in a story that’s about vast themes and also intimate relationships.
‘He was nearing a mosque and crossed the street to avoid it, then crossed back so as not to be seen as trying to avoid a mosque.’ As a British Muslim Home Secretary Karamat Lone is in a seemingly impossible bind. Is it ever possible as a politician to balance the demands of faith and politics especially where one’s religion is not that of the state?
Karamat Lone was raised Muslim but as an adult he has no personal religious faith, so that’s not an issue for him. What is an issue is the fact that he knows that because he’s from a Muslim background he’s going to face certain kinds of scrutiny that he wouldn’t if his name was John Smith — so he has to decide how to play that to his own political advantage. I don’t think it’s people’s religious beliefs that tend to be the problem in politics; it’s the way that faith marks them as an Outsider that causes conflict.
You have great sympathy for all your protagonists but is there one to whom you felt more drawn than the others? Did your sympathies shift in the course of writing the novel?
I have the most sympathy for Isma, but I most enjoyed writing Karamat — and ended up having more sympathy for him than I anticipated when I started to write the novel.
Parvaiz is ripe for the picking: young, disaffected, fatherless — and his radicalisation is swift and shockingly easy. How is it ever possible to protect vulnerable people like him against trained manipulators such as Farooq?
Parvaiz has two sisters who have exactly the same family background as he does. But one of the crucial things that sets them apart from him is the issue of masculinity. It’s not something they grapple with personally — but Parvaiz is made to feel that he isn’t ‘a real man’ and that his duty as a son is to step away from the life he has and enter a world of men and guns. If we lived in a world where masculinity wasn’t so fetishised, you wouldn’t have stories like those of Parvaiz. That’s only part of the picture, but it’s probably the most important part.
You write very movingly about the relationship between Aneeka and Parvaiz, and Salt and Saffron had a set of identical triplets. What interests you about this dynamic?
With Salt and Saffron I had fun with the idea of three men who look exactly alike, have identical genetic makeup, and yet end up with vastly different lives. With Home Fire it’s a different situation — they’re fraternal twins, one boy and one girl. I wanted the twinness to be about an unusual degree of closeness between the two of them, which both does and doesn’t survive the onset of adulthood when their lives move in different directions.
You tell the story through the eyes of the five main characters in turn. Why did you choose this structure and did you write the sections in the order in which they appear?
At first I was interested in just telling it all through Isma’s point of view — the elder sister watching her two younger siblings going down these damaging parts. But I quickly saw that part of the story of the three siblings was about the secrets they keep from each other. And so it made sense to show all the different points of view. The order in which it appeared sort of just seemed obvious once I’d chosen the structure —I never really thought of any other way to do it.
Your writing invariably depicts the collision of the personal and the political. Is this largely unavoidable for you or a deliberate choice taken early in your career?
It’s a terrible idea to make a deliberate choice as a writer when you’re 21 and stick to it more than two decades later — so certainly not a deliberate choice. But I’ve always been interested in how politics play into personal lives — as much as anything else it’s a way for me to explore certain moments in history that interest me.
Most of the book is set in London. Does this shift from Karachi, where your first four novels were largely set, represent a shift in your own mindset and allegiances?
The idea of having allegiances to a nation is not something that I have much time for. I’m more interested in the notion of taking a nation personally — I’ve been living in the UK for ten years now, so I feel more connected to its stories than I did before. Of course between the four Karachi novels and this one there’ve been two novels that take in Pakistan, America, Japan, Afghanistan, Turkey, British India. So I don’t necessarily think you have to live in a place to take its stories personally.
By having dual nationality do you still feel like, as Hisham Matar put it, both the betrayer and the betrayed?
I’m beginning to regret ever having written about that line of Hisham’s. It was a very apt comment to refer to a specific feeling, in a specific moment (the moment of becoming a dual national) but I get asked about it as though it refers to something ongoing. The truth is, I like having two places that in different ways feel like home.
You’ve previously been nominated for a number of prizes, amongst others, the Baileys and Man Booker. Do these previous experiences mean you feel well prepared when your work is nominated?
I don’t think there’s any way of preparing for these kinds of things - you just try to enjoy whatever comes your way and try not to fret about the things that go someone else’s way.