Interview - Sunjeev Sahota: Student of maths makes it all add up

As a novelist, Sunjeev Sahota makes a great mathematician: everything is calculated, he studies things and makes straight-headed and logical decisions.

It means never once do his feet leave the ground, even when quotes from national newspapers are read out to him, quotes of high praise for any novel, let alone a debut from someone who appears to have come out of nowhere.He is excited, for sure, but at no point does he get ahead of himself.

"Definitely no plans to leave the day job," he says with a smile, laughing at the very thought.

The idea of sitting at the bottom of the garden crafting stories in the fashion of Roald Dahl is dismissed as fancy. He has bills to pay.Mathemetician. Level headed.Yet also being hailed as one of the year's most exciting new voices in contemporary British literature. Even more remarkable, Sahota, 29, has only been reading novels for just over a decade.

"For some reason we never read novels at school. We studied plays instead," says Sahota.

Growing up in Chesterfield, Sahota had no reason to discover novels outside of school, his family not being particularly literary. It was on a trip to India when he was 18 that he picked up a book for the first time.

"I was in the airport, going to India and I bought Midnight's Children. I suddenly discovered this whole new world. I realised there was this storytelling language that I hadn't ever seen or heard before," says Sahota.

He tore through the Salman Rushdie opus, and although he "understood about three per cent of it", his eyes were opened.

He began reading novels voraciously, with the passion and enthusiasm of a convert. The God of Small Things, A Suitable Boy, and The Remains of the Day were the first four he read.

Weighing in at the deep end felt natural to Sahota, who says: "It was like I was making up for lost time – not that I had to catch up, but it was as though I couldn't quite believe this world of storytelling I had found and I wanted to get as much of it down me as I possibly could."

Reading around four novels a week had little impact on Sahota's studies at Imperial College, London, where he was taking a degree in maths.

On graduating he returned North and brought his reading habit with him. Then the epiphany came in 2005.

He was working for a Leeds finance company when the July 7 bombers carried out their attacks and Sahota, a Sikh with Indian parents, was living a mile away from the bombers' homes in Beeston.

He had considered writing something previously, but nothing had captured his imagination in quite the way that the attacks on London and the aftermath of the bombings did.

"I saw a video on the internet of Mohammad Sidique Khan's message to his daughter and it was then I began to wonder about the psychology of someone who could do something like that," he says. "I thought in leaving a message for his daughter, you could see that somewhere he had some sort of compassion in him. I then started asking the novelistic questions of what led him to do what he did."

Those questions led Sahota to Ours are the Streets, the Picador published thrilling debut which takes the reader inside the mind of Imtiaz Raina, a Sheffield-born son of Pakistani parents who is radicalised and plans to bomb a Sheffield shopping centre.

"It was never a plan to write something about 'suicide bombers'," adds Sahota. "It was about creating this character and then asking novelistic questions and finding the answers."

Logical to the end.

Ours Are The Streets, by Sunjeev Sahota, published by Picador, priced 12.99, is out now.

OPENING LINES

At last the page is stained. Feels like a relief, truth be told. Sitting here hovering over the paper with my pen and waiting for the perfect words weren't getting me nowhere fast. And already the light's coming. A dark blue morning mist spreading thick across the window. The time's sempt (sic] to have flown by and I've spent so much of it worrying about how to kick this thing off that I'm not going to have chance to say all the things I wanted to in this my first entry. Inshallah, it'll get easier from now on. It wants to. I want to leave something behind for you all – Becka, Noor, Ammi, Qasoomah, Tauji, Abba, too. I guess knowing you're going to die makes you want to talk.

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