Rumours of Trevor Zahra’s possible retirement have been causing turmoil within Malta’s circle of literati. Ramona Depares asks the writer, widely considered as the godfather of Maltese fiction, whether his upcoming new book is really intended as his curtain call.
As Trevor Zahra’s latest publication, 365, is set to hit book stands in time for this year’s National Book Festival, hints of a possible retirement for the veteran author are creating waves through the industry.
It all started when sample copies of Mr Zahra’s new collection of stories, memoirs, monologues and snippets made their way through the usual circle of literati.
Mr Zahra has been working on the publication, which takes the form of a journal that encourages readers to read a snippet on a daily basis, for the past three years. The book, in fact, put his typically prolific publishing career on a temporary hiatus, as Mr Zahra wrote and perfected what he describes as “the book that I have always wanted to write”.
However, among those who read it pre-publication, it was the very last story that really stood out and sent out alarm bells ringing among a community that has come to regard Mr Zahra as the one of the godfathers of Maltese literature.
The story ends with the phrase “umbagħad waqaft nikteb” – and then I stopped writing, which many have taken as an indication of an upcoming retirement.
I put the question that everyone is asking to Mr Zahra; is retirement on the horizon, or is everyone simply reading too much into a single sentence? He pauses for a second before acknowledging that yes, the idea of retirement has indeed been on his mind.
“It was while I was writing 365 that the thought occurred to me. This may very well be the very last book that I publish. The book took longer than usual to finish; creating fresh material for every day of the year is not the easiest thing. I’m not used to going for so long without publishing new material, and I suppose this must have affected my thoughts,” Mr Zahra says.
So, will this really happen? The author prevaricates on this one.
“Writing is my life. Yes, I have to acknowledge that retirement may be near, but we will see when that actually happens,” he says. In the meantime, he looks forward to engaging with his readers with this latest book, which he says was born out of a desire to encourage the Maltese to include reading as part of a daily routine.
“That’s the only way we can get the country to go back to reading, really, by getting people used to it as a habit. For me, reading is a daily event. Once people start seeing it as something they do every day, it becomes easier and easier to look forward to continuing with a chapter here and a page there.”
He insists that, contrary to what many suggest, it is not the amount of reading that is important, but its daily frequency.
“And, of course, it needs to be fun, first and foremost, especially when it comes to convincing younger ones that turning reading into a habit is a good thing,” he adds.
Isn’t that implied within the activity itself, though? Not really, I’m told. Recent trends have tended to put a big focus on the educational aspect of reading. The entertainment angle, it would appear, has somewhat fallen by the wayside.
“This is the biggest problem getting children to read. They are being told that it is ‘good for them’, that it will help them with languages, expand their knowledge and so forth. All the advantages are mentioned, except for the fact that it is actually an enjoyable way to spend your free time,” he explains.
He mentions his disappointment when, on any of his numerous school visits, he is always greeted with the same reply whenever he asks pupils why they believe that they should read.
“They all give the same reply, as if by rote – that it is educational. Not one of them ever says that it is fun.”
It is easy to see that this is an issue that he feels very passionately about, going so far as to bluntly state that the primary aim behind his writings is never to educate, but to entertain.
“I do not write books because I want my readers to learn something. I write because I want to share my stories with them. And if, as a corollary, they learn something, then that is wonderful.”
Yes, I have to acknowledge that retirement may be near, but we will see when that actually happens
There is a reason Mr Zahra feels so strongly about bringing this thing called ‘fun’ back into our vocabulary; he has not forgotten his own childhood.
“If, as a child, my parents had told me to read because I could learn something, then I would not have been interested. I did not want to learn, I wanted to do something fun… which is the way most children reason. The only thought on my mind, when reading a story, was always one. What happens next? It never was: let’s expand my vocabulary.”
But, aside from the obvious, how can we bring back youngsters to the fold? Mr Zahra believes that the packaging is just as important as the content. He remains dismayed at the sight of shelves upon dusty shelves of books in a library, with very little to attract the imagination of a 10-year-old.
“Abroad, libraries take the shape of jungles, pirate ships, princesses’ castles, dolls’ houses… Books are to be found in a treasure chest, in the leaves of a tree, hidden behind a throne. The libraries themselves are props. It is so much easier to attract a child to a jungle library than to a plain, wooden shelf,” he points out.
He acknowledges the issue that all this requires extensive budgets, but hopes that there will be a time in the near future when the importance of giving priority to these measures is acknowledged.
“I have seen this experiment being carried out at a private school library in Malta, where they took inspiration from a foreign model and adapted it. I was told by the headmaster that the use of the library had tripled since then. We know it works, and not only abroad.”
And, while public libraries registered a 43 per cent increase in loans over the past three years, Mr Zahra believes that this does not necessarily reflect a similar healthy increase in reading habits, particularly among children.
Last year’s survey held by the National Statistics Office, the Arts Council and the Valletta 2018 Foundation backs his belief – the survey found that the majority of the population (55 per cent) had not read even one book in the previous year.
Moreover, worrying results from the 2016 Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS), which ranked Malta in 40th place out of the 50 countries which participated, had been dismissed by education officials.
Mr Zahra, clearly, is not dismissing such concerns and has made it part of his mission to disseminate the joys of getting lost in a good book. He himself, he confides, is unable to go to sleep without reading at least a chapter or two.
“When people say that they read, they tend to give the term ‘reading’ its widest significance possible. There is informational reading, which covers research, news and the like, and there is also formational reading, which covers reading as a lifestyle,” he says.
The author believes that the latter continues to decline, with the majority preferring to do their reading on their smartphones as they wait.
“And, by reading, I mean checking out online links. Of course, if you read a feature in a newspaper, this certainly counts as reading. But can we say that we have a population of people who read, just because they skim the news headlines?”
He reminisces about how, before the digital revolution hit, people would actually take out a book when they were waiting in a queue, and occupy themselves by continuing to read their novel.
“This does not happen anymore, for obvious reasons. People don’t whip out a book today, they whip out their phone and check the latest Facebook statuses. Again, it is reading. But we can’t really say that it’s enough,” he says.
The digital era, he believes has not helped matters much, precisely because of this. While there is more access than ever to a wide diversity of reading material, a lot of it free and at the touch of a fingertip, most do not bother with that and limit themselves to social media.
Asked whether he believes that this is killing the writing and publishing industry, Mr Zahra replies “possibly”.
People don’t whip out a book today, they whip out their phone and check the latest Facebook statuses. Again, it is reading. But we can’t really say that it’s enough
He points out that, even in the biggest countries, being a full-time author has become a thing of the past for all except for “the biggest giants”.
But there is hope, he adds, especially when different disciplines are combined to offer a multi-platform experience. This was the approach taken with Storja Kanta, a series of events that combined story-telling with music and theatre and that features writers, actors, singers and musicians.
“The events were very well-received at Evenings on Campus, and we plan to have another run during other community events. Their success was proof, if any were needed, that people are hungry for stories – at least, when they are packaged in an entertaining fashion. And what are books, if not stories waiting to be discovered?” he asks.
Mr Zahra has, in these past years, built an equally strong reputation within theatre circles. The writer who started out by delighting kids with adventure titles like the iconic Il-Pulena tad-Deheb in the 1970s, ended up causing naughty titters from a full house with theatre works like Minn Wara ż-Żipp and the adaptation of unexpected hit Il-Ħajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Ġenoveffa, the unexpected novel that shone a spotlight on the bedroom exploits of a supposedly respectable widow living in Malta of old.
“I wrote that book as a joke, pretty much. I was not even sure I would publish it. We ended up doing immediate reprints,” he says with a smile.
The book, which he terms as his biggest achievement, was translated to English, French, Russian and Norwegian and is turning out to be quite the hit on these markets.
“I was particularly pleased because the Norwegian government brought about 1,000 books to distribute around public libraries. This is only done with books that they deem to carry a certain worth,” he adds.
Nanna Ġenoveffa’s exploits are set to take life on stage for a second time next year, as a Unifaun production, with a fresh cast.
Speaking about his latest publication, the author describes it as an exercise in inspiration, in reminding him of the need to “chase ideas”. He compares the writer to a hunter, with ideas floating all around and needing to be “hunted down, their potential realised”.
“Over the years, I have developed a technique to recognise potential and to use it. When I visit schools, I don’t see 50 pupils in front of me, I see 50 stories waiting to be written. Art is a question of ‘how’, not of ‘what’.”
The book also includes a number of autobiographical excerpts which are clearly indicated. However, the writer adds that, more often than not, the fictional parts are more likely to provide an insight into an author’s mind and life than the self-described ‘real’ bits.
He adds that 365 helped him develop this discipline in a stronger manner.
So where does that leave readers with respect to the last sentence in his latest book, made infamous even before the actual launch?
The writer smiles, and acknowledges that he cannot really imagine his life with no writing.
“I have described my writing as ‘the madness that keeps me sane’. I will let you draw your own conclusions…”
365 is published by Merlin Publications and will be available as of November 1. The Malta Book Festival takes place between November 7 and 11 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta.
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