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Monday, January 2, 2012

Tête-à-Tête With Anita Desai

To those who love literature and good fiction, Anita Desai needs little introduction. An Indian novelist and Emeritus John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, and was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award, in 1978 for her novel, Fire on the Mountain, by the Sahitya Akademi, India's National Academy of Letters. She has also been awarded the 1983 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for The Village By The Sea and 2003 Benson Medal of Royal Society of Literature among many others.  For more biographical information about Anita Desai, read this post on Suprose.

Suprose is honored to feature this exclusive interview with Anita Desai who was kind enough to answer some questions about her work and her writing.

1.     Why did you choose to become a writer? When did you know you wanted to be one?

I became a writer because I was first a bookworm.  Ever since I started learning how to read, I read and I read and I loved my books more than anything. I started writing little stories and started sewing them up and stitching them up into little books because I wanted my books to belong to the book world. I wanted to belong to the book world myself. And that’s how I became a writer.

2.     You wrote your first story at the age of 9…?

I started writing when I was 7 but I had my first piece published when I was 9 in a small children’s magazine creating a big excitement in my family. 

3.     What motivated you to write then and what motivates you now?

Just to belong to the book world. I love reading and I love books. It’s a world I belong to and it’s how I express myself.  I can best express myself in writing and in prose. And as I grew older and I became an adult, it was also my way of dealing with the world which seemed chaotic, disorderly, out of control. And once you put things down on paper and put it all into words, you impose an order upon that disorder, and it’s my way of understanding the world.

4.     It has been 7 years since your last book was published… The Artist Of Disappearance (2011) after The Zigzag Way (2004)… Eager beaver readers of your work such as myself are wondering why this gap?

I can’t quite explain it. I think as one grows older, one does not have quite the same energy, one becomes more self-conscious about ones work. I think when I was young, I just wrote and wrote and wrote without much thought, without stopping, but now, I do stop and think a great deal about every sentence, about every word I choose. That’s part of the reason. I am slow to develop ideas. The new stories are ideas I have had in me in for a long time.

I don’t immediately sit down to write them. I let them grow, slowly, organically at their own pace and then comes a moment when I am ready to put them on paper. And that’s what took me seven years.

5.     The Artist of Disappearance is filled with such elegant prose, the subject of each of the novellas is quite introspective. What was the impetus behind each of the three stories?

One tends to dip back into ones experience, memory or ones life, and they lie there waiting for the correct time, the time when you can finally use them. “The Museum of Final Journeys,” that idea came to me quite quickly when, I was walking through the Museum of Oriental Art in Venice, which was a collection put together by an Italian aristocrat who travelled in the East and sent boxes and boxes of curios and art objects to his family home, and eventually they turned it into a museum. And I thought that was an interesting idea for a book and that I would probably write it soon. But I didn’t set it in Venice. I found myself happier about setting it in a landscape that I had only driven through really. The landscape of West Bengal where my older sister was, a civil servant, and when I was a young woman she would sometimes take me with her on tours of that area. I saw those empty fields and abandoned mansions all crumbling into ruins, and of course that sets one thinking about their history, what about their past, why have they been abandoned, how long will they be in ruins. And then I started writing and putting it all down on paper, the elephant stepped out of the shadow’s as I hadn’t expected it to. But then the elephant turned out to be a perfect symbol for memory, because that’s what the museum was all about and it was the memory of a journey and it was a living memory unlike the objects which were all dead, and covered with dust and cobwebs.

And the other stories had different beginnings.

“Translator Translated” had a lot to do with my experience as a young woman helping to publish and to write for literary magazines at Delhi where I used to live at that time and getting to know Indian publishers and people who made a living by freelance work.

The third story “The Artist Of Disappearance” goes farthest back into my past into a world where as a small child, I literally used to spend my summers in Mussoorie and I used to spend my time wandering up and down the hills, stuffing pine cones and pebbles in my hands and, getting to know every path through the woods and every tree, just the way my, central character Ravi does.

6.     You are such a prolific writer, it is had for one to visualize you as anything else but… Having said that, if you had not chosen to write what do you think you would have been?

I really have never ever considered any other career. When I graduated from college in Delhi I started going around to publishing houses and to journals that they printed in those times, trying to find, a job with one of them. None of them gave me a job so I was told to just try writing for them not working for them. When I was 50, I did take up another career and that was teaching. I taught writing courses in various American Universities.

7.     How do you write? Computer, paper, typewriter?

I write with a paper and pen and eventually I type my manuscript. No I don’t work on the computer, I find that it somehow removes me from the texture and the fabric of writing. One has a relationship with ones notebook, with ones papers, which one doesn’t have with ones computer. I revise on paper, I write several versions of each story, I only go to the typewriter when I am fairly certain that I have done the work I wanted to do.

8.     What are your thoughts on eReaders and the publishing industry today?

One gets so attached to the look of a book, the feel of a book, that no kindle or other gadget can possibly have that same feel. I imagine it is extremely practical for some people who are travelling or for some other reason, but, I would think it a great pity, it would be a great loss in my life if I didn’t have a book to hold in my hand and read from.

I grew up in a home full of books with a large library and my children grew up around a lot of books, and I can’t imagine what an empty space a house can be without them. One gets to know their books like close friends and acquaintances.

9.     What thoughts, emotions feelings crossed your mind when your daughter,  Kiran Desai decided to become a writer?

When she was a little girl, if she was ever away from home, she would write such wonderful letters, I would always encourage her to write more, to expand and she would always dismiss these suggestions, because she would say she never wanted to be a writer.  All my children said they never wanted to be writers because I lived such a boring life and they never wanted to. Luckily when my daughter went to Bennington College, Vermont, her professors also noticed her talent was really in writing and not in environmental science which she was studying and they encouraged her to write. She wrote her first short stories while she was there. And I was so happy because I knew this was what she was meant to do, and I wanted her to do it so much.

10. How do you like working with your daughter, in the same house? How do you both work together?

We work in the same house yes, but we don’t work together on the same pieces. I wouldn’t know how to do that. And I wouldn’t want to do that because I would not want to impose my ideas and my style on her, which is uniquely her own. When she has written a book she will give me the first finished draft to read. I do read the draft when she feels ready to give me one, and I do make some suggestions, but I don’t take over and start writing her sentences for her, or even editing much because, I know that is what the publisher will do, I don’t think it is professional to do that. I don’t think ones family or friends should edit ones work.

11. What/who do you read for pleasure? Which writers inspired you, in the past and now?

Quite often I am reading books I will be reviewing which is what I am doing at the moment. I tend not to read books when I hear they are the best sellers of the moment, I like to leave them alone till they settle down and maybe I will read them later.

Ever since I was in college I have always turned to Virginia Woolfe, because I admire her style so much, because I think she has a way of very subtly, obliquely, addressing issues that other writers might meet head on, which she never does. I like that oblique way of her writing.

I also like the verse by Emily Dickinson –
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---

Success in Cirrcuit lies

Too bright for our infirm
 The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightening to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind--”

I think that Virginia Woolfe did that in so many of her books. I also like the Russian writers like Chekov and Gogol, who tend to be more approachable, more like human beings not gods.

Among Indian writers, I very much enjoy R.K. Narayans work. I was very impressed with Salman Rushdie’s early books, Midnights Children and Shame. I think those books really transformed the scene of Indian Literature, because they changed the language that writers used.

12. For the younger generation of writers, many of whom work regular jobs during the day and then
write by night or at the break of dawn, the writing world is very challenging. What is your advice to these passionate writers wannabe’s?

Anita Desai receives the
Sahitya Kala Akademi award
I think it is a great problem that they have a job or a family and they want to write too. They will be torn too between these different ways of life. But I think this is a kind of torment that young writers just have to go through. If they want to write passionately enough and want to express themselves passionately enough, I think sooner or later, they will find a way to do it. 

I would also caution young writers, not to expect a huge big breakthrough with their first book, with bestseller-dom and a large advance and a comfortable life thereafter, it just doesn’t work that way, not for most of us. I think you have to realize that it will take a whole shelf full of books; a great number of books before you can start earning a living from them.

It is wise to have another occupation to fall back on, preferably something that isn’t too taxing, like a teaching job or something in a library or bookshop, or really any job, which doesn’t drain you too much, and which allows you the time and space to do your own writing.


  1. Leave your comments here to be entered for the giveaway.

    1. Very thought provoking interview. Shorter would be nicer but cool!

    2. Very interesting.I liked THE ZIGZAG WAY a lot and just waiting to read THE ARTIST OF DISAPPEARANCE.

  2. This is excellent. Need to do more such interviews


  3. Great interview! I have read some of Desai's novels, but after reading this article, as and when time permits I intend to read more of her work. It would be nice to read some of her earlier ones like "Fire on the Mountain" and some of her latest ones, and to compare and contrast the styles,esp as Desai herself mentions in the interview that the writing process has changed for her as the years have passed.
    Looking forward to more such interviews!!

  4. Interesting and informative! Looking forward to many more interviews.

  5. I heard about this book on Freshair, NPR. I wanted to read more about it and never got a chance to. Thanks for the interesting interview. Enjoyed reading it!

  6. Loved her simple and straightforward answers. Can't agree with her more on the pleasure of holding a book and turning the pages with your fingers as opposed to reading it on Kindle or online.

    Gowri Eswaran, gowrieswaran@yahoo.coma

  7. Loved her simple and straightforward answers. Can't agree with her more on the pleasure of holding a book and turning the pages with your fingers as opposed to reading it on Kindle or online.

    Gowri Eswaran, gowrieswaran@yahoo.com

  8. Very nice interview. I too cannot agree with her more on the pleasure of actually holding a book !!!

  9. Makes for a nice read, Visi. She seems a very relaxed person and I like her approach to writing and life. Thanks for the interview.

  10. Good interview Visi. All your questions were thought provoking and it gave a good insight into the author's thought process. My interest is now piqued to read Anita Desai's new book.

  11. Hey Visi, Good blog, great start! Interview is great on content, but could improve on style - my score 6/10 (1) Do not number your questions - the writing has to reflect a conversation fully with "..", and even "Umm.." Teri Gross in NPR is one example (the kinds of things people confess to in her interviews are mind boggling, her segue's are like a mind reader's), C Rose is good - but he talks too much. (2) You are erudite, and this is YOUR blog, so reflect YOUR personality in the interview (no disrespect to Ms. Desai) - you could say "I asked her what she thinks of the new crop of writers", to which she replied "yadayadayada.." rather than (#x What do you think of the new crop of writers? (3) Find a niche as in "I cover every author/artist of Indian/Asian origin visiting Boston area" (except that misogynist ass** Naipaul :-P)(4) Be prolific - at least one post/interview every week/10 days.. and who knows.. you may have a mini-HuffingtonPost in your hands..

    I would not dare write this critique unless I know that you are eminently capable of making something special out of this blog. All the very best!


  12. Looking forward to reading her book now! I like to get a behind the scene kidda look before reading a book, tis interview provides that...laj

  13. Thanks for the comments all, please be sure to leave you email address so I can contact the winners... And tell all your friends to enter as well!

  14. A simple suprose with a strong message. Looking forward to Anita's book.

    Bhawna Goel bhawna.goel@gmail.com

  15. Enjoyed reading the interview and learning about the author.

  16. Good Interview Visi. Enjoyed reading it. All the best for your blog. Sundeep

  17. Motivating interview Visi. Good work with the interview and the blog !

  18. Thank you for the wonderful interview! I particularly could relate to the desire to follow one's passion but needing to find a way to enable that pursuit--finding the time or a job that enables one to afford it. The importance of staying committed.

  19. Random numbers were assigned to each of the comments. 3 were picked by my 8 year old son.

    Congratulations Madhu, Bhawna Goel and Raji Shankar! You are the winners of the 3 copies of Anita Desai's The Artist Of Disappearance. I will contact you via email as well to get your addresses. The book will be mailed to you soon after.

    Don't miss the February contest... 3 more books will be given away, this time Solo by Rana Dasgupta! Look for Rana's interview coming soon on Suprose!

  20. Great Work Mr.Visi
    Eagerly looking fwd to your next Interview!!


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