Like a million bucks
Vikas Swarup, author of Slumdog Millionaire, tells Ysabelle Cheung about his latest book and his own rags-to-riches story
Speaking with incredible self-depreciative candour about the phenomenal success of his debut novel Q&A (now known as Slumdog Millionaire thanks to the Oscar-smashing Danny Boyle film), Vikas Swarup claims – surprisingly – not to be a writer. “I consider myself more of a storyteller,” he humbly tells Time Out. “I think a writer has a certain kind of craft that I don’t have. I just wrote the kind of book I really wanted to read.”
Born and bred in South India, Swarup’s own story parallels Q&A. His life is a quintessential rags-to-riches tale – maybe not in the eventual cash windfall but in his overnight front-page success and many literary accolades. Having worked for many years in the Indian Foreign Service, his life as an author took part more in his mind and less on the page. On a posting to London, however, a creative fire was stoked in his belly and in two short months Q&A was born. The fame of his novel has made him a firm name in the worldwide literary scene – a title that many other writers only achieve after several novels, not to mention many years of sweat and tears at the keyboard.
Swarup is neither shy nor pompous about his lack of formal creative training. He states the facts as they are. “I approached writing like a complete novice. I had never even come within 30km of a creative writing workshop. The entire plot of Q&A came to me as a package.” When asked about the creative process that went into his first novel, a touch of something – pride? disbelief? – pervades his voice, similar to lead character Ram’s disbelief at winning a million rupees in Q&A. “I don’t write in longhand. All I needed to do was to get what was in my head on to the computer screen. I wrote it in two months and, believe what I’m saying, what has been published is the first draft.”
Swarup’s newest offering, Six Suspects, is a dramatic departure from the heroic underdog genre of Slumdog Millionaire. Focusing on six characters who are all suspects in a murder case, the novel takes narrative inspiration from the origami fold structure of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and polyphonic storytelling from Calvino’s cult novel If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. Despite his insistence that he is not a writer, Swarup is quietly particular in the narrative style he wished to pursue for Six Suspects. “I liked the concept (of Cloud Atlas), but there was one drawback: I felt that there was no organic connection between the six stories. That there was no overarching framework.”
This overarching framework appears in Six Suspects, as well as the element of completion and finality that Swarup felt was missing from Calvino’s novel. Publishers wanted him to replicate the formulaic success that he created with Q&A in writing a story with the same characters, but Swarup was less keen on the idea. “I didn’t want to become a prisoner of the characters I have created.”
So during this pivotal change in which Asia is set to be a key player in the literary scene how does it feel to be Indian or indeed Asian? “It’s very exciting. This year I was a judge for the Man Asia Literary Prize and I was able to read a lot of great Asian literature. We all have such a rich history, we’ve experienced colonialism, we’ve had wars, revolutions, independence struggles, the familiarity of struggles against poverty, questions of identity. That’s why I think Asia is such a great creative outlet. I’ve read so many great books from Hong Kong and other places but in the end I think we’re all linked by one humanity. Whether we think in Mandarin or Japanese, when we act it’s the same all across the globe.”
Swarup is scheduled to speak in the run-up to the 2012 Hong Kong International Literary Festival, which he is extremely excited about as ‘being in Japan, where everything has to be translated, it’s nice to be in an English-speaking environment’. In between making guest appearances at international literary festivals, he is also working – slowly – on his third book. “As you know, the tsunami happened, and when there’s death and destruction all around you, it’s difficult to write. Also, I can only write on weekends – that’s why this novel is taking so much longer.”
Swarup leaves us with one lighthearted tip for budding writers. “You must have a compelling story to tell,” he says. “Readibility is the most important criteria. And I think there should be a payoff. The reader should be entertained, because that’s the whole purpose of fiction, apart from being enlightened and whatnot.The readers should be compelled to think about what you’ve written.”
Six Suspects is published by Minotaur Books, priced $136. Swarup speaks at the Kee Club in Wellington Street on Saturday January 14, between 12.30pm and 2pm. For tickets, email the firstname.lastname@example.org address.