Be more than just prose: Neel Mukherjee
A novel is more than pretty sentences. But it’s the responsibility of the writer to get the world he’s writing about right.brunch Updated: Apr 18, 2015 13:40 IST
Is research more important than imagination?
Research only takes you up to the threshold of the room. You need imagination to enter it. So much of the world in a book feels truthful because the writer imagined it intensely.
But research is important. In the second novel [in Stieg Larsson’s Milennium Trilogy], Lisbeth Salander sits on a tree stump and solves the Riemann Conjecture, which is the biggest problem in number theory.
A real-life mathematician who read it was incredulous. He wrote a very eloquent piece on his website laughing at novelists, saying something like, "Do they have no idea of how the world of mathematics and mathematicians works? One needs to not only be gifted but also have dealt with mathematics for decades. You do not look into the distance and solve it."
And then under that post, hundreds of mathematicians laughed at Larsson too: "Is this guy a fool?" "Can he even spell math? If a novel states itself in truthfulness, it is the responsibility of the novelist to get the world right.
Is writing about discipline, or is it whimsical?
Discipline, only discipline! You have to sit and do a little bit everyday. There are bad days and there are good days.
When I’m working on a novel, I try and write 500 words everyday. It’s my only rule. I may take a whole day to write my 500 words. If I’m very lucky, I’m done before lunch.
What makes a novel good?
Well, the spirit of the novel matters more than the prose. It’s not enough to have pretty sentences on a page, it has to be more. The book must say something significant and interesting and complex about the world.
And do you think everyone can write – if they try?
I don’t know why that lie has been sold to us, that everyone has a novel in him or her. I think the advice that should be given is, don’t write it!
Neel Mukherjee is the author of Past Continuous (2008), A Life Apart (2010) and The Lives of Others (2014). His last novel – a searing account of a large Bengali family in Calcutta of the 1960s, and at the same time of the life of a young Naxal – was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year.
From HT Brunch, April 19
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