THE WRITING LIFE ... Vikas SWARUP
Meet VIKAS SWARUP and other authors on October 7-11, 2009, at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009!
A STORY OF MUMBAI
VIKAS SWARUP, the best-selling author of Q&A, the novel that inspired the Oscar-winning Danny Boyle film Slumdog Millionaire, talks to DEEPIKA SHETTY about life after the successful movie
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is anything but an underdog film. It has made the critics sit up and take notice, but the film wouldn’t have happened if not for Vikas Swarup’s novel, Q&A. Swarup, India’s latest literary sensation, earned a whopping six-figure advance for his début novel. Interestingly titled Q&A, the book has been translated into some 41 languages since it was first published in 2005. And that’s not all there’s to it. A Hollywood movie based on the novel has been made and swept the Oscars in early 2009. The novel recounts the tale of 18-year-old Ram Mohammad Thomas, an uneducated orphan from a Mumbai slum who wins a billion rupees on a television quiz show and in the process delves into such themes as child prostitution, class, crime, loss, poverty, redemption and violence in India. Swarup is a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service, based in Pretoria, South Africa, where he serves as Deputy High Commissioner. His second novel, Six Suspects, a sprawling whodunit that looks at Indian society set against the landscape of Delhi, was published in 2008.
Why the name Ram Mohammad Thomas for the protagonist?
I wanted him to represent the richness and diversity of India, not just a cliché. And if you read the book, you’ll see the name means a lot in the book. Ram Mohammad Thomas is not just a name. He actually uses the three elements—the Hindu religion, the Christian religion and the Muslim religion when he interacts with various characters. So for his Muslim friend Salim, he becomes Mohammad, for the Australian diplomat he becomes Thomas, and for the Indian actress who is wary of keeping a Muslim servant he becomes Ram. So he does utilise his name to meet various circumstances.
What inspired your plot?
I had come across a news report some time back that slum children had begun using a mobile internet facility. That was what set me thinking because normally you associate the internet with a certain level of sophistication. You would expect people who are well educated, who read newspapers, who would use the internet, and here you had children from a slum who had never gone to school, had probably never read the newspapers, who were logging on to the worldwide web. And that set me thinking that perhaps there is some innate ability in all of us, one that given the right opportunity can surface. At the same time I wanted to tap into this global phenomenon called ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?.’ This was really the first globally televised syndicated quiz show. So the idea was, let’s juxtapose the quiz show with a rather untypical contestant and that’s how I got the plot of Q&A.
As a first-time novelist, did you imagine the book would be this big?
No, never. In fact when I wrote it, I wrote it primarily as an Indian book for an Indian audience. I had no idea it would be picked up by publishers everywhere and would emerge as a global novel.
Critics have called your book “sweet, sorrowful and compelling.” In fact, your writing style has even been compared to Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. That sounds like a dream come true for any author. How do you feel about all the positive reviews?
I feel very, very gratified. I wrote this book primarily for myself. The book is about an Indian milieu; it’s set in India. There is no attempt to exoticise places, it deals with the sordidness of life in a certain sense, the underbelly of urban India. In fact, there is no attempt to pander to Western audiences, which is often a charge levelled against Indian authors who have an eye on the Western market. Normally, a book becomes big in India and then it’s picked up by the rest of the world and then people say it’s all because of the hype. But I was a completely unknown, first-time writer, yet my book got picked up by publishers from Barcelona to Brazil; that must mean something. So I am very, very gratified. I suppose the reason for that is that maybe at the core there is something universal about the book—it’s about the underdog winning and that’s something that appeals to people in all communities and cultures.
How long did it take you to write it?
The actual writing took me only two months. I wrote this towards the end of my posting in London, when my wife and children preceded me to India and I was to go back to India after two months. That’s when I decided to try my luck at writing and it just happened.
What about the movie? Were the rights snapped up even before the book was out?
Absolutely! Film Four—they were very interested in the book. They felt the plot was compelling and that it would easily translate into celluloid. They snapped up the movie rights within a month of the acquisition of the book by Random House.
Tell us a little bit about your second novel, Six Suspects.
Six Suspects is an unconventional murder mystery. It is the tale of six different people—a corrupt bureaucrat, a clever actress, a small-time thief, a credulous American, a stone-age tribesman and an ambitious politician—who are all suspects in a murder investigation. I wanted to experiment with a polyphonic narrative. So using the anatomy of murder as the framing device, I have tried to plot a narrative with six different voices. Like Q&A, Six Suspects is also very structured. So you have the book divided into six parts—Murder, Suspects, Motives, Evidence, Solution and Confession. The novel is being translated into 16 languages. The BBC have optioned the film rights and Radio 4 are making a radio play based on the book.
Are you already at work on your next novel?
Yes. I have conceived it. And for a change it is set outside India.
You are a career diplomat, how did writing happen and how do you even find the time to write in your busy schedule?
I suppose that is one of the big mysteries. I suppose all of us have some free time on our hands, diplomats do when they are posted abroad. In India, of course it’s a nine-to-nine job and so there is no question of thinking anything beyond work. When we are posted overseas, we do have some spare time. It all depends on how you want to use it, some choose to spend it watching movies, reading books or playing golf. Since my family was away for two months, I decided to use my time thinking about a book and writing about it. I don’t know if I’d be able to do this thing again in two months, maybe my wife has to go away again!
What have been the influences on your writing, any writers you admire a lot?
Well, I’ve read many writers over the years—everything from Albert Camus to James Hadley Chase. Subconsciously what you consider to be good writing does have an influence on you as a writer, but in terms of writing style, I don’t think you will see echoes of any particular writer or style in my writing. I have written as only I can write. If I wanted to copy a writer, I don’t think that’s possible, you can only copy a plot. If you have a unique plot, like what I had, then you have to write in a new style altogether.
Did you have to deal with rejection in any form when it came to publishing Q&A?
No, that’s the surprising thing. I think I’ve been a very lucky writer. Basically I wrote four and a half chapters and sent it off to 10 agents. I picked up the 11th agent off the internet, he liked the book and I had a deal. I am really one of those lucky authors who does not have a pile of rejection slips in the drawer.
Since you have no rejection slips, what would you say to aspiring writers?
Always chase your dreams. If you want to be a writer, then don’t get disheartened by the first couple of rejection slips. As I have discovered, it takes just one good agent to help you make your mark in the world. But the important thing is that your product must objectively be good. There are writers, I am sure, who think they have written the next Nobel Prize-winning novel, but maybe the novel is not so good. So get objective advice. Consult your friends, your colleagues, consult those who read books and if they like your book then, I don’t think you should give up, you should keep on trying and I’m sure you will hit the jackpot someday.
And before I let you go, I just can’t resist this question—will we see a Bollywood remake now that Slumdog Millionaire has been done and dusted?
I certainly hope so!
DEEPIKA SHETTY is a former television news producer who helmed a weekly book show, Off the Shelf, for three years. After six years in television, she packed her bright lights and returned to a career in print journalism. She now works as a correspondent for The Straits Times of Singapore.
Reproduced from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine