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Interview with Saikat Majumdar

He is a novelist, scholar and commentator on arts, literature, and higher education. He is the author of three novels: The Scent of God (2019), one of Times of India’s 20 Most Talked About Indian books of 2019The Firebird (2015), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism - Prose of the World (2013), a general nonfiction book on higher education - College: Pathways of Possibility (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays - The Critic as Amateur (2019). He has taught at Stanford University, was named a Fellow at the Humanities Centre at Wellesley College, and is currently Professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University. 

Q.1 Tell us something about yourself not many people know?
A. I love wearing jewelry, I wear a little in public, and wish I could wear more.

Q.2 When should we expect your next book? What will it be about?
A. I have a draft, but I’m finicky about revisions, so it may take a while a year and a half or more. It’s a college campus novel that examines the meaning of the teacher-student relation, the meaning of mentorship, of success and failure, of the mutual expectations and the responsibilities between the mentor and the mentee.

Q.3 What spurred you to write The Scent of God? Is there a personal story behind it?
A. I knew this world. I went to a school much like this, a boarding school run by a saffron order. I knew the intoxicating mix of strange forces that defined its atmosphere - the sensory aura of religion, the smell of incense and flowers, the music of hymns, and the erotic intensity created by the gathering of pubescent boys there, who are asked to deny their bodily urges. I felt I just had to capture this magnetic atmosphere in fiction. The story was invented, but some of the characters, especially the teachers and the monks, mix echoes of different real-life characters. I’ve long been fascinated by the artistic potential of religion, and the mix of religion and non-conventional sexuality made this story hard to resist.

Q.4 How many books have you written? Which one is your favorite?
A. Three novels, a book of criticism, a nonfiction book on college education. If you insist, I’ll have to name The Firebird (published in the US as Play House), my second novel, though The Scent of God is also very dear to me.

Q.5 What do you want readers to take away from your books?
A. That it moves them, takes them to a different world, shifts their perception of life a little.

Q.6 How do you think LGBTQ representation has improved or expanded in the recent years?
A. I don’t think artistic creativity follows legal reform. LGBTQ representation has been always there, perhaps in a more hidden or indirect form. Perhaps the motifs are becoming more direct and assertive with social and legal progress.

Q.7 Among all the protagonist of your books, which one is your favorite and why?
A. Ori in The Firebird. He is a young boy caught in a destructive fascination with his mother’s life as a theatre actor. I enjoyed creating his relationship with the art form of theatre. He has a little bit of me - my mother was also an actor in theatre and television.

Q.8 How do you select the name of your characters?
A. They are hard. With Indian characters, the names usually have some relevant meaning. I try to choose names that are simple but striking, lyrical but do not draw attention to themselves.

Q.9 If you could change one thing about your novels, what would it be and why?
A. I wish my earlier novels had lighter, more humorous moments in the middle of their intense themes. However, I’m getting better at writing lighter moments, even though my larger thematic preoccupations remain quite serious.

Q.10 What was one of the most surprising things you learned while writing your books?
A. You cannot choose a story. The story chooses you. You have very little agency in deciding on what a book is about. As you start writing, you come to play a more conscious role.

Q.11 Who would you most like to thank for their involvement in your writing career?
A. My family, teachers, friends, especially my teachers of literature and writing. My mother, who passed away young but left me with a love of art.

Q.12 Do you believe in writer’s block? If yes, how do you deal with it?
A. I suffer not so much with writers’ block but with phases of false writing when I spend a long time writing something and then have to throw it away realizing it’s useless. You can’t really deal with it - there is something mystical about the first arrival of a story. Once you’re in it, you’re more in control - then concentration and hard work go a long way.

Q.13 Tell us about your writing process while you’re working?
A. I walk in between my sentences. Thought stimulates me, so I walk and write. If I spend 6 hours writing, I’ve usually also walked for 6 hours! At the end of it, I’m sweaty and exhausted!

Q.14 Do you have any unique and quirky writing habits?
A. Some people find my habit of walking and writing a bit odd!

Q.15 How does your family/friends feel about your book or writing venture in general?
A. They are happy and supportive. But writing is intense, it takes a toll on the family. I could play with my children more if it wasn’t so demanding!

Q.16 Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with good and bad ones?
A. I do. What matters more than “good” or “bad” reviews is whether a review seriously engages with the book. A book that does so and offers meaningful criticism is always welcome. Of course, a positive review makes me happy.

Q.17 What’s your greatest weakness as a writer?
A. I think I’m a lot better at crafting scenes than long-range narratives, the microscope rather than the telescope. I would like the latter skill to improve.

Q.18 Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
A. No famous people, but I would like to meet my parents. They both passed away very young.

Q.19 What books have most influenced your life?
A. Too many to name and the nature of books change all the time.

Q.20 Share the experience of your journey so far?
A. An exhausting marathon, I’m exhausted and refreshed at the same time - and a long way to go still.

A few words for Books Charming -
You’re doing a great job, bringing book news to the world, sharing their images. I believe the world would be a happier, calmer place if we all read more books - readers and thinkers like you can help us get there.

Share your social account links -
Facebook - @saikatmajumdar
Twitter - @_saikatmajumdar
Instagram - @saikatmajumdar23

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