an interview with Vikram Seth      
photo of Vikram Seth

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  Bold Type: Your last novel, the international best-seller A Suitable Boy, was 1,349 pages--the longest single volume novel ever published in English. Did you purposely set out to write a shorter novel this time around?

Vikram Seth: I didn't particularly intend to write a shorter novel. However, I did realize that if I were to write another novel equally long, it would take up another decade of my life. I wasn't very keen to do that. I also reckon that publishers aren't intrinsically fond of long novels; they're difficult to convince people to read...or to review for that matter. So I hoped that the inspiration for my next novel could be curbed within reasonable length, 300 to 400 pages. I guess I'm lucky that it has. I did threaten to cut off a digit for every extra 10,000 words above 100,000. All of my fingers are intact.

BT: What was your inspiration for An Equal Music?

VS: After A Suitable Boy, I didn't write anything, not even a short story. I thought to myself: I ought to start writing. But I can never force myself to write. A little over a year ago, I was walking across a park in London with a friend. In my mind's eye, I saw a man. He was tall and European, but I knew he wasn't a Londoner. I didn't know anything about his profession. Dressed against the weather, he was staring fixedly at the Serpentine at the water. The image fascinated me. And it seemed quite important to what might have been germinating in my head for a novel. I asked my friend what profession he thought this man might be, and my friend, who happens to be a musician, said 'Definitely a musician.' I thought to myself: I can't write about music; it's my refuge. But then I asked my friend, what instrument might this man be playing? And my friend, who is a violinist, said, 'Of course, a violin.' As my friend and I went on a bit, I began to realize that this man played in a string quartet. He had been passionately obsessed with a pianist many years ago: a student in Vienna at roughly the same time he was. They'd lost touch and it had been a bitter separation. And he was sitting at the water thinking--brooding, really--of her.

BT: How did you develop your love of music?

VS: I don't know for sure. But I do know that my mother was very upset by my musical preferences when I was about two and a half. She would sing lullabies to me and I would say, "Mommy please don't sing. Let's wait for auntie to come and let her sing." My mother sang with a lot of affection, but totally out of tune--and I couldn't stand it. I was trained in Indian classical music. But when I was writing A Suitable Boy, I became more and more interested in Western classical singing. There were a lot of Indian musical characters in the novel. In the evening, when I wanted to be by myself, I found that the moment I started playing an Indian musical instrument or singing an Indian song, I was drawn back into world of my novel. It wasn't a form of relaxation, but work by other means. That's when I began singing Shubert songs. I didn't know them well then, but I love them now. They're wonderful melodies.

BT: Did you ever think of becoming a classical musician?

VS: No, I don't think I had the very early training one needs for that. I just love music--by no stretch of the imagination am I professionally competent.

BT: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

VS: In fact, I was drawn first to be an economist of all things. I spent many years of my life as an economist and demographer. I was finally distracted by writing my novels and poetry. I'm enormously happy that was the case. I feel that with writing I have found my metier.

BT: Why did you make Michael a member of a quartet instead of a solo performer?

VS: Basically, a quartet is a very odd structure. There are four musicians: two violins (which adds a bit of complexity and competition), a viola player, and a cellist. The music they make has to be cooperative--you can't have a virtuoso sticking out. And yet, though there's cooperation on stage, there may be bitter rivalries, dislikes, intrigues, and conflicts among the four players. They spend more time with each other than with their families--very often on the road and very often under pressure on stage. It's a bit like a platoon under fire or a marriage of four people--with all the complications that a marriage of two people entails multiplied in more combinations than I can calculate. Using a quartet also allowed me to introduce other characters to enrich the background of the novel's main story, the love story between Michael and Julia.

BT: In An Equal Music, Julia is going deaf. Did you do any research to portray the complicated dilemma of deafness for a musician?

VS: I did meet a musician--a percussionist--who has been quite profoundly deaf for a number of years. She has built a wonderful career and given a lot of pleasure through her music. The first time I met her--this was in the early stages of the novel--I didn't know she was deaf. We met over lunch. She looked directly at my face quite a bit, which I thought was quite charming, and we had a very animated discussion. Afterwards, someone told me she was deaf. I was startled. She didn't have a deaf person's 'voice.' She talked without hesitation, even though the room wasn't very well lit. She couldn't be deaf. How can a musician be deaf? After I decided to bring Julia's deafness into the novel, I found a number of musicians who were quite hard of hearing. I also interviewed doctors about deafness, so that the symptoms were correct and the pacing of the onset of the disease was correct. And I took lip reading classes for thirteen weeks. That doesn't mean I can 'speak' like a deaf person. But I have got a better understanding of how people who can't cope through their ears cope through their eyes and, in the case of musicians, also through their mind's ear.

BT: Which do you find most daunting: the creation of a novel, the editing process, or the promotion for a book once it has been published?

VS: That's impossible to answer. When you're composing a novel, there are two stages. The first is gathering your ideas and doing your research; the second is the actual writing. I don't tend to write and then look back on what I've written and revise it. Instead, I try to write in one continuous stretch--a single arc. When the work is complete, I send it off to people, get their responses, think about their responses, and see which ones resonate. Then I revise it. Revision has its own peculiar pleasures and its own peculiar frustrations. The ground rules are already established; the characters already exist. You don't have to bring the characters to life, but you do have to make them more convincing.

As for the promotion, there is pleasure in it, but there is also exhaustion. Beyond keeping a microphone in front of your face and trying say something interesting to someone on the other side, just the fact that you're on the road and away from your family can be draining. It is even possible to get a little tired of your book. But that's something an author will seldom admit.

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    Photo credit © Brian Tarr