Thinner than Skin could be a story about love and the search for identity. But it could as easily be a story about the impact of militancy on nomadic communities in northern Pakistan. How did you bring all this together? Nadir and Farhana travel to Kaghan but then it all unravels and there’s a moment at the end when the conflict becomes unimportant.
I’ve never mapped out a novel. I don’t really trust maps, because the lines change as soon you find them. As if the form of a novel itself demands that you stay open to change, open to surprises. All my novels have begun either with an image and/or a voice. With Thinner than Skin, the spark was an Ansel Adams photograph of a waterfall. The force of the torrent inspired a line that has stayed in the book. All the threads of a novel, at least for me, come together through sensory cues, through acts of faith. There is no plan except to feel my way through it.
You write about glacier mating. There’s an ice-bride and ice-groom which to me sounds magical but in some ways is reflective of Nadir and Farhana’s relationship, blowing hot and cold. How did you come up with this strange use of a metaphor that you play with throughout the book?
My first encounter with a glacier was on a visit to northern Pakistan years ago, and it was the same glacier that the characters in my book trek across to get to Lake Saiful Maluk. At the time, what struck me was the sheer physicality of it — the size, the slipperiness, the muddiness of footprints and jeep tracks, the crevices and knuckles and slopes. Things can live inside us a long time before we know they’re even there. It wasn’t till another visit that I learned the glaciers are named, and even given a personality, a gender and a wedding. The ceremony is mysterious and sacred. Naturally, this fascinated me. But even then I never thought to include it in a book. That process — from learning something amazing to finding it a home in my own small way — is also mysterious. I never know how one becomes the other.