Looking to establish themselves as wordsmiths to watch, these novelists are forging ahead in fresh new directions
From a corporate thriller and historical anti-novel to a take on the tumultuous marriage ‘market’ and explorations of the underbelly of urban life, these South India-based debut novelists made 2014 their launchpad year, collecting reviews, awards and festival invites. As they move beyond first books, we catch up with them on everything from coming back with a strong follow-up, dealing with writer’s block and self-promotion.
A self-confessed ‘class clown’, Itisha Peerbhoy is a well-known online personality courtesy her ‘audacious’ blog. With most of her anecdotes coming from daily life, she realised that “I was often on the backfoot. I’d go for a job interview and know nothing about the interviewer, but they would know everything — right down to my bra size!” she laughs. Despite that, much of the material for her novel also came from her own life. “My protagonist’s awkwardness is from my experiences visiting family in Delhi,” she says. “I used to dread it as I’d always be taken apart,” she elaborates. Inspiration came from the experiences of single girlfriends. “As Jane Austen said, marriage is a serious business, and that’s true today. I wrote a book that is a commentary on something that happens, I didn’t write it to give advice,” she says. Currently working on a new novel, that ‘moves away’ from the first, she confesses that she’s finding it harder. “You realise that you are a real author and become self-conscious. I’m working on it though, so watch this space!” she signs off.
Written while ‘hiding out in Goa’, A Bad Character was four years in the making. But when it came to finding a publisher, the process was swift and phenomenally successful. London-based literary agent David Godwin snapped up the manuscript as soon as it was finished and Knopf made an offer almost immediately. Rights with Cape in the UK and Penguin in India followed soon after, with a French translation forthcoming.
A coming-of-age novel that explores the dangerous cocktail of love, alcohol and drugs, it evokes a dark picture of Delhi, Deepti Kapoor’s home for over 10 years. Before moving to Goa, she learned the city inside out, first as a student and then as a reporter. “I was always curious, I watched and listened. Then I met a guy who introduced me to another side of the city. ” she elaborates. With the phenomenal success of her debut raising expectations of what might come next, she’s already 20,000 words into her second novel, but tries not ‘to overthink’ things. “You just have to ride out the slow times. Yoga helps immensely. Sitting over a meal and talking with some wine is also therapeutic,” she signs off.
Having garnered rave reviews from publications like The Guardian and The Spectator, Mahesh Rao’s The Smoke Is Rising takes one on a trip around small-town India, describing its customs and its people, humorously exposing its drawbacks and shortcomings. “Living in Mysore, the spirit of R K Narayan never seems to be far, and I began to wonder what Malgudi would look like if it were to appear in a novel today. That was how the idea of a book about a smaller Indian city first came to life; then it developed into a novel set in Mysore, an expansive portrait of the city but with the stories of three women at its heart,” shares Rao about his debut novel, which won the Tata First Book Award for fiction and was also shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize (voted by readers).
Born in Nairobi, Kenya where he remained until he graduated from high school, Rao then moved to the UK where he studied politics and economics at the University of Bristol and law at the University of Cambridge and London School of Economics. His memories of the African country of his birth can be described, he says, by what he was reading during those early years. “For quite a long period in Nairobi once you had moved on from children’s books, you could only get hold of heavyweight classics or endless rows of writers like Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon. So my interior life appeared to move from trying to puzzle out the motivations of Heathcliff and Miss Havisham to trying to work out what on earth those ladies on the covers of all the James Hadley Chase novels were trying to accomplish,” he laughs.
Entitled One Point Two Billion, his collection of short stories, which he wrote while waiting for his book to be published, is due to release in October. Each chapter is set in a different Indian state and plots move from a preacher woman making an unexpected appearance in rural Punjab to the troubles of a young wrestler in a UP akhara. “I was experimenting with different styles and voices, trying to encounter disparate worlds, so there’s a lot of variety within the collection,” he reveals.
A book that has been described as an ‘anti novel’, Meena Kandasamy’s debut treads the line between fiction and history in its portrayal of the Kilvenmani massacre. Known for her poetry, exploring issues of caste, gender and identity, Kandasamy was the recipient of various fellowships while working on her novel, including the British Council Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship at the University of Kent. “You need that time away, the access to libraries, and to just work on one’s writing,” she shares, adding, “There are very few opportunities like that for writers and I wish we had more in India.” Lightly poking fun at the ‘predictability’ of the ‘debut novelist’ in Gypsy Goddess, Kandasamy elaborates that “When you filter out all the autobiography-masquerading-as-novels, and all the workshop-style made-to-order novels, what remains of the work of first time novelists in India today? They are not as spectacular as they should be.” Working on something ‘that could turn out to be a second novel’ she hasn’t let the rave reviews and accolades for Gypsy Goddess, both here in India and in the UK from publications including The Guardian and The Independent, go to her head. “Right now, I’m focussing on a translation of the Thirukkural’s love couplets into English,” she shares.
A 30-year working life provided rich inspiration for R V Raman to pen corporate thriller, Fraudster. “Most crime thrillers deal with the personal, but here the whole plot is driven by business,” Chennai-based Raman begins. While comparisons to veteran thriller writer John Grisham are inevitable, Raman’s writing is more inspired by the older canon of crime writing. “I find Grisham’s style very intense. I see my writing more in the vein of authors like Agatha Christie,” he explains. Fraudster is a high-energy page-turner, focussed on a series of murders linked to far-reaching corruption in the banking world. “I’ve honed in on malpractice, but the subliminal message is about integrity” he says, elaborating, “I teach at IIMs and see that youngsters find it difficult to navigate corporate life. There are many temptations and it’s so fast-paced.” Working to a flexible schedule that incorporates time for writing as well as teaching and travelling, Raman is hoping his next thriller, inspired by the politics of the Indian stock market, will be completed this year, to be published in 2016.
All things nice
In an inversion of the usual publishing process, Archit Taneja’s novel emerged out of a creative writing camp held by publisher Duckbill. There, Taneja was guided by veteran author Anushka Ravishankar. “After the workshop, things just took off. The characters came alive and I would come home from the office and write every day, from midnight until three o clock in the morning,” he recalls. Part of the joy of writing for young people has been the chance to interact with his fans at festivals like Bookaroo. “It’s important to communicate with kids,” he says, elaborating, “Publishers are adults, reviewers are adults… but wouldn’t it be great to find out what kids think?” In his own work, the dialogue between his child characters is fluid, one of the most difficult things to achieve in a book that needs to reach out to early readers. “People do ask whether it was difficult to perfect the voice of a 10-year-old girl. In fact, she is based on my sister,” he explains. “For me all of the funny anecdotes are collected from my own experiences and, for that reason, working on the second novel is proving harder. I feel like I need more time to build up my stockpile again,” he jokes. While he’s currently working on a sequel, he’s got plans to branch out into the fantasy genre as well as the hope of writing ‘a really cheesy young adult romance’.
Maegan Dobson Sippy & Rashmi Rajagopal