Tag Archives: literary influences

An Interview with Alma Katsu

Hello everyone! I loved The Taker. The book reaached out to me this year and will be one of the books that I will return to before the year ends. Here is my review of the book. At the same time, after reading the book, I was flooded with questions for Ms. Katsu. Here is a short interview with her. Thank you Alma.

How did the idea of, “The Taker” come to you?

The novel grew out of a short story I wrote a long time ago, which was a ghost story set on an abandoned farmhouse in rural Maine. I kept thinking about the characters in the story and what happened to them after the story ended—and those characters were Jonathan and Evangeline (who was the ghost). I’d taken a long break from writing fiction to concentrate on my day job, but when I began writing again, that story became the first chapter in what was to become The Taker. That short story is nowhere to be seen in the final version of the book, by the way, as the story ended up changing quite a bit over time.

Did you always set out to write a book? If not a writer, then what would you have been?

My story is probably the most common for anyone who aspires to work in the arts: I grew up wanting to be a writer, then reality set in.

I have always been a reader. Like many readers, I tried my hand at writing. I was very young at the time, and somehow got it into my head that I would be a novelist. It soon became apparent that this wasn’t something you could just pursue as a day job, so I worked at newspapers for a short time. Even newspaper work was hard to come by full-time, so I eventually went into another line of work: I became an analyst for the US government. It was a great career, but after twenty years I realized that if I didn’t return to writing I probably never would.

I didn’t return to writing fiction thinking I’d be published. I wanted to see if I could learn to write a novel. I’d become a senior analyst by that point and knew the level of effort it took to really master a skill. I knew I hadn’t worked as hard as I needed to in my early twenties. I went to grad school for writing and spend ten years working on the book. I’d run into a problem that I couldn’t figure out, put the book away and work on another one, figure out a way to fix the problem and pull The Taker manuscript out again, run into another problem, repeat the cycle. That would be a piece of advice I’d give aspiring novelists: don’t make it all about the one book. I learned a lot about writing from the books I worked on during the in-between times, and it’s pretty common to have to write several novels before you have one that’s publishable.

Your Literary influences…

So many, too many to list here. Horror classics, like Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson. Patricia Highsmith. Thomas Hardy. John Barth, John Irving, Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephenson. Virginia Woolf. Sandor Marai—I consider Casanova in Bolzano a direct influence on The Taker.

Alma – the writer…

…wishes people read more. Wishes there was more of a conversation about books, the way there is about celebrities, and movies and television. For the life of me I can’t understand this worshipping of celebrities.

Did you ever wish that one of the characters of The Taker were to come to life? If yes which one and why?

I suppose the obvious answer is Jonathan, because he’s so beautiful. He’s also maddening, and not very giving, and ultimately it would be too frustrating to spend any length of time with him, I think. Adair is another obvious choice (if you’re of an adventurous frame of mind), as long as you can keep your emotional distance from him. Unfortunately, those two characters are so colorful and larger-than-life that they make the more normal ones, like Luke, seem uninteresting by comparison. At least Luke wouldn’t be potentially harmful to everyone he meets.

The book creeped me out in several places. Did you feel that while writing it?

Yes. There are a number of creepy scenes in The Taker that jolt the reader. But books are reflections of life (with perhaps a few distortions) and in every one’s life there’s going to be at least one jarring, unsettling experience that shakes you profoundly enough to make you see life differently. The Taker has “those moments” for a couple of the characters—hence, I think some readers have found it to be a bit much to take. I wanted the book to be outsized in every way, a real epic, and that meant going a little overboard in that respect (darkness), too. (I have to say, however, that it is hardly the darkest book ever written, and I suspect that part of some readers’ reactions might be because I’m a woman and they don’t expect a woman to write such a dark book.)

Alma – the reader…

…reads widely but tends toward literary fiction and (since you’re catching me on a bad day) is tired of the trend toward formulaic fiction. Novels are becoming like television programming: bland and interchangeable, with no real character.

How does it feel to know that The Taker has been so well-received almost all over the world?

The book has gotten some wonderful reviews, and I get great email from readers, and I know I am very lucky. It’s gotten it’s share of bad reviews—no book will be loved by every reader. One surprise has been that the setting—early America—hasn’t been offputting to readers outside the US. Post-Colonial America is hardly a beloved time or place for readers, like Regency England.

When did you realize that you had so much more to say that The Taker become a trilogy?
The Taker was originally written to be a standalone, but by the end of the book I saw the opportunity to stretch the boundaries even more—turn it up to 11 on the emotional scale for readers, if you get the Spinal Tap reference—and what writer could resist that?

Your thoughts on the modern literary scene and your favourites from it…

As I mentioned, I read pretty widely. So on one hand, I really enjoy mystery writers like Denise Mina and Tana French, and on the other hand, literary authors such as Adam Haslett. I particularly like writers who experiment with narrative form such as David Mitchell, although his last novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, didn’t do that.

What I don’t like about the modern literary scene is that the celebrity culture is establishing itself here, too, and the only books that get any major coverage—which is still important for a book to be able to “break out”—are the ones that have tons and tons of money behind them. Readers aren’t aware that the tsunami of publicity for the books that land on the bestsellers’ lists came from the publishers’ checkbook, not on the actual merit of the book.

This is the end of the interview, however not of the series. The second instalment will be out soon and I for one cannot wait for it.


An Interview with Esther David

So after reading The Man with the Enormous Wings, I had this need to connect with the writer. To ask her questions. To know a little more about the book and her thoughts. Here it is…in the form of this interview!

What gave way to the idea of writing, “The Man with the Enormous Wings”?

During the riots of 2002, my publishers were suggesting that I write a novel and weave it around the earthquake and riots. But, I was so traumatized by the communal riots of 2002,  that I could not. All, I wrote was a poem and a short story, which is used as the last chapter of my novel The Man With Enormous Wings. Then, I did sign a contract to write The Man with Enormous Wings, but it took me ten years to give form to the novel, by concentrating on specific incidents, and people. During this period, I saw how Mahatma Gandhi was forgotten in Gujarat. I thought, he would be the perfect character like Alice in Wonderland, as he grows wings, changes size and keeps on falling between warring groups of people. So, I made him the central character of my novel.

Esther as a person….

Author – Novelist – Storyteller. Always an insider, who is an outsider. Armchair naturalist, armchair anthropologist, armchair artist, armchair art critic.

Esther as a writer…

An artistic dreamer. She has to work very hard to give form to her novels. Has to rewrite many times, till she gets the poetic imagery she wants to create in her work. 

Did you ever feel that you cannot write this book because of the surge of emotions? I for one could not read it at length because it stirred so many feelings in me.

2002 happened around my house. I was witness to many events. It was too close. I could not write. I was also frightened. I am still frightened that it can happen again, so I so long to write.

Esther’s favourite books

The Strange Case of Billy Biswas by Arun Joshi. A thousand years of Solitude – by Gabriel Garcias Marquez. Shame – by Salman Rushdie. Aphrodite – by Isabelle Allende

Esther’s favourite writers…

Gabriel Garcias Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Isabelle Allende, Toni Morrison, Amos Oz.

If you had to describe, “The Man with the Enormous Wings” in one word, what would it be and why?

Unwanted. In the present scenario of Gujarat with its Vibrant Gujarat and ghettoization between communities, there is no place for Mahatma Gandhi and his ideology, meaning The Man With Enormous Wings.

 I loved that the book ended with a lot of hope and optimism. What do you think about it? Will it be like this?

I am just consoling myself, because, most people have forgotten 2002, and, as we say in the Bible – if we forget, it will happen again.

 Your views on today’s literary world…

It gives a writer a wide scope to be read and become known and publishers help in the growth of writers, as long as authors are willing to work hard. Yet, the media needs to focus more on writers who live in India, than expatriate Indian born writers.  

That was this. You can read the review of “The Man with the Enormous Wings” here.

The Man with Enormous Wings; David, Esther; Penguin India; Rs. 199.

An Interview with Sheena Iyengar

So Ladies and Gentlemen, I had the opportunity to interview Sheena Iyengar – the author of “The Art of Choosing” over the phone sometime ago. I had reviewed the book right after and it felt so good speaking with her. We spoke about a lot of things – from marketing to the art of choosing (but obviously) to her literary tastes. She is one of the warmest people I have spoken with and it was an enriching experience. So here is the interview:

So I know this must be an often-asked question, however, here goes: What prompted the conception of this book? What led to its theme?

I was already doing research on the way people get affected by choice for 15 years, mainly for academic purposes – each question in detail – collected little boxes and at some point, you have to say what have I done? Writing the book is really an attempt to fix the little dots. The wider picture of what was going on.

This book looks at three questions: Why do we choose — where does choice get its power from? How do we make choices — what are the various factors that influence how and what we choose? Given all this, how can we choose better?

I’ve written a lot of academic papers, and the only people who read those are academics. As an academic, you almost have an obligation to take your knowledge and disseminate it. So I felt that I should try and write a book for everyone. Of course, the probability of failing when you try to write a book for everyone is the highest. But I figured I should take that risk — otherwise, why write it?


One of my major a-ha moments after reading this book was the realization that our capacity for self-delusion is infinite. We make poor choices, and then cherry-pick data to further support our (wrong) decisions. It’s almost that we tend to defend our choices – good or bad.  Is there truly any hope for us to wise up?

There is always conscious intervention. You eat a meal at a restaurant you don’t like – might even end up regretting it. And yet we go there – not changing the decision or the food that you have eaten. We easily assume that they are coincidences.

Sure in many cases people do that. Bad temper is one of them. We do not learn how to control it and sometimes we also think it is other people’s fault. Kya kar sakte hain is a nice phrase to get away with things.

For instance consider traffic on the streets – you have more control than you exercise. Either make it out of habit or consciously. There is the choice that you have, don’t you?

So, ask yourself, why do I want this? Why am I thinking this way? Did I consider the alternatives? Even when we’re doing a reasoned analysis of the options, our gut emotions can end up playing a role in the process if we’re not careful.

Do you ever just toss a coin and make a decision or choose?

Sure I do and there are many instances. For instance, say I meet my son after two and a half weeks or so, I let him decide what he wants to do. Does he want to Pillow fight? Or indulge in Yoga.? Oh yes I am very choosy about when I choose, at the same time. I also let someone else make the choices for me, for instance, let somebody else decide. Let the waiter decide. I will very deliberately delegate choice to others if it isn’t that important to me. The minor choices can be given away to others.

Can one really choose when it comes to brands? While I was reading the book, I came across several examples of how identical products are being branded and priced differently. Then where does the choice element fit in here? Aren’t major corporations just taking the consumer for a ride?

Well I have addressed this through a story at the beginning at Chapter 5. I flip a coin for things may  be that aren’t that important –  nail polish colours for instance. Does a  business woman have the time to choose with reference to this? May be not.  Studies have also indicated that may be this is not a meaningful choice. Not worth my time. Let’s take another case in point. Paint colours for walls. It is about the experience of the wall for people. So may be then choices play an important role there.

Are companies trying to manipulate us? Yes. Companies use branding to create differentiation when there’s very little actual difference because the market is so crowded. 

Should we worry about being manipulated? Only if it’s in a domain that’s important to us. You need to decide what’s important to you, and that list can’t be long. For those things, you really pull out everything, use your gut, reasoned analysis, gather information from other people. For other things, find the acceptable one. If that means you’re being manipulated, so be it. 

But companies need to give a lot more thought to how they should be branding in a more honest way. It’s good for the customer and for them — they really don’t need to add irrelevant options. One of the things they can sell to the customer is that every choice we offer really counts, that it is meaningfully different from other choices.

I was fascinated by how in different cultures, there are different decision-making processes. For instance, in China, it is the collective culture, in India too to a large extent, it is the family system and in a country like the US it is the individual. How does it then work for immigrants? Is the choice factor that strong in that case or different from the country of origin?

Options kick in later. Ability to control temptation takes time. Almost 21 years of age to develop fully. A 4-year old in US knows what he/she wants to be when he/she grows up. That is the message that is sent out to them due to the cultural influence. They are aware that this is a choice they are going to have to make. In India – you don’t do that. Your career is decided on by the entire family. However in Modern India – its not that the individual has no say. Though there is Compromise involved. In America, there is this choice and more and you don’t feel the regret at the end of it.

What are your literary influences? 

I was an English minor as an undergraduate, and while I was in school, I really fell for the works of many of the classic poets: Yeats, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Longfellow, Frost. I do love drawing on those kinds of works for my current research and writing. It works nicely, I think, because choice itself cuts across so many disciplinary boundaries. I actually tried my hand at creative writing and poetry as an undergrad, but I ended up realizing that creative writing wasn’t the career for me.

That’s the end of the interview. And there was so much I learnt from her and how she is.

Here’s Sheena Iyengar discussing her book, The Art of Choosing: