Samit Basu on Writing (Author Week #4)
I’ve been a writer for a decade now, and in terms of getting books published outside India, this has been my biggest year so far. Also the strangest, but we’ll get to that. My most recent novel, Turbulence, was published in the UK a month ago, I have a story out in the Apex Book of World SF 2, and my first three novels, a fantasy trilogy called the Gameworld Trilogy, are out worldwide on the Kindle store next week.
I finished The Simoqin Prophecies, the first book of this trilogy almost exactly a decade ago. In the days leading up to publication (the proposed and actual dates of books hitting stores in India are rarely the same, which leads to a fair amount of anxious author bookstore-haunting) I remember boring holes into the New Releases section at my local bookstore with my eyes for a several days. Until, one day, there it was, a fat little book. I bought a copy immediately to set the ball rolling, wondering whether I’d be the only person to buy it that day. Fortunately, I wasn’t, and a decade later, I’m still writing, and have no intention of stopping.
The publishing world has changed entirely this decade, and I suspect it’ll be several more years until it settles down a little and anyone has the faintest idea about what’s really going on. It’s changing so quickly now, it makes 2003 look completely stagnant. I quickly learned that trying to be a fantasy writer working out of India wouldn’t lead to the kind of world domination I’d envisaged; my publishers in India were surprised that the books were selling well despite there being no other Indian fantasy/SF novels in English around at the time, but publishers abroad continued to be steadfast in their rejection of my work. On several occasions, I heard back from editors saying they liked the books, but marketing had no idea how to sell an unknown Indian, especially one writing in a saturated genre where no Indian book had done well so far – largely because there hadn’t been any, I presumed. There was no way in through the diaspora route, either – I wasn’t writing about India or trying to explain it, I wasn’t even regurgitating Indian mythology, I was writing fantasy novels in a made-up world that couldn’t reach readers through the culture/exotica silk road either. I got used to this, and was managing to make a living anyway, through books and comics and journalism, and wasn’t really expecting the situation to change. I decided to do another novel, a superhero novel that was essentially about this world, here and now, and not care at all about what its market potential was or where it could go.
So when Zeno Agency in London accepted me, and subsequently sold US/UK rights to Titan books, my primary response was one of surprise.. And when it was published, it grew positively surreal. The response to Turbulence in the UK was the best I’ve had, anywhere – the reviews have been fantastic, I feel like I’ve found the readers I’ve been waiting for all these years, the sales are looking good, and it feels like I’ve come home.
Except that I’m actually sitting at home in Delhi as I write this, and it’s very far from where the readers are. And the idea that you actually belong in an environment that’s a plane journey away, but is as far from your reality as, say, Hogwarts, is a strange and slightly unsettling one. Sitting here and watching the book come out in the UK was a strange and beautiful experience: I learned, in about a week, to disassociate my mood with my Amazon rankings to preserve my sanity. In a month, I’m off to the UK to do a book tour; I wonder whether it’ll get more bizarre then, or less.
When I look at the Apex Book of World SF, at the wonderful writers in it and the far-flung, fascinating stories they have to tell, I wonder how many of them experience the same sense of dislocation. And how all our careers are shaped by readers who live so far away from us, and live such different lives. I’m grateful to be in that anthology though, because in the midst of all that multi-cultural strangeness I actually feel at home.
Another thing this anthology’s done for me is that it’s made me feel like less of an imposter. A decade ago, most Indian interviewers, when told I’d written a fantasy book, looked at me as I had just told them I wrote porn. My publishers said ‘science fiction’ hopefully, trying to convey a sense of imagination and wonder and other worlds, and I got this ‘science fiction writer’ tag, which given the complete lack of science in my novels made me slightly nervous. Amazon put Turbulence under SF as well, though I don’t really think it’s an SF book – it’s superhero fantasy in today’s world. But if I’m in the Apex Book of World SF, then an SF writer is what I am as well, and proud to be one.
So why did I write a superhero novel in the first place?
When I was growing up in India in the cassette-typewriter-rotary telephone age, superheroes were strange, colourful creatures from far, far away. We saw them in cartoons and on lunchboxes, fighting other, even more bizarre creatures. They weren’t really something you ever thought about; as alien to us as I suppose our Bollywood films still are to the West.
But then that was an age when books were the only medium where long-form works of fiction could be created easily, and find both long life and a large audience, before the digital age made film and art just as accessible, and just as permanent. When I was dreaming of being a writer in the 90s, the Internet was still new and strange in India, and so books were really the only medium I could start telling stories in immediately, without decades of apprenticeship to probably insane people in Bollywood. It was a decision taken easily, and one I’ve never regretted.
But over a decade of writing, new worlds have opened up, largely thanks to technology; after my first book in India did well, comics and more recently film came calling. It’s now possible to sit in my dungeon and write in any form, talking to artists or producers anywhere in the world, reading and seeing and reshaping fantastic material I had absolutely no access to a decade ago. Everything’s exciting. Everything’s live.
For the first few decades in its history, the superhero comic wasn’t something created with permanence in mind; hundreds of writers and artists of immense talent and dubious sanity churned out episode after episode of disposable entertainment for an ever-growing and hungry audience. But after books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns made caped crusaders grow up, and writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Mike Carey started creating work that found – and deserved – space in the best of bookstores, something changed in the superhero universe. The stories got deeper, the writing got better, the genre’s own history got revised, heavier, more complex, revisionist work became both possible and popular, and the genre grew, diversified, evolved – I’d say the best superhero stories are now comparable with the best of literature in any form. It’s safe to say now that the superhero story for grownups is here to stay, and the omnipresence of the superhero in present-day entertainment, in every possible medium, is proof of that. The medium in which these stories are most popular may change; the stories themselves will never die.
Why, then, aren’t there more original superhero novels? The answer is easy; it’s a genre traditionally associated with comics, TV, film and now videogames – all very visual media. Superheroes have to be seen to be felt. And novels, earlier, didn’t have the kind of live, episodic, quick feel that all these other media do – they took a long time to build, they grew slowly, the good ones were made to stand the test of time. When you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, one perfectly understandable desire is to achieve a sort of timeless, classic feel – that’s how the best work in speculative fiction feels, and that’s the kind of story everyone aspires to write. It doesn’t mix well with the here-today-gone-tomorrow flash-bang of the superhero world. So most superhero novels, at least the ones I’ve read, have gone for a classic arc, set in worlds that have their own superhero histories. My favourite superhero novel, Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, does that really well; there are different ages of superheroes, all drawn from the comics of the past, and the book follows the adventures of a modern-day Justice-League-type team, and the old-school villain they keep having to defeat. It’s a lovely book, but it’s not a book I keep hearing about, and there’s the other problem; the superhero field is dominated by heavyweights – the DC/Marvel giants that most people alive today have grown up with. Most of whom have to spend so much time keeping up with their favourite heroes all the time in different media that they simply don’t have mind-space for new characters in the same genre. What chance do your newborn heroes have against, well, Batman? Especially if they’re in book form, without fantastic art to fight alongside?
When I decided to write a superhero novel, I also decided to go in a different direction, because I believe that the essence of the superhero story is that it’s live. Superhero stories were born and tested in the crucible of reader response; work was churned out, fast, regular, interactive, adapting to reader letters. I decided not to write a story about an Avengers-like team, but to write a story set in the real world where characters might be excited about watching Joss Whedon’s take on the Avengers. I decided to look at the lack of art as a bonus, not a setback; the novel has many powerful advantages, and it makes sense to try and exploit and explore those, and trust the reader’s imagination to provide the visuals.
The whole idea became to write a book that was live; to write a book that was as deeply set here and now as possible, and to explore the real world where these hyper-real people had their adventures. To write a book where the heroes, not the villains, were the agents of change. The superhero genre has always been, in terms of fantasy and SF at least, the most flexible- changing with the times, expressing current cultures, opinions, crises, concerns, from the World Wars to the nuclear age, from the space-race obsession to civil rights movements and terrorism. What better genre to work in if you’re looking at telling a story of now, of capturing, in some sense, the zeitgeist? The superhero story has always done exactly that.
I wrote Turbulence fast, with the Internet and the phone on throughout, unlike with earlier books where I’d shut myself off. This was in the summer of 2009, when the book is set. Which is why it was very interesting for me when over the next two years a lot of the events I’d seen happening in the book actually happened in the real world, most noticeably the revealed presence of a very famous terrorist in Pakistan very close to where he was actually found, and when a large number of people in London suddenly got very angry, whenever it seemed like cyber-war would actually break out, and when an angry mob converged on the very same ground in Delhi as they had in the book for no particular reason at all.
I still wouldn’t put my characters in the ring with the Hulk, of course, but it was great fun for me, adding a layer of fantasy to a world as real as possible. I hope it’s fun for readers as well.
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The World SF Blog ran from 2009 to 2013. It offered news, links and original content in the form of commentary, round table discussions, essays, interviews, author highlights and original and reprint fiction from around the world.
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