Samit Basu, novelist, screenwriter, writer of comics and local monster, talks about his latest book Turbulence and writing among other things. You wear the crown of India’s first SFF genre writer. Eight years down the line, how do you feel with that title on your head? Ambivalent. It’s not a crown in particular, and I don’t particularly believe in book categories. I don’t see myself as a genre writer – if I did, I would be a writer in many genres, because I’ve written several kinds of stories in several media. I love fantasy books, and I’m very happy that my first three novels were fantasy, and I’m sure I’ll write more fantasy, but I’m not waving a fantasy flag. Turbulence isn’t even being called a fantasy novel – it’s as mainstream as mainstream can be, especially given the way that mainstream culture has shifted in the last decade. I didn’t even know that fantasy books were treated differently until I wrote one. So you can have the crown, if you like. Barely a month into IIM-A, you left to start writing the first book of Gameworld trilogy. That was in 2001, you were planning to enter genre fiction, and Indian publishing wasn’t going anywhere at that time. Did it take all your courage and guts to make that decision? Did it take convincing aunts and uncles that this wasn’t professional suicide? It certainly took a fair amount of decision-making, but while it took all the guts I had, it really wasn’t all that huge a thing. I was 21, and when you’re 21 time’s on your side. I just decided I wanted to write a book right then, instead of doing an MBA and becoming some sort of unwilling business tycoon. Though I wouldn’t say Indian publishing was going nowhere at the time – a fair amount was happening. And I wasn’t planning to enter genre publishing, which doesn’t exist in India in any case. My uncles and aunts had no idea I was writing a book – I told very few people until I was sure it was getting published. So fortunately I didn’t have to convince them about anything. You’ve mentioned in some of your other interviews that reading Lord of The Rings at age 12 was the defining moment of your life, where you fell in love with the genre of fantasy/speculative fiction. If Tolkien had never written the books, would there have been no Samit Basu-the writer? I’m pretty sure I would have ended up being a writer if Tolkien had never existed. I loved LOTR, but there were hundreds of other wonderful books I also loved. You’ve written novels and comics. Which one would you prefer to do more of? There’s no reason to choose. I’ll do more of both. Working in different media is great fun because each medium teaches you something new and exciting. Writing scripts for comics and films really teaches you to be more rigorous with structure, to work with constraints, to get everything tighter. And you can carry things you learn in one medium to another, which is why Turbulence is a lot shorter than it would have been if I had written it a decade ago. Writing a novel, though, is the most fun, because there are no external constraints at all and you’re free to do whatever you want. So in a way, it’s the most challenging, but also the most fun.
You’ve been part of quite a number of anthologies and collaborations. Which one was the best experience? Collaborations – I co-wrote a comic, or graphic novel if you prefer, with Mike Carey, who is a writer I’ve idolized since I first started reading comics. If you haven’t read his Lucifer comics or his Felix Castor books, do so at once. For someone at that level, he was both incredibly generous as a collaborator and surprisingly nice as a person. The comic is called Untouchable, it’s a turn-of-the-century romance/horror story about a young Anglo-Indian boy’s twisted relationship with a rakshasi. It’s set in India and England, and starts this doomed couple, both outcasts, one caught between the different worlds of his parents, another caught between different eras and worlds. Anthology wise, Electric Feather, the anthology of erotic stories edited by Ruchir Joshi. I wrote a story about a bunch of twentysomethings going back to Cal for a wedding and getting it on afterwards. It was lovely, because I got to write a kind of story I wouldn’t have done otherwise, have a great deal of fun, and people responded strongly – most people absolutely loved it, and others were deeply offended, and both responses pleased me greatly. You’ve grown up in Calcutta, spent some time in other metros in India and the UK. Is there any particular city that appeals to you and inspires you when you create your landscapes and characters in your works? A whole bunch. London, Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi, Prague, Barcelona. I haven’t been to New York or Tokyo or Rio or Istanbul yet, but I’m in love with the idea of these cities as well. Your stories have these references and tangents to pop-culture icons and trends and many puns scattered across plotlines and dialogues. Does it come naturally to you owing to your other pursuits in journalism and media, or do you have to sweat over them a bit to make them work? Or is there some other sinister motive behind them all? It’s all perfectly natural and not sinister at all. Though if it were sinister, I would probably say the same thing. How does the writing process for a book work for you? Do you get into an underground mode, away from civilization while you work? Or does it progress with as much merry making as time can allow? I write for a living, so being completely disconnected is not an option. Turbulence, and Terror on the Titanic, were written in Delhi, in the middle of everything. It’s a job, not a vacation, so everything has to be handled. As far as the process goes, it’s different for different forms and media. But broadly speaking, I spend a fair amount of time researching, and I always finish a fairly detailed plot outline before I start, which I follow for the most part unless the characters decide otherwise. The Gameworld Trilogy was a big success. It seems that Turbulence is turning out to be an even bigger hit. It is being called India’s first superhero book. Does its acceptance on such a scale mean that as a genre, speculative/fantasy fiction is here to stay? The ‘India’s first’ tag means absolutely nothing to me. Turbulence is not the first superhero novel, and it wouldn’t matter if it were. It seems to be doing well, and I’m very happy and relieved about it. Its acceptance means nothing more than that a certain number of people like it, and that’s really all I want. It’s not fantasy literature or genre fiction, so that question doesn’t apply. Though that question is easily answered – speculative/fantasy fiction IS here to stay, and has always been here to stay. It’s the most popular branch of literature that exists, the most universal, the oldest and often the best written. And the truth of this has nothing to do with my involvement with it. If you could be one of your superheroes, which one would you be? Tia. I love her power, the ability to duplicate yourself and therefore essentially never have to make a choice again, because now you can live several lives and experience so many more things. Can you tell us something about your project on Indian speculative fiction with Sarai- How did it start and where has it led you? Fun project. It started when Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Sarai, one of the most erudite people in the world, suggested I do it. It hasn’t led me anywhere in particular, though it has led people Googling Indian speculative fiction to my website. One book that you’d bequeath to your favorite niece/nephew. I’d be a fairly sad uncle if I gave my favourite niece/nephew only one book. Lots and lots and lots of really good books. Do I have to bequeath them? That seems to involve dying. Must I die now?
One writer that seriously scrambled your brains with his/her dangerous and exciting ideas. China Mieville What’s next on your grand plan of world dominance? Is it a new book, a comic, or a movie? It’s a few months of enthusiastic vegetating and hopefully some travel and some life-living. After which, left unsupervised I will start writing something or other. A graphic novel and a screenplay, in that order, I think. From amongst your contemporaries, who would you recommend to your fans? There’s this really nice site called Bookchums…
You can read reviews of his books here: Turbulence, The Simoqin Prophecies, The Manticore's Secret. Let us know what you think :)