Interview - Anuradha Roy

As we go to press, Anuradha Roy’s All the Lives We Never Lived has just been announced winner of the 2018 TATA Book of the Year Award for fiction. One of India’s most successful and prominent writers, she is no stranger to literary acclaim. An Atlas of Impossible Longingand The Folded Earth won prizes and praise internationally, and in 2015 she was longlisted for the Booker with Sleeping on Jupiter,which went on to win the 2016 DSC South Asian Prize.

Recently, the Asia Literary Review’s Anurima Roy (no relation) caught up with Anuradha Roy to talk about her experiences as a publisher and writer, her sources of inspiration, her previous books, and about how she came to write All the Lives We Never Lived.


You’ve worked in publishing, are a publisher in your own right and are now a writer. Tell us a bit about your experience as someone closely involved in all aspects of the trade. 

Yes, it’s curious how book production and selling have been a part of my life. My father-in-law had a bookshop, Ram Advani Booksellers, where I’d do counter duty when I happened to be in town; and when I was in college in Calcutta I did a summer job with an independent press, Stree, where I was taught the ropes by my cousin Mandira Sen, who runs it still. The first thing she made me do was an inventory of all the books in the storeroom, just to show me publishing wasn’t a glamour job about meeting famous authors. Much of it is drudge work, and that was useful to know early on. 

I ended up as acquisitions editor for literature at the OUP, and then, in 2000, my husband Rukun Advani and I started our own press, Permanent Black. Once I began writing fiction I found it hard to edit. It’s difficult to carry two or more books in my head simultaneously, so I stopped and focused on design, which is what I still do for our press. I do all our cover designs. I think working with visuals rather than words uses a totally different part of the brain, that is how it feels. 


Who are the writers, from India or elsewhere, from the present or the past, whom you most admire or consider to have had an influence on you? 

The books I read as a child are still with me: Sukumar Roy’s Nonsense Verse, Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s The Golden Goblet, Gone with the Wind, books by Nevil Shute, Dickens, Hardy and Jane Austen. Cheap translations of Dostoevsky and Chekhov used to be all over when I was growing up, and their writing had a huge impact on me. Later in life, I came to know Pather Panchali by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhaya, a book I first read in translation and then relearned the Bengali script in order to read it in the original. 

Today – I love the enigmatic, beautiful short stories of Alice Munro, the mingling of fact and fiction in the nonfiction of Ryszard Kapuscinski. I admire and envy the gifts of many contemporary writers: I have just been reading Maya Jasanoff’s ’s Dawn Watch and Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fires, which are both breath-taking. 

There are too many writers to mention: you soak in the books that matter to you and they become part of your bloodstream and your writing. 


Each of your novels has a very atmospheric sense of place, whether it is Nomi’s first home in the jungle, the sea by Jarmuli, the Scandinavian forest, or the ‘para’ in which Myshkin lived. What is the importance of a sense of place, and the imagery used to create it, in your novels? 

I had the sound of the sea in my head along with Nomi – she was sort of washed up by the sea in the short story that was the seed of that novel – she is a girl some elderly women spot on a beach. I had no idea then why she was there, how she got there, and the process of writing was one of finding her and finding her landscapes, whether in Scandinavia or in an imagined beach town. All the fictional places in my novels come partly from the imagination and partly from experience – I came to know a Scandinavian forest at midnight during a walk through one and it changed a lot in the writing of course, but I drew from that walk when I was writing that section. This goes for my other fictional places too. Aspects of those places never existed other than in my mind, though others did, in altered forms; and all of it comes together in a process I can’t quite analyse, during the writing. 


I love the titles of each of your novels. Tell us about how you came to choose them and about the wordplay in ‘folded earth’ and ‘impossible longing’. 

I was talking to a poet recently, and she said she always arrived at the titles of her books right at the start – it helped her to get a grip on the book somehow. For me it’s the opposite – I arrive at the title right at the end, when I feel I have the book there and can begin to think of a way to capture it in a fistful – which will be the title – something that will both explain as well as hold back. Something that will unfurl into a whole novel. 

With The Folded Earth, the title refers to the geological folds in the earth when tectonic plates hit each other. My father was a geologist; he had told us as children that the Himalaya came about as a result of such a collision of landmasses and, since Folded Earth is set in the Himalaya, it was a natural title for me – it also works perfectly in a metaphoric sense. The other titles were much harder to reach, days of thinking and trying out and rejecting. 


The women characters in your novels – Maya, Latika, Vidya, Gouri, Gayatri, to name a few – are both particularly strong and strikingly distinct from one another and from the norms of traditional society. Tell us something about the experience of creating them. 

Women who break rules, even in very subtle and understated ways as Gouri does, interest me. The women you mention are all women I would have been drawn to in real life – they are often contradictory, they may not even be entirely likeable at times, but they are vital and real and interesting. Some readers, for example, have had a strong reaction to Gayatri, calling her selfish and spoilt for leaving her son to be able to paint. The same people don’t blame Nek, Gayatri’s husband, for leaving too. In India particularly, the tradition of valorising men for putting spiritual or scholarly or political pursuits over wife and family is very strong – such men are revered as monastic and single-minded. Yet the same single-mindedness in a woman shocks even some women readers. That’s good. I like making women characters who hit where it hurts, who might make you question your own attitudes. 


In All The Lives We Never Lived, there are several historical characters, including Walter Spies, Rabindranath Tagore, Percy Lancaster, Beryl de Zoete and Begum Akhtar. What led you to bring them into the novel and blend their reality into your fiction? 

The book began with a boy’s immersion in paintings – and the magical thing was how the historical interconnections became apparent to me during the research. I started out with a boy; then as I stood in a museum in Bali before the paintings of Walter Spies, I discovered that he died on 19 January, the very day my beloved old dog had died, only a few months earlier. I know this sounds whimsical, but instantly it felt as if my life, the novel and one real life character were all connected. Spies became the painter who would enter the life of the boy. Slowly these ripples of connectedness spread wider – via Tagore, the writer Maitreyi Debi, and Beryl de Zoete, who wrote a book with Spies; and it became even clearer that this world which we think of as past is close to ours, and very present even in mundane ways: travel, hopes and dreams, health, the discovery of new countries, unlikely friendships. Where there is a striving for happiness in hostile surroundings, and where overwhelming forces of history can sweep everything aside. 


You have achieved a lot as a literary writer from India who has attracted global acclaim. In an age where most writers promote themselves heavily on social media, you have maintained a low profile. Do you not feel the pressure to be on social media all the time? 

I live in a remote area and I can blame my relative absence from social media on the bad internet connection there! Seriously though, social media demands far too much time and a kind of creativity I don’t have. 


As a writer of literary fiction, is there any particular audience you have in mind and how do you think literary writers can widen their readership in the sub-continent? 

I can’t write with an audience in mind. I have characters, places, ideas in my mind and I need to figure out how best to transform these into fiction. When you are struggling – sometimes over a long period, years maybe – to create a fictional world, complete with its language and architecture, that is enough battle. What happens to the book in the market, how to widen readership: these things can’t and don’t interest me when I am writing. The sales worry me somewhat after a book is out – because I know what a struggle it is for my publisher to sell books in a largely indifferent literary landscape. 

I am not sure what is meant by literary fiction – I take it to mean books with themes and language that are somewhat demanding – and sales figures for such books will always be lower than for pulp fiction. 


Last but not least, you started your journey as a writer rather later in life than many of your contemporaries. How did you decide to write An Atlas of Impossible Longing and do you feel the pressure to ‘perform’ that seems to affect most Indian writers? Please add something on this for our readers and especially for people those who aspire to be literary writers in India today. 

I’ve actually written, published and earned from stories since my childhood and later from reviewing and writing non-fiction, but had never felt the need to write a novel, never wanted a career in writing, only wanted one in publishing. It was when we were struggling to set up Permanent Black and things were really tough that somehow the space opened up for a novel. It came out of the blue and at that point it was what I just had to do. I wrote it over a period of – I think – two or three years and by the time it was published (which took ages) I was forty. 

I’m not sure exactly what is meant by ‘pressure to perform’ – do you mean to succeed, win prizes, etc. and deal with the festivals and publicity events? I try to limit the number of events and festivals I attend because I need quiet time at home to be able to write. I also try to start work on something new while a book is still in press so that I am occupied with something quite different by the time it is published. That way the whole business of prizes and reviews is kept at a distance. If you can’t disconnect once a book is out, it is crippling. My pottery and design work, my dogs and my remote location, all help I think to keep the literary world at a distance. 

I think the best part of the making of a book is over once my first draft is done. The time with the first draft feels like the solitary, pure, incandescent time, discovering my own book. 


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