Monday, January 27, 2014

The World of Writers

John Freeman's book, 'How To read a Novelist' (Conversations with Writers), are profiles of world-class authors like Toni Morrison, Gunter Grass and Orhan Pamuk, among many others

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1977 Kenyan leader Daniel Arap Moi got the novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o arrested for co-writing a play which was critical of the government. After a year in a maximum security prison, Ngugi was released. Later, he fled to the USA. In 2004, after Moi had stepped
down as president, Ngugi returned to Nairobi and received a hero’s welcome.

But things went horribly wrong. One night, intruders broke into his apartment. Ngugi’s wife, Njeeri, was stabbed and raped in front of him. When Ngugi tried to intervene he was burned with cigarettes on his forehead and arms. Finally the couple managed to escape. Later, when he came out of hospital, a combative Ngugi said, “We have to keep rising up. The Kenyans who attacked us do not represent the spirit of the new Kenya.”

This story is recounted in the remarkable book, ‘How To Read A Novelist’ (Conversations with Writers), by John Freeman, the former editor-in-chief of Granta, one of the world’s leading literary magazines.

This book is a collection of his profiles of some of the top writers of today. They include Noble Laureates Toni Morrison, Gunter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, Orhan Pamuk, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Atwood, along with notables like Richard Ford, Philip Roth, EL Doctorow and Tom Wolfe. India is represented by Booker Prize winners Salman Rushdie
and Kiran Desai, along with Vikram Chandra. In total, 54 authors have been featured.

Freeman has a fixed format. First there is an introduction of the author, which is laid out in an italics font. Then there is a description of the environment in which the interview is taking place, along with the writer's thoughts about his career, as well as anecdotes from the books or from life. Most of the pieces are only a few pages long. Since Freeman has an engaging and lucid style, it is an easy read.

And all along, Freeman recounts interesting tidbits. Japanese best-selling author Haruki Murakami explains how he writes his brilliantly imaginative novels, like ‘Kafka on The Shore’. “I have a theory,” he says. “If you lead a repetitious life, your imagination works very well. It is very active. So I get up early in the morning, sit down at my desk, and I am ready to write.”

Tom Wolfe talks about the need for a Hippocratic Oath for writers. The first line of the doctor's Hippocratic Oath is, 'First, do no harm',” he says. “For writers, it should be, 'First, entertain'. All writing should entertain. It is only recently that there is an emphasis on making writing so difficult that only a charmed aristocracy is capable to understanding it.”

As for Vikram Chandra he talks about the killers he met while researching for 'Sacred Games', his novel on the Mumbai underworld. One night I went for a beer with some shooters,” he says. “And I thought, 'Gosh, I could almost be friends with these guys. They are really nice fellows'. Then I realised that they probably would go out later that night and kill someone.” 

Mohsin Hamid, the author of 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist', has been trying to kill off the stereotypical image of Pakistan as a place of rampant terrorism, feudalism, and a country in flames. “Our No. 1 television show host is a transvestite,” he says. “We have a large
indie-rock band scene. There are huge Ecstasy-fuelled raves and fashion models who wear next to nothing on the catwalks. But you don't see that on American TV. Instead, we get the guys hiding out in the caves.”

All in all, for bibliophiles and aspiring writers, this book is a valuable addition to their home libraries. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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