Q: That Summer in Paris is essentially a love story between a mentor and his protegee, while your previous novel Babyji was a coming-of-age story. In what way was writing Summer different?
A: The setting of this novel became much more important to me in its writing. Without going into what Paris might have meant and been for literary giants in another era one can safely assert that it remains one of the few major cities of the modern world which has a strong physical presence hard to ignore, independent of the people living in it in the here and now. I don’t mean that it’s a historic city–which it is–but that it evolves and moves at a pace independent of current fashion precisely because it has learned to integrate new developments without sacrificing its neighborhoods of small streets and centuries-old structures.. Babyji was a very different experience because it was set in the India of my memory. I remain in constant touch with India but I set the book in the late eighties/early nineties, when Delhi was different than what it is now. I had to search my memory for it, and in the case of readers who knew Delhi then, call on them to plumb into the past too.
Q: What, or who, inspired you to explore the relationship between Prem, an elderly man and Maya, a young woman?
A: I wanted to explore the love between old and young while at the same time exploring the connection between love and admiration and the love of writers for writing. I’m interested in what happens in that moment of intimacy with words when one writes. There is a sense of being lost within the creative process which is akin to love in many ways. In fact this is part of what Prem and his friend Pascal both discuss. Between them too there is a kind of love, a certain intimacy in the common passion they share for the story. And for me the novel is about Prem and Pascal too, not just about Prem and Maya.
Q: Is Prem’s literary reputation driving Maya’s infatuation? Is fame the ultimate aphrodisiac?
A: What is fuelling Maya’s fire is his writing, not his literary reputation. The difference is important, Maya and Prem are both lovers of the same thing. To say that fame is the ultimate aphrodisiac is to submit to a clich? that doesn’t have much place in a novel because the very notion of a novel, of having characters and getting to know them is to surpass this kind of formulaic representation and to understand the underlying human sentiments. She is tortured by his influence on her writing and admires him so intensely that it’s hard for her to embark on her own project. And Prem while not entirely cynical has his own misgivings. In one sense he’s trying to understand, just like anyone else, which feelings–not just Maya’s but his own too–are genuine and which aren’t. You might ask the question, can admiration conclusively hinder love? To my mind, that link between admiration and love is very complex but not, a priori, incompatible.
Q: When reading Summer, Prem becomes very real to us, both as a seventy-five year old man and as a distinguished writer. Did you have to do any special research to get into his mindset?
A: No amount of research and reading of a great writer’s books could have made Prem who he became for me: a living breathing thing. When I start to write a novel I put aside all my doubts and suspend my judgment for a time because it is necessary that I feel totally free while writing. When I develop a character I tend to “feel” him or her out. I live with the character all the time until I feel as if I’m inhabiting a second skin. But as the novel comes close to the end I start asking myself all the difficult questions that I avoided and I live through a period racked with self-doubt. Only when I had finished a late draft of this novel did I interview someone who was Prem’s age to reassure myself of his authenticity.
Q: As a young female Indian writer, what made you choose an American background for Maya, who might otherwise be considered your counterpart?
A: This choice had much more to do with Prem being Indian rather than with me. I wanted to have someone who was not Indian feel strongly about the writing of a novelist who had nothing in common with her background because in the universe of words and stories admiration happens all the time regardless of these racial and cultural considerations.
Q: In all three of your novels you seem — quite courageously — to defy societal expectations with regard to sex, pushing the balance between moral behavior and self-indulgence. What’s that all about?
A: It’s in some part about the inherent conflict between desire and morality. Between what is illicit and what is expected in any society. It is in the darker side of our selves that our creative energy stems from and has to often be drawn from. At least that is my hunch. That isn’t to say that the process or the end result has to be negative in any sense but that part of the process is a struggle. While I’m not directly tackling any of these connections in my fiction they remain a general backdrop in my head while I work.
Q: For a love story, Paris is indeed an obvious setting. Did you find this to be an advantage or disadvantage to crafting an original narrative?
A: Paris is another part of the love story, a love story within the love story. Maya and Prem share that, their love for Paris, in addition to their love for writing and books. I also have a love story with the city and setting the novel in Paris allowed me to work with the city that is my muse. My love for it is fresh and heartfelt so it definitely did not pose an impediment in crafting a narrative.
Q: You seem to use painting and sculpture as a means to precipitate memory. Is it merely a thematic tool or does this reflect your own relationship to art?
A: I don’t know if it reflects my own relationship to Art but it does reflect certain emotions both strong and relatively new in my life toward art. It wasn’t till somewhere in my mid to late twenties that visual and plastic art started competing with the written word for a position of privilege in my sentimental universe. An entirely new way of apprehending the world around me opened up and I’m still reeling from it. In Summer I made a sort of first foray into this world.
Q: How do you pronounce “Prem?”
A: Rhymes with AIM.
Q: We hear you are at work on a new novel. Could you tell us a bit about it?
A: I’m working on a novel about a young boy. While it’s not in first person most of it is about his hopes, his emotions, and his comprehension of the world around him. It is set in an unidentified city that could easily be Delhi or some other third world city.