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interview    
 
an interview with Kiran Desai  

 
 
photo of Kiran Desai


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  Bold Type: What was your process for writing this book--did you start with the characters or with the plot?

Kiran Desai: I started with a very small idea, really. I'd read a story in the Times of India and heard about a character from many people, a man who was a very famous hermit in India who really did climb up a tree, who lived in a tree for many, many years, until he died. He died last year, I believe. So I began to wonder what it was about someone like this who would do something as extreme as to spend his life in a tree. So it started really with that character, and then the story built up around it.

When I started writing it I had no idea what the story would be; I had no idea of the plot. It sort of gathered momentum and drew me along. It was an incredibly messy process and I don't know if it was the smartest way to go about it because this was my first book, so I had to teach myself how to write as I was writing it, and I don't know if I went about it the right way but I certainly had a lot of fun. It was very messy though--I had to throw out many pages--about half the book I think I ended up editing. Once I was aware of all the different ways to go, all the plot turns to take.

BT: So how did you know when you were done, when the story was complete?

KD: I think that's perhaps the hardest thing, to know when you've finished, because it seems like you can always go on polishing and polishing and working on it some more. But after a while I think I was so close to it that I couldn't even see it anymore; it didn't make sense to continue on my own, and so I finally showed it to my agent and wanted an editor to help me take it to the next level. But, I also realized that after a point you can't go on perfecting something and polishing it and making it better, because you lose something in the process, the freshness of it, and I realized that even if it wasn't completely perfect I had to leave it; it was enough--I couldn't work on it any more. It's a balance; if you perfect one thing you lose something else, and that's the stage where I think you have to know when to stop.

BT: Which character or part was the most fun for you to write?

KD: It was a fun book to write, certainly. I was so happy the entire time I was writing it. I grew very fond of all the characters, perhaps Sampath and his sister the most. The characters were what made me happy, what drew me to the story in a way. What was difficult was the rest of it, balancing the complicated plots and interweaving them; that was harder and less fun.

BT: Some writers say that their characters continue to live in them after the book is done--do you miss your characters now that you've finished writing about them?

KD: Yes, you know, you live with these characters for years and you live in the settings--I lived in the little village that I created for so long that at first I was bereft when the book was finished; I didn't know what to do. But now no, now I have other ideas in my head; I've moved on. It's been over a year since I last really looked at it.

BT: Can you give a little background about your life and your education, how you got to where you are today?

KD: I was born in India, grew up in India, left when I was fourteen and spent a year in England, and then I moved to the States and I have been studying here ever since. I went to high school in Massachusetts and then undergraduate in Vermont--at Bennington--and then to a writing program called Hollins, in Virginia, where I really started writing this book. Then I went on to Columbia but I took two years off to finish the book; I couldn't go to school and write at the same time. I couldn't write a novel in the writing workshop environment.

BT: Was your mother a direct influence on your writing?

KD: I'm sure she did have a big influence, because all my life I've grown up hearing her talk about writing and literature and books. It was wonderful to have her around when I was writing this book, to talk to her through this whole process. She was wonderful through the whole thing. It's a big risk to take, spending years of your life doing something that you're not sure how it's going to turn out, and she was very good through that whole time, not providing critical support as much as emotional support. A very motherly role, really.

BT: Who are some of your favorite writers, or some of your favorite works?

KD: I read all different kinds of books, but I like Ichiguru's work a lot and Kenzaburo Oe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Narayan. One of my favorite books is Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo, which I read over and over again. I also read a lot of poetry.

BT: These days a lot of international writers are being published in the United States and a lot of American writers are being published abroad--can you comment on these developments in the publishing industry?

KD: Yes, a lot of Indian writers are being published in this country, more than ever before, which is very exciting for us, because it is a whole new world for us to be part of. In England, of course, there's been much more of a tradition of publishing Indian writers. It's interesting when you are writing in a country where the publishing world is not as well-developed as it is in the west, and I think it's changing now in India. Suddenly, publishing is growing much quicker; they're publishing many more books than ever before and more people are buying books than ever before, so it's a change over there as well. It used to be the case that really you had to be published abroad in order to make a living as a writer and to have access to this whole machine, this publishing machine of the west--it's a big advantage I think for us in India who grew up speaking English. It's very nice to have access to this of course, in terms of the publishing side of things. But otherwise, in terms of the writing it's wonderful because it is more exciting for writers and when more books are published from other countries it's more exciting for the reader as well.

BT: Are there American writers who have been influences on your work?

KD: Yes, definitely. I love Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor. I read a lot of American writers. The publishing world is growing smaller, which is very nice.


BT: Do you have any private rituals or special environments that you need to create in order to write best?

KD: Well, I carried this book around all over the place when I was writing it, just took it with me everywhere--I was writing in India and in this country and in Mexico and in different environments and different rooms everywhere. I had to be quite adaptable, I think, to try and work wherever I was. But now I live with all these roommates, a house full of people, people coming and going, and I find it impossible to write and I'm becoming really neurotic where I have to just shut myself in and try to get some work done.

I really like working in the kitchen; I find that wherever I am I work near the kitchen or in the kitchen itself. I can constantly make myself little things to eat or cups of tea; I find it's the perfect balance, in that I can write a bit, eat a cookie, and then I write a bit more, eat some ice cream. Reward myself-- it's constant rewards. And I work best in the morning, as soon as I get out of bed I start writing, and late at night. I have dead space in the afternoon, which I think comes from growing up with an afternoon siesta; my brain just shuts off from about two to five.


BT: I loved the role that food plays in the book--Kulfi, the mother's obsession with food, for example--is this a fascination of yours?

KD: It's a great interest of mine; it's so much a part of my life. I'm always in the kitchen, cooking and experimenting--I love it. And every now and then I think, "I should write a cookbook" or, "I should write for food magazines. And then I get drawn back to writing fiction again. But yes, food is a big part of my life.

BT: Your characters are so well-rounded--quirky, diverse--were they figments of your imagination or did you write people you know into the story? Did you write yourself into the book?

KD: They're made up of bits and pieces of people I know--the main characters are--and other characters are totally imagined. But of course I'm sure they all do have bits of me in them as well, different parts of my personality.

BT: Are you the narrator?

KD: Yes, I would say so. I do feel very close to this book in one way, but the book is very much a product of my imagination as well.

BT: How would you classify this book--a comedy, a fable, a combination of styles?

KD: I wouldn't really--it is a comedy and it is satiric in many ways I think, and it's fantastic. It reads very much like a folktale or a fairy tale so I think it has different sides, different words can be used to describe it. It depends on how you read it, I suppose.

BT: What type of audience would you like to read your work?

KD: You know, I never thought of the audience; it was written very much for myself, very much for selfish reasons, I think. But I think anyone with a sense of humor would enjoy it--I hope. That's one of the basic requirements.

BT: In writing classes one's often taught to flesh out every character and plot twist well in advance, and you're proof that that's not always the necessary formula. As you said, you had an unconventional method for writing Hullabaloo; this being your first book, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

KD: There are all kinds of theories that you get told in writing workshops--"Write what you know," and that sort of thing, which I don't believe at all. I think one of the great joys of writing is to try and explore what you don't know, that's exciting to me. There are all kinds of little things--show, don't tell--I just wouldn't pay attention to any of that really. I don't think you can write according to a set of rules and laws; every writer is so different. I can't imagine how they come up with these rules--they're really ludicrous. You can't learn to write in that fashion. What inspired me really was reading, reading a lot and learning from other writers. Learning how they are going about something--I was very aware of that when I was writing this book. Every book that I read at the same time I'd think, "Hmm--how do they do this?" Looking at it in that way, from a technical point of view, which we don't usually do as a reader. But really I think that's for me what was important; I was training myself to look at my work with a critical eye.

BT: How much research did you do for this book? Is that important for your writing?

KD: Pretty much none for this book--it was all made up. But I can imagine it would be fun to write about another place and time and do something different. I'm trying to do some research now for the next thing I want to write. I imagine it's a difficult balance--I'm sure you can over-research something and have your fiction not really be fiction anymore. It would be hard to know when to stop.

BT: What are your future plans?

KD: I finish university in May, finally. And then I hope I will be able to go away and write, because I miss it dreadfully.

 
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    Photo credit © Marion Ettlinger