Reza Aslan is a charming man. He spent the better part of the cold winter morning on Saturday on the hotel's terrace, giving interview after interview with a characteristic zest. Does he ever get tired of the attention? “I’m used to it,” he says, smiling.
Good humour is Aslan’s instant armour against stress or controversy. In fact, the religious scholar has been no stranger to the latter, given his extensive works on prophet Mohammed and Jesus Christ. He was in the limelight last year when a Fox News anchor questioned his right as a Muslim writing about Jesus Christ. “When you are a brown man on television talking about Jesus, you have to calm down and be as unthreatening as possible,” he quipped. “I can’t think of a single non-Muslim who has written about Mohammed." The interview certainly boosted sales of his book, The Zealot. “I think half of my sales came from people who bought my book just to hate it,” he says with a laugh.
The Zealot may have had extreme right-wingers and evangelical Christians up in arms against Aslan's attempt to humanise Jesus but he confesses that he gets a lot of emails from Christians about how the book has empowered them. "It's the first time they had an opportunity to understand what it meant when people say that Jesus was also a man," he says.
Aslan is Muslim but he converted to Christianity when he was young, only to convert back to Islam later. Even though he considers himself Muslim, he doesn’t believe in religion. “As a religious scholar, I know better than to take religion all that seriously. I am a Muslim but my faith is in God and I use the symbols and metaphors of Islam to help define what that means," he says.
Does that make him a spiritual person? It would appear so. "A lot of young people today are deeply spiritual but are not interested in religion and this is a fast growing majority. Alternative texts on these religious figures have thus become incredibly fascinating."
Aslan was part of a session on The Non-fiction Renaissance with Geoff Dyer and Antony Beevor at the Festival. There, he spoke about his experience of writing a novel ten years ago, and how his publishers made him write a couple of non-fiction novels. “Some of the best fiction writing today blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction,” he said. Aslan teaches both fiction and non-fiction creative writing, and during discussions with his students, found that most people think that non-fiction is true. “It’s absurd because truth is different from fact, and it basically gives the idea that a wonderful work of fiction cannot be based on truth. The difference in non-fiction is that it is tethered to a reality that cannot be changed,” he says. He adds that every sentence he writes in his books requires a lot of fact checking, so much so that he usually refers to four-five books for each one.
At the non-fiction session, he cited Vidia's Shadow by Paul Thoreaux as a non-fiction book he really liked in the past few years. "All writing has one goal – to reveal character. Whether that is a real or fake person, it doesn't really matter. I believe there are only two genres of writing: good writing and bad writing,” he added.
His advice to young writers was to try and figure out a way to write a book about vampires and love. “Novels are not like twinkies, they don’t last forever.”