An Interview with Ardashir VAKIL
NG JU ENN chats with award-winning British novelist ARDASHIR VAKIL about the importance of writing styles that sometimes work better than plots
ARDASHIR VAKIL has gone on book tours in England, France and India, but funnily enough, he finds them “a little boring.” He says, “Once you’ve written a book, you’ve already spent so much time on it that you don’t want to do any readings from it or talk about it anymore.”
That is why being in Malaysia has been really good for him. “You get to meet people, talk to them, and hear their stories.” He admits that prior to this trip, he didn’t know much about Malaysia. However, he took the initiative to learn about the country while he was here. “I’ve been reading this fantastic novel by Tash Aw, The Harmony Silk Factory. It’s introducing me to Malaysian culture, history and ideas. He does it very well.”
Vakil is obviously interested in different cultures, as evidenced by his novels: Beach Boy is about multiculturalism in Bombay while One Day is about multiculturalism in London.
The story of how he first got published, coincidentally, relates to his reason for being in Malaysia (to conduct writing workshops for The British Council). He used to attend a writing group, and when they compiled an anthology, his work caught a publisher’s attention. Vakil received a phone call from them, saying that they liked his work and were interested in doing more with it. “I thought, ‘Wow, you liked this? I can do much better!’ ”
From there, he went looking for an agent and that was how it all began.
His debut novel, Beach Boy, was more successful than he had expected it to be. Not only did it win the Betty Trask Award in 1997, it was also shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award within the same year, in addition to being translated into eight languages. “Awards get you noticed, there’s no question about it. But it shouldn’t be that way. I want people to notice me for my writing, not because I won an award.”
Beach Boy is partly autobiographical. The novel details the life of a prepubescent boy living in Mumbai, India. Precocious, very daring, intelligent and sharp-tongued, “the character of eight-year-old Cyrus Readymoney, in spirit, was essentially how I was like as a boy,” says Vakil.
J.M. Coetzee says that “all autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography.” Vakil explains, “As soon as you write something down, it is autobiographical because you are giving your own version of events. “You’re using your memories and words to give a picture of what you think happened in the past.”
Vakil lived in Bombay for the first 10 years of his life before he went to boarding school in the north of Delhi. He later went to Cambridge, where he studied English. He has been living in London ever since.
He went back to India after he finished writing Beach Boy. “Some of the things have completely changed now. But mostly I found that what I recalled and imagined had worked fine when reproducing them for the book,” he said. “I’m not a great researcher,” he admits. “I would rather write from my imagination and memory.”
His second book, One Day, is about a troubled married couple in London, Ben Tennyson and his Indian wife, Priya Patnaik, who reflect on what went wrong and when. “One of the things that I really enjoyed about writing One Day was that there was this very constrained structure—there were basically only two people you follow throughout the book.”
He plays around with the concept of time in One Day. “There is the present, there is the past which is in their heads, and it also criss-crosses between each character as well. Sometimes you’re in Priya’s head; sometimes you’re in Ben’s. “So there are like four different places you could go to. A novel needs variety, essentially. It’s often the case that you want to have different layers in a novel. But you have to be very careful how you go from one to the other.”
Unfortunately, the novel wasn’t as well received as the first. As for evolving as a writer, Vakil exclaims, “No, it’s much worse!”
Would this be the Second Novel Syndrome?
“Exactly. Partly because I didn’t want to write the same kind of novel again. Some people get away with it. And they think that’s what publishers want you to do. Beach Boy did really well, so everyone wanted another novel about India and I was considered an ‘Indian novelist.’ ” He explains, “What I was trying to do with One Day instead was to write a kind of literary version of Nick Hornby. Sales-wise, it bombed because it was quite dark. It’s about what goes on inside the bedroom. People don’t want to read about that. And it’s very detailed on the way people lived ... Maybe 20 years from now it’d be interesting to read it as a document of the way people lived.”
Vakil is working on a new novel set in Bombay at the turn of the century, between the 19th and 20th centuries. “But I might have to throw it all out and start over again.” However, he is not in a rush to publish. “I purposely avoided publishing deadlines. I turned down a contract, which is unusual. I’m not interested in churning out novels, publishing something every year, every two years.”
Nevertheless, he is enthusiastic about how Indian fiction is evolving, admiring writers like Aravind Adiga, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy. “With Indian writers continually winning awards in recent years, I don’t think Indian fiction is about to go away anytime soon. It’s blooming.”
As for books which made a huge influence on him, he says, “The Catcher in the Rye was a very important book for me. Beach Boy was very much influenced by the kind of particularly relaxed, laidback kind of way of telling a story. Very easy to read, kind of rambling, but controlled as well.” He also cites Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as “the greatest novel ever written” and Haruki Murakami’s books, especially The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, as some of his favourite books.
But what is it exactly that holds his interest and draws him in, whether as a reader or a writer? “It’s not plot so much, it’s about style. It’s about lucidity. It’s about transparency.”
He gave an analogy: “The writing is such that when you read it, it’s like looking out of a window, but you don’t notice that the window is actually really clean. Because it’s been cleaned ... a lot. So it feels very transparent. When you look out the window, you see the whole world. And that world is engaging. So the writing itself is not so in-your-face. It’s like puppets but you don’t see the strings. You just see the puppets. And you forget that there’s somebody controlling the puppets.”
It is obvious from talking to Vakil that he is someone who takes his craft seriously and cares about the stylistics of writing. In a way, he is still a part of the boom in Indian writing and it would be interesting to see where he goes next, when the time is right for him.
NG JU ENN has always been thinking in words instead of pictures and believes that the quote, “A picture speaks a thousand words,” is overrated. She is amazed by the power of words, and how they can be arranged and crafted to influence people. She is currently pursuing a degree in journalism. She was a publishing intern at MPH Publishing and Quill magazine in January and February 2010
Reproduced from the April-June 2010 issue of Quill magazine