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Saturday, March 26, 2005

Tokyo Cancelled

On Off The Shelf we speak to Rana Dasgupta, the writer who has set literary circuits ablaze with his debut 'Tokyo Cancelled'.

'Tokyo Cancelled' is slated to be the next big thing in the literary world. And its author Rana Dasgupta is doing the global rounds for the launch.

Despite his hectic schedule, Rana took the time to join our Producer Deepika Shetty on 'Off The Shelf' from London.

Here are excerpts from that exclusive conversation:

Q : Tell us what your critically acclaimed debut is all about?
A : My book is about 13 passengers who find themselves trapped in an airport on their way to Tokyo, hence the title. They spend their time telling stories to each other to pass the night. So the book consists of 13 stories, one from each of several cities around the world - Tokyo, Shenzhen, New Delhi and spreading out across Frankfurt, Paris, London, Tokyo etc. Its a book that's an attempt to come up with a collection of contemporary urban fairy tales - stories that use the comfortable, familiar language of the fairytales we all grew up with. But it tries to use that language to talk about issues of contemporary significance. It talks of technology, business and about things that make people most joyous and fearful to be living at this point in time.

Q : Why an airport setting? Do you view it is a place of hope, a place to get away from the gritty reality of everyday life?
A : Well, I think airports offer lots of interesting potential for somebody thinking about writing. The airport especially in my book, when the flight is cancelled and the passengers are forced to spend the night just filling time, becomes a space where they are completely removed from their ordinary lives. So its a place for them to fill with their imagination. It's a place that invites stories. It's also a place where they have no common language to speak of, so they look within themselves for a fundamental language of fairy tales, with which they start to form a connection with where they are. The other thing about airports is that they are a place of meeting. Of strangers meeting each other, of people coming together from all parts of the world. So they are a kind of node in a global network that allows your imagination to flow out around the world and think about what it means to be living in an interconnected world of travel and experience.

Q : So what brings the characters together in your book given the varied places they are from. What's the one thing that ties them?
A : I feel the one thing that ties them in the airport is that they make a pact with each other to pass the night telling stories. What binds them together is the fact they all enter into this pact willingly. What's exciting or utopian about this book is the fact that when this group of 13 passengers are asked to imagine and to tell wonderful stories they are all able to come up with something miraculously fantastic. What binds them is this shared experience of deciding to spend time imagining and narrating stories that are significant to them. And there are lots of themes that run through these shared stories - these are themes of travel and being an outsider in society.

Q : What about the structure of these stories?
A : The structure of the book is that of fairy tales. The wonderful thing about fairy stories is that you usually have the very recognisable familiar space of a small town with a King and a Queen, a Prince and a Princess, a market - and all this little world of order. Outside this you also have the world of the forest and the forest contains all kinds of threatening figures - witches and ogres - so it is a mysterious and vaguely uncanny world. When you transpose all this onto contemporary life the same language can be used to talk about businessmen, movie stars and all these kind of figures and characters. In the forest of contemporary life we also find illegal immigrants, migrant labourers and various types of people living outside the rules of society for reasons of their own choosing or for other reasons. So the fairy tale structure is one that allows to you to sort of embrace a very large range of people who make up our contemporary world.

Q : Now one of the stories in the book was written as a birthday gift. You've been quoted as saying this one took on a different direction, which direction was it?
A : That's right, it all began as you rightly pointed out as a birthday present. And the story that got it all going is the first story in the book. It took on a different direction because I started to write about something that excited me. It was this combination of fairy tale structures and contemporary life and it started to excite me to write something that would be a whole body of fairy tales. I wanted to write a body of myth that would powerfully address some of the issues that we as people living in the 21st century experience.

Q : Tokyo Cancelled has been called the 'Canterbury Tales for our times', 'an epic story', 'a timeless fairytale.'
That almost sounds like a dream come true for any author. How does it make you feel?
A : Obviously, good criticism is great to read. What's most exciting though is when I read criticism that shows that this book has really entered into the thoughts and feelings of somebody and has made them experience the world differently. Good reviews that have not really engaged with the book are less satisfying than bad reviews that really have.

Q : What made you move to New Delhi in India. You are now based there. Why India?
A: I moved to New Delhi four years ago from the United States. I was doing a corporate job there and was getting a little bored of that, partly because I'd also started work on my book and wanted to spend more time on it. I moved to Delhi to be with a group of friends who I thought would be very inspiring to have around while I was working on my book. Of course, financial reasons played a role in that decision too. I could afford to live in Delhi and write. Doing writing alone was something that I could not afford to do in New York. It was an experiment at first, I was supposed to stay there for just three months but I ended up staying on. I find Delhi an enormously fascinating place to be located in and to look out at the rest of the world.

Q : You just mentioned you were in the corporate world, you were a marketing professional to be precise. How did writing happen?
A : I was working for a marketing company for about five years before I started writing. That took me to Kuala Lumpur, London, then New York. Moving around these places gave me an immense experience of the world. But by the end of the time, I really wanted to do something else. I'd started writing this book, pretty much for myself and my immediate circle of friends. Once a body of this work was ready, I sent it off to an agent in London and he loved it. Six months later, I went on a round of six publishing firms, three of them bid for it and I came to an agreement with one of them. That was pretty much it.
Though I must admit that my life in business has found its way very significantly in this book. In its examination of global life, all the effects and experience of business is quite important. I am not one of those writers who thinks business is a very unliterary kind of thing. I find business very exciting and interesting as a subject. So there's a lot of my former life in this book

Q : And you've started working on your next novel. What's that about?
A : It takes further some of the themes in 'Tokyo Cancelled'. But its very focused on the future and it explores the relationship between the past and the future. Lot of imaginations of the future are very terrifying, I'm exploring all of this and looking at rumours and visions, amnesia and prophecy. It's about an old man who is blind and who is receiving visions of the future. It's a kind of exploration of some of the emotions we feel when we think about what is going to happen in the world.

Q : What are the key influences on your work?
A : My writing is above all influenced by conversations with people, particularly the artists and writers that surround me in Delhi. Then its travel.
I tend to prefer the kind of wisdom that comes from travel than the kind that comes from staying in one place. And then of course there is culture - art and films are the significant things for me. And the internet.

Thirteen passengers are stranded at an airport. Tokyo, their destination, is covered in snow and all flights are cancelled. To pass the night they form a huddle by the silent baggage carousels and tell each other stories.

Told by people on a journey, these are stories about lives in transit, stories from the great cities - New York, Istanbul, London, Lagos, Paris, Buenos Aires - that grow into a novel about the hopes and dreams and disappointments that connect people everywhere.

"Intriguing . . . A highly confident literary debut" - The Bookseller (UK)
"A global citizen narrative" - The Asian Wall Street Journal
Deepika Shetty is a Producer with Prime Time Morning

Q & A

Vikas Swarup, India's latest literary sensation earned a whooping six figure advance for his debut novel. Interestingly titled 'Q & A', the book has already been translated into fifteen languages.

And that's not all, a Hollywood movie based on the novel is already in the works. The book recounts the adventures of Ram Mohammad Thomas, who makes off with the jackpot on a quiz show called 'Who Wants to Be A Millionaire'.

A charming book, made even more fascinating book by the name of its protaganist. Between travels to Pakistan and Afghanistan, diplomat and author Vikas Swarup takes the time for this exclusive chat with Deepika Shetty.
Here are the excerpts:

Q : Why the name Ram Mohammad Thomas?
A : I wanted him to represent the richness and diversity of India, not just as a cliche. And if you read the book, you'll see the name means a lot in the book. Ram Mohammad Thomas is not just a name. He actually uses the three elements - the Hindu religion, the Christian religion and the Muslim religion when he interacts with various characters. So for his Muslim friend Salim, he becomes Mohammad, for the Australian diplomat he becomes Thomas and for the Indian actress who is wary of keeping a Muslim servant he becomes Ram. So he does utilise his name to meet various circumstances.

Q : What was the inspiration for your plot?
A : I had come across a news report some time back that slum children had begun using a mobile internet facility. That is what set me thinking because normally you associate the internet with a certain level of sophistication. You would expect people who are well educated, who read newspapers who would use the internet and here you had children from a slum who had never gone to school, had probably never read the newspapers, who were logging on to the worldwide web. And that set me thinking that perhaps there is some innate ability in all us, that given the right opportunity can surface.
At the same time I wanted to tap into this global phenomena called 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire'. This is really the first televised globally syndicated quiz show. So the idea was let's juxtapose the quiz show with a rather untypical contestant and that's why you had Q & A.

Q : You are a first time novelist, did you imagine the book would be this big?
A : No, never. In fact when I wrote it, I wrote it primarily as an Indian book for an Indian audience. I had no idea it would be picked up publishers everywhere and would emerge as a global novel.

Q : Critics have called your book 'sweet, sorrowful and compelling'. In fact, your writing style has even been compared to the bestselling author Mark Haddon. That sounds like a dream come true for any author. How do you feel about all the positive reviews?
A : I feel very, very gratified. I wrote this book primarily for myself. The book is about an Indian milieu, its set in India. There is no attempt to exoticise places, it deals with the sordidness with India in a certain sense, the underbelly of urban India. In fact, there is no attempt to pander to Western audiences, which is often a charge levelled against Indian authors who have an eye on the Western market.

So the fact that this has been accepted so willingly, and before the English publication, that is the best thing. Normally, a book becomes big in India and then its picked up by the rest of the world and then people say its all because of the hype. And here I am an unknown author, I haven't been published in India, yet my book has been picked up by publishers from Brazil to Barcelona, that means something.

So I am very very gratified. I suppose the reason for that is that maybe at the core there is something universal about the book - its about the underdog winning and that's something that appeals to people in all cultures and communities.

Q : How long did it take to write it?
A : The actual writing took me only two months. I wrote this towards the end of my posting in London, when my wife and children preceded me to India and I was to go back to India after two months. That's when I decided to try my luck at writing and it just happened.

Q : Wow! What about the movie, were rights snapped up even before the book was out?
A : Absolutely! Film Four - they were very interested in the book. They felt the plot was compelling and that it would easily translate into celluloid. They snapped up the movie rights within a month of the acquisition of the book by Random House.

Q : Continuing our Q & A, are you already at work on your next novel?
A : (Laughs) No, I am at work in the office and I think I need a little bit of R & R (rest & recreation) before I start work on my next novel.

Q : You are a career diplomat in India, how did writing happen and how do you even find the time to write?
A : I suppose that is one of the big mysteries. I suppose all of us have some free time on our hands, diplomats do when they are posted abroad. In India, of course its a nine to nine job and so there is no question of thinking anything beyond non-fiction. When we are posted overseas, we do have the time. It all depends on how you want to use it, some choose to spend it watching movies, reading books or with the family. Since my family was away for two months, I decided to use my time thinking about a book and writing about it. I don't know if I'd be able to do this thing again in two month, maybe my wife has to go away again.

Q : What have been the influences on your writing, any writers you admire a lot?
A : Well, I've read a lot of writers over the years - everything from Albert Camus to James Hadley Chase. Subconsciously what you consider to be good writing does have an influence on you but in terms of writing style, I don't think you will see echoes of any particular writer or style. I have written as only I can write. If I wanted to copy a writer, I don't think that's possible, you can only copy a plot. If you have a unique plot, like mine, then you have to write in a new style altogether.

Q : Did you have to deal with rejection in any form when it came to publishing 'Q & A?
A : No that's the surprising thing. I think I've been a very lucky writer. Basically I wrote four and a half chapters and sent it off to 10 agents. I picked up 11th agent off the internet, he liked the book and I had a deal. I am really one of those lucky authors who does not have a pile of rejection slips in my cupboard.

Q : Since you have no rejection slips, what would you say to aspiring writers?
A : Always chase your dreams. If you want to be a writer, then don't get disheartened by the first couple of rejection slips. As I have discovered it takes just one good agent to help you make your mark in the world. But the important thing is that your product must objectively be good. There are writers I am sure, who think they have written the next Nobel Prize winning novel, but maybe the novel is not so good. So get objective advise. Consult your friends, your colleagues, consult those who read books and if they like your book then I don't think you should give up, you should keep on trying and I'm sure you will hit the jackpot someday.

Q : And before I let you, I just can't resist this question - will be see a Bollywood remake after the Hollywood version is out?
A : I certainly hope so.

Vikas Swarup, the best-selling author of Q & A sharing his thoughts on his book, writing and a whole lot more.

War and Peace

Best selling author Robert Ryan may be best known for his 'Morning, Noon and Night' trilogy, but all that may well change with his latest work 'After Midnight.' Another war story, this one too has been inspired by facts. Just what is it that draws Robert to these facts and how does he blend them with fiction. We put the question to the writer himself on 'Off The Shelf':

Q : What do you write about?
A : I write books that are normally set in the Second World War or just afterwards. They are always based on true stories or there are always real events that are at the core. I take those real events and run them through my imagination and see what comes out of them.

Q : And you call that fact-ion?
A : Yes, fact-ion, I suppose its not a very nice word. But these are facts that are turned into fiction and its the best way to describe them. I suppose the thing that I am trying to do is make readers believe that the part that I am making up could equally be real.

Q : Why do you use this form of writing - blending fact and fiction?
A : I think when people know there's an element of truth in a story, it gives it more reality, makes it more grounded. When there's no real event, it's very easy to run away but when you are dealing with something like the second world war, its tough not to have the facts. When dealing with a war like that I wanted to use real people stories and bring it to a much more personal level.

Q : Your original works are based in the US. Tell us about them?
A : That's right, I was a travel writer for The Sunday Times in London and I used to go down to the US a lot. I had no real idea about writing a novel and then I was in Seattle and found that there was a hidden city underneath Seattle. I thought that would make for a great setting for a novel - a thriller in fact.

Q : Then you moved on to another one called 'Transam'? Were you driving a 'Transam' across the US?
A : (Laughs) Wish I was! But I wasn't, I couldn't find one to hire one at that time. But yes, that was the idea - of being on an open road in a big muscle car with music blaring out of the stereo. So I guess that one is what you would call a 'road book.'

Q : How did you transition from that to World War Two works?
A : It wasn't a very smooth transition. I'd found a story about a resistance hero, though I hadn't quite figured out how to write it. But the first three world war books that I wrote gave me the confidence to write a narrative about the war.

Q : Let's move on to 'After Midnight'. It seems as real as it gets. How did you come across this plot?
A : I wanted to do something in Italy because I felt the war in Italy was quite neglected. While researching that I came across a letter on the internet that a pilot wrote to his one year old daughter in Sydney explaining why he couldn't be there for her first birthday as he was fighting in the war. It was a very simple and very moving letter. I tracked down the one year old daughter, who was then 61. She's still alive. I explained to her what I wanted to do with the letter. I told her I would fly her to Sydney, but she said she'd moved to London, actually pretty close to very I live. So I went to see her and told her the letter would make for a great book and she said 'go ahead.'

Q : Do you just bump into all these people with great stories? How tough is it to get these compelling stories?
A : What happens is that once you've got one book written people start stopping you and telling you about their stories. For instance, 'Night Crossing' was based on a story that a friend of mine told me about his grandfather. Once I got to Anne, she told me the story which formed the plot for 'After Midnight'. It goes on and on. I feel we are at a stage where people who were in the Second World War really want to tell their stories.

Q : How many stories have you received over the past couple of years?
A : Several. There are stories about people who have finally admitted to being spies during the second world war after keeping it under wraps for all these years. It's just a case of finding the one that touches a chord, like that father's letter to his one year old daughter did in the case of 'After Midnight'. The idea of being away from your children and fighting for what you believed in really moved me.

Q : These don't sound like boring stories to begin with, how do you then weave them with all the elements of fiction?
A : I think after having written the first three American thrillers the idea was to bring the pace of those thrillers to second world war stories. The idea was to have the facts there but give the cliff-hanging ends to the chapters. My job really is to give the story pace and structure.

Q : Who are you writing for?
A : I am writing for anyone who likes a good yarn. Some of my work is like The Guns of Navarone on wheels.

Q : Your next book, I understand will have a bit of Singapore and parts of Asia as a backdrop. Doesn't seem to be consistent with your earlier writing?
A : Its consistent alright. One of the great things about doing these books is that you meet fantastic people. I met a chap called John Taylor who's now 85. He served in Asia with Special Operations for the British at the end of the war. He told me about an operation based in Kunming about smuggling watches into China. He introduced me to a woman who was in charge of that racket at that time. She in turn told me fantastic stories about the flying tigers. It went on from there. The book starts in Singapore and ends in Singapore in 1948, which is quite an interesting time to write about and its quite a cracking story.

Q : How long have you been working on this and when will the book be released?
A : I've been working on it for a year now. I've been speaking to DC-3 pilots around the world. This trip to Singapore is to get my geography right. I've got a couple more trips to make and I should imagine the book will be out by March next year.

Q : You've been varied things. You've lectured in natural sciences, been a journalist. How has this contributed to your writing?
A : I'm quite pleased that I came to novel writing quite late. I switched from natural sciences because I was writing a lot. I found that I enjoyed it more than lecturing. So I moved from lecturing to writing. And then I moved to travel journalism, just by sheer luck. I loved journalism, and I thought it was slightly demeaning that writing novels is somehow considered better than journalism. I don't quite agree with that. I was very, very happy being a journalist, it was just happen stance that I found this setting in Seattle that I just couldn't resist writing about. And that led to my full fledged foray into novel writing.