Category Archives: Interview

Interview with Henry Eliot

Classic literature is more or less dubbed boring by regular people. Academicians still swear by it. Middlemarch is the greatest novel ever written. Oh wait, it is actually the Tale of Genji. Chaucer was way ahead of his times and maybe he was. But does he hold any relevance today? What is classic literature and what does it mean in today’s time and age? Do people even read classics, beside the regular Austen and Brontë sisters? Does anyone give a fig about Shakespeare? How can then classics be made more accessible and make people aware of their existence?

Henry Eliot, publisher of Penguin Classics and author of the recently published, The Penguin Classics Book is of course about Penguin Classics as the title suggests, and rightly so, given Penguin Classics is the largest and best-known classics imprint in the world as of today. The book attempts to document classics (in various Penguin editions) right from The Epic of Gilgamesh to the poetry of WWI – covering it all: fiction, poetry, non-fiction, plays, histories, and philosophy. This companion contains 500 authors, 1200 books, and 4000 years of world literature (though I think that is highly debatable, but that discussion is for a later day).

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I had the opportunity to interview Henry while he was in town for the Tata Literature Festival. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Me: I actually adore this book. I love the research. What do you think makes a classic, a classic? What makes Chaucer a classic though so unreadable? Or an Austen who is so readable? Is it just time or is it more?

Henry: I think it is a complicated question, I think. As an experiment, I tried collecting all definitions of a classic and they are all so different and disparate. Well, for me, when I am trying to decide whether a book is a classic, maybe there are four criteria I use. A book doesn’t have to have all of them but if it does have all of them, I am convinced it is a classic. They are: literary quality, which is quite subjective but you know when something is good, some kind of historical significance – either it was a great bestseller in its day or it did something new for the first time and shifted the course of literature, and thirdly, an enduring reputation, so it is still being studied, sort of read or survived somehow and the fourth one, I think is crucial actually, a classic work of literature at some level should still be alive and speaks to you today. I think as soon as books stop speaking to us today, then it becomes just a historical document and not a classic.

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Me: Do you think there are books like these that have lost their significance and are still termed as classics because we cannot get rid of the definition attached to them?

HE: Interesting. I am coming at it from a publisher’s point of view because I work at Penguin Classics. It is subjective to an extent, the way it is arbitrary what we include but not entirely. But if no one is say reading a book anymore, there is no reason for keeping it on the list. There is a kind of Darwinian – almost a kind of natural selection, as books stop being read, they are removed from the list.

Me: I just cannot recall any titles that have been removed from the Penguin list

HE: So, there is this section at the back of the book – these all titles are no longer in print and we couldn’t include them all – because there are so many. I mean, one example is someone like Sir Walter Scott is a good example of someone who was hugely popular all through the 19th century and through the course of the 20th century has become less and less popular. We do have some titles though like Waverley and Ivanhoe, but you know we used to have many more but we have removed some.

Me: Do you ever face a situation where you have started reading a classic and you’re like “Oh My God! I just cannot read this anymore”?

HE: Yes, I certainly find some classics harder to read than others. You just spoke of Chaucer right now and I’m actually a great fan and I really enjoyed studying him, but it is definitely read, and I find when I am reading Chaucer, the first twenty minutes or so I am struggling and then there’s a shift, you’re almost stuck into it and then you begin to understand it.

Something like Origin of Species is highly on the list, and it is very relevant even today, but in terms of literary quality it is quite hard to read. The prose is not easy. So, I certainly have that experience and I can’t think of a classic that I started reading and got bored but sometimes it is hard and you do need a spark of a connection or sometimes you just need a bit of historical context to sort of experience it better.

Me: We live in a world which is very fast, and would you think someone in their 20s or a 20-year-old would actually read a classic? What role then a classic would play in this?

HE: My hope is that people will keep reading classics – the reason for them to read is to expand experiences – what it means to be alive, what it means to connect with these great writers across centuries makes you a bigger and better person, and see the world in more colours, and I hope will read them – whether they come to then later or whether they read them now, given the speed of social media.

There are some interesting projects connected to social media to generate awareness of classics. For instance, an email service I subscribe to which sends me an entry from Samuel Pepys diary, every day, on the day that he wrote it. And I feel like, there’s lots of books you can break into accessible bytes like The Arabian Nights for instance. But sure, nothing can replace the experience of actually holding the book and reading.

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Me: How much time did it take you to edit this book?

HE: It took a long time. It is a very ambitious project, and everyone only realized how ambitious it was once we were stuck right into it and we had to keep going. Even the designer, it was a huge job to design – the editions, the photographs, etc. In terms of time, it took me about a year to write and another year to design it.

Me: I was going through the India list and just saw Tagore. Just Tagore?

 HE: This book stops at WWI and I agree there should be more and there’s one thing that this book has shown is that there is a lot of stuff in here but there’s also a lot of stuff that isn’t here.

Me: A lot of male writers. Is it because of function of time?

HE: Exactly! Exactly! And that’s something I speak of in the introduction. There are very few women writers here, because it is probably a combination of fewer women have written classics and I suspect this has got to do with this list being almost 70 years’ time and over that time gender equality has improved. We do have George Eliot, Brontë sisters, Katharine Mansfield, and Gaskell that have their space, but we do need more.

Me: People keep speaking of a modern classic, but I’ve never really understood it. What is a modern classic then?

HE: It is a bit of a blurred line and I suppose the way I think about it; Modern Classic is almost a quarantine period. These are books that have an impact, they have literary quality, but we don’t know whether they are going to endure or not. So, I sort of say is that they are the best bet as of now, but we need to see if they speak to generations coming on. And for that reason, there are some quite whacky choices. It allows us to be experimental actually.

Me: Is there a sequel to this?

HE: I would like there to be a second-volume. So, this finishes in 1918 and the second volume would then cover the last 100 years. Copyright issues might spring up I suppose. If we did a Penguin Modern Classics book, we wouldn’t have so many books, but I hope there is a sequel.

Me: I see so many people trying to take up reading challenges. Would you think this book would then serve as a reference for that as well or steer readers to read classics?

HE: I mean I like that. I wish people would set themselves ambitions. I hope people use this as building their reading lists and come across titles that they haven’t read earlier. It is difficult for one person to know what is out there. So, this book might help them. I hope people use this as a map to discover literature and know more about classics.

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Interview with Amy B. Scher

I had reviewed the book, “This is How I Save My Life” by Amy B. Scher, way back in August 2018 and enjoyed it a lot. I got the opportunity to interview her, and here are some excerpts from the interview. Thank you, Amy for the interview.

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What were the differences you saw and faced between the Western and Eastern paradigm of healing? 

Western medicine creates a focus on physical symptoms, while Eastern focuses on the whole system — including mind, body, and spirit. I was a little resistant to this at first because it felt like looking at my thoughts and emotions might place blame on me for illness. But in the end, addressing those aspects were necessary for my healing.

How did you include humor in your narrative? A narrative that is staggeringly terrifying. How and where did wit come about? 

I tend to look at everything with humor. It’s how I was raised, thank goodness. My family tried to laugh as much as we cried about difficult things. And I think that just naturally comes through in my writing. No one wants to read a depressing book; and I surely didn’t want to write one. Humor is the element that can keep us going even in the worst of times…and I really wanted that to come through in my story.

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Could you please tell me something about your writing process? Where and how did you start writing This Is How I Save My Life? 

During my time in India, I kept an online blog about my experiences. This “record” was used later as part of my writing process. I ended up including my “before” and “after” India experiences and expanded and rewrote what happened while I was there. But it did help to have notes on what happened. There is so much that we forget, even when it feels huge and important at the time. Because I wrote the book years after I got back from India, I was able to add in reflection that I couldn’t have incorporated if I was still too close to the experience. Time and space always allow for a clearer picture to emerge.

How difficult or easy was it to get out of the exotic mode of India and weave your story right into it? I am sure it was extremely cathartic for you to write this book. How did you deal with that? 

It was very cathartic to write the book. I had my own relationship with India — and so I weaved it into my story as a character. I allowed it to be my teacher; and I felt that going back there in my mind really helped me to write it with more ease.

Did being a Jewish girl in India affect you in any manner at all? 

It didn’t! I actually went to a Jewish temple while in India. I saw the play Fiddler On The Roof in Hindi, too. I’ve always been interested in all religions so visited many different kinds of temples while I was there.

What memoirs inspired you to write your own? 

Of course Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. I also really loved Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Both books inspired me so much and kept me writing even when it was hard.

Thanks again, Amy and Simon and Schuster India for this opportunity.

Interview with Manu Bhattathiri

The Town That Laughed

I had a ball reading The Town That Laughed and couldn’t wait to interview Manu Bhattathiri. The Town that Laughed is reminiscent of Malgudi Days, of small towns, and small lives that amount to a lot when viewed from their side. And yet there is always change that takes place in small towns and things perhaps aren’t what they used to be. The fictional town of Karuthupuzha, nestled within the Kerala countryside, is home to eccentric and the unexpected. The predictable lot of people and the ones who aren’t easy to gauge at all. This is one book that I would recommend to all, who are looking for a light read. It is hilarious and quaint and rather charming.

Here’s my interview with Manu Bhattathiri: 

When and how did you start telling these stories?

I think I picked up my passion for storytelling from my granddad. He would tell me stories from mythology when I was a child. I always wanted to tell stories the way he told them – fantastically, mixing real characters with incredible happenings, lending life to creatures and even inanimate objects. Somewhere along the way, somewhere during adolescence perhaps, I picked up the art of lying: yes, simple lying, to friends and family, just for the sake of saying something I had made up! It was only in my mid-thirties, though, that I realized instead of making things up in my talks with others I can actually just write fiction.

Were you inspired by R K Narayan and similar others who have created fictional towns?

R K Narayan is a legend. It sometimes makes me a little self-conscious when Karuthupuzha is compared to Malgudi. But I must say, I have read very little of R K Narayan. I have only read The Guide, and I think a couple of other books. No, my fictional town is not really inspired by his. I cannot trace it to any particular imagined town at all, to be honest. I draw from a real village called Cherupoika in Quilon district of Kerala. This was home to my maternal grandparents and was where I spent a lot of my holidays as a kid.

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Karuthupuzha is almost idyllic and I am guessing that's how it is meant to be. Was it easy or difficult to write that?

I think it is when you keep your characters simple on the surface that you can dive deep into them, like the stars can be well studied on nights without too many clouds. It certainly isn’t easy to define your characters strongly and yet portray them like simpletons. But fortunately in the villages and small towns I draw from, there are real people like this: people who are simple yet deep. They are a reference for me.

How did you manage to excel in characterization given there are so many cameos, and yet each one seems fleshed out so perfectly? Was it difficult or easy when it came to that?

Perhaps that has to do with the fact that for my writings I pull out not from other literature but from life. Every day you meet people and connect with them, but their story—their character, emotions, inclinations—is not any less detailed even if you only met them briefly. You might get chatting with an old man waiting for the same bus as you and never see him again in your life, but even in that brief meeting you can see he isn’t a flat character. There is still a complete and complex story of his life that he carries with him. I think literature must emulate life in this. So whether a character is major or minor
in your novel, I don’t think he/she ought to be flat and lifeless. Working this way takes a lot of thought and careful orchestration between characters, but it is also very satisfying.

Who are your favourite novelists and have any of them inspired the writing of this novel?

My favorite authors are Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and, more recently, J M Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro. While The Town that Laughed is not directly inspired by any of them, I do believe they make me who I am. So the stories I think up will have something to do with them, yes.

There you go! This is my interview with Manu Bhattathiri. Do read the book. It is fantastically written.

Interview with Chhimi Tenduf-La: Author of “Loyal Stalkers”.

So I had just finished reading “Loyal Stalkers” and had a few questions in my mind for the author. I was lucky enough to have been in touch with him on mail, so I could conduct this interview through the web. Chhimi Tenduf-La is a world citizen in the true sense. His stories are of ordinary people and yet seem so extraordinary that they cut across territories of geography, mind and emotions. A collection that I loved reading and truly cherished.

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Here is a short interview:

What made you write a collection of short-stories, after two novels?

I started a couple of stories in Loyal Stalkers as novels, but I felt they were better left with some things unsaid, whereas if I fleshed them out they would have lost their subtlety. When I found I could connect them I knew I could advance an over-riding story through a number of different characters and plots. This was enormously enjoyable and allowed for much more freedom. When writing a novel I may think of a character I want to write about but cannot fit him into the plot. With a collection I could just write a new story for him.

Your characters aren’t redeemed easily. Why so? Why is there a constancy in not letting them see the light of day?

I guess I had not thought about this much, until you asked this excellent question, but one of my pet hates is people acting with impunity because they know they will not be punished whatever they do. Here in Sri Lanka money and connections can get you off most things and that annoys me. As you point out, all my characters, although they have redeeming features, pay for the crimes they commit.

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I am intrigued by the title. How did you choose that for the story (a little obvious, yes) but then why stick to this for the entire collection?

I feel this whole book could have been written by a nosey aunty obsessed with what her neighbours are doing. I think it is indicative of society here that people are more concerned with other people’s lives than their own. Most of the stories have some stalking theme; the maid obsessed with her boss, the abusive relationship, the loyal dog following his special needs friend. I wanted the title to be creepy, but also reflect Colombo society in some ways; everyone is invested in each other’s lives, they can be a little annoying, but yet there is that closeness and that feeling that there is always someone nearby to help you when in need.

You’ve been a citizen of the world and yet this collection restricts itself to Sri Lanka. Why so? Why not give the characters space to see the world?

As I found my feet as an author I felt safest writing about what I know best. I have been here so long I have forgotten what it is like to live elsewhere. Yet now you have said it I do want to explore what some of my characters would be like living in another country. How much would it change them? Thanks for the idea!

Your top 5 favourite books and why?

I have limited this to books I have read recently.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared 
by Jonas Jonasson 

Comedy in literature is hard to balance. Endearingly silly, or annoyingly farcical. Jonasson gets it just right in this inspiring tale about Allan Karlson who goes on the run to avoid celebrating his 100th birthday. As he does so, we travel back through a hilarious twentieth century history lesson, in which Karlson mingles with great leaders and tyrants; at one point he convinces Stalin to shave off his moustache, and he regularly has a young Kim Jong Il sitting on his lap. Genius.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Great movie, greater book. The prose, slick and punchy, suck you in, slap you back and forth and churn you out. With great twists, cool dialog, and an abundance of quotable lines, Palahniuk tells an extraordinarily original story with awesome ease.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilika

It is more than a novel about cricket; it is Sri Lankan modern history through the eyes of an alcoholic. It is recognition of the tragedies, often self-inflicted, that tore at Sri Lanka’s core. It is a detective story, a mystery, a thriller, the search for a genius Tamil cricketer whose name and records have all but been wiped out of Sri Lankan history.

The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War 
by Rohini Mohan

A 368 page lesson about Sri Lanka’s civil war. In fact, this is the definitive lesson about any war; about child soldiers, mistrust, disappearances and lies. This book reads like a novel, whereas it is fact. Rohini Mohan messes with your emotions; she humanises people we thought were monsters. She makes you root for them, understand them, believe them.

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

I had to pluck up the courage to read this a second time because it is an incredibly disturbing book for a parent to read – but it was all worth it. Munaweera’s writing is brilliantly fluid, emotive and captivating and personally I felt this was an even better book that her prize-winning Island of a Thousand Mirrors.

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Was writing “Loyal Stalkers” a cathartic experience? Did you live some of these stories yourself or through someone else?

I find all writing to be cathartic and relaxing. But yes, Loyal Stalkers touched on a number of issues that all of us in Sri Lanka should be more aware of. Since writing it I have become more sensitive to others affected by these issues, be it a friend battling homophobia or a maid not getting enough credit for the work she does.

Chhimi as a writer…

I write purely for enjoyment at the moment. I have never felt pressured into it or had writer’s block; maybe I require both to improve as a writer. I have a fairly wild imagination so this is an outlet for it. I write two hours a day, but nothing on weekends and I read back my work hundreds of times to try to see if it flows. Once it is printed I hate looking at my writing because it is too late to change anything I don’t like. I try to be snappy, hip, humorous and sensitive as a writer but probably fail in all regards. My story-telling is more inspired by movies than by books, for some reason, maybe because I don’t want to write like anyone else (not that I could).

How important do you think it is for the short-story form to be recognized in India and why do people prefer the novel over the story?

I was told by a UK based publisher that the issue they have with short story collections is that it is very hard to get the leading lit critics to review them, unless the writer is very well known. If a book does not get reviewed, book shops are reluctant to sell it. Maybe the problem with short stories is that readers may love one, but lose momentum if they don’t quite dig the next one. It is a lot of stopping and starting I guess, whereas with a novel you have invested in the characters already and so each time you pick up the book you’re not taking a blind leap of faith. This is why I have tried to link the stories in Loyal Stalkers, and have the characters popping in and out of each other’s lives. I love reading short stories myself because they are standalones; I can read one each night and if I don’t like one I have not wasted too much time on it. In some ways short stories are more accessible to people who aren’t necessarily bookworms and thus they are important to India if they can get more people to read. They can also get more people to write; almost anyone can sit down and write a short story, whereas a novel requires a different level of commitment and craft. With such rich culture and tradition, as well as the complexities of class I am sure there are hundreds of thousands of people in India who could write an important short story.

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Your 5 favourite short-story writers

I’m inspired by R K Nayaran,  Alejandro Zambra and Raymond Carver. To understand how to appeal to a large audience, Jeffrey Archer. Of current South Asian writers Prajwal Parajuly, Sandip Roy and Ashok Ferrey. (I know this is 8 and not 5, sorry).

What are you working on next?

I have taken a break because I am not entirely sure in what direction I want to go. A novel, a collection, a movie? Maybe I will focus on writing more articles for a while. I have had many false starts with writing because I jump into new projects too fast, so now I am trying to be patient and I hope a killer idea for a novel will start growing on me.

Interview with Karan Mahajan

Few books enter your soul and manage to shake and stir it. Those books remain with you, no matter what. “The Association of Small Bombs” by Karan Mahajan has been one such book for me this year. I am dazzled by it and will remain so for a long time to come.

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I was excited to get a chance to be able to interview Karan and here is the interview. The review to the book is here. Please do read the book. It is beyond super.

Keeping in mind the title of your book, why are small attacks not remembered? Why do you think they erase themselves so quickly from memory? What are in fact, small attacks through small bombs?

They’re not remembered because we have a limited bandwidth for tragedies that involve others. Modern India is a feast of tragedies. It’s not surprising that the smaller bombings are covered for a couple of days and than overridden by larger fires, train collisions, scandals, terrorist attacks.

The book is all about people who are affected by a small attack or lead to a small attack’s occurrence. How did the story come about? I know it is a rather cliché question, but we sure would like to know.

All good novels come from a mysterious emotional source. I must have felt, at the time when I started writing the book, all the way back in 2009, that my personal experience resonated with the pain felt by the parents, the Khuranas, in the opening of the book. I remembered the Lajpat Nagar bomb vaguely from my childhood but it came rushing back to me with a great violence soon after the 26/11 attacks. In a way, it was a sort of gift—a negative gift. Suddenly I had this thing—this world at my disposal. I spent the next five years figuring out what it was trying to say to me.

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You bring out the real and human and very insipid daily acts of terrorists in the book. Why did you do that? Did you want to show them as more human than they really are? Do we in our need to objectify confuse humaneness with just being a human being?

I like the word “insipid” in this context! Basically, I wished to erode the negative glamor around terrorism. I wanted to say: these are the banal steps that lead to a bombing. Don’t be in the thrall of these figures: they are often bumbling, sad, confused. That said, I don’t downplay the evil of terrorists. Their actions are inexcusable. But it’s possible to be evil and petty at once, or to be evil and stupid. It’s our collective imagination that transforms terrorists into these god-like masterminds.

I was most taken in by the family that disintegrates because of the terror attack. Were they always dysfunctional? Were the cracks always there but never seen?

Yes, the family was always dysfunctional, in my mind. Vikas Khurana has never resigned himself to the bourgeois trappings of his life—his extended family, his kids, his wife—though that is his life. He sees himself as an artist primarily, but the lie of that premise is already showing through when the novel starts. The bomb widens that gap. Deepa and the kids live in a stalemate alongside Vikas’s brooding. We tend to believe that the best parts of people can emerge during a tragedy but I wanted to show how the worst parts can come out too.


What were your favourite books growing up? Did they have any impact on “The Association of Small Bombs”?

I’m sure they did have an impact. “Growing up” isn’t quite the right place to look—I’m sure reading PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie affected my prose style, but I don’t think they’ve had a bearing on other aspects of my sensibility. I think Naipaul, Narayan, Hemingway, Bellow, Conrad, Ozick, some of (Arundhati) Roy, Philip Roth, Yashpal, Rushdie—these have loomed larger as influences. I tend to find Naipaul a bit chilly for my tastes, but I love the speed of “Half A Life.” It’s a book with an actual narrative—which a book like “A Bend In The River” lacks (with every year it seems more like an academic text than a novel to me). I connect with RK Narayan’s humanistic humor—particularly in books like “The Vendor of Sweets” and “The Painter of Signs.” Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” is brilliant, but again, quite sluggish to read. I took some of his world-weariness but threw away the odd sensation that the narrative isn’t moving forward. I aspire to the loose, conversational style of Bellow. I don’t like it when writers lyrically sermonize from a mount. The key is to be intelligent, direct, musical, conversational—and to appear to do so without effort.

There are a lot of observations throughout the novel – either first person or third person based. Sometimes from a vantage point and others in close quarters. How do you bring that in your writing?

Instinctively. There are some moments that require a zoom lens and others that require an aerial view. Let’s take grief. We can obviously empathize with a couple that has lost two kids in an attack. So there’s no need to remain yoked to their perspective the entire time. It might be more interesting to view the social context around their grief or even the strange ways in which their moods shift. I guess POV is a way of deciding what’s interesting in a moment and going boldly toward it.

Male friendships are a major part of the book. Why do you think they needed to be there? Any specific reason?

Terrorist groups, religious groups—these tend to be crowded with men and divided by sex. Religious individuals are often uncomfortable with people of the opposite sex—it’s the job of religion to divide the sexes. So showing male friendships in all their complexities was necessary.

How is your writing schedule like?

I write best in the mornings and I tend to research or write non-fiction in the afternoons.


How is Karan the reader and the writer? Do you get critical when reading?

Being a writer has ruined reading fiction for me. I can only focus on fiction when it seems it might feed my work, which is unfortunate: a lot of great books have fallen by the wayside. But I find it easy to get lost in non-fiction and films: these are the two mediums I enjoy the most. And yes: I hate the critical part of my brain when I read. To open my own novels is to experience tremendous pain. I know exactly how I would have rewritten or improved every sentence. I have no choice but to close my eyes and live with a million imperfections.

So this was the very erudite Karan Mahajan on his book “The Association of Small Bombs”. It is definitely the read of the year.