The Kochi based multi-award winning novelist Anees Salim’s sixth novel, The Odd Book of Baby Names, has been published recently. His new novel, The Bell Boy, will be published by Holland House in the UK. Salim spoke to Scroll.in about his literary career, his latest book, his future projects and more. Excerpts from the interview:
Why do you write?
I think I write to calm myself and create a constant sense of expectation.
You have mentioned in many interviews that you have inherited your love for books from your father. Tell us something more about your father and the kind of books he was interested in. How did he influence your literary taste?
My father wanted to be a writer, even though he never said so. He was an avid reader of literary fiction and we had a big library at home, and that was how I developed a deep love for reading. The library had no room for popular fiction, and I remember buying a book by Harold Robbins and putting it on the top rack because I liked the look and size of the book. The next morning it disappeared and I knew such books would never have a place in our library.
As a teenager who were your literary icons? And, who are your favourite authors right now? Do you think that today’s writers should follow established traditions of storytelling or develop new techniques?
As a teenager, I loved reading VS Naipaul, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Gabriel Garica Marquez, John Updike, Saul Bellow, William Faulkner and Christopher Isherwood. I still love to reread them. To answer the second part of your question, I don’t believe in any kind of formula in writing. Each writer has the freedom to tell a story the way they want, and each can experiment with form and craft. I believe literature is a big democratic nation.
In your stories you either use a fictional name for the city, Mangobagh for example, or you set your novels in unnamed cities. But we do get a sense of their geographical locations. What do you want to achieve by not setting your stories in real places?
True. I avoid using the real name of places because I think their actual geography somehow restricts the movement of my characters. I usually pick a real place, alter its landscape and rechristen it. That gives me the freedom to navigate my characters the way I like. I love to plan towns and cities with words.
I feel that like Mohammad Hanif, your writing also has surreal humour, and you maintain a sardonic tone. Do you agree ?
I don’t know if the comparison is fair. But there is a blend of sadness and humour in my writing, which comes naturally to me. That is probably the only way I know to write.
Your novels generally have dark themes like loneliness, death, and suicide. Any specific reasons for your fascination for, and then engagement with, such themes?
To begin with, I don’t consider loneliness, death, and suicide dark topics. If you want to write about things that surround you on a daily basis, how can you not write about any of these? I believe every person in this world feels utterly lonely at one time or another. And I don’t see death as the end, but the beginning. Same with suicides. I think when a person dies he or she leaves behind a wealth of stories for others. Every time I attend a funeral I try to imagine what kind of story the deceased is leaving behind.
Your latest book is titled The Odd Book of Baby Names. Please tell us how you found such an interesting name.
The book is about a dying patriarch and his children who remember their father with varying degrees of love, anger, apathy and hatred. Inside this book there is another little book in which the king has recorded the names of his numerous children, only two of whom are legitimate, the rest being born out of wedlock.
The book has multiple characters narrating the story in the first person. What did you do to make sure that the different characters don’t sound similar?
This story was born with multiple voices. I could not have written this book in a single voice or from a single point of view. So I pretended that I was writing nine short stories that would frequently overlap. I was so involved in the process that I occasionally turned doubtful about the distinctiveness of the voices, but Manasi Subramanian, my editor at Penguin, stepped in to reassure me that each voice was unique and each character had an individual story to narrate.
Your next novel, The Bellboy, has been sold to a UK publisher. Tell us more about this novel.
The Bellboy is about a seventeen-year-old boy from a sinking island who ventures out to the mainland to work as a bellboy and eventually loses everything he has. It will be published by Holland House in the UK in July 2022. The Indian edition will be published by Penguin Random House in November, 2022.
Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai-based novelist, screenwriter, literary critic, and banker. His debut novel, Patna Blues, has been translated into eight languages. He can be reached here.