Durjoy Datta on books, fatherhood and more
He’s in town on work and when we meet him, Durjoy Datta is lounging in the coffee shop at The HHI. The bestselling author flashes his signature dimpled smile and settles down for a freewheeling chat with t2, starting with his new novel 'The Perfect Us' to how he’s handling the us-ness in his marriage after becoming a father.
What is your 16th book, 'The Perfect Us', all about?
This is what all of us at Penguin India are running away from — to define what the book is all about. It’s about this couple, Deb and Avantika, who’ve been 10 years into this relationship and now they want a kid. It’s about how it splinters their relationship or how it makes them stronger.
Is there going to be a sequel?
It’s not open-ended. There might be a sequel to it if people like it. Ever since my books have started working, people have assigned reasons to why they work. The biggest reason that I keep hearing from people is that it’s relatable. It means that the characters in the book are of the same age as the readers. I have not maintained that for the last two books ('The Boy who Loved' and 'The Boy with A Broken Heart' in 2017) as well as this one. The characters in 'The Perfect Us' are around 32 years old. This book will tell me if relatability is still a factor or not.
Who do you consider to be the target audience for your books?
This is something I’m constantly confused about — what is relatability and why do my books work? I’ve been told that the main target group is 16- to 21-years-old. I’ve been writing books for the last 10 years, which means someone who was 20 and was reading my book is now 30 and not reading it. That means, if my books have started selling more, every year I cultivate a new target group. A bunch of people stop reading my books and a new bunch of people start reading them. It means I have no loyalty and it’s scary for me to think that with every new book I’ll have to find a new set of audience! It means that my audience is constantly churning.
Along with the audience, you’ve aged too. Has your writing style become more mature?
I think it has changed. When I go to a book launch, I see most people are in the age group of 18 to 24. If I imagine myself as a reader and there’s a writer I really like, I’ll not go to his book launch and scream. I’ll think about the traffic and how far I’d have to travel. Even though I’m old now, if a Stephen King book comes out, I’ll not go on his social media and message him. That’s predominantly a very young adult-ish behaviour.
As far as the writing style is concerned, I think I’ve got better. If you give me all the money in the world to read my first book ('Of Course I Love You..!...Till I Find Someone Better', co-written with Maanvi Ahuja, in 2008), I wouldn’t! It’s that painful. But if you ask me to read 'The Perfect Us', I’ll probably still charge you, but not that much (laughs).
How different is 'The Perfect Us' from your other books?
The characters are more mature. The subject itself is something that you can’t deal with lightly. 'The Perfect Us' is different from what I’ve written in the last three years. There’s a humour element to it. Deb and Avantika as characters were always goofy and used to crack a lot of jokes.
How much of reality is hidden in your fictional books?
It’s very fractured. I’m at an age where everyone around me is having a baby. These are conversations I hear every day. One of the major plot points in 'The Perfect Us' is inspired from reality. My brother-in-law had a baby exactly at the time that I did. His baby was premature and really fought for her life. There are a lot of incidents and conversations around me about babies. There’s not one reality that I’ve picked up, but many.
Doesn’t this boy-meets-girl trope exhaust you as an author at times?
In the last five books, I have treated it as a trope. I write about other things and then in my last draft, I just amplify the love story and make it one of the pegs of the book. If you read 'The Boy who Loved', the title makes no sense at all. The book is about a Bengali family where the younger son is contemplating suicide. He thinks that when the elder boy settles down, he can happily die. But the elder boy falls in love with a Muslim girl and the family is very orthodox. It’s about how the family slowly splinters. In between all this, the younger boy meets a girl.
In the first chapter, I make the girl and boy meet. And then there are chapters that just say ‘and then they love each other’. In my last draft, I fill those chapters up. I know it’s a trope but I also know that it works. It’s a conscious decision. A common thing that I do in every book is keep one page where the boy is confessing his love for the girl. People who are coming to my book for just that will get that satisfaction. But since I don’t enjoy writing it any more, I write other things and put in the love story as a garnish.
What about exploring other genres?
'The Girl of my Dreams' (2016) was a thriller. Again, the name won’t suggest that it’s a thriller. I might write another thriller sometime. I’m working on a dystopian sort of a fiction but there’s a love story in it. It’ll probably be called 'The Last Boy Who Fell In Love', or something like that (laughs).
With a contract already signed, how do you deal with deadlines from the publisher?
The deadline is almost always six months down the line. All my books are crunch books. Vaishali Mathur, my editor in Penguin, has no idea what I’m writing about till the time she gets the draft. The difference between the second and the third draft that she gets is huge. When I sent her the second draft of 'The Perfect Us', she was scared. The deadline was approaching. In my second draft, I knew what were the commercial aspects of the book and that I had to amplify those.
Before I wrote 'Till The Last Breath...' (2012), all my books were set in college and had a lot of love-making scenes. People started telling me that’s why my books work. 'Till The Last Breath...' was my revenge book — I set it in the most depressing place ever, the hospital. There was not even a single kiss in it. I was angry and put the book for pre-order when I had only finished writing 31,000 words. The book finally had 80,000 to 90,000 words. I thought the book is going to be a big hit. I had around three months left to finish it.
How long does it take for you to finish a book?
Six to eight months.
Do you have writer’s block at all?
A writer’s block is mostly always in the writer’s head — it’s half laziness and half self-doubt. It’ll never go. I just write through it. I have smaller deadlines and targets that I keep in my head, like I have to write 1,000 or 2,000 words. I also always have a contract that’s signed and sealed, so I have to finish!
Who are your favourite authors?
It keeps on changing. There was a time I used really like Jhumpa Lahiri. I pick up a Salman Rushdie book and read the first 25 pages just to understand the way he writes and the way he brings up stuff. He’s one writer I constantly go back to. I read those 25 to 50 pages so that it starts reflecting in my writing. Then I’m pushed to imitate him in my own stupid way. Among the young adult writers, I used to be obsessed with John Green. I followed him during his Vlogbrothers (Green’s video blog channel on YouTube) days when no one was reading him in India.
WHEN YOU START
WRITING A NOVEL…
How: I know there’s a deadline in six months. So I find a character with a trait that I would want to write about. That’s where I start from — a singular character with their most dominant trait. I always write on my laptop.
Where: There is no specific place where you can sit and write. I’ve tried a lot of places and cafes don’t work for me. I find aircrafts the best place to write in because there’s nothing to distract you. There’s just a laptop in front of you with no Internet. You see your productivity reach sky high!
When: I’m most inclined to write when I read or watch something that blows my mind. That’s when you’re the most charged up and want to write something as good as that. A lot of writers say that when they read something good, they get depressed because they can’t write like that. But even if the difference is huge and I cannot match up to that writer, I get extremely charged up.
#COUPLEGOALS + #FATHERHOODGOALS
What does love mean to you?
It has meant different things to me at different points of time in life. When you’re young, it just means the rush of adrenaline, excitement and intimacy. As you grow older, you realise that it’s about being with a person you’re compatible with… someone who knows everything about you. That’s why it becomes very tough to fall in love when you’re older because now you have 30 years of history to tell to that person and for that person to understand those memories. Now we have a child and the majority of our conversations are about Rayna. When we go out, we feel relieved to find out that we still have fun with each other.
Has fatherhood changed you?
I don’t think you change. You just find a part of you that you didn’t know existed earlier. Avantika’s sleep was so dear to her that if you woke her up, she’d literally slap you and not talk to you for a day. When Rayna was born, both sets of grandparents were there for us. We all knew Avantika wanted to sleep, so we’d take the baby away from her. But she was so possessive. The first three months babies are very cranky and Avantika would wake up nights for her! She would not give the baby to anyone. I was the most clumsy, irresponsible and risk-taking person!
Are you a hands-on father?
For nine months, Avantika already went through terrible weight gain, nausea and peeing all night. Even after that, if you’re not a hands on father, then why did you make a baby? It’s a wrong nomenclature, I feel — if you’re a father, you’re a father. You have to do whatever you have to do. Even if you’re working, you should come back home and take care of the responsibilities.
Do you get distracted while writing now that Rayna is there?
So much! 'The Perfect Us' was delayed because of that. Avantika’s mother stays with us a lot and she doesn’t let me do any work. I can’t even move a cup on my own! She takes Rayna away when I’m working. But when a kid is at home, your mind is there. It’s like a time hole — you go to her and a couple of hours just pass by and then you have to start from scratch.
After having a kid, does something change in the marital dynamic?
The only thing that changes is that you spend less time with your wife and more time with the mother of your child. The little time you get off, your priority becomes yourself. Then whatever time is left, it is spent with each other. So you’re being a parent first, then yourself and then husband-wife. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, we went on a proper date. We wore nice clothes and went to a fancy place to eat. The next morning we told each other how fun it was. Just going on a date seemed like such a new experience for us. Now we have decided to do this more often. But in Sao Paulo we could drink and come back to our hotel room, now we can’t drink and come back to a child!
Does Avantika read your rough drafts and gives suggestions?
No, she only reads the final draft. I get very aggressive with feedback. It has to be on mail. I read the mail, feel angry and then do nothing for the next three days. When I cool down, I realise that the feedback was correct. I anyway don’t know what the book is about till the very last draft. So she reads only the final draft post which I make very few changes.
Your Instagram feed is all about travel goals. What’s the best bit about travelling?
I either travel with my wife or with my best friend. When I travel with Avantika, more than the place, it’s about discovering more about each other. It’s about getting some time away from everything and discovering the fun that we had in our relationship earlier. The other things like new experiences and cuisines are there too. When I went to Europe with my friend after Rayna was born, my takeaway was that I’m still fun. It was just before she turned one but I realised that if need be, I can still party through the night.
Your craziest travel memory?
The resort that we were staying in in Maldives was on an island and they had another island nearby which was used for picnics. You can kayak till there or just wade a kilometre. Avantika was on the kayak and I started clicking her pictures. The seabed was full of pebbles and my bare feet had started to bleed. Due to the water current, Avantika’s kayak started floating away. She has no sense of physics, so she could not kayak her way back to me. The sun went down and it was pitch dark. Both the islands were completely dark and we couldn’t find each other. For two hours, I was in the middle of this ocean lagoon trying to find her!