Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Christopher Aslan Alexander

In books, memoir, nonfiction, writing on October 25, 2010 at 12:43 pm

 

Christopher Aslan Alexander

Christopher Aslan Alexander. Photo courtesy of CA Alexander.

An introduction to the author of A Carpet Ride To Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road (Totem Books, 2010). Christopher Aslan Alexander originally traveled to the walled city of Khiva, Uzbekistan to write a guidebook. He fell in love with the city, and stayed to work with UNESCO to develop a traditional, fair trade carpet-weaving workshop. In this interview Alexander mentions, “I had no prior experience with carpet weaving or carpet history before I went to Khiva, and yet, somewhere along the line, I became an expert.” A Carpet Ride to Khiva chronicles his adventure.

 

Quick Facts on Christopher Aslan Alexander

  • A Carpet Ride to Khiva website
  • Home: Cambridge, United Kingdom
  • Comfort food: Definitely cheese on toast when I’m back in England. It was always my ritual on returning to the UK to make myself a monster slice or two. One year, I went into town after lunch and couldn’t work out where the powerful and lingering smell of cheese was coming from. I finally realized that I’d absentmindedly rubbed the oil from the melted cheese into my hands. This is what Uzbeks do with the oil from their greasy bowls of Osh, as it’s a good way of conditioning your hands against the harsh, dry winter weather. Clearly I’d gone more native than I’d thought.
  • Top reads: Some of my favorite books are by anonymous authors; I love the biblical books of Ruth and Jonah. They’re both so succinct yet rich in style, probably to economize on parchment or scroll or whatever they were written on. More recent books and authors include A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, Digging to America and Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson—particularly Gilead. I thought We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver was both terrifying and masterfully put together. I love Peter Hopkirk’s books, not just because they deal with Central Asia, which is my area of interest, but also because he’s such an engaging writer.
  • Current reads: My guilty pleasure right now is reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson.

What are you working on at the moment?

I recently returned from South Kyrgyzstan, where I was involved in trauma counseling for Uzbeks who lost homes and/or loved ones in the June pogroms. The suffering was incredible, as was the complete lack of media coverage or interest in the situation, largely because Kyrgyzstan suffers from the “where-istan?” factor in global media.

Since coming back, I hope to take out a few months to write half of a book. I started yesterday with the middle—I want to write about the pogroms and what happened while it’s fresh. I hope the book will pick up where my last book left off and cover the three years I spent in the Pamir Mountains working with Yak herders, getting interrogated by the KGB, swimming to Afghanistan (not a clever thing to do) and discovering a remote, mountain community that worships a billionaire living in France as a god. Although I’ve got lots of material to work with, I don’t think it makes a full book, so I’d like to live the second half first before writing about it.

Is there another travel venture in the works for you?

I’m hoping to move to South Kyrgyzstan next year to start a wood-carving workshop in the heart of the world’s largest natural walnut forest. Every winter a lot of their trees come down in the snow, and instead of this being used for firewood, I’d like to see it turned into functional and beautiful objects. They say that Alexander the Great, or at least his army, made it as far east as the walnut forest of Arslanbob, and that they brought walnuts home with them, introducing walnut trees to Europe. That’s why walnuts are called “Alexander” or “Greek” nuts in some European languages.

You originally went to Khiva, Uzbekistan to write a guidebook; when did the idea for A Carpet Ride to Khiva come together?

I realized that I enjoyed writing. I also had visitors to the silk carpet workshop regularly ask me if there was a book about how the workshop had started. I knew that the story of the workshop’s beginnings and evolution, woven together with mine, would offer good narrative propulsion, on which I could hang more general insights about the culture, politics, and history of the region.

What do you hope people will take away from A Carpet Ride to Khiva?

One thing that saddens me about Western culture is our obsession with bits of paper that make you qualified, or not, to do something. We’ve lost a culture where one can experiment or venture into new territory without a degree in that subject. I had no prior experience with carpet weaving or carpet history before I went to Khiva, and yet, somewhere along the line, I became an expert. I hope that my book reminds readers of what is possible. I also hope that something of me and my faith comes through the writing.

I suppose my more general hope is the same as most authors, which is that readers will have enjoyed it, felt both an emotional connection and reaction to what they’ve read, and want to recommend the book to their friends.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

I’m not that fussy, to be honest! I have this fantasy of seeing someone on the London Underground engrossed in my book. That would give me such a high. I’m not sure if I’d then introduce myself, or ask them what they think of the book, as they might think it’s crap!

The book has gone down very well with anyone who already has an interest in textiles, fair trade, or Central Asia. For me, though, it’s nice when someone who has had no previous interest in any of these subjects picks the book up, gets engrossed in it, and decides to save up and visit Uzbekistan for their holidays. That’s happened a few times, which is a wonderful accolade.

The most succinct and honest answer to your question, from a PR point anyway, would probably be: Oprah!

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I’ve turned into one of those boomerang kids who end up living back with their parents. I’m enjoying it actually, knowing it’s a temporary arrangement. So, I have the luxury of working all day on the book for the next few months. I sit at the dining room table with my computer and accumulate the usual crap you find on any desk, until Sunday, when it all gets cleared away for Sunday lunch and starts returning again on Monday.

Where would you most want to live and write?

Somewhere free of distractions during the day while I’m writing, and full of distractions in the evening when I want to see people and have a complete break from the book.

What do you listen to when you work, if anything?

Birdsong from the garden.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

While in Uzbekistan, I first started writing for the press as an outlet for the anger I felt at injustice happening around me. I wrote A Carpet Ride to Khiva because I needed a way of gaining closure on my time in Khiva, and I didn’t know what else to do. I wasn’t ready at that point to jump into the next thing. I think this is what took me from a vague desire to write, to actually sitting down and making it happen. My parents were happy for me to live at home rent-free, providing I was actually writing and not sitting around all day watching telly.

How do you balance content with form?

I’m not sure that I do! I try to write succinctly for the most part, but giving certain moments that need a denser or more poetic prose the space and a slower pace for that to happen. I think pace is one of the most important aspects of writing, and it’s okay to change tempo at times, but it can also go horribly wrong!

Is there a quote about writing that motivates you?

A quote that I love, which applies to far more than writing is: “To learn is to make yourself voluntarily and temporarily incompetent.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Be thick-skinned. You must be able to accept criticism if you want to write well, and take help from experienced people whenever you can. My aunt is a retired editor and offered to savage one of my chapters. I manually implemented each of her nitpicking changes, and learnt a huge amount in the process. I realized that I usually took twelve words to tell something that could be trimmed down to eight words without losing anything. That helped me tighten up as a writer, which I needed to do as my writing was flabby. No editor would normally do this, because it’s far too laborious a process and they shouldn’t have to do it; they’d just reject the manuscript. If you can find someone who is both experienced and willing, even if they’re not an editor but a voracious reader, then you’re off to a good start.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

“Just start, even if it’s rubbish.” It’s the only way to overcome the procrastination that cripples most writers, particularly first-time authors. There’s something so intimidating about starting a book, but you do have to start somewhere. Recording artists usually start with a vocal and guitar/piano track that later gets thrown away, but gives the initial framework for each instrument and vocalist to add their layer. It’s okay to start and discard what you first wrote later on, if needed.

I think good planning, plotting out the narrative arc and what happens in each chapter, is a system that really works for me. It’s like a painter sketching out the whole painting and then returning to add shade, color, and depth.

What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?

I do own a first edition of Travels in Central Asia by Arminius Vambery, which I found in a charity book shop for a lot less than it’s actually worth. I’d love a first edition of A Ride to Khiva by Frederick Burnaby.

What question do you find surprising that people ask you about writing?

I’m always amused by friends and family who’ve read my book and then say, almost in surprise, “I thought it was really interesting, and actually, I really got into it!”

Well, thanks a lot!

Is there a question that you wish people would ask more often about your work?

I’ve had the good fortune to live an unusual life in an unusual place, and it’s what I’ve lived that most people focus on when they read A Carpet Ride to Khiva, rather than how I’ve written it. I put a lot of hard work into shoehorning seven years of life experience into what I hope is a cohesive and engaging narrative framework. So, I suppose I’d like more questions, like yours, about how I write.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

Live the sequel!

About Christopher Aslan Alexander

Christopher Aslan Alexander is a British citizen born in Turkey and raised in war-torn Beirut. After graduating from the University of Leicester, he moved to Uzbekistan. Since leaving Khiva, Alexander continues to make his home in Central Asia, most recently in the High Pamirs of Eastern Tajikstan, where he has worked with yak herders to find distribution for their wool, and in Southern Kyrgyzstan, where he helped with trauma counseling and set up a winter canning project for those whose homes were destroyed after pogroms against the minority Uzbeks resulted in widespread violence.  A Carpet Ride to Khiva is his first book.

Buy the book, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Christopher Aslan Alexander.” Words With Writers (October 25, 2010), https://wordswithwriters.com/2010/10/25/christopher-aslan-alexander/.%5D

A Carpet Ride to Khiva

A Carpet Ride to Khiva by Christopher Aslan Alexander (Totem Books, 2010)

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  1. […] of gaining closure on my time in Khiva, and I didn’t know what else to do”, Aslan said in an interview in 2010. He continues to find his way back to Central Asia, most recently working with yak herders to find […]

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