Saturday, April 19, 2008

Above Average

In an interview with Ahmede Hussain Amitabha Bagchi talks about his best-selling novel
What is your earliest childhood memory? How important is your childhood to you?

To me my childhood and the memories of it are like the minimum balance in a savings account. It's there, it's mine. It can be drawn on if the need arises, but only if the need arises. In my novel, Above Average, I have not talked about childhood directly, focusing instead on late adolescence, but that doesn't mean I don't feel childhood is important. In fact I think it is extremely important. But I would rather only allude to it and try and understand the way people think about it later in life. Childhood, to my mind, has been hijacked by a Freudian perspective, and that often shows up in fiction. Psychonalytical views of childhood are very important, no doubt, but to my mind a sensitive immersion in the images thrown up by memories of childhood can yield a lot of material for the fiction writer. Proust made a career out of it, and what a career. Closer to home, Ruskin Bond's writing is a great example of what I am talking about.

Do you believe in epiphanic moments? How does your muse come to you?

Particular moments of epiphany are not as interesting to me as the process. I think if you look carefully at a particular instance, localized in time, when a certain thought strikes a person, you will find that there are clear linkages into the past. Often, most interestingly, there are obscure linkages into certain areas of memory and it becomes an interesting problem in itself to figure out the nature of those linkages. I think writers, especially those who are storytellers, probably realize better than others that every "Aha!" moment is preceded by weeks, month, years of sometimes productive, sometimes unproductive thinking.

My own method involves trying to structure what I am feeling. Posing the question to myself is the first step, then spending time thinking consciously or unconsciously about the problem. The days when I really feel like writing, it's normally a sign that my subconscious mind has processed some question and it's looking to output what it has processed.

How important is it for you to know your audience/reader?

The audience has to be seen as a multiplicity of audiences. You have to have a sense of what different kinds of people will find in your work. Of course, it is impossible to know this exactly. To me and to most writers I think, it is impossible not to care and not to want as many people as possible to like your work. But it is to the benefit of the work when a writer doesn't exactly know what different parts of the audience are looking for. Because it is only then that serendipity can occur.

Ghalib is an excellent example of an artist who knows how to open up his work so that many different audiences will find something in it. The way he layers his poetry with images and meaning make it approachable in so many different ways that I often feel that there must be several resonances of his work that he could not possibly be aware of. That's what makes his writing one of mankind's more valuable possessions.

VS Naipaul has talked about separation of the man (the person who writes) and the writer. How is it like for you?

We tend to fetishize this profession of writing a little too much. No one asks a truck driver about the separation between man and truck driver, nor do truck drivers talk about it a lot (or if they do, they aren't often quoted). As writers I think one of our primary responsibilities is to keep our feet on the ground. Norman Mailer once said something about how for every poorly written book about a trade union leader or a airline pilot there are ten well written books about writers and their friends.

But to answer your question directly, I think of myself as a writer but I don't think that's all that I am. Like everyone else I have many other roles - friend, husband, resident of Delhi, righthanded table tennis player etc etc - and, like everyone else, I move from role to role not making a particularly major effort to prevent one from bleeding into another.