Faber and Faber Posts

Interview with Ahlawat Gunjan

Ahlawat Gunjan has a Master’s Degree in Graphic Design from The Glasgow School of Art, UK. Previous to that he also spent a semester at Indiana-Purdue University, USA focusing on design thinking and leadership. He is a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

Trained at Lars Mullers Switzerland and Faber & Faber, UK, Ahlawat has a varied and interesting work experience. His overlapping interests in art and literature not only made him pursue a career in publishing but also informs his keen interest in visual authorial interventions and curatorship. This allowed Gunjan to shape the visual personality of the book at every step of its creation. Ahlawat also enjoys the many ways and levels at which a designer can take narrative construction forward through type and image.

He heads Design Department at Penguin Random House, India during the day and spends time painting in the evenings and over the weekends.

Following are edited excerpts of an interview conducted via email:

1.How did you get into the world of publishing?

It was a beautiful accident. My first job was with Hidesign in Pondicherry and I wanted to move closer to home. So, I was looking for opportunities in Delhi and DK happened. I was really enjoying the process of book making, image editing, and managing large book design projects. And I’m rarely satisfied. So, I wanted to try out my hands on a few book covers for Penguin (which used to be next door really in Panchsheel). I still remember being nervous asking my then manager and now Managing Director, DK India, Aparna Sharma, and she was absolutely open to the idea and very encouraging. I did one cover and it went off very well and this was the start of a new journey. I went on to do four more covers and discovered a sort of hidden joy in myself. I realized I really wanted to do this for living now. With huge support from DK and Penguin, the switch happened and I made Penguin my home thereafter. My masters at The Glasgow School of Arts was focused on publishing and as a part of it, I was extremely lucky to intern at Lars Mullers in Switzerland and later at Faber and Faber. This is how publishing happened to me and today, honestly I can’t imagine myself in any other domain of Graphic design.

2. What in your opinion are the basic elements of designing a book cover?

Since seeing comes before words, I would say strength and clarity are foremost and non-negotiable. By strength, I mean the ability of the cover to draw your attention towards it and clarity is the ability (through image and typography) to communicate the message clearly and effectively. The rest happens between these two.

3. Are there a set of basic ground rules that a book designer should be aware of before delving into a new project?

Be courageous and have conviction.

Design and not decorate.

Allow things to evolve.

4. Do you think the basic principles of book designing have undergone a massive transformation since the medieval ages or is it that the modes of production have transformed the process?

Since medieval ages, absolutely. That time we used to have decorative leather bound books with very less variations in terms of size and colour palette. Margins and page settings were dictated how monks would hand write the contents.

With Guttenburg’s invention, the game changed entirely. With printing press, movable type blocks were introduced for mass production.  One can see a lot of illustrated elements like decorative capital letters, but what was missing was para spacing, line spacing, leading and all forced justified text which made the whole page pretty hard to read. It was the time when publishers were the printers and often wanted to show their abilities that were boring, hard to read and based on little showing off. Designs that wouldn’t enhance the text. By 1700s, printing became somewhat common to the masses.

By 1800s, there were authors and fine artists who were involved and commissioned to design and set the books. They introduced the notion of foot notes, side bars and paste numbers. This was the time when the economics of making a book took some precedence, which until now was secondary. 1900s saw several design schools mushrooming all over Europe and USA, with their respective design philosophies (It is very evident even today. For instance, the way Swiss or Dutch people approach design and produce their books, with very strong and distinct typography, imaging and very high production quality).

So, on the whole with turn off every century, book designing saw their own changes.

5. How important is it to know typography as well as different art forms to design a book cover/ book? If yes, what are the fonts for which you have a soft corner?

Author assigns certain voice to their characters and as a book designer we have to assign visual voices to those characters. So, you can understand what a narrative can do without a voice or having a wrong voice. I believe the relationship between the cover design and the text is very special. This is because a font, colour or layout is not chosen solely in function of its legibility but principally for its associative capacity. The classic problem of semiotic theory is that a single image expresses more than a thousand words, and a single word conveys more than a thousand images. (p. 116 Devleminck, Steven, Gobert, Inge, Looveren Johan Van. The Balancing Act of Design )

It’s the backbone of a good cover and I strongly believe in it. Infact, I went to do a summer intensive typography course at the Royal College of Arts, London fairly recently.

I do have some favourites fonts, but I’m trying to work with as few as four/six.

6. Has digital technology made a qualitative difference to book covers?

Yes, your work can reach an unimaginable amounts of readers (say FB, Instagram and other social medias, people tagging etc.), which wasn’t the case 10 years back really. Additionally, unknown readers reach out to you on Facebook, Instagram, Amazon review with their compliments, which is very satisfying and encouraging.

7. What is it that you seek in a book cover design?

A space to negotiate, collaborate, and construct ideas/thoughts and above all space to create! I try to be in author’s shoes to see and feel the writings, to basically try to get the pulse of every possible detail and to assure them that we are equally excited about your work and at the end, making them hand over the controls to you. These are far more fundamental than deciding which fonts to use, what leading is better for a book cover, and so on and so forth.

A designer has a certain accountability and his/ her actions have enormous impact on millions of readers. Without knowing, they become a part of the design and literary history. Along with all the fun you may have, it’s also a huge responsibility on your shoulders, because you are going to give a visual personality to someone’s years of work. Additionally, this will go to print and will be out there for years to come (unlike the digital format, where you can change details quickly). A book cover designer needs to understand that the author’s work is linear but the images on the cover are associative. The challenge is to add layers through visual intervention with type and image. That means, apart from giving a structure, designer can control the reader to read the content in certain way. In other words, the designer holds a remote control to direct the reader a certain way.

8. What is your ideal brief for a book cover design? What are the elements it must absolutely contain and what are the elements that would be bonus if included but are not that necessary?  

We have a standard cover brief format at Penguin and we get written cover briefs from our editors. But, I always believe in having a detailed chat with the editor, sometimes with the author and the sales team also, before I start thinking and researching for the cover. I feel, this way I get the best results!

It’s helpful to have all the elements pertaining to the cover:

Format (HB or PB), size, spine width, budget, extracts to read along with visual suggestions and any additional inputs from the author and Sales.

9. What are the cost considerations of creating a book cover design?

We do work with certain budget per cover and depending upon the design ideas, we sometimes push and pull. For instance, if a designer got a cover design that is dependent on post-press effects (embossing, die-cuts, debossing, Pantone colours) or wants to use unusual stock or slightly extensive printing technique, then we do push the cost boundaries to make it happen. I think it’s about how much we collectively believe in that book and it’s linked to the way we are positioning that particular book.

10. How do you manage to maintain a freshness of style especially with the play of light in most of your compositions? What are the mediums you are partial to — watercolours, acrylic, ink etc.?

My mentor Lars Müller says, “We are authors while designing. Design is our language. And I must reflect my beliefs”. I start each book cover design project from scratch, from reading the manuscript to researching about visuals, fonts I will be using or drawing, discussing the ideas with editors and authors. My way is slow, simple and uncluttered, as already there is enough visual pollution both in typography and imaging. Both of these are art and science and one should strive for simplicity.

No, I’m not partial to any medium when it comes to designing a cover. It has to be absolutely objective and true to the contents inside.

11. What would you claim to be your signature style in creating an art work, may it be canvas or a book cover? For Turner it was the playing of paper and colours. What is yours?

I like making my own imagery for the covers. Originality is one feature that plays an enormous role in my designs. In this age and date where everything is a click away, one seems to think that they have browsed through similar visuals. To arrive at something that is startlingly unconventional and refreshing, the process of thinking needs to be unconventional too. Therefore, one must embrace ambiguity and not kill any idea that one has. I always say it is better to produce an ugly cover but it should be an original. “I prefer ugly covers to clone covers. At least ugly covers demand a certain amount of attention. And will continue to be ugly. In other words, today’s ugly is tomorrow’s beautiful,” says Peter Mendelsund and I can’t agree more to this.

12. Who are the artists and book designers who have influenced you?

My absolute favourites are Irma Boom, Adrian Shaugnehhesy (just spent a week with him in London) and Peter Mendelsund (my ex-colleague from Knopf, USA).

Artists: David Hockney, Ivon Hitchens and Amrita Sher Gil. I can’t do without them!!

13. Can you share examples of book covers that you consider iconic?

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh, Gandhi by Ramchandra Guha, Premchand series, Indica by Pranay Lal, Moong Over Microchip by Venkat Iyer, God in the Quran by Jack Miles (Knopf US), Trampled Under Foot by Barney Hoskins (Faber and Faber) and The Room on the Roof by Ruskin Bond (anniversary edition). 

5 September 2019

Book Post 30: 10-16 March 2019

At the beginning of the week I post some of the books I have received recently. In today’s Book Post 30 included are some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks.

18 March 2019

Eimear McBride, “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing”

Eimear McBride, “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing”

Eimee McBrideOh my God I’m heartily sorry for having offended thee and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell but most of all because they offend thee my God who are all good and deserving of all my love I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to confess my sins to do penance and to amend my life. 

Life. Death. Amend your death. Amen. I go in. Is there any chair for me? No one. Holy sitting next to thee. And I. Excuse me. Move out of my way I’m. My brother. I get there. That one. Give me his chair. Thanks she says to him. I say nothing. Don’t dare look at me. ( p.186)

Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction 2014 was won by Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. The story is narrated by a young girl. She has an older brother who has been diagnosed with brain cancer. They are being brought up by their devout Catholic Irish mother. Their father has abandoned the family. The narrator and her brother are very close to each other. The story is also about the narrator’s relationship with her uncle, who rapes her when she is 13. It is also about her sexuality ( not necessarily promiscuous), tenuous relationship with her mother, but also about the tussle of a teenager with her Catholic upbringing.

It is a very powerful novel. But it is not at all surprising to hear that it took nearly a decade for Eimear McBride to find a publisher. It is an experimental novel, not necessarily in the content but the form of storytelling it adopts. The sentence structure mimics the Irish lilt; the best way to read the novel is in one fell swoop, preferably reading it out aloud. Listen to Eimear McBride reading an extract from it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siKw6xpfSZk s . It takes a while to get into the novel, but once in, it is unputdownable. It is also  disturbing to read. 

It was Eimear McBride’s good fortune that she had bookseller Henry Layte believe in her book. She showed him the manuscript at his Book Hive bookstore. Her novel had been rejected umpteen times by publishers. A decade. Then she showed it to Henry Layte, for his newly established indie press, Galley Beggar Press.  ( http://www.thebookseller.com/news/bookseller-henry-layte-discovering-mcbride.html  ) He liked the experimental novel and decided to publish it. According to The Bookseller report of 6 June 2014, “Galley Beggar Press, formed by Layte and two of his bookshop customers, Guardian books journalist Sam Jordison and his wife, writer Eloise Millar, was established to “publish titles with potential that bigger publishers have shied away from taking a risk on.” From this perspective, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was bang-on brief.” This was in 2010. On 17 March 2014, it was announced that Faber&Faber would partner with Galley Beggar to publish the mass market paperback edition of the novel. By then the novel had won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize  and the Kerry Prize, it was shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize and Desmond Elliot Prize too. After the Irish author won the Bailey Prize, Faber announced it would be publishing 25,000 copies.

A novel worth reading, if you have the appetite for experimentation.

Here are some links worth viewing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1YkrS7rcC4 Meet the judges: Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XRg0Fa1XT8  Eimear McBride Wins 2014 Kerry Prizehttp://www.elleuk.com/magazine/book-club/interview-with-baileys-womens-prize-for-fiction-winner-author-eimear-mcbride-2014#image=1 5 minutes with Eimear McBride

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/05/eimear-mcbride-serious-readers-challenged-baileys-womens-prize Eimear McBride: ‘There are serious readers who want to be challenged’

Eimear McBride A Girl is a Half-formed Thing Faber & Faber, London, 2014. Pb. pp. 210. Rs. 450.

24 June 2014 

 

Hanif Kureishi, “The Last Word”

Hanif Kureishi, “The Last Word”

The Last Word, Hanif Kureishi “Talent is gold dust. You can pan among a million people and come up with barely a scrap of it. Commitment to the Word stands against our contemporary fundamentalist belief in the market.”

The Last Word is the latest novel by Hanif Kureishi.  It is about an ageing and a once-upon-a-time-famous novelist, Mammon and his young biographer, Harry. Mammon is living the life of a recluse in the countryside with his second wife,Liana. He is crabbity, cantankerous and unable to rake in money as he did earlier.  According to Liana, he is an old-fashioned novelist who writes his own novels! Mammon is alarmed at the rapidity with which his resources are dwindling while his wife ploughs through it for various expenses. Harry too has his fair share of challenges but he aspires to be a great novelist. So when commissioned by the maverick and brilliant publisher, Rob to ghostwrite a biography (“official portraitist”) of Mammon, Harry grabs the opportunity to do so–he has idolised Mammon from afar, apart from needing money himself to survive. The Last Word is about the relationship and the trajectory of a fading author’s career and a bit about how a flagging career can be turned around with astute marketing.

This novel seems to be based upon on Hanif Kuerishi’s years of experience as a writer, a creative fiction professor, an award winning and acclaimed novelist, and just an ordinary human being who is trying to get on with life. At times there is a strong feeling that this novel is an well-crafted excuse to deliver his maxims about what constitutes fiction. It is at times sparkling with its insights about contemporary literature and the desire to write in so many. He bursts many many bubbles and dreams of aspiring author. He shows the feet of clay that literary figures are supposed to have. He is quite dismissive of novelists as being tricksters, deceivers, conmen…mostly a seducer. He is scathing about the “gossipocracy of agents, publishers and writers, to stock up with as many stories of infidelity, plagiarism, literary feuding and deceit, cross-dressing, backstabbing, homosexuality, and in particular, lesbianism, as he could.” Mammon even invokes Boswell, the first literary biographer. Sprinkled throughout the novel are nuggets of wisdom ( such as the passage quoted above) that Hanif Kureishi has probably gleaned from his lectures and notes on creative writing. It is as if Hanif Kureishi has on more than one occasion uttered these words to his students. It rings true. I would not be surprised if he is invited to deliver the equivalent of the Norton Lectures at Harvard or the lectures on poetics at the Franklin University. Those are really well written, thought provoking and fabulous lectures that novelists of note are invited to deliver for a semester.

While reading this novel, it was difficult to not recall Andrew O’Hagan’s wonderful longread , “Ghosting” in London Review of Books ( LRB Vol. 36 No. 5 · 6 March 2014; pages 5-26 | 26468 words. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36 /n05/andrew-ohagan/ghosting) It is about his attempts at ghostwriting a biography of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder. It was commissioned by Jamie Byng of Canongate. Unfortunately the commissioned biography was never published since Assange did not allow it to be. A response to this was published by the Guardian in early March written by Colin Robinson, “In Defence of Julian Assange”. ( the Guardian,Thursday 6 March 2014 15.24 GMT. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/06/julian-assange-publisher-defence-wikileaks )

It is probably pure coincidence that The Last Word and these long reads about the ill-fated Assange biography were published at about the same time. It makes for a surreal experience to read a novel and reportage echoing each other. A fine dividing line ( if it exists!) between reality and fiction. Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Last Word is recommended reading, especially for aspiring writers.

Hanif Kureishi The Last Word Faber and Faber, London, 2014. Hb. pp. 286. £18.99

3 May 2014 <

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 – longlist

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 – longlist

DSC Prize for Literature logo15 BOOKS MAKE IT TO THE DSC PRIZE 2014 LONGLIST

New Delhi, October 21, 2013: The longlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 was announced at the Goethe-Institut, Max Mueller Bhavan today, by noted Indian editor, writer and literary critic, Antara Dev Sen, who is chairing the jury panel for the prize. The final list of 15 chosen titles includes 3 works translated from Indian languages and comprises 4 debut novels along with the works of established writers. The longlist reflects a rich and healthy diversity of publishers across geographies including representation from the UK, US and Canada. With several acclaimed novels on the longlist, choosing the final winner for the 2014 edition of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature would be an interesting and challenging task for the jury panel.

There were over 65 entries for the coveted US $50,000 prize this year, from which the jury has compiled the longlist of 15 books that they feel best represents the eclectic and vibrant voice of the South Asian region. The jury panel comprises international luminaries from the world of literature and books- Antara Dev Sen, editor, writer and literary critic and chair of the DSC Prize jury, Arshia Sattar, an eminent Indian translator, writer and a teacher, Ameena Saiyid, the MD of Oxford University Press in Pakistan, Rosie Boycott, acclaimed British journalist and editor and Paul Yamazaki, a veteran bookseller and one of the most respected names in the book trade in the US.

The longlisted entries contending for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014 are:

  1. Anand: Book of Destruction (Translated by Chetana Sachidanandan; Penguin, India)
  2. Benyamin: Goat Days   (Translated by Joseph Koyippalli; Penguin, India)
  3. Cyrus Mistry: Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (Aleph Book Company, India) 
  4. Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya: The Watch (Hogarth/ Random House, UK)   
  5. Manu Joseph: The Illicit Happiness of other people (John Murray, UK & Harper Collins India)
  6. Mohsin Hamid: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
  7. Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (Random House, India)  
  8. Nayomi Munaweera: Island of a Thousand Mirrors (Perera Hussein Publishing, Sri Lanka & Hachette India)
  9. Nilanjana Roy: The Wildings (Aleph Book Company, India)
  10. Philip Hensher: Scenes from Early Life (Faber & Faber, USA)  
  11. Ru Freeman: On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf Press, USA)
  12. Sachin Kundalkar: Cobalt Blue (Translated by Jerry Pinto; Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, India)
  13. Shyam Selvadurai: The Hungry Ghosts (Double Day Publishing, Canada)
  14. Sonora Jha: Foreign (Vintage Books/Random House, India)
  15. Uzma Aslam Khan: Thinner Than Skin (Clockroot Books/Interlink Publishing, USA)

Speaking on the occasion, Antara Dev Sen, Chair of the jury commented “We are delighted to present the longlist for the DSC Prize 2014, which offers a wonderful variety of experiences from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and reflects much of the exhilarating and bewildering diversity that is the hallmark of South Asian fiction. The list includes celebrated, award-winning authors as well as powerful new voices, and I am particularly happy that it includes novels in translation from other Indian languages.

The novels range from the conventional to the experimental, from amazing tales sprawling across continents and generations to stories brilliantly detailed in a small, almost claustrophobic canvas. Several of these books are about violence – many about war, terrorism, conflict – underscoring what the contemporary South Asian experience is inescapably defined by. Many examine otherness – due to migration, caste or sexual identity, terror, alienation. Through extraordinary storytelling and sensitivity, these novels offer us a sense of history, a sense of loss and the invincibility of hope.” she added.

The jury will now deliberate on the longlist over the next month and the shortlist for the DSC Prize will be announced on Wednesday, November 20, 2013 at The London School of Economics in London. The winner will be subsequently declared at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2014.

Jeet Thayil, “Narcopolis” — a review and an interview, Feb 2012

Jeet Thayil, “Narcopolis” — a review and an interview, Feb 2012

(Congratulations to Jeet Thayil for being shortlisted for the ManBooker Prize yesterday. I am reproducing a review and an interview with him that was published earlier in the year.)

Baptised into One Body

Narcopolis’ has created a new benchmark in literary fiction. Kudos to Jeet Thayil for having made a neat transition from verse to prose

Narcopolis

Jeet Thayil

Faber and Faber Limited, London

Pages: 304

Price: 499

Year: 2011

Narcopolis is a ground-breaking novel in the use of language, structure of its prose and content. Zeenat is a eunuch who leads the story, by meeting all the other characters in the book. The action is set in Rashid’s opium den on Shuklaji Street, in Old Bombay. All shades of humanity stop by. The air is thick with narcotic fumes. It is peppered with interesting conversation, led mostly by Zeenat. She is a neo-literate, who, by the end of the novel, is a voracious reader who reads anything that comes her way. There is a Bengali, a drug-addict too, of whom Jeet Thayil says in a recent Facebook post that “he appears with his name unchanged. I knew him about 30 years ago in Shuklaji Street, Bombay. I’d heard of Pablo’s (Bartholomew’s) photo, and then I finally saw it and the intervening years disappeared.”

There is Mr Lee, the Chinaman who settled in Bombay. After escaping persecution from Communist China he operated a legendary opium den. Upon his death he bequeathed Zeenat a couple of exquisitely crafted handmade opium pipes that were at least 500 years old. These helped Zeenat forge a new relationship with Rashid and made his business prosper like never before.

According to the omniscient narrator, the novel is by, “a thinking someone who’s writing these words, who’s arranging time in a logical chronological sequence, someone with an overall plan, an engineer-god in the machine, well, that isn’t the I who’s telling this story, that’s the I who’s being told, thinking of my first pipe at Rashid’s, trawling my head for images, a face, a bit of music, or the sound of someone’s voice, trying to remember whether it was like, the past, recall it as I would the landscape and light of a foreign country, because that’s what it is, not fiction or dead history but a place you lived in once and cannot return to…” He goes on to say that “…my memory is like blotting paper, my full-of-holes, porous, shreddable non-memory, remembering details from 30 years ago …” (but) …“I’m not separating but connecting, I’m giving in to the lovely stories.”

Narcopolis is a multi-layered novel, quite unlike any other in contemporary literary fiction. Probably, being a poet first, helps Jeet Thayil in the structure of his prose. There are instances when parts of the story read as if it were poetry. The introduction to the novel is a paragraph of seven pages, but it is not dull to read. In other sections, it is as if one is reading performance poetry. The passage has a strong rhythm, a well-defined story of its own (contributes to the main narrative, but works well as a standalone too) and has a chorus (quite unusual for prose).

It is fascinating to read how the author incorporates various literary discourses in Narcopolis, with delicious references to the dadas of the English literature canon like John Ruskin and TS Eliot. The overwhelming presence of classical literature like the Bible and Illiad seem to have influenced the writing. There are strong echoes of a fundamental teaching of Christ that everyone – all the minorities like the Gentiles, the circumcised, and prostitutes – are equal for God. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” In the structure of the novel itself, of a story within a story, and the balanced structure with Mr Lee’s autobiographical account forming the centerpiece, it is reminiscent of the Illiad. Is it a mere coincidence that the narrator reveals his name as Ullis? There are moments that create a physical reaction, quite like any other I have experienced while reading fiction, but I would attribute it to the power of the author’s writing.

The importance of the urban landscape and historical events like the 1991 communal riots in Mumbai form a neat backdrop to the novel. Unlike other fiction, where the socio-political climate intrudes forcefully, this one abstains, as if life carries on normally. For an addict, it is the next fix that is of paramount importance, nothing else really. The novel is powerful, but also very disturbing to read. Maybe the reader’s sensibilities are lulled into an artificial sense of well-being with plenty of literary fiction that abounds. So much so that even ‘conflict fiction’ is easier to stomach, but the everyday rawness and jagged edges of this text is what probably adds to the disturbance.

Narcopolis is a book that has created a new benchmark in literary fiction. Kudos to Jeet Thayil for having made a clever and a neat transition from verse to prose.

‘Most Indian publishers rejected the manuscript’

Author Jeet Thayil in conversation with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, via e-mail

Being a poet and a performance poet, has it influenced your style of writing prose?
A novel is a different sort of animal. It has its own engine. Unlike a poem, which can be written in a burst, a novel requires sustained work. You have to be physically fit and you have to live in your mind for long periods of time.

With all first novels, there is always a strong semi-autobiographical sense. Is it true of Narcopolis as well?
There is an autobiographical element in Narcopolis, but it is hidden in the story and it isn’t important. This is why the narrator is treated like a cipher, he is the least well-developed character in the novel.

Your novel is replete with characters who would normally be dismissed as inconsequential, invisibilised or totally marginalised by society. But here you have given them centre stage. I don’t know why, but the teachings of Christ keep resounding in my mind while reading the novel. Am I way off the mark to be making this connection?
You’re not off the mark. Religion is a constant in the book, specifically, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. It is a kind of narrative thread.

I find it very peculiar that Dimple/Zeenat who begins the novel as a neo-literate, by the end of the novel is reading reams and reams of anything that she can lay her hands upon. Why so? Or is this a strong autobiographical element making its presence felt?
Dimple’s character, and the growth of her character is, in many ways, the point of the novel. There’s nothing autobiographical about it. She’s a ‘charismatic autodidact’ who chooses reading as a way to escape narrowness. She reads every day and reads everything she can find, and later, as soporo, she puts her reading to good use.

I have always found it a pleasure to read your writing. You are so very correct in the use of language. Now, I see it unfurl in this novel. I cannot think of too many other instances in fiction, where the words leap out at you in rhythm (for instance, p. 23-24). Or, the introduction. It is an interior monologue, the prose is more like poetry. Apart from Henry James, I cannot recall any other prose that has such large chunks of matter clumped together, yet suck you in immediately into the text. Am I right or wrong? Have you consciously or subconsciously tinkered with the prose structure as if it were poetry?
I worked hard on the language, by that I mean, on the sentences. I often read them aloud to get the rhythm right. I don’t think it has anything to do with poetry or prose, it’s just writing to the best of one’s ability.

This kind of multilayered reading is today reserved for poetry. So, I am glad to see it in prose. Recently, your book was termed as a cult in the making. But was that your intention?
It wasn’t my intention to write ‘an instant cult classic’, but I understand what he’s getting at. This is not the kind of novel that will find its readers, or reviewers, in the first few months of its existence. It will find its readership in time, or so I hope.

Could you please explain why do you have such a long break in China? I have read it twice and have not understood its purpose at all! Unless you are merely playing with time and “giving into the lovely stories”. The China section is a crucial part of the story.
In the first four decades of the 19th century, Bombay became India’s premier metropolis, because of the opium trade. The East India Company and a small group of Parsi ship owners transformed the city from a collection of malarial islands to India’s financial capital. How can you write a history of opium in Bombay and skip the connection with China? I was lucky in a way. I grew up in Hong Kong and I was familiar with the Chinese. Also, I’d lived in Bombay for many years. I was uniquely, if accidentally, placed to tell the story.

I have heard that this manuscript received numerous rejection slips, but ultimately your agent, David Godwin, sold it for a neat sum at FBF 2010. Is that correct? Was this edited considerably after you submitted it for publication or was it accepted, without any major change?
Most Indian publishers rejected the manuscript. It was depressing at the time, but it turned out to be a stroke of luck. The manuscript was picked up by an editor, Lee Brackstone, and a publishing house, Faber, who were and are passionate about the book. I’m glad it went to the right house.

From the print issue of Hardnews : FEBRUARY 2012
http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2012/02/4374

Retelling myths

Retelling myths

Recently I have read a bunch of books aimed at children and YA that retell well-known mythologies. Maybe it is only a moment in time when they are being published or re-issued. For instance, Anthony Horowitz retelling of classic myths and legends, published my Macmillan. Horowitz first wrote them in 1985. It is a set of six books, although I have only read two. Familiar tales told with the zip and zing that are Horowitz style of storytelling. His introduction is so straightforward, “I can’t pretend I’m any great expert on this subject, and everything I’m writing in this introduction may be quite wrong, but I’ve always thought that this is how myths must have begun. People need explanations for the world that was around them, and the most imaginative of them — the shamans or the storytellers — began to weave together stories that did just that.” As with many of his stories, there is a zip and zing to his style. Great fun to read. Unfortunately, while reading the two volumes in quick succession, I realised that a couple of the illustrations had been repeated. It should not be a problem really, except in this case it is of a coy “nymph” who is used to represent Aphrodite and a portion of the Scylla and Charybdis story as well. A bit confusing. 🙂

Hachette has a new series called “The Book Mine” where they reissue classics. One of these is the gorgeous retelling by Nathanial Hawthorne of six great Greek myths for children — A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys”. Definitely a treasure trove, apart from the genteel style of storytelling.

Another book preoccupied with the retelling of myths, but this time Norse is Francesca Simon’s The Sleeping Army Imagine a world where the official state religion is that of the pagan Saxons and Vikings. People still worship the Norse gods. Christianity has been reduced to a minor exotic cult. (Although the Nordic religion being practiced has all the familiar institutional structures of Christianity.) The young heroine, Freya, is named after the Nordic goddess. Her parents have separated. Her mother is a priestess and her father is a guard at the Museum. While spending the night with him at the museum, Freya is fascinated by the Lewis Chessmen on display. And it is from there that this lovely story takes off.

This is the first children’s book published by Profile Books Ltd and Faber and Faber. It is a story inspired by the Lewis Chessmen on display at the British Museum last year in the exhibition — “History of the World in 100 objects”. Strong storytelling with a good connection between contemporary events, debates (there is even a neat little conversation about religion and Richard Dawkins) and mythology. Highly recommended! ( )

The myth quest series by Hachette India, written by Anu Kumar retell popular and lesser known, but equally fascinating tales from Indian mythology. I have not finished reading the books, so am unable to comment sufficiently, but here is a link of a review in the Hindu. ( http://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/kids/article3296420.ece )