When we hear the name Shakespeare, most of us remember the great Bard, not British author Nicholas Shakespeare, the direct descendant of the famous playwright. In fact, in 2012, French president François Hollande quoted a Shakespearean passage that turned out to be a line from Nicholas’s book, The Vision of Elena Silves. Ahead of his visit at this year’s Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest, the author speaks with Hindustan Times about his lineage, his connection with the city of Mumbai and exploring India through his writings.
Would you ever consider writing a story that is set in India? Is there anything about India that fascinates you?
I can easily imagine an Indian setting. Anyone not fascinated by India does not know how to live. I remember taking my father back to Shimla (Himachal Pradesh) for the first time since he left India in 1931, and finding the room where he was born in a small house in Jutogh. It is now one of the headquarters for the Indian Army, with papier-maché mountains that signify the border with Pakistan and the arrangement of troops. I was struck by how my father was ambushed by emotion — to see the place where he had entered the world turned into an operations centre for a frontier war. I haven’t done anything with that image, but novels begin with such images.
Are you often asked about William Shakespeare’s legacy? Has it impacted your work?
Only when I travel. In Britain, as I still like to refer to it, people still ask me how I spell my name. I would say the impact of Shakespeare’s writings on my work has been zero. No, less than zero.
You’ve also explored Bombay in one of your short stories, The White Hole Of Bombay. What kind of research went into it?
A friend, the Australian writer Murray Bail, lived in Mumbai in the 1960s. The bones of this story happened to him. He frequented the Breach Candy Club and met a strange expatriate couple who told him their story.
In your writing, you’ve often explored parts of the world that are considered remote and exotic, such as Peru and Tasmania. What inspires you to do so?
I grew up as the son of a diplomat, who was born in India. My childhood was spent moving from country to country. Each became home for a while. It was a deracinating experience that I later found reflected in the stories of William Somerset Maugham, a writer who has always appealed to me. The one place I have never set a story in is Britain, which remains for me almost too exotic and unknowable.
Do you wish for any of your other books to be converted into a movie?
I began writing Inheritance with the distant belief that the premise would make a sure-fire movie, but of course, the novel took over, as if to defy this impure impulse. The novel does only what the novel can do, which is why it is still the only game in town. Inheritance became almost deliberately unfilmable, and in my opinion, much better as a novel, although, that said, all novels are exercises in failure — as are films based on novels. The best reason to have a film made is financial — to fund the next novel.
Your novels are often deep-rooted in history and politics. How important it is to stick to the facts while writing fiction?
I stick to the facts as closely as possible until the moment I can be free of them. Facts should be mastered to liberate you in order to be confident about the integrity of your material, but not to imprison you in having to demonstrate your research. It’s a fine line.
In 2014, the Man Booker Prize expanded to include all English-language authors. With Paul Beatty winning the Man Booker Prize this year, what does the inclusion of an American author signify to you?
I was asked to be one of the judges for the Booker Prize in 2013, the first year it was opened up, and I would have done so only because it had widened its entries to include American writers. Wimbledon doesn’t close its competition to non-British tennis players. Why should writers be any different from tennis players? We are all in the same game. I abominate anything that smacks of Little England, which is maybe why I am depressed right now.
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