Thursday, September 18, 2008

Interview _ C. Y. Gopinath

C. Y. Gopinath has worked as a journalist, a film director, and a community development worker.

His books include Travels with the Fish (Harper Collins, 1999) and the novel, Book of Answers.

In this email interview, C. Y. Gopinath talks about his writing.

When did you start writing?

44 years ago. I was twelve, living in Delhi, and I wrote a James Bond spoof for a national youth magazine called JS. After college, I went to work for JS as a traveling reporter, won a national award at 19 for Best Indian Journalist under 35. I’ve been writing since then, but journalistically. Fiction is a new bend in my road.

I never really thought I’d be a novelist, although I’ve toyed with the seed of the idea of my first book for nearly 20 years -- a man who doesn’t want to make the world a better place, just wants to be left alone.

Here’s how I got yanked into novel writing, by a young man I’d never met: In 1998, a collection of my travel writing was published in India by Harper Collins, and enjoyed critical acclaim as well as some moderate sales. In 2004, the copyright reverted to me, and thinking that the book had a little more life in it than 2,000 copies, I sent a chapter out to some 700 American literary agents. No one bit, of course, though a few were kind enough to murmur words of encouragement.

But one day in 2005, I received mail, and then a call, from a young literary agent called Nathan Bransford, to whom someone had forwarded my chapter. He’d liked it, and wondered if I had any plans to write fiction. I’d just come out of angioplasty and was feeling quite fragile those days.

I told him I probably could not write fiction, but over some weeks, Nathan persuaded me to try. That’s really how I wrote this opus. Nothing like someone who believes in you to put some wind in your sails.

How would you describe your writing?

They say an author’s first book is autobiographical.

To the extent that I have woven together themes and melodies that have been part of my life, it is autobiographical. But this book, to me, uses social satire to lay bare the absurdity of where we, as a species, have brought this planet and ourselves.

Through the eyes of a man who’s trying his best not to get involved in the madness, we see how ridiculous we’ve become.

Who is your target audience?

Your question presupposes a rational process that wasn’t really there. I’m more of the tell-a-joke-and-see-who-laughs school.

I know that my parody will resonate with a certain kind of person, both in India and outside.

As a writer, though, I am focused on my words, not on my readers.

Who influenced you most?

If you mean which writers have influenced me, that is a difficult question, because one is always watched by a panel of one’s muses. In my case, it’s [Vladimir] Nabokov, John le CarrĂ©, and Gerald Durrell, as unlikely a chamber orchestra as you could put together.

If you meant which human being has influenced me the most in this writing, I’d say without hesitation that it’s this 27-year-old literary agent whom I’d never met and who, for some reason, devoted sizable chunks of his time and persuasive powers on a remote writer. He really kept the faith for me till I began to feel it.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

The dominant themes in the Book of Answers have of course emerged from my work and life. For example, the importance of questions has somehow been a recurring theme, one that has acquired increasing depth and meaning over the years.

When much younger, I used to write a satirical column in India called Dr Q, who was this hot-air scholar of false erudition. The questions were made up mostly, but the poker-faced answers, both technical and profound, were entirely made up.

In my work in development in Kenya, questions took on greater value and we developed several tools and processes to deepen the quality of people’s enquiry. I developed a framework called the Continuum of Enquiry, which suggested how people’s questions and information needs change as their sense of proximity to HIV increases.

It seems somehow climactic and fitting that my first fiction work is about a sealed book with answers to all the world’s important questions.

Do you write everyday?

Writing the Book of Answers has been a great discovery for me of how language, memory, imagination and meaning interact.

I write often but it has not been a daily discipline. Let’s say my work permits me to write in stolen packets of time -- in transit lounges, late at night at home, in taxis, and so on.

I separate writing time from thinking time, and have noticed that my characters and storylines develop most energetically when I am walking, something I do every day. The characters then seem to take on a life of their own -- they walk, they talk, they interact, say unexpected things to each other, and suggest developments.

It’s a strange feelings, to be an onlooker while my own characters tell me where to take their story.

The sessions have become easier over the three years the story took to develop.

It took me a long time to find my writer’s voice, perhaps most of two years. But once I found it, the story and the details began to flow.

Story-telling is a fractal process -- the level of details one needs seems not to be different whether you are looking at a chapter or a paragraph -- or even a sentence. That has been a wonderful thing to realize.

How many books have you written so far?

My only other book, published in 1997 by HarperCollins India, is called Travels with the Fish. It is a tongue-in-cheek travelogue of my mishaps and discoveries in diverse countries all over the world, as narrated to the Fish, a skeptical armchair traveler whose main knowledge of the world comes from the National Geographic.

What is your latest book about?

The Book of Answers took me just about exactly three years to write, starting around March 2005. It’s my first fiction work, but its provenance goes back deep into my life and my work and thought.

It’s the story of an Indian man -- half Bengali, half Keralite -- called Patros Patranobis who inherits a locked metal-bound book with, purportedly, answers to all the world’s pressing current problems: wars, inequities, suffering, corruption etc. But Patros, in common with about 99% of humanity, does not think one man can make any great difference to anything. Besides, all he wants is a quiet life with his partner, Rose Jangry. He sells the book off within days to a junk store. And that’s how the story gets going.

It’s about how a locked book turns into a deadly weapon in the hands of a corrupt politician and a self-appointed godman.

While Patros watches, helpless, the country is riven by a series of Orwellian legislations. The more Patros tries to rectify the harm he has unwittingly caused, the more he is targeted by the new draconian laws.

The Book of Answers will hopefully be out later this year. It is right now in the submissions stage, and my literary agency, Curtis Brown Ltd, is handling the process.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

The trickiest bit was finding the voice.

In my first draft, I used the first person voice, but began to review that after several people told me that the writing sounded too flowery and verbose. Perhaps, I thought, I was trying too hard to sound ‘literary’ in my eagerness to appear authorly rather than journalistic. With just over 150 pages done, I went back and rewrote the book in the third person.

This got me an earful from my literary agent, who said that I had ‘killed’ my voice, the one thing, in his view, that set my writing apart from others’ he’d seen. “Anyone can write journalistically,” he wrote to me. “But you had a unique and compelling voice. That’s gone now.”

At that time, I was moderating a meet-up group of writers in Bangkok, and sought their opinion on first versus third person. Apparently, they agreed with Nathan. So I went back and rewrote the entire book -- close to 270 pages by now -- again in the first person.

I think this painful process became the one that polished my writing with every iteration.

In the first person, you can only write about what you see, hear and think. There is no God’s-eye-view, you are not omniscient as in the third person. I had to jettison huge tracts of my third person writing, and figure out new ways to reveal those details to the reader. This entire process was probably the most difficult part of doing this book.

What did you enjoy most?

To realize that the process of writing fiction generates its own facts was a wonderful discovery.

Of course, the details always emerge from one’s own life, and to that extent, most of the times I can pinpoint where I borrowed narrative from my life experience. But the magical moments are when you suddenly see a bit of story that is not in the least bit familiar to you from your own life story -- and you realize that something fundamentally creative has happened there.

Another wonderful aspect of this process for me has been watching the story play itself out in my head. My mind is most active when I am in motion, so my evening walks are among the most fecund periods of my day.

There was a stage when my characters acquired a personality and life of their own, literally ‘enacting’ entire scenes in my head, seemingly with no help from me. This was always a thrilling time -- it was as though the characters were telling me what they should do next.

I remember Thomas Harris, author of the Hannibal Lecter books, saying something like this when explaining why he had written yet another book, this one on the childhood of the cannibalistic protagonist. At that time, I remember laughing and thinking, This man was just exploiting the franchise with a new book, giving the lemon one more squeeze. How can characters dictate [a] story to the author? But I must say that I am [now] a little less skeptical of this process.

What sets the Book of Answers apart from other things you've written?

The fact that it is fiction, for one. My only other book, Travels with the Fish, was a rollicking travelogue that compiled traveler’s tales from my many years of quixotic traveling. It was, in a sense, easy writing.

Humor is quite effortless for me, and I could draw all the facts I needed from my personal experience. More wickedly, I could fabricate my own life story where the details were murky, and no one would be the wiser.

To counter this, I set up a skeptical listener, the one I was telling the stories to, the so-called Fish. The Fish was an armchair traveler who matched my accounts with what his readings of the National Geographic had told him the story should have been.

It was a useful device: I wrote with forked tongue and had the Fish to alert the reader when I was crossing the thin line between fact and fiction.

In the Book of Answers, the problem was the reverse: I had to avoid any semblance of reality even though I was drawing upon it. Events and personalities had to be viewed through a distorting lens so that their original details could not be discerned by any reader.

What will your next book be about?

There are several ideas. One book, provisionally titled The Book of Maltruism or perhaps just The Maltruist, builds itself on the theme of unintended harm caused by intended good when people with ideas and notions of how the world ought to be set about ‘improving other people’s lives’.

Another theme is about a person so overwhelmed by the bottomless abundance of knowledge in today’s world, and so deeply frustrated that he will never know it all, and that you could go through your entire life without meeting a single other person who knows the things that you know -- that he begins to fill his ignorance with false erudition. He makes up knowledge, becoming a poseur, a professor of punk wisdom. I have the character -- I am yet to develop the story.

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