Manu Joseph is the editor of The Open Magazine, the newsweekly which broke the story of corporate lobbyist Nira Radia's taped conversations with members of the DMK, businessmen, and media personnel, and published transcripts. His first novel Serious Men, which has been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and recently won The Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010, is our pick for Book of the Year 2010. The author speaks to Nandini Krishnan about the success of his book, his own reading habits and his take on writing.
Let me begin with a trick question - how many award-winning books have you enjoyed?
Several, actually. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez, his Love in the Time of Cholera, and Disgrace by J M Coetzee come to mind in the first burst. In recent times, I particularly loved Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Next month, I plan to read The White Tiger carefully, without jealousy or bias as I did soon after it won the Booker. When The White Tiger won the Booker, my own novel was in that terrifying purgatory zone of publishing where your book is on the brink of being rejected or accepted.
And moving on to another trick question - how does it feel to be on the longlist for the Man Asian Literary Prize, alongside a Nobel laureate?
I am vainly glad and strangely not embarrassed at all to share the longlist with the Japanese Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe. I have not read The Changeling but it is now inevitable that I would read it. I hope I get to meet him but then I would not know what to say to him.
What has winning the Hindu Best Fiction Award done for you, personally, in terms of validation as an author, especially given that the judges write different kinds of literature, in different genres?
To begin with I enjoyed the award evening. I was very happy and I got drunk and I remember there was very good company. I thought some two hundred people liked me very much. But the full impact of the award became apparent only in the coming days. The reputation of The Hindu is astounding. Even though it was the first award of its kind, the fact that it was being given by The Hindu had a special glow.
In Indian writing in English, there's usually a mantra - write what you know best. So, you have Dalits writing about Dalits, housewives writing about housewives, journalists choosing reporters as their central characters, people in the Civil Services writing about bureaucracy and so on. As someone who hasn't stuck to that convention, do you think there will be a change in the mindset, so that people won't be expected to simply write what they know, but imagine what they can, engaging their research?
No. But there is nothing odd or wrong about people choosing to write about what they know very well. There was a time when I used to laugh at autobiographical novels and writers who write only one stunning book in their lives but now I have a more mature view - let people write whatever they want.
There are some authors who write prolifically while retaining their regular jobs, such as Shashi Tharoor. And others, such as V S Naipaul, who pride themselves on not having had any other job, save writing. What is your opinion on balancing a high-pressure job and a passion for writing?
It is hell.
Last time you spoke to us, you said your forthcoming book would be set in Madras in the 1980s, but that the storyline was hazy at the moment. Have the shadows settled into shapes yet? And if so, can we have a sneak peek?
The story has taken a very definite shape and right now I feel very vain and excited. But I don't know why I don't want to discuss it.
You said earlier that Serious Men was in the making for a long time, even before you actually sat down to write it. Has your second book come to you more suddenly, or has it been in your mind for years?
Strangely it has been in my mind as two different fragments for about a decade. I don't know why I seem to always want to gather two stories and make them into one. Maybe it is a psychiatric condition.
The initial aspiration of most authors is to write the kind of book they would want to read. Since you're one book old now, do you believe you have found the genre that suits you best? Or, do you plan to experiment with other genres - a play, poetry, non-fiction - or other kinds of fiction - children's writing, a crime mystery, perhaps?
I do not know the genre of Serious Men, honestly and I do enjoy reading its various descriptions - all of which, I agree with. My second novel is a mystery novel, but then the mystery is as much the story as the process of solution. I know that I am incapable of writing a children's novel now but I feel, in about ten years I will be able to write a children's novel. I believe that the key to writing such a novel is to understand that children are people who cannot articulate complex thoughts but they do have very complex thoughts. They even understand darkness and appreciate stories that do not treat them as fools - the reason why Harry Potter was so successful.
What kind of opening would make you promptly return the book to the shelf?
A scene where a woman is cooking and the whole recipe is mentioned and some smells are mentioned and the word 'aroma' (which is a very ugly word) is mentioned and interior decor of the kitchen is described.
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Excerpts: Sneak Peek: Exclusive Excerpts from 'Serious Men'
Buy the book: Serious Men