Friday, October 03, 2008

“What do you read when you are not writing?”

“What do you read when you are not writing?” Eric Forbes had the pleasure of asking a few writers appearing at the 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Ubud, Bali, on October 14-19, 2008, what they read for pleasure, and he was amazed at and impressed by their revelations


ARAVIND ADIGA, author of The White Tiger, longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction: “I read a lot of nonfiction, and often find it more interesting than fiction. I’ve just finished reading To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson’s classic narrative of the rise of Marxism, which has to be one of the best books I’ve ever read.”

MATTHEW CONDON, author of The Trout Opera, shortlisted for the 2008 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction: “As a journalist and writer of fiction, I can’t get out of the lifelong habit of pouring through newspapers, journals and news websites each day. After finishing a novel, I immerse myself in nonfiction. I can’t face reminders of the limitations of my ability by immediately wading into Saul Bellow, Patrick White et al., so nonfiction it is. Only when I’m warming up to writing a new novel do I return to great fiction. That’s when I need all the hope I can get. Writing a novel is like training for a half-marathon. There’s solace to be gained from listening to the best trainers and sticking to a tried and true diet. Then the cycle repeats itself.”

TISHANI DOSHI, author of Countries of the Body, winner of the 2006 Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection and the forthcoming The Pleasure Seekers: “I’m not one of those writers who avoids reading when I’m writing. In fact, I need to be reading something if I hope to write. Usually, if I’m writing poems, I want to read poetry. If I’m writing fiction, I want to read a really good novel. Something about the art of that particular craft that I like to pay attention to while I’m in the act of creation. I have reading lulls as well, when nothing is exciting or inspiring, and of course, this has nothing to do with the work, more to do with the state I’m in. I often find, that if I’m really stuck, the short story is the shining star for me. Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, William Trevor, Alice Munro—they can resuscitate the most parched of minds.”

CAMILLA GIBB, author of Sweetness in the Belly, winner of the 2006 Trillium Book Award: “I tend to read writers in translation into English—work that captures the feel, both grammatically and thematically, of having been written in another language and produced in a cultural context other than my own. It forces me to think about language differently, allows me to ‘travel’ imaginatively and see the world from different angles and at the same time doesn’t interfere with my own writing because the language and context are so different from my own. My go-to guy is Haruki Murakami, whose work ‘feels’ Japanese despite its translation, and who can make me believe in things no one else could make me believe in—talking cats, for instance.”

JAMIE JAMES, author of The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge: “When I read for pleasure nowadays, I find myself returning to my favourite reading when I was in high school and college: poetry. Unfortunately, I pay little attention to contemporary poetry; I prefer to reread what made me love literature in the first place, following the traditional curriculum pretty closely. It falls into five groups: the classics, especially Homer and Latin lyric poetry; Shakespeare; the English Romantics; the French Decadents, mainly Baudelaire and Rimbaud; and modernism, Eliot and Pound. Few of my friends know about this: it’s a bit of a conversation stopper, when people are talking about the new novel or latest Bush-bashing memoir they’re reading, to say you’re reading Wordsworth or Pound. I fear they will think I’m being pretentious, and in any case only a few people I know would take the slightest interest. Of course, I read new books, but when I’m in the midst of a new project, I find it helpful to read something completely unlike what I’m working on. Anyway, there’s nothing better. If you want to find out what went wrong in Iraq, read Homer’s The Iliad.”

MONI MOHSIN, author of The End of Innocence and the forthcoming Diary of a Social Butterfly: “I enjoy contemporary literary fiction, particularly those that take me to new places or make me see anew. One of such has been Neel Mukherjee’s first novel, Past Continuous, which is set in turn-of-the century Bengal and modern-day Britain, the latter seen from the perspective of a gay Asian immigrant. I have a great fondness for political satire, too. One of my favourites in that genre is Salman Rushdie’s Shame. More recently I have enjoyed Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes (longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction). But when I want inspiration in my writing I return to my old favourites, my personal list of “classics” which never fails to educate, energise and uplift. It’s quite a mixed bag of a list, and features books as disparate as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. When I tire of novels I turn to poetry: Shakespeare, Auden, Yeats and the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz always console and delight me. But on holidays I prefer books of quite another sort—entertaining, absorbing, yet clever. On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Nikita Lalwani’s Gifted and Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate fitted the bill perfectly.”

PREETA SAMARASAN, author of Evening Is the Whole Day, winner of the Hopwood First Novel Award: “When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. These days I find myself learning, or trying to learn, from everything I read, whether it’s the rich and precise vocabulary of a literary novel or the page-turning plot of an English mystery. Pleasure and business have become inseparable. Some old favourites I turn to over and over again for both fun and education: Peter Carey; Salman Rushdie; Charles Dickens; the food writing of M.F.K. Fisher, Alice B. Toklas and, more recently, Nigel Slater; mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers and H.R.F. Keating; P.G. Wodehouse; and lots of poetry by W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, e.e. cummings, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Michael Ondaatje, Jack Gilbert, Mary Oliver, Anne Carson, Nancy Willard, Sharon Olds, Daljit Nagra, Srikanth Reddy, and others. I read poetry every day! It’s my number one piece of advice to writers of fiction.”

ALEXIS WRIGHT, author of Carpentaria, winner of the 2007 Miles Franklin Literary Award: “I have been reading Alberto Manguel’s The City of Words and The Library at Night. I am also reading recently-published books on the writings of Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez, and Wellsprings, a small volume of essays by Mario Vargas Llosa. I am reading Seamus Heaney’s poetry and a selection of his prose, Finders Keepers, and I have also been reading a book on Buddhist poet monks of China, The Clouds Should Know Me By Now. I have just started reading Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem.”

LIJIA ZHANG, author of “Socialism Is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China: “I have just finished John Man’s Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection. It is an exhilarating blend of travel and history. About a third of the books I read are in Chinese. I am disappointed at the quality of fiction coming out of China these days, which was why I was so excited to come across a highly unusual novel, Tian Huidong’s A Bridge Without Bank: An Aesthetic’s Two Lives, a sort of magic realism with Chinese elements. A book I always take on trips with me is Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, a semi-biographical account of his journey back to Sri Lanka. It is so evocative, beautiful and exotic. I read both traditional Chinese and modern poems from around the world. Poetry is good for the soul.”

Aravind Adiga’s photograph courtesy of Mark Pringle
Camilla Gibb’s photograph courtesy of Kevin Kelly
Preeta Samarasan’s photograph courtesy of Miriam Berkley
Lijia Zhang’s photograph courtesy of Ben McMillan


Eric Forbes is a senior book editor with MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After reading economics for a degree, which he didn’t particularly enjoy but somehow endured, he had a succession of jobs before joining the publishing industry. He has been in bookselling and publishing for over 20 years now. He can’t imagine doing anything else.


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