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Why Su-prose? "Su" in Sanskrit is a prefix for "good". This is a place where we will discuss and analyze prose (with a South Asian Connection) - that which is good, awesome, excellent, and maybe rant about prose that could be better.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Tête-à-Tête With Tony D'Souza

Tony D'Souza first caught my attention with his second book "The Konkans." Known as the "Jews of India," the Konkans kneeled before the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama's sword and before Saint Francis Xavier's cross, abandoned their Hindu traditions, and became Catholics. Born to a Mangalorean Father, D'souza's insight into Konkan heritage and traditions were obvious in this book. In 1973 the protagonist Francisco D'Sai's Konkan father, Lawrence, and American mother, Denise, move to Chicago, where Francisco is born. His father, who does his best to assimilate into American culture, drinks a lot and speaks little. But his mother, who served in the Peace Corps in India, and his uncle Sam (aka Samuel Erasmus D'Sai) are passionate raconteurs who do their best to preserve the family's Konkan heritage. Friends, allies, and eventually lovers, Sam and Denise feed Francisco's imagination with startling visions of India and Konkan history.

Tony's first novel, Whiteman, received the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His second novel, The Konkans, was called a ‘best novel of the year’ by the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and Poets & Writers Magazine. His third novel, Mule, releases in September, 2011. Mule is a fascinating read and a very appropriate subject given the current economic downturn. This contemporary piece of fiction, written in a very colloquial style, reiterates how we as humans tend to find comfort in our routine repetitive actions, or what becomes a forced routine in our lives. This book trailer of Mule is a great teaser and can be viewed here.

Suprose is honored to present this Tête-à-Tête With Tony D'Souza.

1. What is it about writing fiction that makes you want to do more of it?

I have always begun every story or novel I have written by staring at a blank page. In my head is a long list of ideas based on things I've observed in my life that have moved me or struck me as odd. When I was 18, for example, I left Chicago and went to Alaska where I spent the summer riding a bicycle along the highways, camping, and meeting people. I met a beautiful girl up there in a very remote place and we carried on a brief relationship that eventually found us living in a motel room in Bloomington, Indiana. This was almost twenty years ago. It was snowy winter in Indiana and she worked at the JC Penney in the mall, at the perfume counter. I would wait in my cold car late at night with the snow falling down for her to get off work. When she'd finally come out, she always filled the car with the scent of perfume.
So I start with that, some image or memory, in some ways trying to record my life. But always changing things to let the characters have their own vitality. In this way, I learn about myself and the world, and I get to enter universes that aren't really mine. When the writing goes well, I leave the room where I'm writing and fully enter the world of the story. Then I know the story is well done and that someone else will respond to it. Usually, whatever idea I start with is not the story I end up writing. I've been trying to turn that scene in Indiana into a story for nineteen years.    

2. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Why?

I knew I wanted to be a writer not long after I came back from Alaska. I had so many experiences there that I was a completely different person than when I had left just a few months before. This sort of thing happens when you are 18. I felt so disconnected to my old life of family and childhood friends in Chicago, and could not find a way to articulate what had happened to me in Alaska. Then I began college and read a story by Ernest Hemingway called 'Soldier's Home,' about a young soldier returned from WWI feeling the same way I did. Hemingway's language was simple and precise, his emotions were honest, and the story was tragic. I knew I had similar stories to tell and I began writing them.
I started writing seriously when I was 22, and published many stories over the next eight years. When I was 31, I published my first novel.
In the beginning, I wrote only for the story. Now I still write for the story, but I do have pressures of reaching an audience and making a living. What's changed is that in my twenties I was single and could live out of a backpack and published in literary journals and not care about much else. Now I am married with two children, and so I find myself wondering when I stare at the blank page, 'Will an audience respond to this?'
3. Who were your writing mentors/role models?

I built my work on the foundation of Hemingway in the beginning, not the famous Hemingway of the later years, but the young Hemingway of his first few books. He was a very delicate and sensitive writer at that time. I've gone through phases where I've incorporated the magical elements of Marquez, the breadth of Faulkner, the humor and wit of Waugh, the starkness of Carver, the specificity of Tim O'Brien. I'm steeped in a Western tradition built on Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales. But also inside of me is the love poetry of India, the oral storytelling of West Africa. It's hard to see Hemingway in my work anymore, but that was the foundation.  
4. What do you read for inspiration? What other activities inspire you to write?

I'm always reading hoping to find a book I love. A great book for me is one that is easy to read, and yet moves me profoundly. Cormac McCarthy has been doing this for me the past few years. Also Coetzee and Saramago, and recently, Jennifer Egan. I have a very rigorous writing discipline and don't struggle making myself sit down to write. I am always think about writing and storytelling no matter what I am doing. I think about it at the park with my kids, while grocery shopping. I am always paying attention to the world around me no matter how mundane the situation may be. I know that I am not always as engaged with the world as I should be. I'm always looking at it through the gauze of how I can use it in fiction. In that way, it is a curse, but it's too late to turn that part of me off. Plus, I don't want to.
5. How do you navigate multiple writing styles like travel writing, journalistic writing, non-fiction writing, fiction writing?

I love language and writing interesting sentences that capture ideas in ways that surprise me. It's really all the same to me. Sometimes I find non-fiction confining because it limits you to what really happened and in some ways, it turns off the imagination. But I have a voracious desire to 'know everything,' and I love that journalism gives me a right to call strangers and ask them any question I want, to study that topic in depth, and become educated in something new. 
Fiction will always be art to me, and the rest of it is work that I really enjoy.   
I love writing book reviews, because when you write about someone else's book, it makes you spend more time really thinking about it than if you just read it for pleasure. 
I've published a few hundred news articles, many magazine articles, poems, essays, reviews, stories, novels. I've written non-fiction about travel, sport, sex, food. No writing challenges me like writing fiction. With non-fiction, the subject matter is there to work with. With fiction, the page is blank.
6. What are some of your personal writing aspirations?

I certainly enjoy winning awards and being recognized critically. My Manglorean father would be proud of me. He died when I was 22--he knew I wanted to be a writer, and I know he worried that I would struggle to make a living. The awards would please him and give him a way to measure whether I've been a success or not. I certainly use them for encouragement when I begin to doubt myself, which is often. 
I was raised by my parents to make a living, support my family, and never ask for help. Where I am in my life right now with my family and children, I would forgo winning any awards to have a bestseller.   

7. Which of your three works of fiction did you find most challenging to write and why? 

All three were very hard, harder than I could have ever imagined as a young writer. But to rank them: my new book, Mule, was the hardest to write because I wrote it soon after quitting drinking. I had written everything to that point with a bottle close at hand, and it was difficult to learn a whole new writing process. I also had two new babies, so time and fatigue became issues. I was also desperate for a paycheck.
My first book, Whiteman, was difficult in the sense that I put a lot of pressure on myself to publish a novel. I came home from three and a half years doing relief work in Africa when I was 29, and I felt that I was getting older to not have published a novel, and I wanted a novel badly just to respect myself. So I wrote it with a desperate weight on my shoulders.
The Konkans was the easiest to write because I suddenly had money from Whiteman, and was able to quit all other work. I had so much time, and also the relief of being recognized as a writer. I was living in the success of Whiteman and had unbounded confidence. But it was still very difficult and required months and months of focused energy and discipline every single day.
I love all three of my books, by the way. They are equal to me. I am proud that they are all so vastly different.
One thing I have been surprised at is how each book has introduced me to a new audience. With Whiteman, I met many people interested in Africa, and with The Konkans, I read to audiences filled with Indians, and heard from many Indians. I was so surprised by that! I have always been taken for white and lived mostly in the white world. Suddenly I was connected to India in a way that I hadn't been since I was a child. It was very uncomfortable for me! I expected white people to be reading that book. Indians hadn't read me before and I was unsure about how to connect with them. I felt that they must be judging me on how not-Indian I am an how little I know about India.
My wife and I took our babies to India with us for four months last year. It was beyond wonderful. We traveled on overnight trains from Srinagar to Kerala, and rented a house in south Goa for eight weeks. I hadn't been there in 15 years. I worked on Mule there, wrote four or five magazine pieces, and even did some television work in Mumbai. Being connected to India is more important to me now that I have children. We named our son Rohan to remind him and ourselves of our Indian roots. Though no one took us for Indians in India, it was deeply moving for me to take my children and show them off in my grandfather's town, Chikmugulur, Karnataka. Everyone loved our babies and were always taking them away from us! 
Anyway, with Mule, I am connecting with contemporary American counter-culture. I feel at home with that!

8. What advise would you give to aspiring writers?

Read and write, that's it. If the passion is there, it will work out.  

1 comment:

  1. Great insightful interview. If you give a lot you get a lot.

    Wishing you great success on Mule.