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When the writers start talking

Readers buy books because they want to be gripped by a story, engaged by an author’s ideas or be better informed about the world they inhabit.

books Updated: Jan 22, 2011 00:18 IST

The Big Book-Shelf
Sunil Sethi
Rs 350 n pp 240

Readers buy books because they want to be gripped by a story, engaged by an author’s ideas or be better informed about the world they inhabit.

But they also want to know more about the books they read, and in the process, about the lives of those who write, their motivations, and the labours of the writer’s craft. How is a writer made and what is the nature of the writing impulse? Are writers born with a burning creative drive or do they steadily hone their art? How do they shape their characters and stories in fiction, or develop their subjects and themes in non-fiction?

Early or late, single-minded or circuitous, every writer’s journey begins with the pursuit of a particular idea or subject. This was more apparent in the case of writers of non-fiction. A person, a place or even a line embedded in a poem could trigger off the creative process and ineluctably change the course of their lives. The Bengali writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi felt the urgency to explore the oral legends surrounding the life of the Rani of Jhansi for her first book, a biography of the warrior-queen, with such intensity that ‘I borrowed money from relatives, got into a train, left behind a small baby with his father and went to Jhansi.’ …

Often, the need to investigate such stories was bolstered by a writer’s need to break from the mould of convention or the narrow confines of an ordered life. For the historian Ramachandra Guha, trained for an academic career, to write his biography of the anthropologist Verrier Elwin was a “difficult transition because the study of an individual and singular life is disparaged in the academy. Because of the great influence of Marxism we are supposed to deal with aggregates: with classes, peasants and workers, or with the State and the nation as a whole. I came to it with some diffidence and some recklessness.”

The writer’s outward journey was often inspired by wide reading and a love of letters. Whatever the motivation or their chosen route to writing, most authors professed an abiding passion for books from childhood. Reaching across to tap my knee, the novelist Nadine Gordimer, whose early education was patchy, admonished: ‘Reading, my dear, is the only training for a writer from a young age. You only become a writer by being a compulsive reader.’

Not all writers are as vivid in their expression or as articulate in speech. Some, like Jhumpa Lahiri, Aravind Adiga or Zadie Smith, are uncomfortable with the medium of television and routinely decline requests; when they do agree, which is but rarely, they prefer to answer questions by email or perhaps talk to someone with an unobtrusive notebook. When he won the Booker Prize for his first novel, The White Tiger, in 2008, Adiga sent a polite email saying that he was unused to television and apologised for begging off….

Once they have agreed to the interview, their talk, laced with quicksilver insights, literary allusions and witty asides, can never pall. Explaining how he “sponged off’ his parents for years while finishing his long opus, A Suitable Boy, Seth quipped: “They acted as my patrons, or patron and matron, you could say.” The interviewer can come away wishing that the cameras could have rolled on and on. And writers like Mark Tully, William Dalrymple, Shobhaa Dé and Paul Theroux, as professional journalists, are unfazed by any kind of question. They also have their timing pat: wired to an internal clock they know exactly when the half-hour is up.

…A writer’s life is often solitary and, emerging from that cloistered world, it can sometimes be unnerving to condense and explain the creative process under the glare of lights. But a literary interview is not an inquisition: a few words of encouragement and careful listening will generally thaw a guest who freezes mid-sentence; a cup of tea will restore lost cues and frayed nerves. I haven’t actually had a writer walk away in six years.

Sunil Sethi has hosted the weekly literary show Just Books on NDTV since 2005

This is an edited extract from Sunil Sethi's The Big Book Shelf (Penguin)