The Fairlady Interview
Fairlady Magazine October 2008 Author interview Meet Vikas Swarup Vikas Swarup is an Indian diplomat who currently holds the position of deputy high commissioner to South Africa – so he lives in Pretoria. To date, he has written two novels: Q&A, and Six Suspects which was released this year. He wrote Q&A in London, while alone when his wife and children visited India. For more about Q&A, read The Rediff Interview on rediff.com (posted 1 February 2005) and editor Suzy Brokensha’s review on this site. Since then, though, according to Wikipedia, it has received a number of accolades: • Shortlisted for Best First Book by the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize • Winner of Exclusive Books Boeke Prize 2006 • Winner of the Prix Grand Public at the 2007 Paris Book Fair (France’s favourite novelist) • Chosen as One Book for Stevenage (a project to promote reading and to foster community spirit by encouraging as many people as possible to read the same book at the same time. A great idea – something for us to emulate?) • The BBC radio play based on the book won the Gold Award for Best Drama at the Sony Radio Academy Awards. The audio version of the book, read by Kerry Shale, won the Audie for best fiction audio book of the year. Besides this, it has been translated into 34 languages. (Mr Swarup says the first language in which it was published was Dutch.) There’s a film version (called Slumdog Millionaire and directed by Danny Boyle) which will be previewed at the Toronto Film Festival in January. Look out for it here mid-year. And a West End musical is in the pipeline (with Nitin Sawney responsible for the score). Finally (this is a rather lengthy list), it’s on the Exclusive Books list of 101 Books to Read Before You Die. ‘I was so touched by what one reader had to say about Q&A,’ says Swarup. ‘She held out her well-thumbed copy for me to sign. “No other book will ever match Q&A,” she said. “It helped me through a very dark time in my life.”’ So, to what does Swarup ascribe the phenomenal success of Q&A? ‘Maybe its simplicity, and our tendency to root for the underdog.’ Set in India, Q&A has been well received there too – though Swarup says that there was ‘some carping about portraying India in a negative light’. His response? ‘You have to be true to your characters.’ And now there’s Six Suspects – and it’s great. Is the Q&A fan right about it being the best book ever? Says Swarup, ‘I feel that Six Suspects is better – and I would like to think I have evolved as a writer.’ On writing… ‘My main thrust is to entertain – I want my readers to be engrossed, to feel that their time has been well spent.’ Swarup calls himself as a storyteller rather than a writer. The distinction? ‘A writer attempts to dazzle with words, while for me, the plot is paramount. If there is no story, then the writing is false.’ Swarup adds: ‘I don’t write for critics; I write for readers,’ driving home his point with a quote from Camus that resonates for him: ‘Those who write clearly have readers, those who write obscurely have commentators.’ But he does think that the art of writing transforms both the reader and the writer. By way of example, he talks about events that contributed to Six Suspects. Before he wrote the novel, he didn’t know about the Onge people of the Andaman Islands. When the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake struck, they had moved to higher ground deep inside their forest and escaped the tsuanmi that inundated the settlements. For all their lack of civilisation, they were able to read the signs in the natural world. Swarup developed a great interest in them; he was struck by the contrast between their world and ‘our materialistic society and our worship of the cult of beauty’. ‘I don’t want to portray myself as seeming to have profound insights for the reader,’ he says, ‘but I do wish readers to take away with them the question of whether we are living the right kind of life.’ Swarup further draws on reality: the villain of the piece, Vicky Rai, committed several crimes that were high-profile cases in India – though they were committed by separate individuals. Google the Sanjeev Nanda BMW hit and run case, in which it was widely believed that all the victims had been bought off; Salman Khan has been charged with culpable homicide, sentenced to a year in prison for hunting an endangered species and accused of harrassment by Aishwarya Rai; and the Jessica Lall case. And there’s also the Bhopal disaster. On the nitty-gritties of Six Suspects, Swarup says, ‘I intended to experiment with polyphonic narrative: one chapter is written in the first person, one in diary form, one in the third person. Many of the characters, like the vain, egotistical actress, are not in the least appealing – but over time, you develop sympathy for them. I also wanted to experiment with a unique structure: the novel follows the structure of a murder investigation.’ ‘I’ve also tried to write beyond genre – I wouldn’t like Six Suspects to be pigeon-holed as a crime novel – that would be rather like calling The Old Man and the Sea a fishing novel.’ Does writing come easily? ‘Initially, it is very difficult, but I am disciplined,’says Swarup. ‘And once I’ve passed a “critical mass”, I write with gusto.’ His primary occupation is still that of diplomat; ‘writing occurs in the cracks – during weekends and holidays’. Not for him a snatched hour or half here and there: ‘I need several hours at a stretch.’ He doesn’t want to give up his day job at present as the job of professional writer carries too much pressure. Success in writing has changed his life, though: ‘Now, rather than being seen as Vikas Swarup the “diplomat”, I am the “writer”. It has been heartening, surprising, has opened doors and helped me in my job.’ His advice to aspiring writers? Well, he says, ‘I am the ultimate inspiration; I never did a creative writing course, I never studied English literature.’ Also, ‘writing is an acquired art; it depends on reading. Maybe what is a God-given quality is the faculty of imagination.’ ‘If you want to write, get an objective opinion – and by objective, I mean someone qualified to comment, someone who does not have a vested interest in boosting you. You may think you have a story, but you may be living in a false world. And, of course, you can’t discount chance. Take the story of the UK Sunday Times “sting”: works of eminent novelists such as Nobel-prize-winning VS Naipul and Stanley Middleton were sent to 20 publishers and agents – and were rejected!’ If you are a celebrity, though, ‘You may enjoy success beyond that of the wildest dreams of any writer. Take the case of former UK page three girl, Jordan (Katie Price).’ The first of her three autobiographies (!) went to first position in the Nielsen BookScan hardback sales chart. On reading… Some of Swarup’s favourites include: • Dracula by Bram Stoker • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway • 1984 by George Orwell Are there books he’s embarrassed to admit he hasn’t read? ‘I don’t feel a lesser person for not having read them, but the list runs into the thousands, and includes classics like War and Peace and Dr Zhivago.’ ‘I see reading as the key to unlocking the universe. It develops critical thinking, analytical ability. Television can only take this so far. The fact that image is driving out word is a problem of the modern world. I try to encourage my own sons to read (yes, they too love to play computer games) and I’m thrilled to tell you that my 12-year-old has read Six Suspects. And I’m also thrilled to have had Q&A chosen in the literacy-drive, One for Stevenage, and that local schools in KZN and Gauteng have prescribed it as a set book. Now, all there is to do is to wait for the next novel. No pressure, Mr Swarup!