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Jeet Thayil: 'writing makes nothing happen'

You are a poet, a musician and a novelist. Which genre is most immediate to you, and why?

On a daily basis, I usually work on one or two genres. I like the inclusiveness of fiction. Poetry, song lyrics, jokes, eccentric extemporaneous digressions, musical notation, photographs – anything can go into a novel. It is a capacious adaptive form, like the English language, and reports of its demise are always being exaggerated.

What did it take to write your first novel?

When I was diagnosed with hepatitis C, a progressive disease that ends in liver failure, I realized that time is a limited commodity. It’s limited for everyone, but most people don’t know it. Narcopolis is dedicated to hepatitis C.

Narcopolis is about Bombay’s underbelly. Did you have any run-ins with self-appointed guardians of Indian morality when it was published?

Indian novelist Jeet Thayil.

No, but only because I took the precaution of changing cities. It was a happy coincidence, but I moved out of Bombay the week after I finished writing Narcopolis. I’m glad not to be living there. The city’s current management, which is rightwing, do not write bad reviews when they dislike a book – they will come to your door. I moved to Delhi about a year ago. It’s the capital city and it isn’t as lawless as Bombay. You can’t beat someone up because you don’t like his book.

Is there anything you wouldn’t write about because it was too controversial?

I wouldn’t want to be bound by what is or isn’t controversial. It would be a banal, if not suicidal, platform on which to construct a piece of writing.

Narcopolis was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize*. What do you think about Irvine Welsh’s comments that the award sets upper-class Englishness as a cultural yardstick?

I think the question of upper class versus working class is irrelevant when applied to the world of writers and books. The writer’s enterprise is upper class, however many times he may use the word ‘cunt’. A working-class man will have other things to worry about besides the authenticity of dialogue, whether or not to use a semi-colon, whether or not to use the first-person present tense and the urgent question of how much revision is too much revision.

What’s your biggest fear?

Being unable to finish the book I’m working on.

If you could do one thing for India what would it be?

There is nothing I could do for India that will make a difference in a real sense. No novel or poem can address poverty, or stop the murder of girl children, or bring about tolerance and understanding between people of different communities. Writing makes nothing happen.

What are you politically passionate about?

The monastic vows of poverty, poetry and prayer.

Who, or what, inspires you?

I think inspiration is overrated, particularly when set against the steady workaday labour that the writing of a novel involves. It’s like working on a nine-to-five job. You have to be at it every day, get to bed at a respectable hour, and be physically fit. If the writer were to wait for inspiration before getting down to work he wouldn’t get much done.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I’ve taken lots of advice, but not much of it has been direct, because I tend to disregard the kind of advice that presents itself as advice. VS Naipaul said, in passing, that each child you have is a book you don’t write, which sounds to me like a convincing argument for remaining childless. I like Philip Roth’s advice, to write as if your parents are dead. I took to heart Rimbaud’s dictum, that a poet becomes a visionary through careful derangement of the senses.

If you could banish one person from the planet, who would it be?

What planetary difference could it possibly make to banish one person? Better to construct an off-world station where you can deposit all those who swear by guns.

What is your next book about?

There’s a character who turns up in Narcopolis for a chapter and disappears. Well, he disappears into the novel I’m currently working on.

  • *The winner Hilary Mantel was announced on 16 October.

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