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Censorship, state and formation of literature

A Stasi official observing the interrogation of the lover of an East German playwright whose loyalty to the state is questioned, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, 2006

An extract from the New York Review of Books review by Timothy Garton Ash of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton” ( 23 October 2014)

I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.

My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.

In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”

He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.

In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:

Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.

Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”

In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.

Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.

Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.

The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.

17 March 2017 

Jaya’s newsletter 8 ( 14 Feb 2017)

It has been a hectic few weeks as January is peak season for book-related activities such as the immensely successful world book fair held in New Delhi, literary festivals and book launches. The National Book Trust launched what promises to be a great platform — Brahmaputra Literary Festival, Guwahati. An important announcements was by Jacks Thomas, Director, London Book Fair wherein she announced a spotlight on India at the fair, March 2017.  In fact, the Bookaroo Trust – Festival of Children’s Literature (India) has been nominated in the category of The Literary Festival Award of International Excellence Awards 2017. (It is an incredible list with fantabulous publishing professionals such as Marcia Lynx Qualey for her blog, Arablit; Anna Soler-Pontas for her literary agency and many, many more!) Meanwhile in publishing news from India, Durga Raghunath, co-founder and CEO, Juggernaut Books has quit within months of the launch of the phone book app.

In other exciting news new Dead Sea Scrolls caves have been discovered; in an antiquarian heist books worth more than £2 m have been stolen; incredible foresight State Library of Western Australia has acquired the complete set of research documents preliminary sketches and 17 original artworks from Frane Lessac’s Simpson and his Donkey, Uruena, a small town in Spain that has a bookstore for every 16 people  and community libraries are thriving in India!

Some of the notable literary prize announcements made were the longlist for the 2017 International Dylan Thomas Prize, the longlist for the richest short story prize by The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and the highest Moroccan cultural award has been given to Chinese novelist, Liu Zhenyun.

Since it has been a few weeks since the last newsletter the links have piled up. Here goes:

  1. 2017 Reading Order, Asian Age
  2. There’s a pair of bills that aim to create a copyright small claims court in the U.S. Here’s a breakdown of one
  3. Lord Jeffery Archer on his Clifton Chronicles
  4. An interview with award-winning Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan
  5. Pakistani Author Bilal Tanweer on his recent translation of the classic Love in Chakiwara
  6. Book review of Kohinoor by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand
  7. An article on the award-winning book Eye Spy: On Indian Modern Art
  8. Michael Bhaskar, co-founder, Canelo, on the power of Curation
  9. Faber CEO speaks out after winning indie trade publisher of the year
  10. Scott Esposito’s tribute to John Berger in LitHub
  11. An interview with Charlie Redmayne, Harper Collins CEO
  12. Obituary by Rakhshanda Jalil for Salma Siddiqui, the Last of the Bombay Progressive Writers.
  13. Wonderful article by Mary Beard on “The public voice of women
  14. Enter the madcap fictional world of Lithuanian illustrator Egle Zvirblyte
  15. Salil Tripathi on “Illuminating evening with Prabodh Parikh at Farbas Gujarati Sabha
  16. The World Is Never Just Politics: A Conversation with Javier Marías
  17. George Szirtes on “Translation – and migration – is the lifeblood of culture
  18. Syrian writer Nadine Kaadan on welcoming refugees and diverse books
  19. Zhou Youguang, Who Made Writing Chinese as Simple as ABC, Dies at 111
  20. Legendary manga creator Jiro Taniguchi dies
  21. Pakistani fire fighter Mohammed Ayub has been quietly working in his spare time to give children from Islamabad’s slums an education and a better chance at life.
  22. #booktofilm
    1. Lion the memoir written by Saroo Brierley has been nominated for six Oscars. I met Saroo Brierley at the Australian High Commission on 3 February 2017. 
    2. Rachel Weisz to play real-life gender-fluid Victorian doctor based on Rachel Holmes book
    3. Robert Redford and Jane Fonda to star in Netflix’s adaptation of Kent Haruf’s incredibly magnificent book Our Souls at Night
    4. Saikat Majumdar says “Exciting news for 2017! #TheFirebird, due out in paperback this February, will be made into a film by #BedabrataPain, the National Award winning director of Chittagong, starring #ManojBajpayee and #NawazuddinSiddiqi. As the writing of the screenplay gets underway, we debate the ideal language for the film. Hindi, Bengali, English? A mix? Dubbed? Voice over?
    5. 7-hour audio book that feels like a movie: Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller and 166 Other People Will Narrate George Saunders’ New Book – Lincoln in the Bardo.
    6. Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson on creating those jaw-dropping visual effects

New Arrivals ( Personal and review copies acquired)

  • Jerry Pinto Murder in Mahim 
  • Guru T. Ladakhi Monk on a Hill 
  • Bhaswati Bhattacharya Much Ado over Coffee: Indian Coffee House Then and Now 
  • George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo 
  • Katie Hickman The House at Bishopsgate 
  • Joanna Cannon The Trouble with Goats and Sheep 
  • Herman Koch Dear Mr M 
  • Sudha Menon She, Diva or She-Devil: The Smart Career Woman’s Survival Guide 
  • Zuni Chopra The House that Spoke 
  • Neelima Dalmia Adhar The Secret Diary of Kasturba 
  • Haroon Khalid Walking with Nanak 
  • Manobi Bandhopadhyay A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi: A Candid Biography of India’s First Transgender Principal 
  • Ira Mukhopadhyay Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth & History 
  • Sumana Roy How I Became A Tree 
  • Invisible Libraries 

14 February 2017 

Kindle books in Indian languages could be a game changer: What Amazon’s new initiative will mean for publishing in Indian languages

My article on Kindle books being introduced in Indian languages was published in The Mint on 21 Dec 2016. )

Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

Amazon India has announced that Kindle will launch digital books in five Indian languages—Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam. The titles include Ishq Mein Shahar Hona by Ravish Kumar (Hindi), Rajaraja Chozhan by Sa. Na. Kannan (Tamil), Mrutyunjay by Shivaji Sawant (Marathi), Ek Bija Ne Gamta Rahiye by Kaajal Oza Vaidya (Gujarati), Aarachar by K.R. Meera (Malayalam) and Mayapuri by Shivani (Hindi). Kindle devices seventh generation and above will support Indic scripts, enabling readers to access such books.

This is a move that could be a game changer in India. Amazon India has moved methodically to embed itself in Indian publishing. First, it launched Kindle with free lifetime digital access provided by BSNL, but only for English e-books. In November, the acquisition of local publishing firm Westland—known for its commercial fiction best-sellers and translation programme—was completed at reportedly $6.5 million (around Rs44 crore), a small portion of the $5 billion allocated by Jeff Bezos as investment in India. In fact, Seattle-based Amazon Publishing’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, has surpassed all other publishers in the amount of world literature it makes available in the US. This was first highlighted in December 2015 by Chad Post, publisher, Open Letter Books, on his influential website, Three Percent. In October 2015 AmazonCrossing announced it had a $10 million budget to invest in translations worldwide. It is probably no coincidence that Amazon India vice- president and country manager Amit Agarwal has been inducted into the Bezos core team, which is responsible for its global strategy.

In an email, Post responded to the news, saying: “This seems like a great thing for Indian readers and anyone interested in Indian literature. Amazon’s stated goal is to make as many books available in as many formats to as many people as possible, and this program is a strong move in that direction. Increasing digital access to these books will be huge—it greatly expands the potential audience, and could help AmazonCrossing expand into publishing Indian writers in translation. AmazonCrossing published 60 works translated into English in 2016, which is far more than any other publisher. The majority of these titles are translated from German, French and Spanish, but AmazonCrossing has expanded into doing works from Iceland, Turkish, Chinese and Indonesian, so it makes sense that they would be interested in finding books from these five Indian languages.”

In India, this announcement could not have come at a more opportune moment. With demonetization, Indians who prefer dealing in cash are perforce moving to digital payments. Also, by July 2017, it will be mandatory for all handsets manufactured, stored, sold and distributed in India to support the inputting of text in English, Hindi and at least one more official Indian language, and support reading of text in all these languages, thus making it feasible to read books other than English on the Kindle app too.

Kannan Sundaram, publisher, Kalachuvadu, welcomed the decision: “We hope it will increase our revenue from e-books which is pretty low now. Tamilians are spread all over the world. It is near impossible to reach hard copies to them. So this will boost the chances for them to read Tamil books of their choice.” Best-selling author Ashwin Sanghi called it an “outstanding initiative by Amazon India. It’s about time that vernacular writing moved out from the confines of paperback. It will also enable out-of-print books to be made available now.” Another best-selling author, Amish Tripathi, said this will address the inadequate distribution and marketing of Indian language books, for the much larger market is the one in Indian languages. “I am personally committed to this and am very happy that of the 3.5 million copies that have been sold of my books, a good 500,000 of them are in Indian languages.” Others remarked upon the best global practices it would bring to local publishing.

Well-known Hindi lexicographer Arvind Kumar says it will influence reading patterns by encouraging cross-pollination of literature across cultures by “opening new avenues for translation of two-way Hindi to English and other Indian languages which are being introduced on Kindle, and from many non-English languages like French and German or, say, Latin American into Hindi”. Mini Krishnan, OUP, too endorsed it, saying readership in the Indian languages is healthy, so “a highly portable personal library will surely do well”.

21 December 2016 

Jaya’s newsletter 3 – 11 November 2016

( Please feel free to write with suggestions and comments: jayabhattacharjirose1 at gmail dot com )

Hello!

On 8 September 2016, the demonetization of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 was announced by the government of India. Newly designed currency, freshly minted with embedded chips will be brought into circulation. It is a move to counter black money in the country but it would be interesting to know how this impacts many of the publishers and booksellers in India, many of whom deal predominantly in cash. For now it is impossible to tell.

New Arrivals

  • Jorge Carrion Bookshops (MacLehose Press)
  • Cecilia Ahern Lyrebird ( HarperCollins India)
  • Jeff Kinney Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down ( Puffin, PRH India)
  • Twinkle Khanna The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad ( Juggernaut)
  • Bina Shah A Season for Martyrs ( Speaking Tiger)
  • Ritu Menon Loitering with Intent ( Speaking Tiger)
  • T.J.S. George Askew ( Aleph)
  • Anthony Horowitz Magpie Murders ( Hachette)
  • Jeffrey Archer This was a Man ( Pan MacMillan India )

Jaya Recommends:

  • Rajelakshmy, a physicist by training who published these extraordinary “feminist” stories in the weeklyimg_20161111_102225 Mathrubhumi and monthly Mangalodayam. She committed suicide in 1965 but the stories and the incomplete novel have been compiled together for the first time as A Path and Many Shadows& Twelve Stories  (Translated from Malayalam by R.K. Jayasree, Orient Black Swan)
  • oddny-eirOddny Eir’s incredibly stunning Land of Love and Ruins.  It is a semi-autobiographical reflection on nature, literature, philosophy and commerce. Oddny Eir has also written songs for Bjork.  (Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton, Restless Books)
  • Seirai Yuichi’s magnificent Ground Zero, Nagasaki : Short Stories . These22329531 chilling stories set in contemporary Nagasaki are about the  minority community of Japanese practising Catholicism and trying to survive the endless trauma of the atomic bomb. (Translated by Paul Warham. Columbia University Press)
  • Raina Telgemeier’s absorbingly brilliant graphic novel Ghosts. It is about ghostslittle Catrina who has cystic fibrosis and celebration of Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. It is to be released at the Comic Con, Bangalore. (Scholastic India)

Book Events

11 Nov: Sahitya Akademi symposium on Rajelakshmy at 5:30pm

11-13 Nov: Kathakar, Children’s Literature Festival, IGNCA New Delhi followed by 14 November at the IGNCA Bengaluru and on 17 November at the CSMVS, Mumbai

12-13 Nov: Comic Con, Bangalore

14 Nov: Simon & Schuster India will be celebrating 5 years in India (By invitation only)

15 Nov: Shauna Singh Baldwin will be in conversation with Amrita Bhalla to discuss the diasporic writings about shaunas-conversationSouth Asian life and culture and will also talk about and read from her latest book “Reluctant Rebellions”.

People & Jobs 

Rahul Dixit has been appointed Sales Director, HarperCollins India. He was earlier with PRH India.

gillon-aitken-and-v-s-naipaul

Gillon Aitken with V.S. Naipaul, Amer Fort, Jaipur. (C) Patrick French

A few days ago legendary literary agent, Gillon Aitken, passed away. Patrick French posted a short tribute on his Facebook page along with some marvellous photographs. Republished with permission.

A one-year vacancy of the books editor at The Caravan Magazine has been announced.

Prizes

  • The Order of the Rising Sun – Gold & Silver Ray, the highest civilian award by Imperial manorama-jaffa-2-japan-award manorama-jaffaMajesty of Japan, was conferred on Manorama Jaffa in recognition of her contribution to children’s writing in India. After Prof. Brij Tankha, Mrs. Jaffa is the second Indian to have been honoured.
  • SPARROW Literary Award 2016: The SPARROW panel of judges (N Sukumaran, Kannan Sundaram and Ambai) for SPARROW-R Thyagarajan Literary Award decided to choose the category of translation for award this year. Translations from one Indian language to another and direct translation from a foreign language (other than English) to Tamil were taken for consideration. The SPARROW-R Thyagarajan Literary Award 2016 will go to Kulachal S M Yoosuf for his translations from Malayalam to Tamil, Gowri Kirubanandan, for her translations from Telugu to Tamil and Sridharan Madhusudhanan for his translations from Chinese to Tamil.
  • French-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani won the Goncourt, France’s top literary prize. The former journalist is only the seventh woman to have won the Goncourt in its 112-year history. The novel has been a best seller — more than 76,000 copies have been purchased so far.
  • Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the Giller Prize ( $100,000)
  • Lynne Kutsukake’s The Translation of Loves won the 2016 Canada-Japan Literary Award (English category). And Genevieve Blouin’s Hanaken: Le Sang des Samourais won in the French category.
  • orhan-pamukOrhan Pamuk won the 1million rouble (US$15,715) Russian Yasnaya Polyana Literary Prize, based at Leo Tolstoy’s estate. Pamuk’s novel A Strangeness in My Mind  translated into Russian in 2016, won in the “Foreign literature” nomination of the award, which aims to support both the traditions of classical literature and new trends in contemporary writing. ( http://bit.ly/2fnbDxT ) The Russian translator of Pamuk’s novel, Apollinaria Avrutina, receives a prize of 200,000 rubles (US$3,143). The Yasnaya Polyana Literary Prize was founded in 2003 by Samsung Electronics and the museum and estate of Leo Tolstoy in Tula. According to the jury chairman Vladimir Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy’s great grandson and cultural advisor to the Russian president, the award is meant to help readers find their way in the world of Russia’s literature and international contemporary books—a universal reply to the question “What to read?”

Meanwhile PEN America has released a revised version of its modified contract for literary translations . It is worth looking at.

Miscellaneous

walking-bookfairsBookshops: In Lucknow the iconic Ram Advani’s bookshop closed down on Sunday, 6 November 2016 as there was no one left to run it after his death. But there was good news with the resurrection of Walking Bookfairs, Bhubaneswar, Odisha. After the book shack was demolished the founders Satabdi Mishra and Bahibala Akshaya built a new bookstore saying “Bookstores around the world are closing down. And we are opening a new one. Because we are madly in love with books and bookstores. Long live bookstores!”

reemLondon-based publisher, Reem Makhoul, of Ossass gave a tremendous interview to Marcia Lynx Qualey, ArabLit on children’s literature where Reem says they wanted to give the children what they are familiar with, so began creating beautiful books in colloquial Arabic.  Amazon too seeing the potential of a reading habit has launched an app for children – Amazon Rapids Recently the Financial Times listed a series of smartphone reading apps or a mobile library such as The Pigeonhole, Alexi and Oolipo.

11 Nov 2016 

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

( My interview with Emma Donoghue was published in the Hindu Literary Review online edition yesterday. 7 June 2014. An edited version has been published in today’s print edition. 8 June 2014. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-spirit-of-fiction/article6092640.ece I am c&p the entire text below. ) 

Author Emma Donoghue.

Special ArrangementAuthor Emma Donoghue.

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is an award-winning writer of fiction, drama and literary history. She did a PhD in eighteenth-century literature at Cambridge University. Her books include fiction both historical ( Frog Music, Astray, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) and contemporary ( Stir-fry, Hood, Touchy Subjects, Landing, and the international bestseller Room). These days she lives in London, Ontario, Canada with her partner and two children. She is currently working on the screenplay of Room ( which will be filmed in this autumn) and her first children’s book. For more information, please go to www.emmadonoghue.com . Excerpts from an interview: 

Why do you like writing historical fiction?

Let me reverse that question: why do so many writers limit themselves to the historical era they were born in, when they probably wouldn’t dream of restricting their fiction to the place in the world where they live?

How long do you spend on research before you begin writing?

Hard to quantify, because I get ideas for moments, scenes, or even entire subplots of the novel while I’m in the middle of doing the research, so by the time I start actually drafting, I have already done much of the imaginative work of writing. Then I go back and do more research during the writing process as questions arise. So I don’t know how much time I’ve spent on each, but I would say that my historical novels probably take a bit more time to write than my contemporary ones.

How did you discover the subject of Frog Music?

In somebody else’s book: I found a page on the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet in Autumn Stephens’Wild Women, a marvellous compendium of American female rule-breakers of the nineteenth century.

When do you stop the research and begin writing the story?

For me there’s no hard line between the research and the story-making, because I approach the research in a spirit of fiction, meaning that at every point I’m looking for the unusual, the eye-catching, the strange and the atmospheric, rather than as a historian might, trying to generalise about the times.

How long does it take you to write the first draft of a novel?

Hard to say, because my projects overlap, to keep my working life varied. I got the idea for Frog Music about 15 years ago, but I’d guess that I spent about three solid years on it. If its historical fiction, I do spend time on checking facts once the story is completed. I keep checking things even while I’m proofreading.

Do you have a fondness for nineteenth century events? All though Astray had short stories set earlier.

Yes, my range (if you include my first collection of fact-inspired fictions, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) has been from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. But it is true that the nineteenth century is an appealing one for me because it’s close enough to be highly relevant to our own society, but far enough back to be exotic.

Jenny Bonnet, the cross-dresser, is unusual in nineteenth century San Francisco, but she resonates with readers of the twenty-first century for the kind of debates about sexuality in society. The topic certainly will with Indian readers, especially after the recent Supreme Court judgement. Was it a conscious decision to set this story as a response to contemporary events?

No, I don’t write historical fiction as a commentary on today (because that would be a perversely indirect way to comment on modern events!) but I find that it always does shed an interesting light on the now, especially because so many things that matter to us today (women’s rights, say, or anti-racism, or democracy) have their origins in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

The details about the baby farms/orphanages are horrifying. Did it require a lot of research?

Yes; I had to work for a long time to find out what it cost to farm out your baby, how bad these places were compared with the other available childcare options, etc. The key detail was when I found one farm that had a separate room for the babies who were ‘paid up’, meaning handed over with a lump sum, and a silent expectation that they would not survive. For the details of how it might stunt a child to live in such an institution, I looked at modern evidence about, say, children in Romanian orphanages. The great historical fiction writer Mary Renault once said that history is horizontal rather than vertical, meaning that almost everything that happened in the past can be found happening somewhere in the world today.

Blanche Beunon’s character, being a whore and on the margins of society, has greater social mobility than most people. Yet it is her aspect as a mother that comes out very well. Frog Music is a comment on how a mother balances parenting and being a working woman — a conundrum that exists even in the twenty-first century. Did this development in the story occur to you consciously?

I was conscious of it, yes, but surprised when I first found the book moving that way. I had thought I was more or less done with the subject of motherhood after Room (both the novel, and the screenplay which I’ve been working on since the novel was published), but Blanche’s reference at Jenny’s inquest to her missing baby really haunted me. And once I’d decided to let Blanche narrate the whole story, it seemed irresistible to make the plot a sort of double hunt, for Jenny’s killer and Blanche’s child (and for her own moribund motherhood).

Why did you choose to make the protagonist ex-circus performers? Were circuses popular in nineteenth century America?

They were, but here I was drawing on fact: when I finally found Blanche (under her real name, Adele Beunon) and Arthur on a ship’s passenger list, they gave their jobs as bareback rider and acrobat respectively. I thought circus was a great background for them anyway: so cosmopolitan, bohemian, and literally risky.

Why did you include a glossary of French words and expressions used in the novel? It is an aspect that is fast disappearing from literature published in the Indian sub-continent.

As recent immigrants, Blanche and Arthur — I felt — would be very likely to use at least some French between themselves, and I liked the additional flavour — the almost untranslatable cultural concepts — that the French gave. But I don’t want to make the reader who knows no French feel left out. Of course I tried to make each sentence so that you could more or less guess what the French meant — an insult, say, or an endearment — but for the reader who likes to be sure, I wanted to offer the glossary. All the extras at the end (glossary, author’s note, song notes) can be skipped, but many readers do like to have those resources.

Would you consider Frog Music also as a kind of immigrant literature? It gives details of the French, Chinese and Irish lifestyles, the challenges including the rioting they faced upon moving to America.

Definitely. It goes with my recent collection Astray (which is all about immigrants to or migrants within North America) and my contemporary novel Landing which is about a half-Indian, all-Irish flight attendant who moves to Canada.

Do you prefer to write in longhand or directly at the computer?

I’m so dependent on software that I really doubt I could write great epics on dried leaves, come the apocalypse! I use a great program that allows me to write each scene in its own little file and them move the pieces around freely.

Where did you find much of the musical references in the novel as well as compiled in your playlist (http://8tracks.com/emmadonoghue/frog-music)? Does it continue to be available today?

I did things like looking up lists of 1870s, 1860s, 1850s songs on Wikipedia, reading books of folk songs, searching listings of spirituals, ballads, and bawdy songs. What was really tricky was finding versions of the lyrics (and the tunes, for using in the audiobook) that were definitely published before 1923, to ensure that they were out-of-copyright. Folk songs are usually passed on in a hazy spirit of ‘this is an old song’, without references, so it was a really hard slog to find their earliest published versions. But that gave me such interesting data about each song’s history (for instance, the fact that the famous Negro Spiritual ‘City Called Heaven’ turned out to be adapted from a white gospel song, or the poignant Irish ballad ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ is actually an English music-hall satire) that I ended up including detailed notes on them too. I never end up resenting the time I’ve spent on research!