London, Oct. 14: Kiran Desai said today that although she admires Arundhati Roy’s politics, she does not want to become a social activist like her fellow Booker Prize winner and will stick to being a full-time writer.
Desai has overnight become the new sensation of the literary world, but in a remarkably frank exclusive interview with The Telegraph, she was modest enough to reveal just how difficult it had been for her to find a publisher for The Inheritance of Loss.
She said she had to agree to drastically prune the novel’s length.
This is in sharp contrast to the attitude of Roy who ruled when her manuscript first went on the London market in 1996 that not a word could be touched.
Backed by her literary agent, David Godwin, who also represents Desai in the UK, Roy got her way.
Desai’s experience, she told The Telegraph from Germany before catching a flight back to her home in New York, has been very different. Desai’s novel has been published in hardback at just over 330 pages.
“It was so much longer,” she disclosed. “At one time it was really crazy — it was 1,500 pages. I cut it and cut it down. There was a (completed) longer version of 450 pages but my mother (novelist Anita Desai) was saying, ‘Oh, you have cut it too much’.”
Her mother might have had in mind Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which is the longest novel in the English language — it is between 1,347 and 1,488 pages in length, depending on print size and the edition.
Desai, though, had to agree to the changes “for the sake of the momentum of the book. The publishers just demanded it and I had no negotiating power at all. This book was hard to get published.”
Her American publisher is Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press, which has brought out the hardcover version at 324 pages. “It is a small independent, very brave publisher that takes on what big publishing houses won’t. It was printed with a lot of trepidation and a lot of people thought it didn’t work at all. There was no real editor. I had to work alone. The most help I got was really from (Indian author and publisher) David Davidar. It is such a funny thing (but) this book has had such a long and difficult passage.”
The novel has been published by Hamish Hamilton (336 pages) in Britain, where her agent is Godwin, who status and influence have grown since he found Roy in 1996. “I found him just by odd luck. He isn’t my main agent. My main agent is in New York. His name is Michael Carlisle and he works for a firm called InkWell. He said, ‘We need someone in England,’ and he went to David Godwin.”
But Godwin has been very successful in promoting Roy and may do the same for Desai.
Although the destinies of the two Indian women are now joined by the Booker, Desai met Roy only “very briefly, almost in passing, years ago when her book came out. I was in England and went to her book party. That was my only brief meeting. Since then, no.”
Unlike Roy, she has no ambitions of using her new found celebrity status to push for political causes.
“Is there another dam'” joked Desai, who, at 35, is the youngest woman to win the Man Booker Prize. “I admire her politics. I do see myself as a full-time writer because I just don’t have that personality. All I do is sit in my room and write. It goes with the way I live. I have to do everything through writing.”
She was sure Roy would write another novel to follow The God of Small Things.
“I don’t think talent like that goes away,” she commented. “I hope I will (write more books). I’m so slow. I wonder how long it will take me (to write my next book) but I certainly plan to get back to work soon.”
Unlike Roy, who has rejected any notions of her novel being adapted for a movie, Desai would have no such objection. “There has been no talk at all from anyone — must be an impossible book to film. (A film would be) just another form of telling the story. I would welcome it.”
Roy’s view is that if there was a movie adaptation, fewer people would bother to read her novel.
Desai is happy at the thought that her success may encourage thousands of Indian women also to take up the pen.
“I hope so,” she said. “I feel quite strange that a lot of people in Germany and even in England have asked, ‘Why is there so much Indian writing'’ I had to respond by saying: “That’s such a strange question to me because you never say why is there so much American writing or why is there so much British writing or why are there so many good American writers. I am glad there is (Indian) writing and that publishing has grown bigger and I hope it only continues.”
Although Desai has lived in America since she left India at 14, she has not given up her Indian passport even though this is inconvenient for a writer who travels a great deal.
“It gives one so much trouble,” she pointed out. “Every single time when one travels you have this visa thing. From Germany to go to England it’s a major ordeal.”
At one stage, she was unsure whether she would be able to enter the UK to attend the Booker ceremony where her name was to be announced as the winner. Luckily, an old visa for the UK was still valid.
With passing years, she stressed, she has become more Indian in her attitude to life, not less. “I do feel that and I do feel it more and more. I feel it much more strongly now than when I did when I first went to the States and tried to fit in when I was 17 or 18, trying to be an American immigrant in the way one is supposed to be an American immigrant. It did not fit any of the complexity of my own experience, let alone what's happening in the world right now. I feel quite uncomfortable in many ways. Certainly, I would have been entirely uncomfortable raising an American flag over my head at this moment.”
But New York is definitely home because she has managed to become part of its increasingly vibrant Indian scene. Her friends include fellow authors Amitav Ghosh, Manil Suri and Akhil Sharma.
“It makes it much cosier,” she said. “You can’t talk to American writers in the same way. It’s a really nice time to be in New York for Indians — there’s so much going on. There are many art galleries now, and the South Asian Journalists’ Association. There’s a complicated eating scene now, no longer the same old Indian restaurants. There’s a huge cultural scene and it’s so nice.”
Incidentally, she has been able to talk to her mother, who was nominated three times for the Booker. “I did finally trace her and spoke to her. She is travelling as well and she was on her way from Dehradun to Delhi and she is flying back to New York today. She said it has been the happiest three days of her life.”
She had also spoken to her father, Ashvin, a businessman who lives in Delhi and is separated from her mother. “I am very close to him, extremely close. I stay with him several months of the year when I go back. He told me when my book came out in India and was not doing well that ‘I predict it’s going to win the Booker, I know it will win, there’s no doubt in my mind’. He’s quite a critical reader. It’s amazing he said it.”
On her return to New York, she has to take off almost immediately for a literary festival in Canada, and then attend a South Asian one in Washington DC. She likes writing about food and will go to Mexico to do a story on its cuisine.
But she is desperate to be in India. She has not seen coverage of her Booker win in any of the Indian newspapers, only in the German media. She was last in India in February.
“I wish I was in India now,” she sighed. “It would be so wonderful to be in India because India is where the most happiness (from her Booker win) comes from.”
She went on: “I was talking to my Indian publishers (Penguin India) as to when I could go. I hope I can go soon. They had all these crazy schemes, saying we will go to the Calcutta Book Fair and then drive up to Kalimpong and have a reading in the local bookshop in Kalimpong. It would be lovely.”