Interview with Samit Basu
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. In your India Today interview, you mentioned that you never planned on becoming a writer. What made you decide to suddenly drop out of college and write a book?
I’d always wanted to be a writer – I guess most writers do. But it’s not something you can plan towards in India, unless you’re in a very small group of people whose families are established in the arts. It’s like everyone wants to be an astronaut, a rockstar or a movie star at some point. I don’t really know how it is in the rest of the world, but in the West of my imagination if you wanted to be a writer you’d have some way of going about it, even in the pre-broadband era – there are literary magazines, MFAs in colleges, genre magazines for whatever you’re into, and a large and fairly accessible community of fellow writers. It wasn’t like that for me at all, growing up in India, and definitely wasn’t like that for most people in my generation. But I’m talking eight years and five books ago.
I was good at exams, which meant the Indian academic system – which is brutal and rigorous – wasn’t a problem, and I was set to be a Good Successful Indian Boy, which meant an economics/engineering/medical degree (as opposed to an Eng-Lit degree, which I wanted to do but was advised not to because of the lack of Career Prospects), ideally followed by an MBA from an Indian Ivy-league B-school. And I got into the best one, IIMA, a sort of Indian Harvard, and it wasn’t the sort of place you turned down.
Most of my school and college life was an exercise in finding out I didn’t want to study further in that field. I did Economics in college, which was very interesting, but not a field I thought I could contribute anything new to at all.
I wanted to be a writer, but I still hadn’t had an idea that I was convinced I could turn into a book. So I promised myself that if this idea ever came to me, I’d drop whatever I was doing and go home and write the book. Perhaps unfortunately, this idea came to me around two weeks into my MBA. The decision was aided by the fact that I wasn’t enjoying business school at all – and everyone around me seemed to be having the time of their lives.
This was in 2001, and my first novel, The Simoqin Prophecies, was finished in early 2002.
Why fantasy/science fiction? Is there another term you prefer to describe your writing, such as speculative fiction?
I often ask myself why fantasy/SF, or speculative fiction or whatever you may call it. I’ve never really been hugely interested in classification – I also write comics, and I don’t call them graphic novels, for instance. I do like the term speculative fiction, though. But then all fiction is speculative, isn’t it?
In my case, it was simply this – the first idea that was bookworthy was a fantasy idea, and some of my favourite books were fantasy books. But genre/mainstream/literary politics was something I only really became aware of after I met the publishing world, which was after I finished my first novel.
Again, my perspective on all this was not very educated. Large chain bookstores with separate shelves for different genres were a fairly new thing in India at that point. I’d seen really big segmented bookstores when I’d travelled abroad, but I didn’t really understand that my book was a fantasy novel through and through until I started trying to get it published – rather, I did, but I was not aware of the ramifications of this at all, because in my mind it was just another story. I was lucky in the sense that Penguin India, who finally picked it up around a year after I submitted it, are the biggest English language publishers in the country, and since I was 22 and an IIMA dropout the newspapers picked up the story – so I didn’t eventually face the problems that most SFF debut writers in the West face, which is a lack of mainstream visibility.
Why do I continue to write fantasy? Because it’s so much fun, because of the lack of constraints, because you can examine really big real-world themes and more-than-mundane people. Most of my work in books and comics is straight-up fantasy, though I’ve done some SF short stories, a YA adventure featuring the son of Mowgli trying to retried a stolen jewel on the Titanic, and my new novel is a superhero novel set in India, Pakistan and England in 2009 – does that fall under fantasy? Or is it SF? Or is it a completely different thing? I don’t particularly care, and my Indian publishers are selling it like a mainstream novel.
Indian audiences weren’t really familiar with the idea of fantasy literature when I started my first book tour. Harry Potter and LOTR were big, of course, but I would either get called an SF writer, or a children’s writer, or get suspicious looks because people thought I wrote porn.
What were the challenges in writing when you started out? How about now? For readers unfamiliar with India’s literary scene, how would you describe the current speculative fiction field? In your opinion, what sets Indian speculative fiction apart from Western speculative fiction?
Well, all the usual challenges writers face across the world, I suppose, plus a few uniquely Indian ones. I’m sure your readers know what the standard difficulties writers face are – in the Indian case, when I started out, there was the additional burden of being expected to write a three-generation family saga, or anything else that was definitely Indian, ethnic in some way. The ticket to a safe western publishing deal was writing literary exotica. Or something equally stereotypical, like a straight retelling Hindu myths, or something to do with the Kama Sutra, or yoga, or finding yourself, or other equally marketable Indian-culture things. Not that this is a problem of the West alone – it works in India as well. At this point, I’ve turned down six offers to write an LOTR (film) style trilogy of Bollywood films based on Indian epics. The same logic applies in comics as well.
A problem for me specifically was that I had to explain to a lot of people what fantasy was, so I ended up becoming something of a flagbearer for a whole type of book. A larger problem for me was working in a vacuum – there simply wasn’t anyone else doing that sort of work. The biggest problem, of course, was that the number of people who read Indian fiction in English was really small, so very few people were doing this for a living. For example, my first novel was on national bestseller lists for six months, but my earnings from that were barely enough to cover rent. I was doing seven different freelance gigs at a time in 2005, ranging from newspaper columns to writing one-minute sitcoms for an internet portal. There was also some TV work, which thankfully no one realized was mine because the book and TV worlds in India don’t intersect.
It’s quite different now, of course. The Indian market has grown and diversified significantly, and we have people writing pretty much every sort of book here nowadays. A decade ago, there used to be a widespread accusation that Indian writers in English were writing, in some sense, for the West, writing books that had nothing to do with the ‘real India’, whatever that is. But now people are writing (and selling, in copious quantities) books for Indian readers, so you don’t hear that so much.
It’s been interesting, watching new trends come and go – I was recently introduced to someone in her 70s at a book launch as a ‘senior writer.’ I’m 30. The commercial scene has exploded over the last eight years – now there are books which sell in seven-digit figures, whereas earlier it was a huge success if you broke five. Bollywood has become a viable option for several writers – it’s a jungle out there, but with plenty of lost cities full of hidden treasures. Fortunately since my books have done well I no longer have to take on work I actively don’t want to do, which is a huge relief.
I’ve been working in film and comics for a few years now, along with the books. But there hasn’t been much fantasy writing at all, except for kids. In SF, too, there are several very cool writers – you must already be familiar with Anil Menon and Vandana Singh – but their books haven’t got anything like the kind of attention and promotion they deserve. And there aren’t enough SF or fantasy writers here to get a significant momentum going.
All this, of course, applies only to Indian writing in English; Indian languages like Bengali, Hindi, Tamil , Marathi and Malayalam all have far richer traditions and far more diversity – and many more readers. But English publishing is beginning to mature as well, which is good news for people like me.
One of the most interesting things about writing fantasy in India has been that since there are no stereotypes attached to the genre as far as readers are concerned, the readers are not what you’d expect at all. I was expecting teenaged and early-20s men to come for my readings. They did come, but they weren’t the only ones; in an event in Chennai, three generations of Indian women – a family, the exact type of family that Indian literary sagas used to be about – came and said they’d read and loved the book. That was great fun.
There really isn’t a proper Indian spec-fic scene as yet, which is probably the biggest difference between it and the Western spec-fic scene. We don’t have spec-fic magazines, anthologies for adults, editors who specialize in spec-fic, proper conventions, or linkages with the TV/film/comics industry. But this will change soon, as I’ve been telling myself for years. And this is also mostly because there simply aren’t enough successful books in the spec-fic category yet.
On the bright side, we have several excellent publishers who are more than willing to experiment, a rapidly growing industry, several talented writers who are now suddenly aware that it is possible to write for a living, and absolutely no shortage of readers. But it will take a long time before a distinctly Indian school of speculative fiction emerges. This is a process that cannot happen overnight or be reverse engineered.
Did you ever feel pressure, considering you were considered as one of India’s young new writers at the time?
Not really, no. I was never Indian literature’s Next Big Thing. It was (is?) great fun being a young writer, because I got to appear in all these lists of Important Indians – first under-25, then under-30 as I grew older. But that’s stopped now. Because I started early I got to appear on the cover of a national magazine with some really famous people (they needed a writer to be in that list) which is a very entertaining thing to happen if you’re also spending that month wondering where the next paycheque is going to come from.
I also picked a good time to be a young writer because after that writers started getting younger and younger. A new trend this year is teenaged writers. They have many years of appearing in Important Under-Something Indian lists ahead of them.
How did you get involve in comics? How different is this from fiction?
I started seriously reading comics when I was in my early 20s, as a student in the UK. I wish I’d started earlier, but we had no real comics culture in India then – or now, actually, and the only really great comics I’d read before that were Tintin and Asterix. I fell deeply in love with comics – this was after I’d written my first book – and wanted to write several, the only minor problem being that I couldn’t draw to save my life.
A few years later, Virgin Comics started putting comics together in India and asked me to write for them. I jumped on board with no hesitation at all. Those were interesting times. I learned a lot, and I got to work with the best editor I’ve worked with so far, Mackenzie Cadenhead, who used to work at Marvel, and among the things I worked on was a co-writing gig with Mike Carey, who is a writer I admire deeply for both his books and his comics.
It’s completely different from writing books, and a really rewarding experience. There’s nothing that teaches you writing discipline and balance better than doing a script for comics, and every writer who’s interested in plot and character should spend some time writing comics just as a learning exercise. You have to work with such rigour, say and do so much in such little space, while making sure the artist has plenty of elbow room. Screenplays are much easier.
You had a project on Indian speculative fiction. How did this project start? What made you settle on the term speculative fiction? What was your criteria in interviewing the personalities on your blog?
There’s a very interesting cultural foundation called Sarai in Delhi that gives fellowships for research in unusual areas, and it was their idea; I was very enthusiastic. I settled on speculative fiction because it’s a nice umbrella term for a lot of unusual literature that comes out of the Indian subcontinent in various media. And there really isn’t enough SF or fantasy alone to do a reasonably comprehensive analysis, especially given that there isn’t much research in the field and I wouldn’t have been able to source much academic material on spec-fic that I hadn’t heard of in languages I didn’t speak. My criteria in interviewing the people were fairly simple – I just spoke to the best people I could find, either practitioners or international experts I could persuade to be a part of this.
To steal one of your interview questions, what themes/characters would you like to see explored in speculative fiction from India? What do you think Indian SFF writers should avoid?
Let me steal, in turn, bits from some of the answers to those questions that I agree strongly with.
I’d like to see a lot more stories set in south-east Asia. I believe places make a huge difference to the stories we tell. Vandana Singh’s Delhi is a beautiful example. So is the late A. K. Ramanujan’s retelling “A Story And A Song”; arguably, it’s the best piece of flash fiction ever written. We’re redolent in people and places, so why not make use of it?
I don’t like advising people to write in particular niches because it can lead to you writing to a formula. You should decide what you are good at writing first, and then look at where you should be marketing yourself. As you say, there are many directions that SF&F writing is taking. Most people should be able to find something that suits them. The only bandwagon I’d suggest you jump on is the one created by River of Gods.
Jai Arjun Singh:
I wouldn’t mind seeing some alternative histories, there’s so much scope for those. What if Gandhi had lived past 1948, been actively involved in the politics of the first few years of independent India – and gradually morphed from this benevolent father figure into a regression-fascist, taking the country away from Nehru’s vision of modernity. What if we’d lost the 71 War? What if Sanjay Gandhi had lived, gotten into coalition politics and built up a large enough base to impose a second, more potent Emergency? Lots of other possibilities.
And this will probably remain a fantasy in itself, but I’d like to see a lot more really explicit sex in Indian comics – pornographic versions of Amar Chitra Katha and what-not (there’s so much potential in Indian mythology, why not use it). Speculative, conspiracy-theory writing along the lines that the real reason the Mahabharata War occurred was that Krishna had been secretly bonking the Kaurava women on the side. Obviously, that sort of thing can never really be published in this country but you get the idea…
I’d like to see more new work that is surprising. I don’t have any interest in reading books that are just like all the other books I’ve read. New writers often want to be just like the writers who first captured their imaginations, and so they write imitations, which is a good way to learn some skills, but it’s not what we should be paying much attention to as readers and editors and critics. We’ve got Charles Stross already, we don’t not a bunch of mini-Strosses. We’ve got China Mieville already, we don’t need more. These are interesting writers because they’re not just like everybody else, but the danger of their success is that suddenly 100 people start trying to write just like them, and that’s a dead end. Even Stross and Mieville shouldn’t try to write like themselves. (Self-imitation is a danger of success — just look at what happened to the quality of Isaac Asimov’s work when in the 1980s he tried to imitate his old successes.) New writers should strive for an original vision, for material that they can make theirs, and they should do so with passion and vigor, writing the truth of the world as they see it, striving all the while to be not merely entertaining (we’ve got plenty of things to entertain us) but also something more — and there are a thousand somethings more to strive toward.
In the West, one mentality when it comes to speculative fiction is that there’s a division between fiction for adults (where genre is looked down upon) and fiction for children (where it’s acceptable). Is there such a division in India and do you think such divisions are necessary?
This division doesn’t really exist in India, probably because, again, there isn’t enough work to classify. But I don’t think there’s any particular aversion to SFF for children or for adults in this country. Also, given that most of the really huge international sensations over the last few years – for adults, young adults and kids – have been in the spec-field field, in films, books, and comics, there will always be more people creating work in the field and more people willing to sell it. I don’t think these divisions are necessary in the first place, but in the West they’ve arisen from a need to classify books given an overabundance of really good books. And we get all these books in India as well, now. The ebook revolution is going to make everything even more interesting.
Where do you see the future of Indian speculative fiction headed?
After eight years in the field, I can honestly say that I have no idea. There are a couple of SF/fantasy titles published by the better publishers every year, and many of these do well.
The international barrier is very strong, though, unless you’re looking at the cultural guilt market. My earlier books mostly got rejected in the West by very nice editors who told me they liked the books but didn’t know how to sell a fantasy trilogy by an unknown Indian. Which is unpleasant to hear, but market realities are mostly unpleasant. Once they do figure out a way, or when the perfect book for this breakthrough comes along, there’s going to be a revolution, but when that’ll happen is something I wish I knew. I’m hoping that my new novel, out in India in October, is going to be a part of that change. I have a wonderful agent in the UK now, who tells me there are publishers interested, and a decision coming soon, so I’m waiting and hoping – which is what pretty much every writer does all the time, isn’t it?
Anything you want to plug?
The Internet. It’s amazing. Also e-readers. I bought an iPad a few months ago, and it is seriously beautiful.
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